Fighting the pharaohs

The enemies Israel fights today brings up memories, from 2,300 years ago.

pharaoh311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel faces heavy dangers. This is not news. The memory of the Egyptian invasion of Canaan 2,300 years ago, and of a Pharaonic admission of Israeli survival are most importrant. Too many “new” historians question the veracity of Israeli history.
One should actually be grateful to Pharaoh Merneptah for having made the memory of Israel’s humble beginnings an inseparable part of ancient Middle Eastern history. It was thoughtful of him to order his engravers to mark on his victory stela: “Israel is destroyed, his seed is not.” The “Israel Stela” is now in the Cairo Museum No.34025. It was found by archeologist W.M.F. Petrie in the ruins of Merneptah’s mortuary temple at Thebes, and was described by him in Six Temples of Thebes, London, 1897. There is also a duplicate fragment at the temple of Karnak.
In two scenes above the inscription, the Egyptian god Amon-Re extends a scimitar to Merneptah for use against “any foreign country.” Thus his god commissioned Pharaoh to undertake the bloody Canaanite invasion.
The text contains Merneptah’s hymn of victory first over the Libyans, and then over the rebels of Ascalon and other fortified Canaanite towns that had revolted against Egyptian rule in about 1230 BCE. The annihilation of Israel, apparently one of the still-wandering Canaanite tribes, was certainly one of the aims of the invading Egyptians.
Pharaoh Mer-ne-Ptah, whose secret name of power was Baenra Merynetjeru (1236-1223 BCE), the thirtieth son of Pharaoh Ramses II (“The Great”), was a middle-aged man by the time he succeeded his father. As soon as he became pharaoh – the nominal representative of the Egyptian gods – he began to build his mortuary temple at the edge of the Theban desert, as well as his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. He successfully conducted a lighting strike against the invading Nubians, supported by the Libyans, but this victory was hardly sufficient, in light of the great Egyptian military tradition. Another success, including the capture of slaves, goods, horses, camels and cattle was badly required.
The Egyptians regarded the battle against the Hittite empire at Kadesh, fought on the Orontes River in about 1300 BCE, as a great victory, even if historians today doubt the accuracy of such a claim. But after the war came to an indecisive end, and the Hittite ruler had offered his daughter Insofre to Ramses II in marriage, both sides could claim victory.
Thus Pharaoh Mer-ne-ptah of the Nineteenth Dynasty (or the beloved of the god Ptah, who according to Egyptian theology was both Nun, the abysmal waters and the creator of the god Atum, inventor of organs of thought and speech) in the fifth year of his rule as the king of Upper and Lower Egypt told his people that his god, Amon-Re had commissioned him to undertake a campaign against a foreign country. The purpose was to show Egypt’s might, make the land proud of the pharaoh’s personal courage, win respect and fear from the country’s neighbors and, above all, to plunder, enslave and murder all those who refused to pay their heavy tribute.
Merneptah scored his first triumph by repelling the Libyan invaders, who were assisted by groups of “Sea People” – the migrants who left their Greek islands and sought to establish themselves along the North African and Cananite shores. The Egyptians first defeated the Libyan mercenaries and their “Sea People” volunteers, who were captured and settled in Egyptian military camps to serve as soldiers. Then the mighty Egyptian army crossed the Sinai and entered Canaan with four large columns.
IN RECOGNITION of the terms of the Kadesh treaty, Merneptach took care to dispatch grain to the Hittites (who suffered from drought and famine), sought to assure them that they faced no danger, and promised he would protect and respect their Syrian possessions. He therefore had a free hand in reasserting his suzerainty both in Canaan and in certain important Syrian towns such as Tyre and Simira. Having quelled a bloody uprising in Gezer, the Egyptian army marched eastward, counting the slain by their severed hands or phalli, and impaling hundreds.
The Egyptians regarded Canaan as their most prized possession, and the front line of their eastern border. Two main roads, Via Maris and the Way of the Kings, ran through this territory and constituted a bridge connecting Egypt with Asia. The Egyptian policy was to keep the trade routes to Mesopotamia open, and to keep vassal rulers disunited and hostile, as documented in the Amarna archive, a contemporary collection of letters written by Canaanite vassals to their Egyptian rulers. In these letters the local rulers frequently complained about the wandering “Habiru” tribes that plundered their possessions, and pleaded for an armed intervention.
Egypt had also suffered from the trauma of the Hyksos invasion (ca.1725- 1575) when “Asiatics” overran the entire territory. It was therefore Egyptian policy to place strong garrisons at Gaza, Jaffa, Beth Shean and other Canaanite cities, where subsequent archeological excavations revealed a marked level of Egyptian occupation. But the Egyptian garrisons in turn suffered frequent invasions by the well-armed and independent tribes. It seems likely that Abraham with his 400 armed retainers represented such a fighting force. So did Essau and Jacob. But however strong these tribes might have been, they had to retreat before an overwhelmingly stronger Egyptian army.
Thus the expedition sought to destroy all opposition and secure glory as well as rich plunder. Merneptah was well aware of what his precedessor, the great Thut- Mose III, who laid the foundations of Egypt’s Asiatic empire in about 1468 BCE, brought home after a seven-month siege of Megiddo: Over 2,000 slaves (men, women and children), some 3,000 cattle, 349 living prisoners and 83 pairs of severed hands, 2,041 horses, 191 foals, six stallions and colts, one gold-covered chariot belonging to the prince of Megiddo, and 892 chariots of his army, one fine coat of mail also belonging to the prince, 200 leather coats of mail, 502 bows, seven silver-coated tent poles, and a tent. Merneptah felt he could do even better.
ONCE the successful expedition was over, it was the Chief Royal Scribe’s duty to describe it in a prominent sculpted stela.
In the final stanzas of Merneptach’s thanksgiving poem we read: Plundered is Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yoneam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow for Egypt! All lands together they are pacified Everyone who was restless, he had been bound By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Yoneam, an important town in northern Palestine, was razed to the ground. But Israel is the only name written in the determinative of the people rather than a place. Even Hurru, the biblical Horites, appear to be a tribe settled in one place, while Israel seems to be the name of a wandering group. The poem confirms that Israel suffered a devastating blow, that all it had was destroyed, but that it had escaped the final death blow.
Both pharaohs Ramses II and Merneptah of the XIX Egyptian Dynasty are reputed to have lived at the time of the Jews’ Egyptian enslavement and exodus, although there is no concrete evidence to support such a timeline.
Egyptian scribes and sculptors certainly wouldn’t waste their precious time to describe the escape of a multitude of slaves.
Mernepath’s song of glory was written in glowing terms for a single purpose: to serve the pharaoh and uphold his dynasty. The fact that some Israelis escaped the massacre is unprecedented in Egyptian historiography – an admission that borders on admiration of the enemy.
The Hebrews who escaped from Egypt were smart; they didn’t use the Via Maris, nor the King’s Way. They stayed in the Sinai desert, far from “civilization,” and became a functioning nation. However, the very fact that an Israeli tribe was still alive at the time of Mernepath’s Canaanite invasion in approximately 1119 BCE remains an event of historical significance.
Despite his “victory,” Merneptah’s tomb in the Valley of Kings was unfinished and robbed, and his mummy was discovered in the smaller Royal Cache, in the tomb of Amwenhotep II. Merneptah was succeeded by Seti II.
Egypt invaded Caanan several more times, and while there were bitter memories of such invasions, Israel succeeded in securing its existence.