Where did the Israelites come from?
“Who were the Semites in Egypt? Can they be regarded as Israelite in any meaningful sense? No mention of the name Israel has been found in any of the inscriptions or documents connected with the Hyksos period. Nor is it mentioned in later Egyptian inscriptions, or in an extensive fourteenth century BCE cuneiform archive found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, whose nearly four hundred letters describe in detail the social, political and demographic conditions in Canaan at that time.... the Israelites emerged only gradually as a distinct group in Canaan, beginning at the end of the thirteenth century BCE. There is no recognizable archaeological evidence of Israelite presence in Egypt immediately before that time.”
Dr. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (57)
“No archaeological traces can be attributed to the early Israelites in Canaan before the early Iron Age (after 1200 B.C.E.), and there is no evidence of a distinct population of early Israelites in Egypt. The area west of the Jordan River reveals an archaeological picture quite at odds with the biblical accounts of the Israelite journey to the Promised Land, and there is little to no evidence of the Conquest, as it is described in the book of Joshua, in the archaeological record of the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.) Canaan.”
Dr. Barbara J. Sivertsen, The Parting of the Sea (xiv)
“The elements making up Israel derived from Canaanite and Amorite stock, spoke a South Canaanite dialect, and preserved old North Mesopotamian traditions and Canaanite traditions rooted in the second millennium B.C. They did not emerge from the desert as newcomers to Canaanite culture, nor did they speak the language of North Arabia.”
Dr. Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (99)
“…Israel is a confederation of Hapiru tribes in the hill country of Canaan that formed the nation of Israel in the Iron Age. Originally, Abraham was part of an Amorite migration south into Canaan from Mesopotamia which continued down to Egypt, climaxing in the Hyksos rule….”
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, “Biblical Archaeology: The Date of the Exodus According to Ancient Writers”
WE HAVE SEEN that Moses and the Exodus as depicted in the Bible cannot be considered scientifically to be historical, despite a number of theories proposing to identify the patriarch and Israelites with known historical individuals and peoples, including and especially the Amoritish Hyksos. While there evidently were proto-Jerusalemites and proto-Israelites among them, however, the Hyksos expulsion does not explain satisfactorily the foundation of the Israelite nation, as portrayed in the Exodus tale. How exactly did the Israelites come into being? Who were they originally?
The term “Israel” can be found in pre-Hebraic Canaanite texts as a person’s name, in such forms as I-šar-il, Iš-ra-il and Išra'il, discovered in tablets from Ebla and Ugarit dating to the Bronze Age (4th–2nd millennia BCE).
The name “Israel” appears in pre-Israelite Semitic writings, including not only as a renowned charioteer, previously mentioned, but also in Amorite kings’ cylinder seals. This is another indication of the Amorite connection to the Israelites.
As a people and nation, we find no significant presence of an Israel until a century or more into the Iron Age (c. 1300–600 BCE). Archaeological evidence from the Canaanite hill settlements points to the emergence of Israel as a tribal ethnicity, although not by that name, around 1200 BCE, close to the time of the Philistines’ arrival on the coast, at the end of the Late Bronze Age destruction.
Jacob to Israel
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Genesis 32:28
The name “Israel” is encountered biblically in the story of Jacob, subsequently styled “Yisrael.” The moniker “Jacob,” meaning “supplanter,” is a common Amorite name, and the patriarch name means to be a “wandering Aramean,” a term used centuries in the future said to connote also an “Amorite.”
Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. Deuteronomy 26:5
Like Abraham, Isaac and others, Jacob too appears to have been a non-historical figure, possibly a deity such as Seth, the Egyptian usurper. Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt (Gen 46) could represent the time when Baal-Seth’s Hyksos followers lived in the Nile Delta, and the “patriarch’s” name change to “Israel” might indicate a later period when the god’s devotees were subordinated or converted to El as their high god.
God El Prevails
The word “Israel” itself is an indication of where some of the Israelites originated. Indeed, the name ישראל Yisra'el represents a combination of שרה sarah and ' אל el, to produce “Israel,” meaning “El prevails.”
Genesis 14:18 declares El to be the “most high God,” whose priest was the biblical character Melchizedek, also a supposed “high priest” of Yahweh.
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God [El]. Genesis 14:18
In this regard, Near Eastern studies professor and biblical scholar Dr. Mark S. Smith (1956) analyzes whether or not the Canaanite high god El, was the original deity of Israel and the Exodus event:
Because the name of the god El appears as the divine element in the name of Israel, it has been supposed that El was the original god of Israel. Some evidence may point to El as the god associated with the Exodus from Egypt in some early biblical tradition.
Canaanite text expert Gray comments that Israel’s focus on El continued into the time of the monarchs and that “we should emphasize the influence of the Canaanite ideology of Baal as King, as well as the sovereignty of El, in the new royal ideology in Israel under the House of David.”
Although apologists attempt to make the Israelites exist contemporaneously with the Ugaritians, Smith unhesitatingly states that the Ugaritians are the predecessors of the Isrealites. Contrary to the impression given by the Bible, in many ways the Israelites were very similar to their Canaanite forebears and neighbors.
Smith also asserts that the adoption of Yahweh as Israel’s sole or most dominant god was a long and gradual development, meaning that the Exodus tale on Mt. Sinai with its abrupt introduction of Yahweh as the head divinity is a total fiction. This contention is demonstrated additionally by the fact that Yahweh purportedly was introduced earlier to Abraham, who built the god an altar at Shechem;
6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
7 And the Lord [Yaweh] appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord [Yaweh], who appeared unto him. Gen 12:6–7
On all the many monuments and in the countless texts of Egypt, we find a purported mention of the word “Israel” only once, and this one reference does not validate the biblical tales of the Israelites, including the Exodus. The reference to a “Ysrir,” interpreted to be “Ysrael,” on a stele/stela by the pharaoh Merneptah (fl. 1213–1203 BCE) indicates this “foreign people” was devastated by the Egyptian leader during his fifth year in Canaan. The brief inscription (KRI IV, 19) has been rendered: “Israel is laid waste; its seed/grain is no more.” This one sentence has been enough for the seekers of historical validation for Israel to declare the Exodus as “historical fact.”
Fig. 39. Merneptah Stele, 13th cent. BCE. Cairo Museum
If Merneptah had the stele composed just a few decades after Israel supposedly escaped Egypt in an enormous and dramatic manner, following a tremendous decimation of the Egyptian nation, why would he not clarify his “Ysrir” with a comment? Surely, the entire country would be resounding with the name of Moses and Israel, if the Exodus truly had happened!
If the Hebrew slaves had been so involved in Egyptian daily life, doing much of the labor for the natives, including making the very bricks of their buildings, one would think that the pharaoh might indicate that highly important fact as well.
No Egyptian Text has any Exodus Events
In this Egyptian text, there exists no mention of any enslavement in Egypt of Moses and the chosen people, whether as bricklayers or otherwise. Merneptah says nothing about the plagues, the devastation of the nation, the taking of all the Egyptian wealth, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, or the destruction of the previous pharaoh and his army. All of this ruination purportedly had taken place during the previous decades, but Merneptah did not find it expedient to include one word of reference to it.
He did bring up the word “Israel.” Not “Israel, who destroyed our land,” nothing of the sort, just one ambiguous word.
A literal Exodus would have caused a vast repercussion throughout the entire Mediterranean world, dependent on Egypt for many things. No doubt, this pharaoh would brag proudly about how he destroyed the mighty nation that nearly had annihilated Egypt during the previous century! Yet, he did not, and if this mark does refer to the tribe of Israel, it refutes the Exodus account by virtue of its minimalist mention.
Jewish scholars such as Israeli archaeologist Dr. Ze’ev Herzog (b. 1941) contend that “there is no evidence in the archaeological record that Israel was a powerful force, whether at the time of the hieroglyph creation or at any other time during that general period.” In other words, there exists no evidence of the descendants of some two to three million people occupying Canaan for the past four decades plus, or for centuries, according to the myth.
‘His Seed is Not’
Regarding “Israel’s seed,” Noted Egyptologist Breasted contended that its context and the common use of the phrase “his grain is not” was applied in antiquity also to other peoples, meaning that ;
“the phrase cannot refer to an incident peculiar to the history of Israel, but that we have in it a conventional, stereotyped phrase, which could be and was applied to any conquered and plundered people. It indicates nothing more than the loss of their supplies of grain or produce incident to some defeat.”
People, Not Land
Despite efforts to identify this term “Ysrir” with known locations such as “Jezreel” and “Syria,” the hieroglyph indicates a “socio-ethnic” group or people, not a city-state or land, and the seed in the context of El may indicate not agriculture but procreation.
Semitic language specialist Dr. Anson Rainey demonstrates that the “seed” in the Merneptah hieroglyph refers not to crops but to offspring, as in the “seed of Abraham.” The slaughter of Israel’s progeny, nevertheless, does not reflect the biblical massacre of the firstborn, as some have surmised. Rather, destroying one’s seed or fruit has been a common expression in the eastern Mediterranean.
Fig. 40. Egyptian hieroglyphs on Merneptah stele transliterated as ‘Ysrir’
Rainey avers that the inscription denotes “Israel” as a widespread seminomadic people of the hill country: “The group thus designated might be living on the level of a village culture, or could be pastoralists still in the nomadic stage.” This nomadic group has been surmised to comprise the Shasu, discussed below.
‘Poetic Text,’ Not Israel?
However, the hieroglyphic stele is not accepted by all as proof of an Israelite people by this time. Finkelstein and Mazar call the Merneptah stele a “poetic text” and state that the purported mention of “Israel” as a “people” is “puzzling,” asking:
Was Israel at the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. a sizeable confederation of tribes posing a threat to an Egyptian empire that had ruled Canaan for almost three hundred years? And if so, where did this Israel live? The answers to these questions continue to be disputed. Revisionist scholars who do not accept the traditional reconstruction of the early history of Israel attempt to dismiss the reference to Israel in this text.
Since the personal name “Israel” already was present in Eblaite and Canaanite literature for centuries by Merneptah’s time, and since much Semitic language was known by Egyptians of that era, one wonders why the stele’s scribe appears so unfamiliar with the moniker as to spell it so obtusely. This oversight would be especially peculiar if the people using this name were considered troublesome and notorious enough to merit a record of their defeat. Surely the scribe(s) would have understood the name to mean “El Prevails” and would have rendered it properly in Egyptian. The sense is that the term on the stele is not the known Canaanite name of “Israel.”
In any event, there exists no other mention of Israel as an ethnicity, nation or land in the extant historical record until the 9th century BCE, with the Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone.
The Mesha Stele monument was set up around 850 by the Moabite king Mesha to commemorate the god Chemosh’s victory over Israel, which previously had subjugated Moab. This stele confirms the bitter feuding between these Amoritish peoples that continued into the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, leading to the Moabites as villains in the history-error laced Pentateuchal tales.
Early Israelite Religion
In addition to the religion of Yahweh, the Israelites—the northerners especially—were followers of El and other Canaanite deities, such as those of the Amoritish Babylonians. While the Shasus who settled the southern hill country may have been largely Yahwists, the northerners evidently were significantly Hapiru who were part of the Amoritish peoples, both Canaanite and Babylonian. Since the Bible claims the Amorites “dwell in the mountains” (Num 13:29), it would be sensible that they would follow El Shaddai, the “God of the mountain.”
It should be kept in mind that the Semitic Hyksos and Canaanites were influenced by Egypt in religious matters, and vice versa. Dating to the 12th to 14th centuries BCE, the Ugaritic texts found at Ras Shamra reveal that various biblical tales, doctrines and terminology had their precedent in Canaanite religion. The texts demonstrate that the writers of the Pentateuch, for one, were well aware of these legends, traditions and practices, evidence proving that the biblical texts were written centuries later, proscribing behavior practiced by Israelites who remained part of their original Canaanite clan.
In order to maintain the purported historicity and literalism of the Bible, some apologists claim that Yahweh inspired the Bible writers such as Moses to know all about the Canaanite religion beforehand, in order to prevent the “chosen” from falling into a trap and being seduced by this allegedly evil people. Apologists also hold up the Ugaritic texts as evidence of why Yahweh needed to exterminate the evil Canaanites by brutally conquering their lands through Joshua and the Israelites. As we know, however, there is no evidence that such a conquest ever occurred, and this apology rings not only hollow but also genocidal.
The facts all together indicate that the Israelites originally were practitioners of the Canaanite-Amorite religion and that the strongest proscriptions against their faith purportedly transpired during the reigns of the kings Hezekiah and Josiah, when Deuteronomy may have been composed.
While the words “Hebrew” and “Hapiru” may not be related etymologically, it seems that the tribes of Israel were drawn largely from the Semitic bedu, specifically the Shasu and Hapiru, along with others among the Amorites and Canaanites. The descriptions of the Hapiru and Shasu are similar to those of the Hyksos and Israelites, such as the supposedly historical material in the Bible that includes the rampaging through Canaan, slaughtering, pillaging and taking virgin girls as slaves. Of course, the scope to which these dastardly deeds has been inflated is not borne out by the archaeological or historical record, but in the Hapiru and Shasu portrayals we may find some of the historical material shaping the mythology in the Bible.
Eventually, the merged group moved into the southern part of Syria/Palestine, taking over Jerusalem. If the tribes who originally settled the north hill country were Canaanite followers of El, joined by Amoritish bedu and Babylonians, as well as Yahwists from the southeast, this fact would explain many characteristics of the Bible and Judaism.