The Meerneptah Stele (Judges 8)

The Merneptah Stele is an inscribed stone discovered in Pharaoh Merneptah’s mortuary temple in Thebes, Egypt, in 1896 (Merneptah is sometimes spelled Merenptah). This monument is the earliest record of Israel outside the Bible and contains the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records. This reference occurs in a short selection describing a military campaign in Canaan conducted by Merneptah during the first few years of his reign, around 1210 B.C. It claims that “Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru is become a widow because if Egypt.”

As was often the case in ancient records, the text exaggerates Merneptah’s accomplishments. He did not in fact annihilate Israel as the stele implies. Israel’s mention in the list of city-states and nations supposedly defeated by this pharaoh attests that Israel was an important entity in Merneptah’s day – assuming that he would not have seen fit to boast about defeating an obscure or defenceless people group.

The real importance of the Merneptah Stele, however, is difficult to exaggerate:

  • It demonstrates that Israel was a recognized people in the land of Canaan in approximately 1200 B.C. This is important because some scholars today suggest that Israel did not even exist as a recognizable entity at this time. In the light of this contemporary witness to Israel’s existence, such a claim makes no sense.
  • It provides us with an outside boundry for fixing the date of the exodus and conquest. Some scholars postulate a very late date for the conquest – even as late as about 1150 B.C. in the Iron Age I. However, the stele indicates that Israel was already in the land and apparently well established. Although it does not totally rule it out, the stele also makes unlikely the more broadly accepted “late date” for the exodus and conquest (in the late thirteenth century).

 

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