Did pharaoh Merneptah know about the promise that God made to Abraham and his seed about the land of Canaan? The late scholar Frank Moore Cross said the following about the Merneptah Stele, with its inscription almost universally recognized as the first extra-Biblical reference to Israel:
“The Merneptah Stele is important, but it needs to be read with a critical perspective. Most of the stele contains hymns, or strophes of a long hymn, about the defeat of various groups of Libyans. The final hymn, or strophe, in which Israel is named, describes Merneptah’s conquests ranging from Hatti (the Hittite empire), Libya and the Sea Peoples to Canaan. Then there are claims at the end of the hymn that every single land is pacified, everyone who roams about is subdued, justifying John Wilson’s remark that the text is a poetic eulogy of a universally victorious pharaoh.”
The stele has been dated to the year 1207 BCE, and is attributed to the pharoah Merneptah. The word “Israel” is found in the quatrain (located as shown on the inset overlaid on the photo of the stele above) that has been interpreted as follows: “Ashkelon has been carried off; Gezer has been seized; Yanofam has been made into nothing, Israel is laid waste; his seed is not.”
Most of the scholarly discussion surrounding the mention of Israel on the stele has been related to efforts to date when the people of Israel inhabited the land of Canaan. If the stele was carved circa 1200 BCE, then that would mean that Israel (as a confederation of twelve tribes or in some other national form, scholars debate which) had existed as an identifiable entity in the land of Canaan for some time before the stele’s composition.
Note that this website maintains that the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan River as twelve tribes and entered the promised land of Canaan unified under the command of Joshua in 1,402 BCE.
However, apart from the chronology, there is another interesting aspect that should be considered. The mention of Israel and “his seed” perhaps indicates that the Egyptians had knowledge of the promise God had made to Abraham (a promise that was passed down to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel), that his seed that would inherit the promised land of Canaan forever. The promise was repeated to the Children of Israel as a nation before they entered the land.
“And the Lord said unto Abram … Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Genesis 13:14-15)
Since the stele is a boast of conquest, and thus of ownership of the conquered lands including the land possessed by Israel, it could be that pharaoh Merneptah was boasting that the promise the God of Israel had made to Abraham and his descendants was now nullified by the pharaoh, who was considered the earthly embodiment of the gods of Egypt. We, of course, know that was not the case. The promises made to Abraham and his seed are eternal. After all, the seed of Abraham (Jewish people) is alive in the promised land at this very moment, whereas Merneptah has long since been in his grave!