Many times I have told a classroom full of undergraduates, “I thank God every day for the Merneptah Stele.” They no doubt thought I was a strange duck, but this crazy claim didn’t help my reputation.
It’s not that I don’t like the other famous inscriptions that relate to biblical history. I remember one of my professors saying that there was no extrabiblical evidence for the “house of David” and then a few months later (in the summer of 1993), the Tel Dan Inscription was discovered. I appreciate the Black Obelisk which has a depiction of King Jehu bowing down and paying tribute to the Assyrian monarch. And I love to point out the Ketef Hinnom silver amulets in the Israel Museum as the earliest portions of Scripture ever found. But I don’t thank God every day for any of these.
The Merneptah Stele is a 10 feet- (3 m-) tall monumental inscription that records the victory hymn of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 BC). Most of the lengthy poem is about his campaign against Libyan tribes, but at the end he describes some victories in Canaan. One of the enemies he claims to have thoroughly obliterated is the people of Israel.
Merneptah’s boast has had the opposite effect: instead of destroying Israel, he has actually preserved the fact of their existence at that time. Everyone agrees that Israel existed sometime later, but without the Merneptah Stele, very few scholars would acknowledge that they existed at this time. In fact, it’s my opinion that even today, 114 years after the discovery of the Merneptah Stele, most scholars don’t properly account for this inscription in their reconstruction of the origin of the people of Israel.
That’s the point of my brief essay posted today at The Bible and Interpretation. I’d be gratified if you’d give it a read. Maybe I’m not as crazy to give thanks as my students thought.