Israel Before Merenptah?

Statue pedestal relief 21687 drawingPeter van der Veen, Christoffer Theis, and Manfred Görg have republished an abnormally interesting inscription on an artifact in the Berlin Egyptian Museum. I say “republication” because its been published a couple of time before, most recently by Manfred Görg himself. This time they not only republish it but address critics of Görg and other’s early publications. The inscription is on what is likely a fragmentary statue pedestal. It’s certainly fragmentary. The questions is, is it a statue pedestal? The most abnormally interesting thing about the inscription is the depiction of three Western Asiatic prisoners with name rings superimposed on each of them. The first two are rather clear and their readings are all but certain. The first reads Ashkelon and the other reads Canaan. And Statue pedestal relief 21687 restorationthe third reads . . . Well, using JSesh and a little help from Photoshop, I’ve redrawn the third one over there on the left. With no effort at reconstruction, the authors read i-[?]-š3-i-r. But as reconstructed to the right, they read i-3-š3-i-r and after a considerable orthographic and phonetic manipulation and discussion claim that, with the exception of the problematic sibilant, the “name . . . undoubtedly resembles the biblical name ‘Israel’ (Hebrew yśr’l). . .” They further argue that the “most logical candidate” for of the name is indeed the Israel of the Hebrew Bible.
Primarily based on spelling the conventions of “Ashkelon” and “Canaan” the authors suggest a date of no later than the reign of Ramses II for the artifact. They continue, 20, with a discussion of “Proto-Israelite Migrations Before Merenptah” and conclude,

How would this relate to the name I3-śr-il/Y3- śr –il on the Berlin relief? If the name refers to biblical Israel, and if it was located in Canaan (as seems to be indicated by its association with Ashkelon and Canaan), and if the names had been copied from an earlier source (supported by the archaic orthography of all three names on the slab), this would indeed suggest that Proto-Israelites had migrated to Canaan sometime nearer the middle of the second millenium bce. Naturally, this proposition will need to be supported by additional archaeological and epigraphic evidence.

While I find all this interesting, I rather expect that a people known as “Israel” would be in the neighborhood before Merenptah. If properly understood, this inscription provides uncontroversial supporting evidence for my expectation. Not everyone would agree with me.
But does it really say “Israel”? I am about to move way beyond my expertise. I am an amateur in several lines of inquiry but Egyptian is not among them. To even claim amateur status in things Egyptian would be to give real amateurs a bad name. In addition, Egyptian orthography when it comes to place names is a very specialized and complex sub discipline of which I know next to nothing. So beware. What follows may be nonsense. If so, please let me know it.
The authors discuss several of the orthographic and phonetic problems in getting from i-[?]-š3-i-r to I3-śr-il. Perhaps the biggest single problem is the reading of Vulture, vulture, from nothing but a beak and a claw. The authors actually make about as good a case for this as is possible from only a beak and a claw. While all of the required steps might bother some readers, only two others really worried me. The first is the use of 3 for /r/. The authors give several examples from topographic and personal names. For me and the authors, the more pressing problem is the š > ś sibilant problem. The authors, 19-20, go to great lengths to understand this issue. In the end, they are not themselves completely convinced, “We do not wish to downplay the complexity of the linguistic issues involved, which go beyond the scope of this article.” Still their argument is probabilistic and as such I really have no problem with their understanding. As they say, “No known location (especially so near to those two familiar geographical entities) has a name so reminiscent of the biblical name ‘Israel’.”
Under the rBut I have another problem, one they don’t address and that problem is with the last sign, the one just below the r. While I can’t be completely sure, they seem to take it to be a short vertical stroke like the one I used in the reproduction. This is very common group writing for r. The authors, 17, represent it as a small very narrow vertically oriented rectangle. But look at the picture to the left. While the break in the surface of the artifact runs almost directly through the sign, it appears to me that the sigh is neither a stroke nor a small rectangle. It appears to me to widen at the top; it has shape. If one looks at their reconstruction on page 18, the authors think it has some shape also. They show it widening at the top and maybe at the bottom. But if its not a stroke under an r, I have no idea what else it might be. I’ve devoted too much time to trying to find a name the ended in, for example, an papyrus stem(stem of a papyrus) or a pestle (pestle) and came up with nothing. So for now, Israel it is. But don’t say I didn’t try.
Via Jim West
Reference:

Peter van der Veen, Christoffer Theis, Manfred Görg, “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 216871,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, 2:4 (2010) 15–25

4 thoughts on “Israel Before Merenptah?”

  1. My eyes accept the stroke under the “r”. However I see another possible reading based on that beak and claw: i-w-š3-i-r.
    So I want to read either *Yašira or *Yušira but with the reed leaf between š3 and r, I can’t understand how a reading of Israel is phonetically plausible. Explain?

  2. Glen,
    As I indicated in the post, the way Egyptian scribes rendered names, and particularly foreign names, is complex and not one that I am well schooled in. I’ve email you the paper so you can see how van der Veen, Theis, and Görg explained it. They also offer a couple of suggestions for alternative readings of the largely missing sign. As to the i-r issue: remember the r/l is not phonemic in Egyptian and then think in terms of the Semitic god El.
    By the way, if anyone else wants the paper let me know. It is also available on the Biblical Studies list server cite and will be their for 30 days.

  3. “As to the i-r issue: remember the r/l is not phonemic in Egyptian and then think in terms of the Semitic god El.”
    Trust me, I’m fully aware of Egyptian phonology and have been collecting information on its proper vocalism for a while now. It intrigues me because of my fascination with the historical interactions between the Egyptians and the *Kaftiu ‘Minoans’.
    But your explanation is ignoring the motivation for the single stroke underneath the mouth sign. Normally, a mouth sign followed by a single stroke indicates that the sign is to be understood literally as ‘mouth’ which was pronounced *raˀ (> Sahidic ro). This isn’t too complex to understand really.
    Ergo, if we see the presence of the stroke in a foreign name, it would make anyone think that *-ra was intended, not *-r. (Plus the first syllable is equally problematic since “Israel” didn’t begin with *ya-.) When writing the cityname Kythera, the Egyptians likewise started the name off with the “two-arms-raised” symbol followed by a single stroke. This points to the word *kuˀ ‘soul’ and coincidentally the name of that city phonetically began with *Ku- in Mycenaean Greek. There seems to be a simple rebus principle at work here.

  4. Hold on… Actually I see in the article you cited to me that the equation of [reed]-[mouth]-[stroke] and Semitic ‘il- is taken for granted. So perhaps I’m correctly reading *-ira for Semitic *’ilu afterall.
    But come to think of it, I may be wrong about word-initial *y- being possible at this stage of Egyptian and it’s probably then to be read *ˀAsira, not *Yasira. (Consider how the reed leaf starts the word ˀanāk ‘I’ to write the initial glottal stop.) Ugh. You’re right. This is complicated and I’m just making it more complicated. I’ll shut up now. LOL!

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