Dijkstra-Merneptah’s footnote

I read Meindert Dijkstra’s article “Origins of Israel Between History and Ideology”.

He accepts the common view today that Israel’s history writing is biased and of a late date. From this the minimalist school on Israel’s origins brackets out the biblical text and discovers minimal results through archeology and, sometimes, sociological models. But D. is not a minimalist either. He says it would be unwise to ignore the Bible. Even late sources have nuggets of truth and buried information. For an example, he sees the claim in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:6) that Canaan is a son of Ham along with Nubia and Punt as a reflection of the fact that Egypt dominated Canaan in the Bronze Age.

Thus he believes that if you use archeology and extra-biblical sources along with a critical reading of the Bible, you can partly restore the most ancient tradition about Israel’s origins.

The extra-biblical materials he turns to are the documents and monuments of ancient Egypt. You have to do a critical reading of these as well, because they reflect the royal ideology of the Pharaohs. Thus his title talks about Israel between history and ideology.

The most discussed Egyptian monument in this regard is the so-called Israel stele of Pharaoh Merneptah. Calling this inscription the Israel stele is a misnomer because it is actually all about the Merneptah’s war with Libya in the fifth year of his reign. The mention of Israel is just a footnote. But maximalist scholars have turned this Israel into one of Egypt’s major enemies, while minimalists have sometimes questioned whether the stele is even talking about the same Israel as the Bible.

D. goes another way. He tries to see the Merneptah stele in its context. First, it is part of the Karnak Temple and, particularly, the part that comes from Ramses II and his successors. The text is coupled with battle reliefs that are damaged and open to several interpretations. But if you are going to understand all this in context, you should note that the prime monument there is the one that records the peace treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites from about 1258 BCE. The decoration of the eastern interior wall of the Karnak temple came after Ramses’ death. It shows scenes from the Libyan war. It shows Merneptah slaying his enemies before the god Amun. That is where the Karnak version of Merneptah’s victory stele is. So the eastern wall served as a Libyan War Memorial.

Many scholars interested in Israel have interpreted some of the damaged reliefs there as showing a Merneptah campaign into Palestine. One of them does seem to be of a battle fought at Askelon, and Askelon is one of the places listed in the stele along with Israel and defeated by Mernephah. However, we can’t tell what the other reliefs depict. It is possible that the reliefs go back in time to show scenes from Ramses II’s more important campaign in Palestine. It is not as easy to see why Merneptah would put reliefs of a little side war into what is essentially a memorial for the major war with Libya.

Z. does see that there is enough evidence that Merneptah did send a punitive force north to secure the highway by the sea. But the evidence is that this was not a major war but a normal Egyptian operation to secure trade routes after other enemies had been defeated.

Merenptah outflanked the coastal settlements around Gaza and recaptured the crucial cities of Askelon and Gezer to secure the southern approach of the Via Maris and the junction of the road at Gezer to the Jordan Valley and beyond, turning them once more into Egyptian Highways. And then, somewhere in the margin ‘Israel’ appears, but it is clear that the confrontation with this ‘Israel’ had no lasting impact on Egyptian politics
and administration in the years to come of the 12th Century bce, as the actions of the Sea Peoples and the Shosu did. In the regions of Canaan dominated by the Egyptian government and their allies, that is outside the Highlands of Canaan, there was as yet no place for Israelite settlement or expansion (Dijkstra p. 58).

This is a very impressive exercise in reasoning about the Merneptah stele. Both maximilists and minimalists have, indeed, gone too far.

There is something we know from archeology that might fit in somewhere. Hazor, the most important city-state in the buffer region between Egyptian and Hittite territory, was burned a few years before Merneptah by people who defaced both Canaanite and Egyptian gods. We can’t know for sure if Merneptah’s punitive expedition had anything to do with this or if Israel had anything to do with the fall of Hazor. But I think it is an intriguing possibility.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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