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.
In the centuries after Merneptah’s death, the population of Israel went on to flourish. They built kingdoms that jockeyed for power with their neighbors. Eventually, these kingdoms were destroyed by the imperial armies of Assyria and Babylon. And in the wake of these destructions, the biblical authors collected the fragments of their pasts and produced what came to be known as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. These Scriptures have endured to the present, and in turn they preserved the communities that cherish these Scriptures.
But why did we inherit this Bible from the small defeated kingdoms of ancient Israel rather than from the ancient centers of civilization? This is a question to which I have long devoted my research and teaching, and it’s one that I treat in a free online course.
The massive states that once ruled ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt invented writing and produced many impressive works of literature. But we know today about their texts because we discovered them, thanks to the marvels of modern archeology.
Not so the Bible. The Scriptures from ancient Israel were preserved and have been handed down by Jews and Christians over generations.
Why is this case? And what accounts for the Bible’s continued impact, not only on religion, theology, and morality, but also on political identities -- on the way we think of ourselves as nations with divine callings?
Many scholars today claim that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament must have emerged at times when the centralized state was at its strongest, during the reigns of Israel’s and Judah’s most powerful kings, sometime before destruction and exile in 587 BCE.
I agree that the Hebrew Bible contains within it many ancient sources that date to the times of Israel's and Judah’s kings. Yet something else best accounts for its formation, its central themes, and its enduring impact.
In my research and teaching I show that the Bible in its present shape is a response to the defeat of these kings and to the destruction of the centralized states they ruled. A key feature is the attention the Bible gives to the people as a whole.
The biblical writers were working not at the centers of state power, but on the periphery and at the margins.
In many cases, they stand over against the state. The prophets pronounce the downfall of kings and the demise of the entire political order.
The important later biblical writings emerged in the wake of state destruction, as communities sought to reimagine new political, spiritual, and educational possibilities. In all these areas, the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the role of the people, rather than the state.
King Merneptah’s stone inscription celebrates his military exploits. The emphasis falls on what he has done. And when he was gone, the memory of Merneptah, as we would expect, was eventually consigned to oblivion. That we even know today about his triumph over Israel is due to Flinders Petrie’s pioneering work in archeology. (For more on this inscription, see the video here.)
Compare Merneptah’s stela to a triumphal monument preserved in the Bible: The Song of Deborah is an impressive ancient Hebrew poem in the Book of Judges, chapter 5, that celebrates a victory in battle. Here the victor is not an individual human ruler. It is instead Israel’s God and the people of Israel as whole.
Yes, individual figures lead the nation into battle. But the combatants are not soldiers conscripted by a king. They are instead average members of the population who, in response to rallying cry of “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), volunteer for service. Today we would call them “citizen-soldiers.”
So whereas the Merneptah monument is about individual glory and the power of the king, the Song of Deborah is about peoplehood and the power of collective participation by all members of the nation. The contrast could not be more obvious, and it relates directly to what I call the Bible’s “project of peoplehood.”
Dr. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University. His latest book is "David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory on King David". Follow him on Twitter@JacobLWright.