The Merneptah Stele

by David Wheeler

Merenptah Stele

Archaeology is a very helpful tool in establishing the existence of a place, ruler, or event. It becomes of increased interest to us when these discoveries shed light on a biblical place, figure, or event. The past three articles here have focused on those types of discoveries. The remains of the Hittite city of Hattusa confirms the existence of the Hittites, which the Bible records. The Kurkh Monoliths and Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III both record the outcome of battles at the end of the ninth century BC.

Some discoveries can enlighten us on chronologies where confusion may have reigned before. The Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage is one such event. Those interested in establishing a date for the Exodus have classically been divided between two dates: the mid-fifteenth century BC and the early twelfth century BC. Most scholars have taken the twelfth century BC date as the most likely. This is probably due to the name Raamses being used in the Bible. Exodus 1:11 says, “And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses.” A lesser-known verse in Genesis 47:11 says, “So Joseph settled his father and his brothers and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had ordered.”

The mention of Raamses, or Rameses, is evidence to some that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Ramesses II ruled Egypt from 1279-1213 BC according to scholars. If Moses was born in 1279 (the first year of Ramesses reign), then the year of Moses' flight to Midian would have been 1239 BC. After this, he would have stayed forty years in Midian then returned to Egypt to lead the people out of bondage. The year that the Exodus began would be 1199 BC, which would be after Ramesses II was dead. So, the twelfth century BC date for the Exodus is problematic if taken only because of the name “Raamses” being used in the Biblical text. The name must have either been used as a reference to some other ruler with this name. It may also have been called by these names as a descriptor of the area when the books were being written, i.e. they were called one thing during the days of the events and are now called Raamses.

Calculating a date for the Exodus is something that is possible from the biblical text. One clue is to look at I Kings 6:1, “Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.” This passage speaks of the building of the Temple in the days of Solomon but holds a clue by which the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt can be dated. The fourth year of Solomon’s reign was 480 years after the Exodus. Now we simply have to find a date for Solomon’s reign and count backward. According to scholars, King David ruled from 1010-970 BC. This means that Solomon would have ruled from 970-930 BC, with the fourth year of his reign being 966 BC. When 480 years are counted back from 966 BC, the year 1,446 BC is established as the year of the Exodus.

This brings us to the archaeological discovery of the day, the Merneptah Stele, which casts major doubt on the twelfth century BC date for the Exodus. Pharaoh Merneptah was the ruler of Egypt from 1213-1203 BC. He led Egypt in several battles against the people of the Levant. The Merneptah Stele lists the Egyptian victories. The lines of the stele in hieroglyphics read:

The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt. [Sparks]

In the stele, Israel is referred to alongside such nations as Libya, Hatti, Ashkelon, and Gezer. It is an established nation that has been “laid waste” by Egypt. Yet, according to the calculations at the outset, the Israelites would have exited Egypt in 1199 BC. Even if Ramsses II was taken to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and the Israelites exited Egypt in 1240 BC, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years which would have been just past the time of the conquering referred to in the Merneptah Stele. However, if we take the early date for the Exodus of 1446 BC, there is no problem. Merneptah would have “laid waste” to Israel sometime during the Judges.

The stele was discovered in 1896 at the city of Thebes by archaeologist Flinders Petrie. It is a granite slab with a height of about 10 feet. It is housed at the Egypt Museum in Cairo.

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