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In the beginnings: Israel Comes to Canaan – 6

Original Date
May 9, 2009

The Merneptah Stele Puzzle


Any discussion of how Israel came to be settled in the Land of Canaan must take into account the Merneptah Stele. This intriguing Egyptian monument dating to about 1207 BCE mentions Israel, spelling it in hieroglyphic signs. Known as the Merneptah Stele after the pharaoh whose reign it commemorates, the inscribed stone provides us with the earliest extant reference to Israel. For that reason, it is also known as the Israel Stele.

Unpronounced hieroglyphic signs called determinatives are sometimes attached to a word to indicate the category of the word. Thus, in this inscription the determinative for a city-state is attached to the words for Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano‘am. The determinative for a foreign land is attached to Canaan. By contrast, the determinative for a foreign people is attached to the hieroglyphic signs for Israel.

Much ink has been spilled interpreting the Merneptah Stele. Was this the Israel of the Exodus and conquest? If so, was Israel already established in Canaan, so that Merneptah could—albeit with obvious exaggeration—claim that he had “laid [him] waste and his seed [was] not”? Many have argued this. If it is true, the Exodus and conquest must have occurred before 1207 BCE

Another, more recent view that has been garnering support is that the “Israel” referred to in the Merneptah Stele is not the Israel of the Exodus, but instead Israel whose roots were in Canaan long before the time of the Merneptah Stele. Lawrence Stager focused on the last two lines of the victory ode, the meaning of which, he claimed, can be understood in terms of its parallel poetic construction:

Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.


“Hurru and Israel form a distinct complementary pair in the ode,” says Stager, “viz. husband (Israel) and wife/widow (Hurru).” [3]  Since the term “Hurru” usually referred to the region of Syria-Palestine, or to a lesser area within the region, the parallel construction with Israel indicates an entity larger than the city-states of Ashkelon, Gezer and Yano‘am, also named on the stele. Hurru is spelled with the determinative for land. Israel, however, is spelled with the determinative for a people rather than a land or a state. Thus Israel apparently was a population group in Hurru (Syria-Palestine or some part of it) capable of fielding a sizable fighting force against pharaoh’s chariots. [4]

Gösta Ahlström reached a similar conclusion based on a different interpretation of the inscription’s literary structure. The inscription pairs Hatti with Hurru and Israel with Canaan, Ahlström contended. Hatti and Hurru both refer to the whole area of Syria-Palestine, while Canaan and Israel were the two main subdivisions of Palestine. “Remembering that in its extended meaning Canaan referred to the cultural and urban areas of the country, the name Israel logically refers to the remaining sparsely populated hill country area where few cities were located.” [5]  Too much has been made of the determinative, Ahlström explained. “Egyptologists attach little significance to the choice of determinative here, recognizing that determinatives were generally used rather loosely by scribes, especially when a people was called by the name of the territory they inhabited.” [6]

Who Were the Merneptah’s Israelites?

Merneptah’s inscription verifies the presence of a people known as Israel on the scene in Canaan at the very end of the Late Bronze Age. And whether or not the inscription places them specifically in the central hill country as Ahlström contended, the biblical traditions clearly understand the core of Israelite settlement to have been in that area during premonarchical times. Moreover, there is undisputed archaeological evidence that new settlements emerged in the central hill country at the beginning of the Iron Age, and there is a clear continuity of material culture from these early Iron Age settlements to the later centuries of the Iron Age, when the central hill country was the center of an Israelite monarchy. So is this not enough evidence to conclude that the early Iron Age hill country settlements were Israelite settlements?

In a general sense, one can draw this conclusion. As an analogy, consider how all of those who immigrated from various parts of the world to what later became the United States, along with the native Americans who were already here, may be lumped together as early Americans. Thus Finkelstein titled the English edition of his masterful study of the early Iron Age settlements The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement and explained,

The formation of the Israelite identity was a long, intricate, and complex process which, in our opinion, was completed only at the beginning of the Monarchy …

Accordingly, an Israelite during the Iron I period was anyone whose descendants—as early as the days of Shiloh (first half of the 11th century BCE) or as late as the beginning of the Monarchy—described themselves as Israelites. These were, by and large, the people who resided in the territorial framework of the early Israelite Monarchy, before its expansion began … Thus even a person who may have considered himself a Hivite, Gibeonite, Kennizzite, etc., in the early 12th century, but whose descendants in the same village a few generations later thought of themselves as Israelites will, in like manner, also be considered here as an Israelite. [7]

Although Finkelstein’s definition may be about as good as we can come up with at the moment, it is not totally satisfying because the biblical narratives conspicuously distinguish between the Israelites and the other peoples who were settled in the hill country during premonarchical times. The narrator of Judges 19–21 (see especially 19:10–15) clearly presupposed a distinction between Israelite and non-Israelite villages, for example. Finkelstein’s definition itself recognizes that “the formation of the Israelite identity” involved a “long, intricate, and complex process.” What sort of designation was “Israelite” at the earliest stages of this process? Was it primarily a kinship designation, pertaining to clan and tribal affiliations? Or was it primarily a geographical designation as Ahlström contended? Perhaps it was more of a religious designation as Mendenhall proposed—an Israelite was a worshiper of Yahweh. Finkelstein sees the monarchy as the “cut off” time for determining who was and was not an Israelite. Yet a close reading of the biblical account of David’s reign suggests that even then distinctions were made between the Israelites and other constituents of his realm, including the Judahites (2 Samuel 19:8–13).

This question has been addressed by Baruch Halpern in an important study, The Emergence of Israel in Canaan, [8]  and also by J. Maxwell Miller in A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (co-written with John H. Hayes). [9]  Both Halpern and Miller are confident that historical memory is embedded in the biblical narratives and lists, in Joshua as well as in Judges, although very deeply embedded indeed; and both conclude that premonarchical Israel, regardless of where the name came from, was a group of tribes (using the term rather loosely) that, having lived in close proximity to each other over time, came to regard themselves as ethnically related. These Israelite tribes exchanged sons and daughters in marriage, shared cultic practices and occasionally came to each other’s defense. Therefore, both Halpern and Miller regard Israel as an entity that emerged from the pluralistic population of the land, although Halpern places more emphasis on the concept of a core group entering Palestine from the Transjordan than does Miller, and Halpern envisions a full 12-tribe Israelite confederacy in place before the rise of the monarchy whereas Miller does not.

Halpern rejects the traditional notion of a comprehensive military conquest, but suspects that there was some sort of invasion from the east. Also he rejects the idea of a peasants’ revolt but suspects that disenchantment with social conditions led many indigenous Canaanites to attach themselves to the newly arrived Israelites. Working with the various tribal lists in the Hebrew Bible, Halpern concludes that a ten-tribe confederation had emerged by the time of Deborah and is presupposed by the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). This expanded to a 12-tribe confederation by the eve of the monarchy. Halpern writes:

At any rate, in the present state of research, it seems safest to postulate that some Israelite Hebrew group did enter Canaan by way of the Aijalon Pass. Entrenching itself particularly in the central hills, this group attracted both by coincident interest and by the nature of the terrain and agricultural climate some proportion of the Canaanite population, which had a history of sporadic petty revolt against Egypt. What proportion of the population was thus assimilated, and what proportion of Israel consisted of Canaanites, one simply cannot say. However, over the course of the 13th and 12th centuries, an ethnic consciousness and solidarity dawned on this Israel. No later than the late 12th century, the time of the song of Deborah (Judges 5:13–18), a full-blown confederacy of tribes existed. [10]

Miller, less confident of the antiquity of the Song of Deborah and the tribal lists, prefers to search the biblical narratives and geographical lists for clues as to which tribal groups seem central to Israelite affairs. He notes that the Book of Judges tends to focus on the tribe of Ephraim and three neighboring groups—the Benjaminites, the Manassites and the Gileadites—all three of which appear to have been dominated by or closely aligned with Ephraim in some fashion. [11]  Ephraim covered that part of the hill country between Shechem and Bethel. Benjamin, which means “sons of the south” or “southerners” (from the perspective of Ephraim), was in the Bethel-Ai region, reaching south toward Jerusalem and centering around Gibeah. Manasseh, north of Ephraim, between Shechem and the Jezreel Valley, spilled over into Transjordan. Gilead was opposite Ephraim in Transjordan.

Miller notes that these tribal groups of the hill country on opposite sides of the Jordan River, all settled in relatively close proximity to each other, were “loosely associated” in a satellite or client relationship dominated by Ephraim. He continues: “Probably this loose alliance of tribes was the premonarchical ‘Israel’ to which the Merneptah inscription refers.” [12]   Later these Ephraim-Israel tribes of the central highlands north of Jerusalem and across the Jordan would form the core of Saul’s “Israelite” monarchy; and still later, after Solomon’s death, they became the core of the northern kingdom called variously Ephraim, Israel or Samaria. In other words, there was no 12-tribe Israel before the Davidic monarchy; and even then, under David and Solomon, the Israelites (that is, Ephraim and client tribes) were joined together only temporarily with other groups, including the Judahites. [13]

In any case, earliest Israel probably was a loose confederation of tribes and clans that “emerged” gradually from the pluralistic population of the land. Accordingly, Israel’s ancestors would have been of diverse origins. Some may have been immigrants from Transjordan, possibly even from Egypt. But basically Israel seems to have emerged from the “melting pot” of peoples already in the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age. Accordingly, their lifestyle and material culture were essentially “Canaanite.” Their sense of kinship with each other and separateness from other groups resulted from living in proximity with each other and from patterns of marriages and mutual support over time. Their emergence from tribal society into a nation with a national religion also was the result of a long process of struggle shaped internally by dynamic leaders we know as judges, and externally by political pressures exerted primarily by the Philistines. This scenario, admittedly, is more complex than one might suppose from a casual reading of Joshua and Judges, but it finds support from a more careful reading of the biblical text as well as from archaeological research.

Social Organization

Both the Book of Judges and the results of archaeological excavations indicate that the village was the basic form of social organization among the Israelites and their neighbors in the Palestinian hill country during the period of the Judges, corresponding to what archaeologists call Iron Age I (about 1200 to 1000 BCE). As attested by archaeology, these villages shared layouts, features of house design, and an economy of dry farming supplemented by animal husbandry. Before 1200 BCE, permanent settlements were located near natural water sources; but with the settlement of the central hills of Canaan, villages subsisted on rainwater captured in rock-cut cisterns. Hillsides around village sites were terraced to slow and capture runoff water, thus allowing for the cultivation of wheat, barley, vegetables and olive trees at sites that lacked natural water sources, such as streams.

The village was an economic entity in itself, independent of other villages and, for the most part, not subject to any market or trade system. It featured a subsistence system dependent more on the vagaries of nature than on political or economic influences. Anthropologists characterize this aspect of village life as “isolation,” [14]  but to some extent this is a misnomer. Although we find very few imported artifacts in excavated villages, there are exceptions, including bronze tools obtained in trade or the ingots from which these tools were made, which were bartered or purchased. Thus the isolation was not complete, although it was the village’s predominant characteristic.

The village’s self-sufficiency and pragmatic isolation had implications for the larger social structure of the people and their political organization: They fostered a natural tendency to resist political unification and social conformity as threats to the integrity of the village unit.

The dominant socioeconomic unit within the village was the household. A household consisted of an extended family compound separated from other compounds by dividing walls or space. Stager has noted that these household compounds “probably reflect the socioeconomic unit known from biblical sources as the bêt ’ab” (plural, bêt ’abot), the house of the father. [15]  Gottwald has observed that “a bêt ’ab “customarily includes the family head and his wife (or wives), their sons and unmarried daughters, the sons’ wives and children … as far as the biological and affinal links extended generationally.” [16]  The biological link was not the sole determinant, however, because slaves and strangers who shared the mutual dwelling were also considered part of the bêt ’ab.

The bêt ’abot were grouped together in what the biblical text refers to as the mishpahah, or clan. The concept of mishpahah can extend, as Gottwald has noted, not only to a group of related families but also to a more neutral characterization of a “protective association of extended families.” [17]  In the case of small Iron Age I villages, the village itself could be the equivalent of the biblical mishpahah. Indeed, the concept of clan and village often coincided. [18]

Tribes were made up of a group of clans, and, as Miller has noted, they were essentially territorial in character. “Thus,” he says, “the name ‘Ephraim’ probably originated with reference to the people living in the vicinity of Mt. Ephraim.”  [19] The same would be true of Gilead, Benjamin (which means “sons of the south”), Naphtali, etc. The names of places, on the other hand, were also closely related to the names of constituent clans, so that the tribe was not purely territorial in nature but also had a proto-ethnic context.
Political leadership among the tribes seems to have been clan- or village-oriented. The isolation of village life encouraged a highly individualistic kind of leadership, allowing the emergence of a diversity of leadership types. Local affairs were managed by elders of the clans, probably made up of the heads of different expanded families.

The tribal leader is exemplified by Jephthah in Judges 11:1, who is referred to as a “mighty warrior, but the son of a harlot.” When the elders of Gilead were threatened by the Ammonites, they went to Jephthah in “the land of Tob,” apparently a place of exile where the warrior’s half-brothers had driven him because he was a harlot’s son. Jephthah initially responded, “Did you not hate me, and drive me out of my father’s house (bêt ’ab)? Why have you come to me now that you are in trouble?” (Judges 11:7). However, in the end he relents when the elders promise to make him head of the tribe if he fights the Ammonites.

Also certain leaders, such as Deborah, seem to have risen above the tribal level. Deborah is said to have sat under a palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, “and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). When the Israelites were threatened by an alliance of Canaanites, Deborah issued a call to all the tribes to join forces; six of ten Israelite tribes responded, according to Judges 5. Evidently she had acquired a reputation as a wise arbitrator who transcended clan and tribal limitations.

The Tribal Allotments

Although Joshua 13–22 presupposes 12 discrete tribes that were allotted territory after the conquest, a close reading of Joshua and Judges indicates an evolution in the relationships of tribes and groups of tribes that spanned most of the period of the Judges and possibly more. As noted above, Halpern sees the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 as evidence of a ten-tribe stage in this evolution. Miller, on the other hand, supposes that premonarchical Israel consisted essentially of Ephraim and at least three “client” or “satellite” tribes: Manasseh, Gilead and Benjamin. [20]  The patriarchal narratives, in Miller’s opinion, appear to support this view. The stories about Jacob, also named “Israel” (Genesis 32:27–28, 35:10), “have their setting primarily in the territory of these Ephraimite-dominated tribes.” Joseph and Benjamin are depicted as favorite sons of Jacob/Israel, with Benjamin as the younger. Manasseh and Ephraim are identified as Joseph’s sons, with Ephraim as the one destined to dominate (Genesis 48). In the Book of Joshua, Miller writes, occasional references to “the house of Joseph … pertain to these three related tribes—Ephraim/Benjamin and Manasseh” (see Joshua 17:14–18). And “after the death of Solomon, the territory of these same tribes became the core of the northern kingdom, which in turn is referred to interchangeably as ‘Ephraim,’ ‘Israel’ and ‘Samaria’ (after the capital city).” [21]

The Galilee-Jezreel tribes of Asher, Zebulon and Naphtali are described in Judges 1:30–33 as living among Canaanites, whom they dominated and subjected to “forced labor.” These tribes were involved in two battles against oppressors in which the Ephraimite tribes took the initiative. First, Gideon of Ophrah, a Manassehite village, led an attack on Midianites and Amalekites from the east who had taken over part of the Valley of Jezreel. Asher, Zebulon and Naphtali responded to the call (Judges 6:35), and the raiders from east of the Jordan were defeated. Second, when the Canaanites led by Sisera of Harosheth-ha-goiim (Judges 4:2) oppressed the Galilee tribes, Deborah of Ephraim-Benjamin summoned Barak of Naphtali to lead an army against the oppressors. Zebulon joined forces with the men from Naphtali, and apparently a contingent from Ephraim was involved. In any case, the Ephraim group seems to have taken the initiative, and the Canaanites were defeated. In the victory ode of Judges 5:12–18, ten tribes are mentioned, although not all of them took part in the battle. These accounts suggest circumstances in which the concerns of the Ephraim-Israel tribes overlapped those of the Galilee tribes, and the former assumed the leadership role. [22]

The tribes of Dan, Judah, Reuben and Gad were located peripherally to the Ephraim-Israel tribes and do not figure significantly in leadership roles. The Danite clans, located along the Mediterranean coast, were pressed back into the edge of the hill country of Ephraim by the Amorites (Judges 1:34–35), and to find relief from oppression, migrated to Laish (later Dan) at the foot of Mt. Hermon in northern Galilee (Judges 17–18).

Gad and Reuben, associated with the Transjordan in the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 29:31–32, 49:3–4) and allotted territory east of the Jordan according to Joshua 13:15–28, are rarely mentioned in the Book of Judges. The same is true of the Judahite clans that occupied the southern hill country. They were separated from the tribes of the northern hill country (Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh) by the alliances of Hivite and Jebusite villages in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Judah apparently did not begin to play a significant role until the time of David.

Thus, regardless of whether premonarchical Israel was a full 12-tribe confederation that covered much of Palestine, or a less extensive confederation composed of Ephraim and a few client tribes, it seems that the Ephraim-related tribes were the focus of leadership during the period of the Judges and were the historic center of the Israel that emerged as a monarchy during the time of Saul. The focus of leadership changed during the emergence of David and the reign of Solomon, but reverted to local leaders when Solomon died and rival monarchies were established in Samaria and Jerusalem.

The Tribes of Israel and te Danite Migration



[1]  Lawrence E. Stager, “Merneptah, Israel and Sea Peoples,” Eretz Israel 18 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985), p. 56.
[2]  Stager, “Merneptah”, p. 61.
[3]  Ibid.
[4]  Stager called attention to a study by his then-colleague at the University of Chicago, Frank Yurco, of the depiction of the pharaoh’s enemies in a battle scene at Karnak. Yurco identified in the battle scene what he thought to be the people called “Israel” on the Merneptah Stele. Their dress is decidedly Canaanite in style and not that of nomads, such as the “Shasu” depicted elsewhere in the battle scene. Anson Rainey has since challenged Yurco’s identification, however, and argued that Merneptah’s Israel is in fact represented by the Shasu in the battle scene. Frank J. Yurco, “3,200-Year-Old Picture of Israelites Found in Egypt,” BAR 16:05, September/October 1990; Anson F. Rainey, “Anson F. Rainey’s Challenge,” BAR 17:06, November/December 1991, pp. 56–60, 93.
[5]  Ahlström, Who Were the Israelites? (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1986), p. 40.
[6]  Ibid.
[7]  Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, pp. 27–28.
[8]  Baruch Halpern, The Emergence of Israel in Canaan, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 29 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983).
[9]  Miller and Hayes, History of Ancient Israel.
[10]  Halpern, Emergence of Israel, p. 91.
[11]  Miller and Hayes, History of Ancient Israel, p. 97.
[12]  Ibid.
[13]  Callaway, in the original 1988 version of this chapter, proposed a syntheses of the two views: “Since the Merneptah inscription dates to before the time of Deborah (sometime in the 12th century BC), we can postulate an evolution in tribal alignments, beginning at least with the four tribes of the loose Ephraimite alignment, i.e., Ephraim, Manasseh, Gilead and Benjamin. By the time of Deborah, there seems to have been an alliance of ten tribes; they are listed in the ‘Roll Call of the Tribes’ in Judges 5:12–18. Eventually, when the monarchy was established in Jerusalem, there were 12 tribes.”
[14]  C. A. O. van Nieuwenhuijze, “The Near Eastern Village: A Profile,” Middle East Journal 16 (1962), p. 300.
[15]  Stager, “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel,” BASOR 260 (1985), pp. 1–36; and “The Song of Deborah—Why Some Tribes Answered the Call and Others Did Not,” BAR 15:01, January/February 1989, pp. 50–64.
[16]  Gottwald, Tribes of Yahweh, p. 285.
[17]  Ibid.
[18]  C. H. J. de Geus, The Tribes of Israel (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, Assen, 1976), p. 138.
[19]  Miller and Hayes, History of Ancient Israel, p. 92-97
[20]  Ibid.
[21]  Ibid.
[22]  Ibid. pp .99-100


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - The Patriarchal Stories

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