Just what is the first known historical reference to Israel?
Since 1913 the Egyptian Museum of Berlin has held a gray granite slab 18 inches high and 15.5 inches wide with engraving on it that scientists dated back to 1400 B.C.
As you can see there are three rectangular circles on the face of it. Scholars call them name-rings. Before Egyptian pharaohs died they would have their tombs and temples adorned with scenes and inscriptions boasting of their conquests. The names of the places they conquered would sometimes be engraved in such name-rings each with a small image of a prisoner beside it and just above the prisoner’s waist would be such oval cartouche-like rings that hold the name of his conquered homeland.
As you can see the one on the far right has been broken off, perhaps looted, but all three prisoners are clearly known to experts to be West Semites—due to their typical shoulder-length hair, headbands and pointed beards—a significant clue to the identification of the name as Israel.
There is a problem though. If the rings contain the hieroglyphic name for Israel, they are spelled slightly differently from the common spelling of Israel found on the next oldest artifact referencing Israel, The Merneptah Stele. We’ll discuss it later.
In Hebrew, the same letter represents the sound “s” and “sh.” In hieroglyphic the two sounds are represented by different signs. The Merneptah Stele uses a hieroglyphic “s” in the name Israel; the Berlin Museum slab uses a “sh” hieroglyph.1
This slight variation has caused a disagreement among some experts of course. Those who say the rings represent Israel point out that there are no known West Semitic geographic places or country names (aka toponyms) other than Israel that these hieroglyphs could be identified with. Many toponyms are even spelled in more than one way in hieroglyphic inscriptions.2
Another support to the belief Israel is referred to is found on the other two intact name-rings. One of the names is Ashkelon, a known Philistine city in southern Israel. The other is Canaan. As the German scholars contend, “The geographical proximity of [the proposed name Israel] to Ashkelon and Canaan makes the identification with Israel likely.”
Supporting their argument is what’s found in the text of the Merneptah Stele.
As you can see it’s a tombstone shaped, 10 foot tall piece of granite that was found in the ancient city of Thebes but now sits in the Cairo Museum. It’s name sake is an Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from 1213-1203 B.C. On it are 28 lines of information, the majority of which tell of his war exploits in Libya. It’s the final 3 lines (their position enclosed in the yellow bordered box & magnified below) that support the interpretation on the Berlin stone because they tell of the battles in the land of Canaan where Merneptah says he defeated and destroyed Ashkalon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel.
In the final analysis we very likely have conclusive proof that Israel was a known nation sometime before 1400 B.C., and gives support to the belief that the Exodus account occurred at least as early as 1450 B.C., and their Egyptian enslavement four hundred years prior.
1. 1.“Sha,” the Egyptian sign for shin, can also read “shar” or “shra,” as is the case with multiple topographical and personal names from New Kingdom Egypt. See Peter van der Veen, Christoffer Theis and Manfred Görg, “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merneptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2 (2010), pp. 15–25. This article is based largely on their article.
2. 2. University of Munich Hebrew Bible scholar and Egyptologist Manfred Görg; Peter van der Veen of the University of Mainz and Christoffer Theis of the University of Heidelberg. All three have jointly written a scholarly defense of the “Israel” reading. See “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.
Biblical Historical Society/Biblical Archeology Society