Scholars Disagree: Can You Name the Panel with the Israelites? Anson F. Rainey, BAR 17:06, Nov-Dec 1991.
In a brilliant piece of detective work entitled “3,200-Year-Old Picture of Israelites Found in Egypt,” BAR 16-05, Frank J. Yurco analyzes the reliefs on a wall of the Cour de la Cachette in the Karnak temple in Upper Egypt. But he points to the wrong picture as that of Israelites. This has disastrous results for his conclusions.
Yurco’s scrupulous examination of the cartouches is certainly convincing. He has clearly demonstrated that the original pharaoh to whom the battle reliefs on the western face of the western wall of the Cour de la Cachette must be ascribed is Merneptah,a not Ramesses II.
His results are rendered even more likely when we remember that the western face of the eastern wall of the same Cour de la Cachette carries Merneptah’s battle scenes depicting his defeat of the Libyans and the Sea Peoples who had tried to invade Egypt from the west. The famous “Israel” Stele of Merneptah is devoted mainly to Merneptah’s defeat of the Libyans and the Sea Peoples. That the reliefs on the western face of the eastern wall of the Cour de la Cachette depict Merneptah’s defeat of the Libyans and the Sea Peoples supports the suggestion that the reliefs on the other wall do correlate with his military victories in Canaan as described more cursorily in the same stele.
The likelihood of a correlation between the reliefs and the stele is further enhanced by the fact that another, more fragmentary, stele inscription of the same text was also found at the Karnak temple. The inscription on both of these laudatory stelae deals first with the victory over the Libyans and finally with the situation resulting from some military action in Canaan.
I completely agree with Yurco that “It seems clear that Merenptah originally had these reliefs [on the western face of the western wall] commissioned and carved to represent and commemorate his Canaanite campaign as described in the Merenptah [Israel] Stele.”
The reliefs on the western face of the western wall originally consisted of ten different panels in two registers, according to Yurco’s reconstruction. The only toponym, or place-name, identifying the location of a battle scene in the reliefs, however, is Ashkelon. Yet it was always a puzzle why Ramesses II should have campaigned against Ashkelon- None of his other battle reliefs—such as those at the Luxor temple or at his own funerary temple, the Ramesseum, or at Abu Simbel—give any hint that Ramesses II had ever had occasion to besiege Ashkelon. The problem is solved by Yurco’s demonstration that Merneptah is the pharaoh who besieged Ashkelon as depicted in this Karnak wall relief.
The fact that Ashkelon is one of three cities mentioned in the poem on Merneptah’s Israel Stele, along with Gezer and Yano‘am, certainly provides a convincing parallel to the three cities, including the explicitly named Ashkelon, on the wall of the Karnak Temple. Yurco is surely justified in suggesting that the other two besieged cities, whose names have not been preserved on the wall, should be identified with Gezer and Yano‘am.
So far, so good.
Where Yurco begins to slip is in identifying his scene 4 with the “Israel” mentioned in the stele.
Yurco reads the sequence of battle reliefs (two on each side of the Peace Treaty inscription of Ramesses II—which threw everyone off in the first place) in a clockwise order. He cites “precedents” for reading them in this sequence, identifying scene 1 in his chart as Ashkelon, scene 2 as Gezer and scene 3 as Yano‘am. Such precedents, however, are in no way compelling, they are certainly not obligatory. Yurco will no doubt insist that his original choice is correct, but I insist that he is dead wrong on this point. There is no valid reason why we must start with scene 1 on his chart and work our way around clockwise to his scene 4, just above scene 1 (Ashkelon). In other words, there is no imperative that scene 4 be identified with the “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele inscription.
On the contrary, there is one compelling reason why we should not take the figures in scene 4 to be the Israelites. The figures in scene 4 are dressed as typical Canaanite soldiers.
Moreover, they are also using battle chariots, as Yurco himself stresses. This represents a problem for Yurco’s identification, however, as he recognizes- These are Canaanite chariots; the Israelites who settled in the central hill country of Canaan are not supposed to have chariots. Yurco tries to explain this anomaly with two speculations-
“How could the early Israelites have gotten possession of chariots, once thought to be the exclusive possession of Israel’s enemies such as the Canaanites?…Perhaps the Israelites got chariots like the one depicted in their battle with Merenptah by raids on Canaanite towns. However, it is also possible they got them through an alliance with some of the Canaanite towns that Merenptah attacked, or that feared such an attack.”
In the Israel Stele, attached to the hieroglyphic inscription of each of the three cities, Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano‘am, is a hieroglyphic determinative—in this case, a throw-stick plus three mountains—which signifies that each of these three words is a foreign country. The determinative attached to Israel, however, is different. It is a throw-stick plus a seated man and woman, with three hash marks that signify the plural. This determinative is used for peoples or tribes, that is, for ethnic groups.
Given what we know about Canaanite urban society and the high social status of people who have the wherewithal to maintain chariots (the noble warriors, often called maryanu), it is highly unlikely that the Israelites would have had chariots at this time. It is absurd to think that an Egyptian scribe would use the tribal/ethnic determinative for people and another Egyptian artist would then depict this tribal/ethnic group fighting in chariots.
It is most unlikely—in fact it is hardly credible—that Yurco’s Canaanite soldiers with their chariots should be equated with the “Israel” on Merneptah’s victory stele.
More likely, the Canaanite soldiers with chariots depicted in this scene should be equated with the “Canaan” mentioned in the poem on the stele. It should not be forgotten that Canaan is in fact mentioned separately in the poem-
“Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe.
Ashkelon has been overcome.
Gezer has been captured.
Yano‘am was made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste, (and) his seed is not.”
After misidentifying the Canaanites in scene 4 as Israelites, Yurco uses this to subscribe to the theory that early Israel emerged out of Canaanite society. He specifically notes how the supposed Israelites’ Canaanite dress distinctly differs from that of the Shasu depicted in other panels of the relief on the same wall. The Shasu, he tells us, are Bedouin types who are “often associated with Israelite origins.” Indeed they are—correctly, as I shall argue.
Yurco really doesn’t know what to do with the Shosu,b or Shasu, depicted on these reliefs. He recognizes that many of these Shosu pastoralists are in fact depicted in scenes 5–8 as being brought to Egypt as captives. An inscription beside the reliefs even refers to them as Shosu. Other texts that probably described them have been lost from destroyed sections of the wall.
Ancient Israelite tradition unanimously identifies Jacob and his sons as pastoralists. Is it not more reasonable to conclude that there is probably some relationship between these pastoralists on Merneptah’s wall reliefs and the tribal/ethnic group called Israel in the victory poem on Merneptah’s stele?
In short, I believe Yurco has probably found the long-sought missing link between Israel and the Shosu/Shasu pastoralists known from Egyptian inscriptions throughout the XVIIIth and XIXth Dynasties (1570–1293 B.C.E. and 1293–1185 B.C.E.c).
This is not to say that all Shosu were Israelites. In narratives from Genesis to Judges, we find mention of Midianites, Ishmaelites, Amalekites, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and others. These ethnic groups may also find their origins among the Shosu and, in the early periods of their development, may be indistinguishable from Shosu. The Egyptian texts make it clear that the pastoralist elements were becoming ever more troublesome, especially in the 13th century and well into the 12th century B.C.E. Ramesses III (1182–1151 B.C.E.) also campaigned against them, according to Papyrus Harris (I, 76, lines 9–11)-
“I accomplished the destruction of the Seirites of the clans of the Shasu people. I plundered their tent camps of people and possessions and their cattle like wise, they being without number, they being bound and carried away as captives as tribute of Egypt…”
Yurco’s identification of the Israelites as Canaanites, however, leads him to conclude that “at least some of the early Israelites coalesced out of Canaanite society.” This argument is of course completely undercut if the Israelites are depicted, as I suggest, as Shosu.
Yurco’s suggestion is closely related to the peasant revolt theory—I call it the “revolting peasant theory”—propounded by George Mendenhall and expanded by Norman Gottwald. According to this theory, the Israelites were mainly former Canaanite peasants who fled to the hill country, became tribalized and in the process discovered monotheism.d Some archaeologists, such as William Dever, have jumped on this bandwagon, basing their view mainly on the interpretation of Early Iron Age (1200–1000 B.C.E.) ceramics as a continuation of Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) ceramic traditions.
There is not one scrap of documentary evidence from the Late Bronze Age or from the Bible to support this revolting peasant theory.1 It is the figment of Mendenhall and Gottwald’s imagination. The ceramic evidence must be understood within the context of the overall material culture of the Early Iron Age- The best interpretation of all the factors involved in Israelite origins taken together is the infiltration theory of Albrecht Alt (which is solidly based on an analysis of the Egyptian and the Biblical texts), with the addition of the “symbiosis” proposed by Volkmar Fritz.
Alt observed that the main Canaanite centers according to the Egyptian documents (Tuthmosis III’s list of conquered towns, the Amarna Letters, etc.) were mainly on the plains. This was a perfect negative correlation with the location of the early Israelites, who were mainly confined to the hill country and to the Negev (the modern Beer-Sheva Valley and Besor basin). That applies to the patriarchs and to the Israelites in the books of Judges and Samuel. The action in Judges-Samuel is on the part of villagers from the hills, who are fighting against various enemies. Alt saw that Judges 1 depicted just those areas where the Israelite tribes failed in their initial conquest, namely on the plains! It was only after David came to power that Israel could “put the Canaanites to forced labor” (Judges 1-28 and elsewhere). The Solomonic districts (1 Kings 4-7–19) named for tribes are all hill-country areas, where the tribes settled initially. The other districts, named for the Canaanite cities located in them, were in the plains. Their commissioners were responsible for furnishing the forced labor for Solomon’s mighty works (1 Kings 5-13–14); the workers were former Canaanites and Hivvites. The hill-country districts (where the main stone quarries were) supplied “burden bearers” from among the original Israelites.
Volkmar Fritz took cognizance of the fact that pastoralists are now being recognized in modern scholarship as a permanent element all along the Fertile Crescent. They were always there in the steppe lands, coming into the cultivated lands after the harvest and trading with the farmers, grazing their flocks in the harvested fields (and fertilizing them). They always lived in symbiosis with the settled, agricultural society.
This symbiosis explains why their Early Iron Age pottery shows a knowledge of Late Bronze Age Canaanite pottery. The potters among the pastoralists had learned from the villagers. Unfortunately, archaeologists of the old school, such as William Dever, often build historical constructs from a study of ceramic typology. Then they call it “archaeological fact.” Actually, the archaeological surveys in the hill-country areas and the Biblical Negev, with their ecological and sociological approach, are confirming the main lines of the settlement model proposed by Alt and Noth. Albright’s “conquest” model is being disproved on every point.e
In short, the pastoralists were always there, on the fringe of Canaanite society- no wonder that their pottery styles reflect a knowledge of Canaanite traditions. The major summary of this evidence by Israel Finkelstein2 shows how the new social and ecological adaptations of the Early Iron Age in the central hill country of Canaan, where the Bible tells us the Israelites settled, differed from the earlier Canaanite culture down on the coastal plains. (Incidentally, I believe that Finkelstein’s work, brilliant as it is, has been influenced by the fact that throughout his own student and academic career the Jordan River has been a political barrier to him because he is an Israeli. The Jordan River was not a political barrier in antiquity or in recent history [for example, the 19th and early 20th centuries]. Thus, there is no reason to look at the Late Bronze Age town residents as the source for the pastoralists whose settlements spring up in such sudden proliferation at the beginning of the Iron Age. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that they migrated from Transjordan [and also from the Lebanese Beqa‘ Valley, the Bashan, the Syrian desert and the Sinai].)
Sadly, one must make passing mention here of an attempt by G. W. Ahlstrom and Diana Edelman3 to interpret “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele as a geographical entity (namely the central hill country of Canaan), despite the hieroglyphic determinative indicating that it denotes a people or tribe, an ethnic entity. In addition, Ahlstrom wants to abandon the correct reading, “Israel is desolated, his seed is not” for his own concoction- “Israel is laid waste, his grain is destroyed.” The phrase concerning the destruction of seed is a well-known Egyptian idiom in which “seed” means progeny, just as in the various Biblical passages about the “seed” of Abraham. Sometimes the determinative in Egyptian hieroglyphics for “seed” is the male genitals. Even though that determinative is missing from “seed” in the Merneptah Stele, the idiom always refers to progeny. Ahlstrom and Edelman have simply demonstrated that Biblical scholars untrained in Egyptian epigraphy should not make amateurish attempts at interpretation.
A final qualification- By this demonstration, I do not mean to say that the “Israel” of the Merneptah Stele necessarily includes or is the equivalent of the 12-tribe nation depicted in the Bible. Some of the later tribes arrived in Canaan from different directions and perhaps at different times. However, the Merneptah Stele leaves no doubt that an ethnic group called “Israel” did exist in 1207 B.C.E. Yurco’s new interpretation of the western facade of the western wall of the Cour de la Cachette certainly strengthens the long-held view that the Israelites were part of the Shosu pastoralist elements in Canaan (especially in the hill country, in the steppe land of Mt. Seir/Edom in Transjordan and in the Sinai) during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E.
a. Spelled “Merenptah” by Yurco, for reasons that he explained in his article.
b. Rainey prefers this spelling to “Shasu,” as used by Yurco and others.
c. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), used by this author, is the altemate designation corresponding to B.C. often used in scholarly literature.
d. See Hershel Shanks, “Israel’s Emergence in Canaan—BR Interviews Norman Gottwald,” Bible Review (BR), October 1989, P. Kyle McCarter, “A Major New Introduction to the Bible—Norman Gottwald’s Sociological-Literary Perspective,” BR, Summer 1986 and Betnhard W. Anderson, “Mendenhall Disavows Paternity,” BR, Summer 1986.
e. Even the most recent fundamentalist attempts to invent a pseudo Ai (John J. Bimson and David Livingston, “Redating the Exodus,” BAR 13-05) or to prove Joshua’s conquest of Jericho (Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?” BAR 16-02 and “Dating Jericho’s Destruction- Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts,” BAR 16-05 respectively) are exercises in science fiction.
1. Every generation of Old Testament scholars seems to look for a new panacea around which to chase their tails. Gottwald gave them just such a panacea for the 1980s; see my review of Gottwald’s The Tribes of Israel in Journal of the American Oriental Society 107/3 (1987), pp. 541–543.
2. Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1988). See also the review by Douglas L. Esse, Books in Brief, BAR 14-05, and Israel Finkelstein, “Searching for Israelite Origins,” BAR 14-05.
3ץ In a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in New Orleans, November 1990. See G. W. Ahlstrom and Diana Edelman, “Memeptah’s Israel,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44 (1985), pp. 59–61, see also Hershel Shanks, “When 5,613 Scholars Get Together in One Place—The Annual Meeting, 1990,” BAR 17-02.