Jacob Wright: The Oldest Reference to Israel

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by Emory University
published on 22 May 2014

In 1896 Flinders Petrie discovered what is for many the most important achievement of his long and celebrated career as an archeologist. It is a large granite stela, over ten feet high, dating to 1208 BCE. This stone bears an account of how Egypt’s King Merneptah conquered his enemies in Libya and Canaan.

As the philologist helping Petrie at the excavations came over to decipher it, they stumbled with excitement on the name of a population that was listed among those whom the Egyptian king had vanquished:

Israel is wasted, its seed is no more.”

Today the inscription of the pharaoh Merneptah stands prominently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There millions of visitors have gazed upon it and searched for line 27 that contains, by a long shot, the oldest reference to the people of Israel ever discovered.

In one of the many ironies of history, Merneptah’s own legacy had been buried in the sands for thousands of years, while the people he claimed to vanquish survived and produced a collection of writings that exerted more influence than any other corpus of literature—the Bible.

This video is part of free online course taught by Dr. Jacob L. Wright. Entitled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” the course is offered through Coursera and the prestigious Emory University, which is world-renown for its graduate programs in Biblical Studies (the largest in the USA). It’s one of its first course offerings on religion and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

The course addresses the paramount question of the Bible’s raison d’être, its why and wherefore. The first two weeks treat the history and archaeology of ancient Israel, and the subsequent weeks examines how the biblical authors tell their history and interpret their past. Along the way, Wright conducts interviews with a number of leading biblical scholars and archaeologists.

The thesis of the course is that the Bible emerged in response to disaster and devastation. If it were not for cataclysmic loss -—if the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had continued to flourish-— there would be no Bible. Many of the Bible’s sources already existed long before the Babylonians razed Jerusalem to the ground. But there is significant gap between the original contours of these sources and the shape they are given by the biblical authors.

Defeat may have destroyed a state, but thanks to the vision of the biblical authors, it recreated a people.

In this sample lecture from Jacob Wright's upcoming Coursera class "The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future," Dr. Wright discusses the Merneptah Stele, which archaeologists believe contains the first documented reference of the name Israel in the historical record. For more, join his MOOC-based course at https://coursera.org/emory. The free class begins on May 26 and will run through the month of June. Late joiners are welcome.



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