Three Egyptian Inscriptions About Israel

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In the Bible there are numerous interactions between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  Such interactions can be seen in three Egyptian inscriptions that clearly refer to the Hebrew people.

1. The Soleb Inscription

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A reconstruction of the “Land of the Shasu of Yahweh” inscription at the temple of Soleb. Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/dULpbp

At the end of the 15th century B.C., the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III built a temple to honor the god Amun-Ra at Soleb in Nubia (modern-day northern Sudan). Within the temple area are a series of columns on which Amenhotep III listed the territories he claimed to have conquered.  Each territory is listed by a relief of a prisoner with their hands tied behind their backs over an oval “name ring” identifying the land of the particular foe.  The most interesting from a biblical perspective is a column drum that lists enemies from the “the land of the Shasu (nomads) of Yahweh”.   Given the other name rings nearby, the context would place this land in the Canaanite region.  In addition, the prisoner is clearly portrayed as Semitic, rather than African-looking, as other prisoners in the list are portrayed.1  Two conclusions are almost universally accepted: this inscription clearly references Yahweh in Egyptian hieroglyphics (the oldest such reference outside of the Bible), and that around 1400 B.C. Amenhoteph III knew about the god Yahweh. Moreover, it would indicate an area in Canaan in the 15th century B.C. inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic people who worship the god Yahweh.

This inscription is also evidence that points to an early date for the exodus.  According to a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1, Solomon began building the temple in the 480th year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, placing the exodus around 1446 B.C.  Moreover, when Moses first went to Pharaoh to deliver God’s message to let His people go, Pharaoh responded by saying, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).  By around 1400 B.C., when the Israelites would have been nearing the end of the conquest of Canaan, the ruling Egyptian Pharaoh does know about Yahweh.  Egyptologist, Dr. Charles Aling and historian Dr. Clyde Billington summarize: “If the Pharaoh of the Exodus had never before heard of the God Yahweh, this strongly suggests that the Exodus should be dated no later than ca. 1400 BC because Pharaoh Amenhotep III had clearly heard about Yahweh in ca. 1400 BC.”2

2. The Merneptah Stele

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The Merneptah Stele. Photo Credit: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

In 1208 B.C. Pharaoh Merneptah erected a 10-foot tall victory monument (called a stele) in a temple at Thebes to boast of his claims to victory in both Libya and Canaan.  Of Merneptah’s Canaanite campaign we read:

The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:

Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;

Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.3

Despite Merneptah’s boast of having destroyed Israel, we know from history that this did not happen.  The Bible makes no mention of this attack. It seems to have been a relatively small military campaign, taking only three cities and then boasting of Israel being laid waste.  For comparison, when Pharaoh Shishak invaded Israel he recorded the names over 180 cities/places he claims to have conquered.  Even though this seems to have been a small military operation the Merneptah inscription is of huge importance to biblical archaeology.

Most scholars agree that this is the oldest definitive reference to Israel as a nation outside of the Bible, and certainly the clearest Egyptian reference to Israel.4  It is also important because it too points towards an early date for the exodus (ca. 1446 B.C.) and not the late date that some scholars hold to (ca. 1270 B.C.).  It is doubtful that there would be enough time from 1270 B.C. to 1208 B.C. to account for the exodus, the 40 years of wandering in the dessert, the seven-year conquest of Canaan, the settlement of the tribes in their territories, and the establishment of a national presence in the land, all before Merneptah claims to have conquered them.  Merneptah’s Canaanite campaign instead likely dates to the time of the Judges, when the nation of Israel was already settled in Canaan.

3. The Shishak Inscription

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A relief from the temple wall at Karnak of Pharaoh Shishak/Shoshenq I, along with a list of the places he conquered in his campaign into Canaan in 935 B.C. Photo Credit: Olaf Tausch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

In 925 B.C. Pharaoh Shishak, identified as Shoshenq I, swept through Israel and Judah conquering city after city.  The Bible describes this campaign in 2 Chr. 12:2-4:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, because they had been unfaithful to the LORD, Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem with 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen. And the people were without number who came with him from Egypt—Libyans, Sukkiim, and Ethiopians. And he took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem.

When he returned, he had a relief carved at the temple complex of Amun-Ra at Karnak, listing the 180+ cities he claims to have conquered.  While Jerusalem itself is not named, numerous Israelite and Judahite cities are, including Beth-Shemesh, Gibeon and Megiddo, as well as places called “the fields of Abraham,” and the “highlands of David.”   In fact, the remains of a victory stele set up by Pharaoh Shishak has been discovered at Megiddo.

The biblical text goes onto record that Shishak took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house. He took away everything. He also took away all the shields of gold that Solomon had made (1Ki 14:26).  Since Jerusalem in not named in the toponym list, scholars have suggested that it was spared when King Rehoboam capitulated to Shishak paying a ransom of the treasures from the temple.5

One interesting note about the Shishak invasion is that when his son, Osorkon I became Pharaoh, he gave 383 tons of gold and silver as a gift to the temples of Egypt.  He also buried his son Sheshonq II in a coffin made of pure sliver.  Some have suggested that all of this wealth came from his father Shishak’s campaign into Canaan and that this gold and silver may have come from the Temple in Jerusalem and from the other cities in Judah and Israel that he conquered.6

Summary

Each of these inscriptions confirm Israel’s existence as a people group in the land of Canaan at the time the Bible describes.  They act as external witnesses to the historicity of the biblical text.

Bonus Inscription: 

The Berlin Pedestal is yet another Egyptian inscription that almost certainly references Israel. I highly recommend Dr. Bryant Wood’s article on this artifact, and the implications it has.

Endnotes:

1 Joel Kramer, The Oldest Yahweh Inscription. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2017/01/20/The-Oldest-Yahweh-Inscription.aspx (Accessed February 2, 2019)

2 Charles Aling and Clyde Billington, The Name Yahweh in Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/03/08/The-Name-Yahweh-in-Egyptian-Hieroglyphic-Texts.aspx (Accessed February 2, 2019)

3 Wikipedia contributors, “Merneptah Stele,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merneptah_Stele (Accessed February 2, 2019)

4 Gary Byers, Great Discoveries in Biblical Archaeology: The Merneptah Stela.  http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/03/15/The-Merenptah-Stela.aspx (Accessed February 3, 2019)

5 David E. Graves, Shishak I Inscription. https://biblicalarchaeologygraves.blogspot.com/2014/12/bonus-33-shishak-i-inscription.html (Accessed February 3, 2019)

6 Bryant Wood, What evidence has been found of the Egyptian king, Shishak? https://christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a017.html (Accessed February 3, 2019)

5 comments

  1. Not to cause any racial conflict with any Jewish reader, but some people believe that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Ahmose who reigned mid 16 century bc., and that Ahmose was actually Moses, which is a distinct possibility due to the similarities in their names, whfich is even more noticeable in the Jewish “Moshe”. The belief is that Moses (Ahmose) didn’t lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt, but that he expelled the Hebrew usurpers of the Egyptian throne and aristocracy.

    • There are numerous Pharaohs who have been suggested as the Pharaoh of the exodus. My own belief is that Ahmose lived too early to be Moses given the internal chronology of the Bible. Taken at face value, 1 Kings 6:1 places the exodus in 1446 B.C., about 100 years later than Ahmose lived. Moses name is similar to other Pharaohs’ names (ie. Thutmosis); this doesn’t mean that they are the same person, just that he had a familiar Egyptian name. I believe that there is good evidence that points to Amenhotep II as the Pharaoh of the exodus. I’d encourage you to read Doug Petrovich’s detailed article: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/02/04/Amenhotep-II-and-the-Historicity-of-the-Exodus-Pharaoh.aspx. Thanks for reading and interacting with my blog.

      • There is a trilogy by Pauline Geiger, beginning with the book The Hipopotamus Marsh, which is a historical fiction account of Seqenenre Tao and his two sons Kahmose and Ahmose, the founders of the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. Even though it is fiction, Pauline makes a very strong case for Ahmose being Moses. Also, the Exodus does fit in with what was happening at that time.

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