Jim West says it’s not so! Well, he actually only brings into question the well-known line “the people of Israel, his seed is not.” He notes that while most accept the latter part of the line as hyperbole, the first part of the line is not accepted as hyperbole. One has to wonder how a name of a people can be considered hyperbole, but that’s another issue. He proposes taking a look at the line as perhaps not including any hyperbole at all. Just for fun, let’s look at the whole stele that way, without hyperbole or metaphor! Follow along at home, kids, with ANET 376-378!
So, in this reading, Merneptah is actually a big, strong bull, ruling Egypt under the god Horus. This bull struck nine bows (how weird is that?), and his name is repeated forever (by someone, how boring for him or her!). Furthermore, all the countries in the world knew about Merneptah, since his accomplishments were published in every land (even Antarctica!), apparently because he was such a pretty bull in battle! But he was also the sun itself! How mysterious! And he evaporated stormclouds from Egypt! What a useful bull-sun! Also, all the necks of the Egyptians were apparently stuck underneath a mountain of copper (I think someone on CNN said they found this mountain of copper, which makes this story TRUE!), which sounds quite awkward. The bull-sun Merneptah obligingly freed them from this uncomfortable predicament. One wonders, were their bodies sticking outward from the mountain or inward? (I expect there will be a monograph published by Brill on this!) Did you know the city of Memphis had a heart? Well it did, and the bull-sun Merneptah made it happy! Also, billions of people were unable to breathe before King Merneptah the bull-sun was seen by them! How utterly helpful! He also put eternal fear into the Meshwesh tribe, so that they would never attack Egypt again, like even about fifty years later in a coalition of tribes attacking lower Egypt! So there! And it goes on about the divine paternity of the bull-sun-king Merneptah, and his divine throne. Apparently there were several gods who clamored to be his father. How does one test for that? Did Egyptian gods have DNA? And there’s a little song at the end:
The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam 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 has been bound
by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt
So, although one wonders how the nine bows could have heads, none of them raised them. Also, Tehenu/Libya became completely desolate then (which must be why it’s a desert today!). The Hittite empire was at peace, contrary to any and all reports to the contrary! “The Canaan”, that is, the city of Gaza, was suddenly made a place without evil! Someone also picked up and carried the city Ashkelon away (where to, one wonders), and grabbed Gezer (ouch!), with, quite obviously, absolutely enormous hands. Yanoam ceased to exist, contrary to all reports and all archaeological discoveries. The people of Israel were all made skinny, I suppose, and they lost their one and only seed. Mrs. Hurru lost her dear husband Mr. Egypt (how sad!). And there was world peace, and all the people who just couldn’t sit still were tied up somehow by the handless but marvelous bull-sun-king Merneptah!
Ahem. So, I think we all actually recognize that hyperbole and metaphor are rife in the Merneptah stele, however fun it might be to read it otherwise. It is much more likely that in a document full of such hyperbole and metaphor that the statement “his seed is not” does not refer solely metaphorically to the elimination of all offspring and the potential to create more, or literally to the loss of a single particular seed that belonged to this people, but rather hyperbolically and metaphorically to the killing of a number of, or at the very least some kind of victory over the “people of Israel” in battle. The case may also be that, as being located in a part of Hurru/Canaan, these “people of Israel” may not have even fought Merneptah, but they were included in the hymn as further victorious hyperbole: “all the peoples of Hurru were conquered by His Majesty (l.p.h.)” etc, ad nauseam.
The issue of why this is not mentioned in the preserved documents from the Israelite side is perhaps no more than the silence of a shameful ignominious defeat. I would also suggest that such a battle, set during the period depicted in the book of Judges, simply didn’t fit the pattern [Israelite disobedience > Non-Israelite local oppressor > Israelite local deliverer > Israelite local peace] which is followed throughout the book. The overlordship of Egypt throughout the entire period of Judges is in fact never mentioned, but then neither are the later overlordships of Moab and Aram Damascus over the Gilead, and the early overlordship of Assyria over Israel in the wake of Qarqar. Yes, another possibility is that the documents were not written until such a much later time that all genuine historical data was long lost. But this latter solution presents no more a priori likelihood than the others. We can’t make assumptions on what battles should or shouldn’t be mentioned, since we don’t share the same worldview or mindset of the original authors of any of these documents. To do otherwise, to claim otherwise, is rank anachronism and eisegesis.
It is only the particular framework of the historiographic model that the reader is immersed in which determines the amount of trust we grant to a given ancient document (whether me, Ken Ristau, Jim West, Joe Cathey, or Keith Whitelam). Some of us, like myself, find more than less historical reminiscence in the biblical writings, while others find less than more. Each of us, because of our presuppositional foundations and experience (years of training? years of reading?), has our own deeply ingrained stance, which may find others’ to be either uncritical (“fundamentalist”) or poor scholarship (Rainey: “In conclusion, Davies’ book deserves to be forgotten” JAOS 115/1: p 103). Neither historiographic model is wrong, per se. They have their established foundations and support from respective philosophies of history. It’s best to keep that in mind, especially in such discussions as these, which need us all to focus on detail in the texts, the primary sources, rather than broad caricature, inuendo, or outright insult in secondary and tertiary sources, which furthers our fund of knowledge not one whit. It’s not so hard to approach these discussions in good humour, as I did above, rather than curmudgeonly dismissal or vituperation, which only raises hackles and begins the cycle all over again. So, while the bickering goes back and forth (“he said,” “well, he said,” “oh yeah, well he said”), no knowledge is advanced, the discussion remains at a standstill, and no one is even remotely charmed by wit, edified by excellent argumentation, or even slightly encouraged to pay attention any more. So, at least for the sake of attracting more and various interested parties to share in such studies, let’s recognize the validity of the discussion and save all snarkiness, if at all, then solely for meeting in person sometime, when tone of voice and kindness of eye belie the harshness of these words flung heedlessly and harmfully.