The Oldest Reference to Israel

Explore ancient texts in a video lecture presented by Jacob L. Wright

In the first week of the free online course “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future” (see below for details), I examine the larger geopolitical context of Israel’s place on the “land bridge” connecting the centers of civilization. To initiate this discussion, I pose a basic question: Where do we find the first references to Israel outside the Bible?

One of the central themes of the course is defeat and the responses to it that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. Given the significance of defeat in the Bible, it’s remarkable that the first references to Israel, as well as the important places within its borders, are found in texts that pronounce curses or that declare that these people have been wiped out of existence.

The irony is that we didn’t know about these non-Biblical texts until archaeologists discovered them in recent times. In contrast, Israel survived. And one of the things that ensured its survival is a corpus of sacred writings — the Bible. It was transmitted from generation to generation for thousands of years, and in the process, it profoundly shaped both religious and political communities.

My course addresses the question: Why does the Bible have this extraordinary impact?


Click here to read Dr. Wright’s Bible History Daily post Why Do We Have a Bible?


The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

A new phenomenon is changing the public face of university education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). One of the leaders in the new realm of MOOC courses is Coursera, which reaches millions of students of all ages across the globe. This year Dr. Jacob L. Wright was selected to teach for Coursera one of its first courses on religion—and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Titled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future,” the course is offered through the prestigious Emory University, which is world-renowned for its graduate programs in Biblical Studies (the largest in the USA).

This new course on the Bible is free, and enrollment is open to everyone. Beginning May 26, it runs for six weeks. You can take it for credit and a diploma, or you can just watch the lectures at leisure and take the quizzes for fun, without anyone knowing how well you did—or didn’t do.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

WrightJacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. He is author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (De Gruyter) and two related works on the Bible’s most celebrated ruler: King David’s Reign Revisited (Aldina/Apple iBooks) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (Cambridge University Press). He is currently at work on an exciting new book on the Bible to be published by Simon & Schuster—Atria.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Video.

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12 Responses

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  1. GEORGE says

    The first written reference to Israel is by Meremptah, the son of Ramses II, dated approximately 1190 BC, 19th Dinasty king.

  2. Nathan says

    Why would it be in Thebes? How does Israel (Canaan) figure in to the migration of humans from Africa? How did Canaan become Canaan? It’s amazing to me how scholars will go to any extent to “justify” Israel.

  3. David says

    Nathan, the Merneptah stele is in Thebes because Thebes was a capital city of Egypt. Canaan was the name of the area of Israel and Jordan during the time when the Hyksos were in power in Egypt. The people who are now generally referred to as Phoenicians (because that is what later Greek historians called them) most likely thought of themselves as Canaanites. The praenomen of first king of dynasty 18, Seqenenre Tao is an apparent reference to Canaan. After the fall of the Hyksos, Canaan ceases to be called Canaan and the name for the area is known in the modern era largely because the bible records it.
    I suspect your last comment, about scholars justifying Israel, is based on some pretty extreme ignorance of what scholars do.
    This video, somewhat surprisingly, makes no mention of the recently published inscription mentioning Israel from the reign of Seti. In any case, it is safe to say that Israel was a well known and established entity by the 19th dynasty.

  4. jacob says

    Thanks David. Very well said!
    The reason I don’t mention the other inscription is because I, and many others, are not at all convinced that it mentions Israel. (I think you are thinking of this one, right? )

  5. Dani says

    Nathan, It is truly amazing how you were able to cram so much misinformation into four short sentences, and form an opinion in the form of questions.

    Kna’an does not equal Israel.
    It is a Semitic (specifically northwest Semitic – the Canaanite and Aramaic groups) name for the area what we term the Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean. Or what today we would consider extending from Turkey to Egypt.

    As David noted, most of the written documents that were available latter were in Greek, and they used the Greek translation of Kna’an which is Phoenicia. The name was derived from the red/scarlet color dye derived from the Murex snail. The name is also found in the red bird – Phoenix. In the Akkadian (northeastern Semitic) it was written as Kinahu.

    Israel, the Philistines and other Sea Peoples, the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites, settled in the Southern area of Kna’an. The northern areas remained as city states which collectively were called Kna’an, and the people Kna’ani, and spoke Kna’ani, which was closely related to the languages of the southern peoples (all mutually intelligible)

    David, Good response and outline. But the use of Kna’an (Canaan) continued long after the Hyksos.

    In the Bible the people were called by the city name Sons of Sidon or Tyre. But most outsiders referred to the whole area as Kna’an, and as noted the Geeks used the Greek translation – Phoenicia.

    Also, Carthage (karat h’adash (new city)) was founded in 800+ BC, by settlers from Tyre lead by Dido (Elishat or in Greek Alissa). The people of Carthage spoke Kna’ani. Their elected leaders or commanders e.g., Hanibaal, were called Suffet (shofet in Heb) – translated as Judges.
    St. Augustine (from Hippo which is today in Tunisa, not far from Carthage (which is within the municipal boundary of Tunis) in the 4th cent, CE, stated that the local people still referred to themselves as Kna’ani.

    BTW – The name Hanibaal is equal to John. Yehoh’anan in Hebrew is the Grace of Yeho(vah) and Hanibaal is the Grace of Baal (Lord), the “chief” Kna’ani God.

  6. David says

    Jacob, that is the inscription I was referring to. I understand there is some skepticism about the attribution, but consider it to be plausible enough to mention.

  7. jacob says

    Thanks David. I include a bit of extra reading on it for students in the course. By the way, my colleague Wolfgang Zwickel (Mainz) will be presenting a paper (in Vienna this summer) in favor of the reading.

  8. Rasmus says

    In reference to recent studies and books such as “Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic” by Cross it seems employing the Merneptah stele as evidence for the Israelite we know is a crime against society! There were at least a dozen tribes of Canaanites who could equally as well have employed “Israel”.

  9. Saul says

    Would you kindly name the dozen tribes. Thank you.

  10. Nathaniel says


    Do you have any more information on the paper that will be/was presented by Wolfgang Zwickel on this? A date perhaps, or when and where it may be available?


  11. Benjamin says

    All asked important questions, BUT after reading questions up here there are no answeres to them. My question is, the Merneptah Stele seperates Canaan from Israel, wheres Israel and where is Canaan?

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