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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Early Written and Iconographic Sources

The Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE) provides the earliest nonbiblical reference to ancient Israel, in a short poem appended to a much longer prose account of his self-proclaimed victory over the Libyans and their allies, the Sea Peoples. The victory stela (now usually known as the “Israel Stela”) was erected in 1209 in Merneptah's funerary temple at Thebes. The relevant part of the victory ode reads:

The princes are prostrate, saying “Shalom” [Peace]! Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows. Now that Libya [Tehenu] has come to ruin, Hatti is pacified. The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe; Ashkelon has been overcome; Gezer has been captured; Yanoam is made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste and his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

The leading adversaries of the Egyptians—three city-states, or kingdoms, designated by their capitals (Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam), and a people known as Israel—lie within the larger geographical framework of Canaan and Hurru. The latter, bereft of her spouse, has become a “widow” because of Egypt. Ironically, Merneptah's premature proclamation of the demise of Israel is the first reference in history to this polity, which survived for another six hundred years as a “nation,” first as a confederation of tribes and later as a monarchy (1025–586 BCE).

Within the larger territorial framework of Canaan, the Egyptians use the determinative for a fortified city-state to designate the smaller kingdoms of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam; Israel is correctly distinguished as a rural or tribal entity by the determinative for “people.” In Egyptian the names of foreign countries, provinces, and cities are treated syntactically as feminine. But Israel, with the “people” determinative, is a masculine collective, probably indicating its identity with an eponymous patriarchal ancestor. Clearly the Egyptians regarded Israel as a different kind of polity from the other three, although all were apparently equal adversaries, if not part of an organized anti-Egyptian Canaanite coalition. The campaign against Canaan proceeds from the southwest to the northeast, Ashkelon to Gezer, and then farther north to Yanoam, somewhere near the Sea of Galilee.

Where was this early Israel located, and what was its settlement pattern and social structure? The people determinative can be used of tribally organized pastoralist or agriculturalist groups, with or without territorial boundaries. The Egyptian designation could apply equally well to an unsettled or to a settled group or confederation organized along tribal lines. This early entity must have had sufficient military strength to stand on par with the three other city-states, or kingdoms.

When the rebellion of Canaanites and Israelites against Egypt is placed in broader perspective, it appears that this was just one of many trouble spots that threatened Egyptian control and order in the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries BCE. The first wave of Sea Peoples (which did not include the Philistines), allied with the Libyans, lapped right up to the shores of Egypt itself during Merneptah's reign. Three decades later a second wave of Sea Peoples (including the Philistines) threatened the Nile Delta and carved out coastal kingdoms in Canaan at the expense of the Egyptian empire under Rameses III.

In this larger context of disorder in the eastern Mediterranean it is abundantly clear from the Merneptah Stela that Israel was a political-ethnic entity of sufficient importance to the Egyptians to warrant mention alongside the three Canaanite city-states. Indeed, this event of about 1200 BCE was the nearest thing to a real revolution in Canaan—and it was against the Egyptians.

An elegant and precise pictorial complement to the victory hymn of Merneptah has recently been identified in four battle reliefs at Karnak. Formerly attributed to Rameses II but now assigned with confidence to Merneptah, these reliefs depict the three city-states (Ashkelon is mentioned by name in the reliefs) and the “people” Israel.

In the Merneptah reliefs, the Israelites are not depicted as Shasu, but wear the same clothing and have the same hairstyles as the Canaanites, who are defending the fortified cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam. This new evidence does not, of course, settle the perennial question concerning the “origins” of Late Bronze Age Israel, that is, whether it consisted predominantly of pastoralists, peasants, new immigrants, or all three. But it does undermine the older notion that the Israelites were only the Shasu known by a new name, who settled down in agricultural villages about 1200 BCE.

Another victory ode, this time from the early Israelites themselves, is preserved in Judges 5 and is known as the Song of Deborah. George Foot Moore considered the poem the “only contemporaneous monument of Hebrew history” before the United Monarchy. It probably dates from the twelfth century BCE. As a celebration of victory over the Canaanite coalition at the battle of Kishon, the poem is a masterpiece of Semitic literature. As a historical document, it is important for the self-portrayal and self-understanding of early Israel that the poet provides.

The poem portrays Israel as a confederation of ten (not twelve) tribes, a theopolity known as the “people [kindred] of Yahweh” (Judg. 5.13 ). Marching forth from the southeast, from Seir and Edom, Yahweh leads his people to victory over the Canaanites “at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo.” Through divine succor from the heavenly host and a flash flood in the Wadi Kishon, the Israelites rout the better-armed Canaanites, who are equipped with chariots. The final blow of the battle is struck by Jael, a woman of the Kenite clan (a subgroup of the Midianites), who drives a tent peg through the head of Sisera, leader of the Canaanite coalition.

Early in the twelfth century BCE the confederation of ten tribes was occupying a variety of ecological niches on both sides of the Jordan, and carrying on a variety of professions, such as highland farming (Ephraim, Machir, Benjamin, Naphtali), sheep and goat herding (Reuben), and seafaring (Dan and Asher). Such a wide-ranging confederation of disparate groups committed to the kindred of Yahweh did not always act in concert, as the Song of Deborah indicates. Sometimes individual tribal interests and economic entanglements prevailed: Reuben, Gilead, Dan, and Asher declined to answer the call to arms. The positive response to the muster came from the highland village militia of the six other members of the confederation.

The Israelite understanding of themselves as a kindred of Yahweh in Judges 5 is compatible with the Egyptian designation of Israel as a “people,” although the constituency of that polity probably changed from the late thirteenth into the early twelfth centuries. When considered together with the archaeology of the region, both documents provide an invaluable resource for reconstructing aspects of the social, political, and religious life of nascent Israel.

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