Ancient Israel

Some Egyptologists dismiss ancient Israelite history as a later invention suggesting that the Abraham and Moses stories were created in the 5th century BC.  However there are good reasons for accepting that some of the Genesis and Exodus stories have their origins in the Middle Bronze Age period between the 14th and 18th centuries BC.

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Merneptah

Merneptah was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 1213 - 1203 BC. His father was Ramesses the Great and he was probably about 70 years of age when he came to the throne. Prior to this he was in charge of the army and served as regent for twelve years.

During his reign he carried out various military campaigns including one in the land of Canaan. Canaan was the 'Promised Land', the land 'flowing with milk and honey' Abraham was promised according to the story in Genesis 12.

In the book of Joshua chapter 12 Joshua is described as leading the Israelite tribes into the land of Canaan where they fight the Amorites. He is described as commanding the sun and moon -

Joshua spoke to the Lord. In the presence of the Israelites he said,

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
Moon, stop over Aijalon Valley.”

The sun stood still and the moon did not move until the nation had conquered its enemies. This is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stood still in the middle of the sky and did not go down

for a whole day.

 Never before, and never since, has there been a day like it.

Joshua 10 :  12 - 13

Some scholars think that the hebrew for not 'moving' can also mean not 'shining' meaning that this is probably a reference to a solar eclipse. Annular eclipses are rare but using computer technology meant the extremely complicated astronomical calculations could be made to show that there was such an eclipse over Canaan in the year 1207 BC - in the middle of Merneptahs reign.

 

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Annular Eclipse

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The MERNEPTAH STELE is a black granite slab over 10 feet high upon which the opening inscription states that it was carved in the 5th year of Mernaptah's dynasty. It mostly describes his victories over the Lybians and their Sea People allies who had invaded Egypt but the final two lines describes his later victories in Canaan -

The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) 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;
Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

The reference to ISRAEL is the earliest yet discovered by archeologists and the only one from ancient Egypt.

The Merneptah Stele

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The hieroglyphs referring to Israel

The reference to Israel includes a seated man and woman above three lines. This means that 'Israel' refers to a people and not a state. That is to say they were regarded as a tribe and not a nation - they did not have a land of their own. 

This is the picture presented in the book of Joshua where the Israelites are nomadic tribesmen who entered Canaan in order to acquire land of their own through battle. Of course, the book of Joshua doesn't mention being defeated by the Egyptians - a hardly surprising omission.

 

As a tribal entity in the early 13th century BC the Israelites will have had their own oral tradition passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. These will be in story form and describe their origins, ancestors, customs, laws and rituals. Their tribal narrative will have included descriptions of the world they lived in and travelled through. It was through such stories that one generation passed on to the next the information they would require to survive. They would include their history and religious experience.

Whilst the stories of Abraham and Moses will have been written down several centuries later we can have a degree of confidence that these stories had their origins in a much earlier age and that they are based on Middle Bronze Age memories.

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Stone sarcophagus of Merneptah