The Merneptah Stele is a victory inscription dedicated to a successful military campaign by Merneptah I (ruled 1213-1203 BCE), an Egyptian Pharaoh and son of Ramses II (ruled 1279 BCE – 1213 BCE; Ramses is the Pharaoh most commonly identified with the Exodus story in the Torah). The stele was discovered by the famed British Egyptologist Petrie in 1896.
The stele describes the military victories of Merneptah in Lybia and in the land of Israel, then known as Canaan. Alongside a number of rebelling city states, the stele mentions a victory over an ethnic group or people known as “Israel”, who according to the stele was “laid waste, he has no seed.” This statement is of course an exaggeration, typical of the statements of ancient kings who turned partial victories and even stalemates into complete successes.
The Merneptah stele is the first extra-Biblical written record of the existence of an ethnic group known as “Israel”, and as such is of great importance for the study of the historical roots of the Jewish people during a critical period of their national formation. It can be seen today in the Cairo Museum in Egypt.
For a recent attempt at a scholarly reconstruction of the events described in the Merneptah stele, see the following article by Prof. Israel Knohl of Hebrew University: