The Hebrew Bible, thanks in large part to the often literal translation of it in the King James Version, is a source of scores of English idiomatic expressions. We may not know much about biology and history, but we do know, for instance, that a “leopard cannot change its spots” and that there is “nothing new under the Sun.” (See Jer. 13:23; Eccles. 1:9.)
Someday, no doubt, if it hasn’t already, Google will track the frequency with which we use these expressions and determine the rank order of their popularity. Surely high on the list will be “written in stone.” The phrase comes from the Book of Exodus where we are told that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received from God two stone tablets which were engraved by God with God’s teachings and commandments. The initial set of tablets was then smashed by Moses when he saw that the Israelites had fashioned an idol, a golden calf, when he was away up the mountain. God then met with Moses a second time, resulting in the production of a second set of stone tablets with the laws.
From these references comes the notion that something written in stone is fixed for all time, immutable. The writing is a statement from and by authority, possibly even sacred, but certainly to be followed without modification. Conversely, something “not written in stone” is a statement of lesser seriousness, one subject to challenge and change.
But “written in stone” may be more than a mere connotation of substantiality, firmness and durability. Sometimes words and pictures set in stone may be evidentiary. The probative value of such evidence depends on a lot of factors, of course. In some cases, though, because the availability of similar evidence is so limited and the potential significance of it so extraordinary, the determination of what is written in stone assumes unusual importance. That is exactly the situation with respect to the issue of the historicity of the Exodus and the origin, or ethnogenesis, of the Israelite people.
The timeline for these events is obviously crucial and it is in some dispute. Recognizing that there is no “assurance of certainty” in dating, a generation ago, Nahum Sarna, then professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, concluded that various “lines of evidence converge to make a very good case for placing the events of the Exodus within the thirteenth century B.C.E.,” that is, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE). (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schocken 1987), at 7, 14.) The settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, and the period described in the Biblical book of Judges would then come at the beginning of the Iron Age I (1200-1000 BCE). The reported reigns of Saul, David and Solomon would follow at around 1020/1025-928/931 BCE. (See Silberman, Secrets of the Bible (Hatherleigh 2004), at xiv-xv.)
Others, like Biblical archeologist Dr. Bryant Wood, place the Exodus much farther back in time, at around 1446 BCE, with the conquest of Canaan set in 1406-1400 BCE. Some even suggest that the Exodus was related to the expulsion of the Hyskos around 1570-1550 BCE.
What evidence is there that during the Late Bronze Age a substantial population or even some Western Semitic Asiatics traveled from Egypt to Palestine? Not much, actually. As one scholar has put it, “the simple fact remains: archeology can neither confirm not disconfirm the deliverance of a band of Asiatic slaves from Pharaoh’s mighty hand.” (William Brown, “An Update in the Search of Israel’s History,” in Bright, A History of Israel (Westminster John Knox 2000, 4th ed.) at 469-70.)
A ten foot high black granite slab known as the Merneptah Stele provides one clue, though. Currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the stele is engraved with a poem that celebrates a victory by Merneptah, once pharaoh of Egypt, over a group of invaders around the fifth year of his rule. Toward the end of the poem, while bragging of his military conquest and the destruction of his enemies, Merneptah says, in part: “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer, Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; . . . .” (See Sarna, above, at 11(emphasis supplied).) According to Sarna, Merneptah reigned over Egypt between 1224 and 1211 BCE. (Id.) All of this suggests that the purported events occurred around 1219 BCE, though some place Merneptah and the reported events ten to fifteen years nearer to our time.
The Merneptah stele contains the Egyptian determinative sign for people as well as for Israel suggesting that the reference is to Israel as a people rather than a nation or a settled land, but even that issue is not closed. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Israel along with the territories purportedly conquered by Merneptah suggests not only that Israel as a people existed, but also that Israel was sizable and strong enough to be considered worthy of mentioning as a defeated opponent. That, in turn, implies that Israel’s presence was not new, but extended over some meaningful duration.
All of that is less than precise, unfortunately, but the real importance of the Merneptah Stele to scholars was twofold: first, the stone marker was the earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel and, second, its existence put a maximum end date to the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt.
In 2001, Manfred Gorg, recently deceased but then a professor of Old Testament Theology and Egyptology at the University of Munich, published in German an analysis of a grey granite slab fragment he had recently found in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Designated item no. 21687, the slab is 18 inches high and 16 inches wide and appears to be a broken portion of statue pedestal. The slab contains a legend in hieroglyphics that Gorg has translated as saying : “one, who is falling on his feet . . . .” (van der Veen et al., “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah(sic)? . . .”)
Below the legend are the images of three individuals. With shoulder length hair, pointed beards, and headbands, the three individuals appear to be Western Semites. (See Biblical Archeology Review, “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” January/February 2012 (at 60.))
A name ring appears at chest level and below on each individual. Two of the three name rings appear to be clear and identify Ashkelon and Canaan. The third name ring is broken, but Gorg claimed to have reconstructed it, read it as sounding similar to Yishrael (or perhaps Yasharel) and interpreted the name as that of “Israel.” (See van der Veen, above, at 15.) Egyptologists split on Gorg’s analysis. For instance, Bryant Wood accepted this interpretation, but James Hoffmeier, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, did not. (See Id.)
Recently Peter van der Veen of the University of Mainz and Christopher Theis of the University of Heidelberg reviewed the Berlin Relief no. 21687 and, with Gorg, published their enhanced analysis in English. (See generally, van der Veen, above.) After a detailed inspection utilizing special lighting and other techniques, they believe that they are able to “safely” reconstruct the writing on the damaged slab. Moreover, they conclude that the name in the third ring is a name “that undoubtedly resembles the biblical name ‘Israel’ . . . .” (See Id. at 17-18.)
Having considered and dispensed with each of Hoffmeier’s several objections to this reading, including the difference between “s” and “sh,” what may or may not be a lamed or resh and whether the sculptor was consistent in his spelling, they then address whether the name found could refer to Biblical Israel. Noting the references to Ashkelon and Canaan, and their geographic proximity, van der Veen et al. ask rhetorically “what other name in the same general region would be so strikingly reminiscent of that of biblical Israel?” (Id. at 19.) Their answer is that there is “no linguistically feasible name” in any other known texts, so “‘Israel’ remains the most logical candidate.” (Id.)
But how old is the Berlin pedestal relief? van der Veen et al. tentatively ascribe a date for the slab to Ramesses II (around 1279-1212 BCE), a later date being deemed unlikely on linguistic grounds. (Id. at 20.) At the same time, they acknowledge that such a date “is by no means certain.” (Id.) Perhaps even more intriguing, they suggest that based on certain “archaic elements,” the names on the pedestal could have been “copied from an earlier source that could have had its origin during the first half of the Eighteenth Dynasty or perhaps earlier still . . . .” (Id. at 17.) Parenthetically, Sarna dates Ramesses (Rameses) II to 1290-1224 BCE. He puts the 18th Dynasty at 1552-1306 BCE. (See Sarna, above, at 8, 10.)
van der Veen et al. recognize that many scholars will have difficulty believing that Biblical Israel arrived in Palestine prior to Merneptah, especially as far back as the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty. (van der Veen, above, at 20.) Yet a migration “nearer the middle of the second millennium BCE” is what they say the evidence suggests. (Id. at 21.)
There is, of course, a lively debate about whether one or more actual migrations from Egypt might have occurred, when it or they might have occurred and how many individuals participated. What cannot be denied, however, is that the writing on the stone known as Berlin no. 21687 is more than a phrase. It is evidence. It may or may not be reliable evidence of the claimed military victories, but if van der Veen et al. are correct, it appears to be rock solid evidence of the existence of a people known as Israel and at a time earlier, possibly even 200 years earlier, than any other hard evidence had indicated.
Does this new information prove that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt over an extended period and left as Torah tells? No. It says nothing about whether one or more migrations occurred or who or how many participated in any such event. Nor does it say anything about whether any exodus was due to natural or supernatural causes. Does this new information prove that the Israelites emerged in Canaan by way of a military invasion and conquest from the desert, a relatively peaceful immigration perhaps reuniting formerly separated families, a rebellion among indigenous groups, a combination of the foregoing or in some other fashion? It does not do that either. So the Berlin artifact probably will not quell the dispute between the archeological minimalists and the maximalists, between those who would deny any exodus event because it did not occur precisely as the Bible says it did and those who would see the entire Biblical account vindicated if one buckle of one Bronze age shoe were ever found in the Wilderness of Zin.
But evidence matters, especially hard evidence. And this new evidence is more than a “drop in the bucket.” (See Is. 40:15.) Rather, than a “fly in the ointment” (see Eccles. 10:1), this Berlin pedestal should at the least cause everyone to reconsider when and how Israel as a people came to be. Maybe someday, we’ll even “see eye to eye.” (See Is. 52:8.)
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.