Historical proof of the Jewish presence in ancient Egypt is sparse, yet there are two sources that reveal the interaction of these two cultures – the Exodus story of the Jewish Bible and the stela (pillar with inscription) of Pharaoh Merneptah of 1207 B.C.E.
The Jewish Bible, or Torah, describes the enslavement of the Israelites in Egyptian and their redemption by the one God. In Genesis, Jacob and 70 members of his family, the Israelites, traveled to Egypt where they multiplied and became a large people. The Pharaohs became increasingly wary of their numbers and forced them into slavery. After many centuries of oppression, Moses, an Israelite leader arose to lead them to freedom in the name of God. The Torah recounts how the Israelite God punished the Egyptians with 10 plagues, led hundred of thousands Israelites out of Egypt, drowned the Egyptian army in the Sea of Reeds, and led the Israelites to Sinai where they received the 10 Commandments, the laws of the one God. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites reached the borders of Canaan a strong and unified nation.
While scholars debate the historical validity of the Exodus story, there is little doubt that slavery played a major role in the structure of Egyptian society. The reign of Rameses II (1290-1220 B.C.E.) was known for its costly wars and construction of numerous large structures and could very well have been the era of oppression described in the bible. One Egyptian source that mentions Israel is the pillar of Pharaoh Merneptah (1220 – 1175 B.C.E.) from 1207 B.C.E., commonly known as the Israel Stela. The inscription of this stela implies that an entity named Israel existed in Canaan at the time. One thing is certain – if the Israelites had left Egypt, their migration must have taken place before the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E.
Merneptah/Israel Stela – 1297 BCE
First Archaeological Evidence to People of Israel
Pharaoh Merneptah of Egypt makes the first extra-biblical reference to a people called Israel. In an inscription popularly called the “Israel stela” dating from 1207 B.C.E., Merneptah claims military victory over Ashkelon, Gezer, Yinoam, and Israel. The symbols following Ashkelon, Gezer and Yinoam indicate that they were city-states. The symbol following Israel, however, is one used to describe a more nomadic people. Thus through this artifact, an Egyptian scribe identifies Israel as less politically established in the land – an identification that reflects the description of Israel in the first book of Judges. Moreover, the description of contact between the Egyptians and Israelites is dated within 100 hundred years of the Exodus from Egypt.