Merneptah's Israel and the Exodus: Mercer

Anglican Theological Review 5 (1922/23) 96-107

Public Domain.






By SAMUEL A. B. MERCER, Bexley Hall, Gambier, Ohio


Since 1896, when Petrie discovered the "Israel Stela "1 in

the ruins of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes, and when

Spiegelberg made the first translation2 of the hymn of victory

contained thereon, a voluminous literature has grown up on the

relationship between Merneptah and the Exodus of the Children

of Israel from Egypt. This was due to the fact that Merneptah,

who had usually been assumed to have been the pharaoh of the

exodus, is represented in the hymn of victory as having en-

countered and defeated Israel in Palestine. Now, the inscrip-

tion on the stela leaves no doubt about the name of Israel,3 nor

is there any doubt that the passage has reference to the defeat

and devastation of Israel. There is also abundant evidence to

show that Merneptah campaigned in Palestine, and had been in

that country in the third year of his reign.4 Furthermore, Mer-

neptah's father, Rameses II, has been generally accepted as the

pharaoh of the oppression. The discovery and publication of the

"Israel Stela," therefore, have seemed to introduce considerable

confusion in the minds of those students of the Old Testament

who have accepted Rameses II as the pharaoh, "who knew not

Joseph," and Merneptah as the pharaoh of the exodus. For if

Merneptah was the pharaoh of the exodus, how could he en-

counter and defeat Israel in Palestine in his third year if Israel's

wanderings in the wilderness consumed approximately forty

years? Many attempts have been made to explain this difficulty.


1 The stela was taken by Merneptah from the mortuary temple of Amenho-

tep III, and on its back was inscribed a hymn in celebration of the great victory

of Merneptah over the Libyans in the fifth year of his reign. In the last sec-

tion of the inscription occurs the famous reference to Israel.

2 Zeitschrift fur aegyptische Sprache, 34, 1 ff.

3 The tranliteration and translation of the passage in which Israel is referred

to are: wn y-s-r-y-a-l f ht bit prt-f, " Israel is laid waste, his grain is not."

4 Breasted, Ancient Records, III. 6o5-6o6.




One attempt places the time of the exodus much earlier than the

reign of Merneptah, in the time of Amenhotep II (1448-1420),

another places the exodus earlier still, in the time of Ahmose I

(1580-I557), and still another places the event much later, in

the time of Rameses IV, 1167-1161. Other students of the Old

Testament simply accept Merneptah as the pharaoh of the exodus

without feeling the necessity of squaring that assumption with the

implications of the "Israel Stela." It is the purpose of this paper

to show that the reference to Israel in this stela is in close keeping

with the reconstructed and probably real facts of the exodus and

the entrance into the land of Canaan. If this be so the "Israel

Stela" will prove to be a piece of invaluable confirmatory evi-

dence to the general reliability of our Biblical account of the


Archaeology has been much abused by students of the Bible.

They have made it confirm statements in the Bible where it

merely illustrates them. The chief use of archaeology in the

study of the Old Testament is to furnish a background and at-

mosphere for many events described therein. It often illustrates

Old Testament stories, it sometimes explains them, and now

and then it confirms them, and even contributes to a knowledge

of Old Testament customs and events. The value of the "Israel

Stela" in the study of Old Testament history is chiefly confirma-

tory. A background and atmosphere for this present investiga-

tion will be furnished by some facts established by the archaeology

of Western Asia and Egypt. These will now be passed in re-

view before tackling the problem of Merneptah's Israel and the


Forgetting for the time being what tradition in the Bible teaches

about the Hebrew people previous to their stay in Egypt, archae-

ology and the history of western Asia and Egypt furnish im-

portant information. Babylonian history and archeology make

it reasonably certain that the original home of the Semites was

in central Arabia. At a very early period a wave of these Semites

flowed north through Canaan and Syria and then east to northern




Babylonia. Among the descendants of these Semites were Sar-

gon I5 and his immediate successors, Naram-Sin and Shar-Gani-

Sharri, all of whom were great warriors, and extended their

sway and influence westward to the Mediterranean, including

Syria and Canaan. Sargon's date is about 2700 B.C. During

the First Babylonian Dynasty, 2225-1926, a fresh Semitic ele-

ment from the west was introduced into the settled Semitic life

of the north Babylonian people. In fact the First Babylonian

Dynasty was founded by foreign conquerors from the westland

or the country of Amurru, and in turn these westerners settled

in Babylonia, extended their sway over the land of Amurru.

Thus, Hammurabi, the sixth king of this dynasty, was called

"king of the land of Amurru."6 Babylonian laws, customs,

traditions, and civilization were widely diffused throughout

Amurru, and the Babylonian cuneiform script was extensively

employed by these western subjects of the great Babylonian kings.

Although the Second Babylonian Dynasty, c. 2000-1700, was

predominantly Sumerian, and the Third Babylonian or Kassite

Dynasty, 1760-1185, was largely Indo-European, they were

mostly Semitic in culture and civilization; and it is quite possible

that they were in close contact with the west. Indeed, the use

of the horse in the conquest of Babylonia by the Kassites passed

over into the west and from there was introduced by the Hyksos

into Egypt. From about 1400 till 1000 B.C. Babylonia and her

successor Assyria were weak and not in a position to interfere

in western affairs. Thus, it is clear that from before the time

of Sargon I until 1200 B.C. Semitic Babylonian influence was

universal in Syria and Canaan.

Turning to Egyptian history and archaeology, it is found that

as early as 1675 B.C. Egypt was invaded and conquered by a

Semitic people whom the Egyptians called the Hyksos. These

people came from Amurru, making their way southward through

Syria and Canaan, and entered Egypt, where they ruled for about


5 Poebel, Historical Texts, 1914, pp. 73 ff.

6 King, The Letters and Inscriptions of Hammurabi, III, pp. 195 f., 207 f.




a hundred years.7 The chances are that Manetho is right in say-

ing that they remained in Egypt 511 years, for although they

sat on the Egypt throne for only about a century, it is quite pos-

sible that they were not finally driven from Egypt till much

later. One of their kings bore the interesting name Ykb-hr,8

which looks very much like Jacob-hr; and as hr is the name of

the god Horus, Jacob-hr may be the equivalent of the Semitic


Beginning with the reign of Ahmose I, 1580-1557, Syria and

Canaan became more and more subject to Egypt. This was

due to the decline of Babylonian power. Finally, Thutmose III,

1479-1447, in seventeen elaborate campaigns succeeded in com-

pletely conquering Syria and Canaan. Among the numerous

places mentioned in his lists are Y-'-k-b-'a-ra and Y-s-p-'a-ra,9

which are equivalent to the Semitic Jacob-el and Joseph-el. The

Egyptians held their own in Syria and Canaan until the reign

of the religious king Ikhnaton, 1375-1358. Ikhnaton devoted

his attention to a religious reformation, while the Hittites from

the far north made common cause with the Amurru of Syria and

Canaan against the foreign overlord. Nor was that all. Further

south, and coming from the east, were a people called the Habiru,

who were contesting the possession of southern Canaan with the

Egyptians. These Habiru are interesting. They appear in the

Tell el-Amarna letters. These letters or reports are written in

Semitic cuneiform and many of them are requests for aid from

the Egyptian governors of southern Canaanitish towns to their

overlord, the king of Egypt The Habiru press on westward and

some of them occupy the district of Shechem.10 Now, the term

Habiru is philologically equivalent to the word Hebrew. Con-

sequently, in the time of Ikhnaton, the Hebrew people were forc-

ing their way westward into Canaan.


7 Breasted, Ancient Records, II, i f.

8 Petrie, Hyksos and Israelite Cities, pp. 68 f. and pl. LI.

9 Mariette, Karnak, 17-21, Nos. io2 and 78.

10 Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Taflen, No. 289, 1.23.




Another people mentioned in the Tell el-Amarna letters are the

SA-GAZ. These Winckler11 has proved to be equivalent to

Habiru. At any rate, it is certain that the Habiru are to be

looked upon as having been a part of the SA-GAZ people. In

Egyptian, these people are known as the Sasu. Thus, the Sasu,

the SA-GAZ and the Habiru are all Semitic nomads, are all

related or are the same people, and are all Aramxans or people

of Amurru. In short, the Tell el-Amarna letters picture Aramaean

nomads forcing their way into Canaan as early as 1375 B.C.

From 1375 on, general anarchy ruled in Canaan, and the

whole of Syria and Canaan became a bone of contention between

the Hittites to the north and the Egyptians to the south. Finally,

Seti I and his successor Rameses II recovered the land of Canaan

and compromised by treaty with the Hittites over Syria in

1271. Both Seti I and Rameses II mention a place, which they

call y-s-ru and ya-sa-ru.12 This name seems to be the equivalent

of the Hebrew word rwx and corresponds in location to the

position assigned in the Old Testament to Asher. Rameses II

was succeeded by his son Merneptah, 1225-1215, and in the third

year of his reign he encountered and defeated a group of people

in southern Canaan whom he calls y-s-r-y-a-l, or Israel. By

the fifth year of Rameses III, 1198-1167, Egyptian influence in

Canaan was practically dead, as the Report of Wenamon clearly

shows; and the Hittites were becoming less and less influential

until they ceased as a power in Canaan in 1170 B.C. when they

were practically destroyed by the Muskaya,13 the Meshech of Gen.

X. 2.

During the years of Babylonian and Egyptian weakness that

succeeded Merneptah, new peoples began to appear in Canaan.

Already in the fifth year of Merneptah, northern sea-peoples

appeared in the Egyptian Delta; and by 1193, in the fifth year

of Rameses III, there was another invasion by the same peoples

among whom were the Pulasati.14 They appeared again in 1190,


11 Mittheilungen d. deutschen or. Gesellschaft, 35, p. 25 n.

12 Abyd. II, 2; LD 140 a; Anast. 1, 23, 8.

13 KB I, p. 18.

14 Breasted, Ancient Records, IV, 35-64.




coming originally from Keftiu, Kaphtor or Crete (Deut. II. 23;

Amos IX. 7) and making their way through Canaan. These Pula-

sati, or Philistines, about 1160 finally settled in the southwestern

Canaan and gave their name to the whole country, namely, Pales-


Having followed in outline the contribution which western

Asia and Egypt have made to an understanding of early Syria

and Canaan, it is now possible to see how far the traditions pre-

served in the Old Testament about the Hebrew people previous

to the exodus fit into this outline, and to account for Israel in

Palestine in the third year of Merneptah.

Hebrew tradition sees in Babylonia the home of Abraham.

This accords excellently with the findings of archaeology, for

the Habiru were in Babylonia in the time of Rim-Sin,15 and the

SA-GAZ, whom we have seen to be equivalent to the Habiru,

were in Babylonia in the time of Hammurabi.16 Moreover, He-

brew tradition seems to connect Abraham with Hammurabi, if

Amraphel of Gen. XIV is to be identified with Hammurabi. The

migration of Abraham to the west would also be in keeping with

the larger Aramaean17 movement which certainly continued for

many centuries from Babylonia westward. Abraham's connec-

tion with Ur and Harran is further attested by the traces of lunar

worship--characteristic of the religion of these two cities--which

is also evident in early Hebrew religion.

If, however, Abraham, as an individual, be connected chrono-

logically with Hammurabi, and Hammurabi's date be 2123-2081,

there will be a discrepancy of about 200 years with the generally

accepted chronology of the patriarchal and bondage periods. Of

course Abraham and his followers may have formed only a later


15 Revue d'Assyriologie, XII, pp. 114 f.

16 King, Hammurabi, No. 35.

17 The SA-GAZ, Sasu and Habiru were all plundering, Semitic nomads,

and since their headquarters were in northern Syria they are to be identified

with the Aramxans. Thus Abraham was a Habiru and also an Aramaean,

cf. Gen. XXIV-XXV, where Bethuel the son of Nahor, brother of Abraham,

is called an Aramaean; and Jacob is also an Aramaean, Deut. XXVI. 5.



branch of those Aramoean peoples who were making their way

westward since before the time of Hammurabi, and the later

Jewish historian, who wrote Gen. XIV, may have purposely iden-

tified the great Hebrew patriarch with Hammurabi for the greater

glory of the Jewish race. Again, Abraham may possibly (though

not probable, so far as our information leads us) be the name of

a clan, parts of which migrated westward at different times. The

most likely solution is that the patriarch Abraham migrated west

about 1870 B.C. This conclusion ensues from the following con-


Students of the Old Testament have long felt that Rameses

II was the pharaoh of the oppression. This is hinted at in

Exod. I. ii, where mention is made of Pithom and Rameses as

store cities built by the Hebrews. This is confirmed by the find-

ings of Naville, who in 1883 excavated these sites and discovered

bricks bearing the name of Rameses II. In Pithom were found

other memorials of Rameses II. Moreover, the entire narrative

of the bondage is in keeping with what we know of Rameses II

and the history of Egypt of that time. Nor is there any real con-

flict between this date and the statement found in I Kings VI. I

to the effect that 480 years elapsed between the time of the

exodus and the fourth year of Solomon's reign. For, if 480

years be added to the generally accepted date of the fourth year

of Solomon, namely 967, the date 1447 will be arrived at, which

may well represent the time when the first Hebrew clans began

to leave Egypt. However, 480 is a round number and may not

be very accurate. Moreover, it does not square with the Biblical

dead reckoning for the same period, which far exceeds 534 years.

Taking, then, Rameses II as the pharaoh of the oppression

and Merneptah as the pharaoh of the exodus, the date of the

exodus would be about 1225. Add to this the 430 years, the

Biblical estimate (Exod. XII. 40) of the duration of the sojourn

in Egypt, and we get 1655 for the date when Jacob and his sons

went to Egypt. Add to this 215 years as the duration of the

patriarchal period, on the basis of Biblical reckoning, and we




have 1870 B.C. as the date of Abraham. In this scheme will fit

in excellently the evidence which archieology has furnished. The

Hyksos were Semites, most likely Hebrews, one of whose kings

was called Ykb-hr, or Jacob-el. According to Egyptian chro-

nology they came to Egypt in 1675. Consequently, the Jacob

clans, who, according to our estimate, went to Egypt in 1655,

were a part of the Hyksos movement. There is every reason

to believe, that all the Jacob clans went to Egypt--in Biblical

language, that all the tribes of Israel sojourned in Egypt. In

the annals of Thutmose III, 1479-1447, two place names, Jacob-el

and Joseph-el, occur. This would be as it should. Hyksos rule

in Egypt lasted about a hundred years and the probabilities

are that some of the Hyksos began to leave Egypt as soon

as this period ended. That would be about 1575. Manetho

estimates that the Hyksos were in Egypt for 511 years, making

the final exodus come after the exodus under Merneptah. That

is, even after the exodus in 1225 some Hebrews were left in

Egypt. This is substantiated by the occurrence of the name

'-pw-r, Hebrew, in the annals of the reigns of Rameses II,

Rameses III, and Rameses IV (1167-1161). Meanwhile, be-

tween 1575 and 1164 many waves of Semitic sojourners may

have crossed the borders of Egypt. The late Hebrew tradition

above referred to, which would place the exodus at about 1447

B.C., may well mark the time of one of these waves that left

Egypt. At any rate, between 1447 and 1375 when the name

Samhuna occurs, which is probably Simeon, it is likely that the

tribe of Simeon made up one of those waves of Semites that

left Egypt and made its way into Canaan. This would coincide

well with the occupation of Shechem by the Habiru in 1375.

The late Hebrew tradition of the occupation of Shechem in the

time of Jacob may be a reflection of the occupation of Shechem

by Simeon in 1375 B.C. It is interesting to note in this con-

nection that it was Simeon and Levi who avenged Dinah in

Shechem (Gen. XXXIII and XXXIV). Consequently, Levi

may also have made its way into Canaan from Egypt at the same




time. Be that as it may, the occurrence of the name Asher in

the time of Seti I and Rameses II would point to a similar migra-

tion of the tribe of Asher out of Egypt and into Canaan before

1313 B.C. This is all the more reasonable when it is remembered

that the position assigned to Asher in the annals of Seti and

Rameses is just that assigned to it in Joshua XIX.

It is now possible to consider the Biblical evidence as to the

exodus under Merneptah. Biblical tradition represents all the

tribes of Israel as leaving Egypt at the same time and as enter-

ing Canaan by the way of the fords of the Jordan under the

leadership of Joshua. But these traditions are late. Moreover,

a careful reading of the Biblical sources will point to other con-

clusions. In the first place, there is every reason to believe that

the route which the departing Israelites took, after their escape

from Egypt, was in the direction of Kadesh and not southward

along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. In other words, their

intention was to reach Palestine as soon as possible. They would

probably have taken the Mediterranean coast road had they not

known that Merneptah could have easily headed them off in his

ships. They, therefore, took the caravan route to Kadesh, and

at once, not after a period of many years, attempted to enter

Palestine from Kadesh. It is from Kadesh that the spies were

sent out. The late priestly source says that there were twelve

(Num. XIII. I-I7a, 21, 25-26a, 32a), and it also says that

Caleb as well as Joshua and the others returned (Num. XIV. 38;

cf. XXXII. 12). These two spies reported favourably as to an

advance through southern Palestine (Num. XIV. 5-7, 10). The

spies reported that the Amalekites dwelt in the south, Hittites,

Jebusites and Amorites in the hill country (cf. Ezek. XVI. 3, 45,

where, in speaking of Jerusalem, he says, " Thy father was the

Amorite and thy mother a Hittite"), and Canaanites by the sea

and by the Jordan (Num. XIII. 28-29). But Caleb was very

anxious to enter Palestine from the south (Num. XIII. 30),

and according to the oldest source, J, Caleb drove out the three

sons of Anak and conquered Hebron and Debir (Joshua XV.




13-19; cf. Hebron as Caleb's lot, according to E, Joshua XIV.

6-15, and according to J, Judges I. 20). The sources here are

probably ascribing to the period of Joshua an event which took

place shortly after the exodus. Caleb probably put his wish

into effect and, with his followers, penetrated into southern Pales-

tine. It was comparatively easy for him to do so, for Israel was

not as yet organized as it was later under Moses and his advisers

and assistants.

A careful reading of the oldest source, J, will reveal a dupli-

cation which points to the conclusion that two distinct events

are united by J into one event. In other words, the account of

Judah's entrance into Palestine from the south is combined or

confused with the invasion of Benjamin and Ephraim from

the north, in such a way as to leave the impression that Judah

entered Palestine from the north, when in reality it most likely

entered from the south, as Caleb did. Thus, Joshua XV. 63 says

that Judah did not drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem. The

same is recorded of Benjamin in Judges I. 21. Joshua XVI. 10

says that Judah did not drive out the Canaanites from Gezer.

The same is said of Ephraim in Judges I. 29. The probabilities

are that the passages in Joshua are duplicates of those in judges,

applied to Judah by a writer who desired systematically to ascribe

some undertaking to each of the tribes and to represent them as

operating from the north. This conclusion gains credence when

we read Judges I. 8-10, where the redactor of J ascribes to Judah,

operating from the north, the same work which is ascribed to

Caleb by J in Joshua XV. 13-19. The account in Judges I.

8-10 is a duplicate, but may preserve a remembrance of Judah's

cooperation with Caleb from the south in much the same way

that Judges I. 1-7 preserves a tradition about Judah's operations

from the south. The mention of Simeon in this passage is either

purely traditional, or it possibly may refer to some portion of

that clan which was left behind when Simeon migrated north-

ward over a hundred years before. The same is true of Judges

I. 17-19, although this may be a duplicate of Joshua XV. 63




and Judges I. 21 and of Joshua XVI. 140 and Judges I. 29. The

conclusion to which all this leads is that the tribe of Judah,

although systematically represented as having entered Canaan

from the east across the Jordan, really entered from the south

with Caleb and some other Arabian Semites, such as the Kenites,

Judges I. 16. That is, Judah and those closely related to it, the

Calebites, the Kenites and the Jerahmeelites (I Chron. ii), pene-

trated Canaan from the south. This is in keeping with the feeling

expressed in the "Blessing of Moses" that Judah had been sepa-

rated from his brethern (Deut. XXXIII. 7), with such passages

as Judges I. 16-17 and Num. XXI. 1-3, with the fact that Judah

is not mentioned in the Song of Deborah, and with the ease with

which Judah always found itself separated from the rest of the

tribes (cf. 2 Sam. XIX. 41-43). Such passages as Num. XX.

14-21, JE, are ideal reconstructions, representing all the tribes

of Israel as acting together.

Simeon, as we have seen, probably migrated northward previ-

ous to 1375 B.C. This agrees with the fact that it is not men-

tioned in the Song of Deborah and is omitted from the "Blessing

of Moses." Asher also migrated north before 1313 B.C. This

accounts for the fact that it did not respond to the call to arms

in the time of Deborah (Judges V. 17), nor is it represented as

driving out the Canaanites (Judges I. 30) but dwelt among them.

Gad and Dan did not respond to the call of Deborah and Naphtali,

Dan, and Zebulun are represented as dwelling among the Canaan-

ites and as not driving them out (Judges I. 30--36). In fact,

the only tribes of which conquests are recorded are Judah and

Simeon and the Joseph tribes. The conclusion arrived at is that

probably Gad, Dan, Zebulun and Naphtali also migrated north-

ward from Egypt and settled in Canaan before the exodus under

Merneptah. The same may be true also of Issachar and Reuben.

That is, while there is no good reason to doubt the Biblical

tradition (e.g., in Gen. XLVI. 8-27) that all the tribes mi-

grated all together to Egypt, there seems to be sufficient reason

to believe that migrations of the Hebrews from Egypt extended




over a long period, and that Simeon, Asher, Gad, Dan, Zebulun,

Naphtali, Issachar and perhaps Levi and Reuben left Egypt be-

fore the exodus under Merneptah, and that Judah left with the

Joseph tribes but separated from them at Kadesh and penetrated

into Canaan from the south. All the lists of tribes that left

Egypt, such as those in Deut. XXXIII and Num. I, are ideal

reconstructions of a later period. The only tribes, therefore,

which can be said to have entered Canaan under Joshua from

the east, across the Jordan, are Benjamin, Ephraim and half the

tribe of Manasseh, that is, the Joseph tribes; and these are the

only tribes together with Judah (and Simeon), of which con-

quests are recorded.

Finally, it is now possible to account for the exodus in the

time of Merneptah and at the same time for his defeat of

"Israel" in the third year of his reign. Briefly stated it is this

Shortly after the arrival of the Joseph and Judah tribes at Kadesh,

Judah and his associates, Caleb, the Kenites and the Jerahmeel-

ites, invaded Canaan by the way of Hebron. They met with

considerable success and settled in southern Palestine. So soon

as Merneptah had realized that the Hebrews who dwelt in Goshen

had escaped he planned to attack them in the country for which

they were aiming.18 He perhaps waited until he thought they were

settled in Palestine. Then he sent a force by sea, which landed

in southern Canaan where he met, among others, just those

Israelites, the tribe of Judah and its associates who had entered

Canaan from the south, and defeated them. Thus, the "Israel

Stela " is not a stumbling block in the way of accepting the tra-

ditional date of the exodus in the time of Merneptah, but is a con-

firmation of that fact, as well as an additional reason for believ-

ing that some of the Israelites actually did what the whole exodus

intended to do, namely, to reach Canaan by the nearest possible

route and at the earliest possible moment.


18 None of the passages describing the crossing of the "Red Sea" neces-

sarily infer the actual drowning of the pharaoh of the exodus, whose mummy

was found in his own tomb. Even Ps. CXXXVI may be rendered, "But

shook off Pharaoh and his host at the Red Sea."



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