To appreciate fully the significance of the unique altar and cult center we are excavating on Mt. Ebal, one must first understand the archaeological context in which these discoveries were made.
We found the altar and cult center, not in the course of excavating a tell, but in the course of conducting an archaeological survey. The recent history of archaeology in Israel and in adjacent lands has seen a slow movement away from the excavation of large, well-known tells in favor of surveys of larger geographic areas. A survey not only provides a comprehensive background of an area, but it also gives the 028archaeologist a broader understanding of individual sites discovered during the survey.
It would be difficult to find a better example to illustrate this than Mt. Ebal and the altar and cult center we found on it. To understand what we found, we must understand not only the site itself, but the mountain on which it was discovered and, indeed, how this mountain relates to the surrounding area in a particular time period.
An archaeological survey is conducted by surveyors who systematically walk over a defined area, so that trained eyes examine the surface of every square meter of land, slope after slope, ridge after ridge, field after field, searching for evidence of human occupation. All such evidence is carefully examined, recorded, mapped, and in the case of our survey, programmed into a computer. Sometimes limited excavation is undertaken at key sites. A survey is thus a slow, tedious process; paradoxically, it is at the same time exciting.
Our survey, which began in 1978, intends to cover the area allotted to the Israelite tribe of Manasseh. We expect to complete the survey by 1990.
Incidentally, the altar and cult center on Mt. Ebal have not been our only important discoveries. Another was Khirbet el Hammam, which has now been conclusively identified as ancient Narbata, where the First Jewish Revolt against Rome started in 66 A.D. And the city in the stratum just beneath Narbata has been identified as Arubboth, the third district capital of King Solomon (1 Kings 4:10). But this site will be the subject of another article. Let us return to Mt. Ebal.
Our survey of Mt. Ebal itself began in February 1980, nearly two years after we began our survey of Manasseh. Ebal is a huge mountain—about six and a half square miles (18 square kilometers)—in the southern part of 029Manasseh. It is also the highest mountain in northern Samaria, rising over 3,000 feet (940 meters) above sea level. From its peak, on a clear day, we could see the snows of Mt. Hermon in the north, the mountains of Gilead across the Jordan to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the hills surrounding Jerusalem to the south. Our survey of this mountain alone took nearly two months to complete.
Mt. Ebal, known from Deuteronomy, chapters 27 and 28, as the mountain where the curses were pronounced, is separated on the south from Mt. Gerizim, the mountain of the blessings, by the deep narrow valley of Shechem.
On a cool spring afternoon in April—April 6, 1980, to be exact—when we had nearly completed our survey of the mountain, we came upon a large heap of stones that was not very different from the thousands of stone heaps we had already found, collected by farmers as they cleared their fields for planting. True, this stone heap was somewhat larger than the typical one, but what really distinguished it was the great quantity of pottery sherds lying around it.
We were immediately able to date these sherds to the early part of the period archaeologists call Iron Age I (1220–1000 B.C.), the period during which the Israelites entered Canaan and settled there. Iron Age I also includes the period of the Judges.
Our survey of the territory of Manasseh proved very rich in the number of sites from Iron Age I. To date, we have discovered approximately 160 sites from this period. This was hardly surprising. The Bible tells us that Israel was really born here—in the central hill country and especially near the ancient city of Shechem (Genesis 11:31, 12:6; Joshua 24).
But Mt. Ebal itself was different. Except for the heap of stones mentioned above, there was not a single site from Iron Age I on Mt. Ebal. Here, amidst evidence of dense Iron I occupation in the hill country of Manasseh, in an 030area identified in the Bible with the new Israelite settlements, was a prominent mountain devoid of any Iron Age sites, except one—our heap of stones. We discovered more than ten other sites on Mt. Ebal, but none of these was occupied in the Iron Age.
It took us two years to raise funds to excavate the heap of stones, and to organize our expedition. But I must confess we did not rush, for we never dreamed that the site would prove to be the earliest and most complete Israelite cultic center ever discovered and the prototype of all later ones. It took us another two years and three seasons of digging to find out what we were really excavating.
The heap of stones was called El Burnat by the local fellahin. It means “the hat” in Arabic. It is located on the northeastern side of Mt. Ebal on a low, stony ridge, on the so-called second step of the mountain. The site is enclosed on three sides by beautiful little valleys, producing an amphitheater-like setting. Here, we began to dig with eight volunteers in September 1982.
We have completed four seasons of excavation; one in October 1982, two in 1983, and the last in the summer of 1984, and we now have a reasonably complete picture of the site.
The central feature of the site, found under the heap of stones, is a rectangular, nearly square structure. Today it stands to a height of almost nine feet. Since it is so beautifully preserved, we conclude that this is probably close to its original height. It is constructed of large, unhewn field stones. The outside measurements are 24.5 feet by 29.5 feet. Its walls are 5 feet (1.4 meters) thick.
Our first season, in October 1982, concentrated on 031this central structure. Our initial thought was that this was a farmhouse or perhaps a watchtower. But it was different in almost every respect from the farmhouse’s watchtowers we know from examples all over the country. When we reached the bottom of the structure, we immediately noticed that there was neither a floor nor an entrance. The walls were laid directly upon bedrock. Obviously, we were not dealing with a building that had been regularly lived in.
To explain the structure as a watchtower is even less satisfactory, because there is no reason for a watchtower to be here. Mt. Ebal has always been an obstacle to transportation. All transportation routes have avoided it. There is, thus, no road for a watchtower to observe. And there were no Iron Age settlements nearby.
The strangest feature of the structure was the filling, which, together with the structure, formed a kind of stage. When we excavated the fill within the structure, we found that it consisted of deliberately laid strata or layers of field stones, earth and ashes, one layer on top of the other. The earth and ashes contained pieces of pottery, all from Iron Age I, and animal bones. The ash was of different kinds of burnt wood, principally evergreen oak (Quercus Calliprinos).
Getting a little ahead of my story, I will tell you that the bones, which were found in such large quantities in the filling, were sent for analysis to the zoology department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bones proved to be from young male bulls, sheep, goats and fallow deer. Most of the bones had been burnt in open-flame fires of low temperature (200–600 degrees C.). Some of the bones were cut near the joints. The first chapter of Leviticus describes the animals that may be offered as sacrifices. A burnt offering must be a male without blemish (Leviticus 1:3). It may be a bull (Leviticus 1:5) or a sheep or a goat (Leviticus 1:10). The close match of the bones we found in the fill with this description in Leviticus 1 was a strong hint as to the nature of the structure we were excavating. Although fallow deer were not included in the Biblical description, they are a kosher animal that may be slaughtered and eaten, so it is possible that during the early stages of the Israelite religion, a fallow deer could also have served as an acceptable sacrifice.
But all this analysis of the bones actually occurred much later. At the end of our first season, when the winter rains began, and it turned cold on Mt. Ebal, we still had no idea what this mysterious structure was.
When we excavated under the fill, we found some curious stone-built installations. One installation consisted of a circle made of medium-sized field stones laid on bedrock and located at the exact geometric center of the structure. The outside diameter of the circle of stones was 0326.5 feet. The circle of stones was filled with a thin, yellowish material that we have not yet identified. On top of this yellowish layer was a thin layer of ash and animal bones.
This installation as well as the others inside the structure were clearly used in some fire-related activity before the structure was built. It is quite obvious, now, that the installations at the bottom of the structure represent an earlier phase, and the large structure itself represents a later phase—both from the same Iron I period.
Two cross-walls divide the structure. If these cross-walls extended further, they would meet and divide the structure in two. They are too short to meet, however. One of these short walls was built over the circle 033installation at the center of the structure.
Another curious discovery: two corners of the structure point precisely (within an error of less than one degree) to the north and the south; since the structure is rectangular, the other two corners point nearly but not exactly east and west.
Attached to the structure on the southwestern side were two adjacent, stone-paved courtyards. In each courtyard were stone-built installations, three in one and four in the other. Some of these installations were paved with crushed chalk. They contained either ashes and animal bones, or complete pottery vessels (jars, jugs, juglets and pyxides)—one or the other, but not both.
What at first glance appears to be a wall separating the two courtyards outside the rectangular structure actually rises from the far side up to the main structure at an incline of 22 degrees. This is in fact a ramp leading up to the stage on top of the main structure. This ramp is a bit over 3 feet wide and 23 feet long. It is made of medium-sized field stones. The highest point of the ramp indicates that the main structure was one layer of stones higher than its present elevation, rising to a height of approximately 10 feet. So both the ramp and the excellent state of preservation of the structure indicate it has been preserved to nearly its full original height.
This structure, together with its ramp and courtyards and adjacent area, is surrounded by a thin elliptical wall enclosing about 37,650 square feet (3,500 square meters). We refer to this wall as the temenos wall. (Temenos is a Greek word meaning “an enclosed sacred place.”) The temenos wall stands to a height of about one and a half feet and is made of small field stones. This wall is built on the edge of the slope. About seven feet west and down the slope from this wall is a retaining or revetment wall, which we now assume to be an earlier temenos wall, made of very large boulders. The space between the two walls is filled with field stones that support the later temenos wall.
During the last excavation season, we located the gateway through the temenos wall. It consists of two parallel walls perpendicular to the temenos wall, 23 feet apart. Three wide steps lead up the slope and through the gateway. The entrance is beautifully paved with large, flat stones, creating a very wide and precisely detailed processional entrance. No parallel to this entranceway has been found in Iron Age Israel. This beautiful entrance emphasizes the significance of Mt. Ebal as a sacred cultic center.
Within the temenos or sacred precinct but outside the main structure, we found different stone installations, in addition to those already described. They are mostly built of small flat stones and are arranged in three groups. In some we found pottery vessels but no ashes or trace of fire. Originally, the vessels probably contained some kind of offering. In other installations, we found ash and animal bones but no pottery.
A word about the pottery. In the past few years our knowledge of the pottery of this period in the area of Manasseh has increased greatly. We can now say with considerable confidence that the site on Mt. Ebal consists of two distinct levels, to which two very similar groups of pottery are related. The earlier level is from the second half of the 13th century B.C., and the later from the first half of the 12th century B.C. Much of the later pottery is uniquely adorned on its handles with a reed-hole decoration and a “man’s face” decoration. Both were discovered and studied during our survey in Manasseh, and now we consider these handles to be the clearest indication that the particular stratum in which they are found dates to the Israelite settlement period—especially in the territory of Manasseh.
About 70 percent of the pottery vessels are large collar-rim storage jars, which are known to have been the principal storage vessels of the newly settled Israelites. 035About 20 percent of the pottery vessels are jugs and chalices. The balance are small vessels, mostly votive, specially made by hand for ritual use. We found only a small quantity of common domestic pottery, such as cooking pots.
In retrospect it seems strange, but the truth is that the finds I have just described did not suggest to us that the structure itself was an altar. That insight came only toward the end of the third season. Up to that time we remained in the dark as to what our mysterious structure was. We looked for parallels by which to interpret it, but could find none; it seemed our structure was unique. Then the light dawned—in a flash.
I remember it vividly. It was a Thursday, the morning of October 13, 1983. A friend of mine, a young archaeologist named David Etam, visited the site, and I gave him a tour. I was explaining the site to him, especially the difficulty we were having understanding the function of the strange central structure that had been filled. David interrupted me: “Why don’t you think the opposite? Why don’t you think that the filling is the important part, rather than the building?”
For months we had been trying to understand the structure by thinking of the filling as secondary. We were concentrating on the outside structure. David’s insight stunned me. I grabbed a Bible and opened it to Exodus 27:8, which describes the portable Tabernacle altar the Israelites were commanded to build in the wilderness: “Make it hollow, with boards. As you were shown on the mountain, so shall it be made.”
Then I went to a Biblical encyclopedia and looked under “altar” and read as follows: “The Tabernacle altar is described as having four walls; it was filled with earth and stones to its full height. On this filling the fire was burned. This construction method is well-known from Assyrian altars. That is why the altar is described [in the Bible] as being ‘hollow with boards’ (Biblical Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 773 [Hebrew]).
Suddenly it all became clear: the filling and the structure were together one complete unit—an altar!
That evening, after a long day of excavating and washing pottery, I took a piece of paper and pencil and drew a rough sketch of what I thought the structure would have looked like, assuming it was an altar. I showed my sketch to one of the staff. He was dumbstruck. He ran from the room and soon returned with a Mishnah.a He opened the Mishnah to a passage in tractate Middot that minutely describes the Second Temple and surrounding structures. The particular edition he was using contained a drawing of the Second Temple altar as it was described in Middot. The drawing in the book was almost identical to the sketch I had drawn. Now it was I who was dumbstruck.
Beyond question, our site is a cultic center. The more than 50 installations containing either animal bones and ashes (the remains of sacrifices) or pottery vessels (which must have once contained offerings) seem irrefutable evidence of the cultic nature of the site. The special 038nature of the bones further supports this conclusion. The isolated location of the site on a prominent mountain further strengthens the case. But the most striking feature of the site is the central structure, which, it seems, must now be interpreted as an altar.
One curious feature of our structure provides well-nigh conclusive evidence that it is an altar. About three feet below the top of the altar is the top of a thin wall that encircles three sides of the altar, in effect creating a kind of ledge attached to the outer wall of the altar. As this ledge goes from the northwest side to the southwest side, it gradually widens from about two feet until it reaches a width of 7.5 feet. This ledge also curves around the corner formed by the intersection of the altar and the ramp and continues down one side of the ramp.
There is absolutely no functional explanation for this thin wall or ledge. Obviously it was not built to strengthen the main structure, whose walls are made of large stones. These walls of large stones were certainly not supported by a thin wall on the outside. Moreover, the archaeological evidence indicates that the thin wall was built at the same time as the thick inner wall against which it leans; the thin wall was not a later addition.
The puzzle of this thin wall or ledge was again solved by reference to the description of the Second Temple altar in tractate Middot of the Mishnah. According to this description, the square Second Temple altar had two ledges surrounding it. The base of the altar was 32 cubits wide. One cubit from the base, the altar narrowed to 30 cubits, leaving a two-cubit ledge around it, or as the Mishnah calls this ledge, a “surround.” Five cubits higher, the altar again narrowed to 28 cubits, leaving another two-cubit ledge or surround. The ledge created by the second narrowing curved around and down the ramp leading up to the altar. The Mishnah calls it a “small ramp,” made for the priest to ascend to the “surround.”
This is exactly what we have at our site, except that there is only one ledge or step instead of two. The step or ledge of our altar even curves around and goes down the ramp, thus creating a beautiful “small ramp” attached to the main one.
Of course, the Second Temple altar was built a thousand years or more after our altar, but it now seems beyond doubt that the Second Temple altar, as described in Middot, preserved ancient traditions of Israelite altar construction.
Although the Biblical description of the Tabernacle altar built by the Israelites in the wilderness is not absolutely clear on this point, there is a hint that it, too, was constructed with a narrower block set upon a wider base. The Bible speaks of this altar’s having a “ledge” (Exodus 27:5). Ezekiel’s description of the future Temple’s altar is clearer. It will have a number of ledges, creating a stepped tower (Ezekiel 43:14).
As early as 1920, the great American archaeologist William F. Albright suggested that the Israelite altar had a Mesopotamian origin, ultimately based on the well-known ziggurat, a huge multi-stepped temple that some have suggested is the model for the Tower of Babel. The Bible tells us that the Judean king Ahaz, in the latter part of the eighth century B.C., ordered a new altar to be built for the Jerusalem Temple, based on the plan of an altar he had seen in Damascus, where he had met the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 16:10–16). This, too, suggests Mesopotamian influence on the Israelite altar.
Sacred traditions tend to endure. The two ledges on the Second Temple altar as described in the Mishnah may well preserve a very ancient tradition. And the ledge surrounding much of our altar on Mt. Ebal may also reflect this tradition of the Mesopotamian altar built up with ledges.
Yet another detail of our altar suggests its Mesopotamian roots. The four corners of our altar point north, south, east and west. In Mesopotamia, all sacred structures were oriented so that each corner was directed to a point on the compass. By contrast, the Second Temple was oriented so that its sides, not its corners, faced the four directions of the compass. The Temple altar had this same orientation. We are not told the orientation of the First Temple—Solomon’s Temple—but it, too, probably faced east. The altar associated with Solomon’s Temple doubtless followed the same orientation as the Temple itself. Why this difference in orientation between our Mt. Ebal altar and the Temple altars? Perhaps altars associated with temples were oriented differently from open-air altars not associated with temples. Other explanations, however, are also possible.
At this point, it may be instructive to consider what we know about altars from the Bible and how our altar illuminates or is illuminated by these passages.
Altars are frequently mentioned in the Bible. There are two principal types: the small incense altar and the large altar for burnt offerings. Archaeologists have uncovered many incense altars. Each is square, carved from a single stone and small—never measuring more than about a foot and a half in any direction. A depression on the top held the burning incense presumably used in the temple. Some incense altars have horns at the upper corners; others do not.
The burnt offering altar was much larger and was used for animal sacrifices. Animal sacrifice was at the core of Israelite cultic activity. Comparatively few burnt offering altars have been found in archaeological excavations in Israel, however. As we shall see, our Mt. Ebal altar is one of only three Israelite burnt offering altars ever discovered, and of these ours is both the oldest and the most complete.
There seem to have been two kinds of burnt offering altars—one associated with a temple where, in the Near Eastern religious purview, God dwelled. The other might be called an independent burnt offering altar, because it was not associated with a temple.
Although the subject is not free from controversy, it appears that the independent altar is part of what the Bible describes as a bamah or high place, probably an open-air cultic center where sacrifices were offered. For example, in 1 Kings 3:4, we learn that King Solomon went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place (bamah); on that altar Solomon presented a thousand burnt offerings. There God appeared to Solomon in a dream.
If this analysis is correct, our Mt. Ebal altar is an independent altar (not associated with a temple), the central structure in a bamah.
It might be helpful briefly to place our altar in a general context of ancient Near Eastern altars that have been found throughout the region—in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Anatolia, Greece, Cyprus and the Aegean Islands. In Israel, altars have been found from the Early Bronze Age (3150–2200 B.C.) to the late Iron Age (800–586 B.C.). From the Bronze Age, altars have been found at Megiddo, Shechem, Hazor and Nahariya. From the Iron Age, a Philistine altar was found at Tel Qasile, and Israelite altars were discovered at Tel Arad and Beer-Sheva.
From this very considerable archaeological material, we get some idea of what ancient altars were like, but only a partial idea as to the form of an Israelite altar. In general, Near Eastern burnt offering altars, like our Mt. Ebal altar, are square or rectangular structures of considerable size. They are built of worked and squared ashlar blocks. Sometimes they have horns at the upper corners (as at Beer-Sheva and Kition in Cyprus), and sometimes they do not (as at Arad).
Altars were ascended by stairs—at least this is true in cases where the means of ascent have been preserved. Unfortunately, until now, no ascent to an Israelite altar has been discovered in a preserved state, but the ramp on our Mt. Ebal altar indicates a strict adherence to the law in Exodus 20:26, which requires a ramp rather than steps.
In many cases, Near Eastern altars are stepped; that is, they are built in square or rectangular layers, each one higher and smaller than the one beneath. This is especially the case in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria.
Some altars, like ours, have outer stone frames and are filled on the inside with earth or pebbles. This is true of altars in Greece and Assyria, and it may also be true of the Israelite altar at Arad. We cannot be sure about the Arad 040altar because a section has never been cut through it that would reveal what lies inside the outer stone frame.
The size of ancient Near Eastern altars varies from about 3 feet on a side (Alalakh) to about 20 feet on a side (temple 2A at Shechem). It is difficult to tell their original heights because they are not usually well preserved. Before our altar was discovered, the height of the highest preserved altar was about five feet.
Our altar fits well within the pattern established by these other altars, although it is the best preserved and stands almost to its original height (ten feet). Our altar apparently did not have horns, or they were not preserved.
Every other ancient altar that has been discovered thus far, however, was connected with a temple, or as at Beer-Sheva, was in a city where we may suppose a temple existed in connection with the altar (2 Kings 23:8). With the possible exception noted below,b our altar alone seems to have been an independent altar in the countryside, not associated with a temple or a settlement. This is probably because the Mt. Ebal altar and its associated cult site were built at a very early period in the development of Israelite cult and religion; at that time, there was no temple. Moreover, the Mt. Ebal cult center lasted for only a relatively short time. It is unlikely that a temple could develop in such a short time. Even at Shiloh, which was the site of the successor to the Mt. Ebal cult center, no temple was built.
It may be interesting to compare the size of our altar to other altars mentioned in the Bible—the Tabernacle altar in the wilderness, the altar in Solomon’s Temple, and the altar associated with Ezekiel’s future Temple. As the table shows, the Tabernacle altar was much smaller than the other two; the Mt. Ebal altar is closer to the larger ones.
While the Biblical altars are all square, ours is slightly rectangular. Many other Near Eastern altars are rectangular, and it may be that independent Israelite altars not associated with temples were rectangular rather than square.
The Bible makes it clear that there were many independent Israelite altars. During the religious reforms of King Hezekiah (eighth century B.C.) and King Josiah (seventh century B.C.), these outlying ritual centers were suppressed and destroyed, in order to centralize the cult in Jerusalem.
In terms of height, and in terms of width and length, our altar is closer to the altar in Solomon’s Temple and in Ezekiel’s visionary Temple than to the Tabernacle altar.
Incidentally, the Second Temple altar was much larger than all these altars. Although slightly different figures are given for the Second Temple altar in the various sources—the Mishnah, Josephus, and the newly published Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea caves—all agree that it was much larger than the altars described in the Bible.
After discussing all these technical data, important as they are, and proving that we are dealing here with a 041burnt offering altar in an Israelite cult center, we come now to the most intriguing question: Is this altar related to the Biblical traditions which describe Joshua’s building of an altar on Mt. Ebal?
The building of an altar on Mt. Ebal is described in two places in the Bible, once in Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are commanded to build the altar after they pass into the Promised Land, and again in the book of Joshua, when the altar is actually built.
In Deuteronomy 27:1–10, Moses, in some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring words in the Bible, commands the people to build the altar:
Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. And on the day you pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall set up large stones, and plaster them with plaster; and you shall write upon them all the words of this law, when you pass over to enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have passed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you this day, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall lift up no iron tool upon them. You shall build an altar to the Lord your God of unhewn stones; and you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings, and shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” And Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the nation of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you this day.”
With this commandment, Israel has become the people of the Lord.
The ceremony on Mt. Ebal is described in Joshua 8:30–35:
Then Joshua built an altar in Mount Ebal to the Lord, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man has lifted an iron tool”; and they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as homeborn, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
In Deuteronomy 27:11–13, we are told that half the tribes are to stand on Mt. Gerizim for the blessing of the people, and half on Mt. Ebal for the curses. The curses are recited in Deuteronomy 27:14–26; then in Deuteronomy 28:1–14 come the blessings, followed by additional curses in Deuteronomy 28:15–68.
If the people follow the Lord’s commandments, they will be blessed; if not, they will be cursed. As foretold in Deuteronomy 11:22–29,
If you diligently keep all these commandments that I now charge you to observe, by loving the Lord your God, by conforming to his ways and by holding fast to him, the Lord will drive out all these nations before you and you shall occupy the territory of nations greater and more powerful than you. Every place where you set the soles of your feet shall be yours. Your borders shall run from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No man will be able to withstand you; the Lord your God will put the fear and dread of you upon the whole land on which you set foot, as he promised you. Understand that this day I offer you the choice of a blessing and a curse. The blessing will come if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God which I give you this day and the curse if you do not listen to the commandments of the Lord your God but turn aside from the way that I command you this day and follow other gods whom you do not know. When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to occupy, there on Mount Gerizim you shall pronounce the blessing and on Mount Ebal the curse.
After these references to Mt. Ebal, the name Ebal is never mentioned again in the entire Bible.
A question may arise concerning the identification of our Mt. Ebal altar with the one described in the Bible because our altar is not on the very peak of Mt. Ebal. Mt. Ebal descends in what may be described as four very wide terraces or steps. Our altar is on the second step from the 043top. Moreover, Mt. Gerizim cannot be seen from our site.
On the other hand, the Bible itself hints that Joshua’s altar was not built at the top of the mountain. In Joshua 8:30, we read that Joshua built the altar b-Mt. Ebal. The Hebrew letter beth (pronounced “b”) usually means “in” rather than “on top of.” This might suggest that the altar was not built on the top of Mt. Ebal. In Deuteronomy 27:4, where the instructions are given to build the Mt. Ebal altar, we find the same verbal construction, with a beth.
By contrast, in Deuteronomy 11:29, where the instructions for pronouncing the curses are given, we are told that they are to be pronounced al Mt. Ebal, that is, on Mt. Ebal.
For a Biblical archaeologist, a comparison between the Bible and archaeological finds is always inspiring, but like a mine field as well. Is the cultic center altar unearthed by us on Mt. Ebal the one mentioned in the Bible? How can one judge such a fundamental issue? What criteria should we use for such a judgment?
The main problem, I suppose, is that archaeology has not always corroborated the Biblical stories of Joshua’s time. At Jericho, Ai, Arad, and other sites, archaeology does not corroborate what the Bible tells us. No evidence from the period of Joshua has been found at these sites.
With respect to the Mt. Ebal altar, however, all the scientific evidence fits very well with the Biblical description. The three main factors that correlate precisely are the period, the nature of the site, and the location. True, no inscriptions have been found as yet. But apart from that one point, it may be said with all scientific restraint that there must be a connection between the strong, important and authentic Biblical tradition that identifies Mt. Ebal as a central Israelite cultic center and the gathering place of the Israelite tribes, on the one hand, and the site unearthed by us, on the other. There are still debates about most of the issues: Who was Joshua? When did the Israelite tribes enter the Land? Did they enter from the east, as the Bible states?
But this rare case, where Biblical tradition and concrete archaeological evidence coincide, cannot be ignored. We have on Mt. Ebal not only the complete prototype of an Israelite altar, but moreover, a site that might prove to be directly related to the Biblical traditions concerning Joshua’s building of an altar on Mt. Ebal.
We have a few more seasons of work at least before any further conclusions can be drawn. Certainty as yet eludes us; all the evidence has still not been analyzed. For the moment, we leave the reader to reach his or her own conclusion. As scientists, we must say that the case has not yet been proven.
To appreciate fully the significance of the unique altar and cult center we are excavating on Mt. Ebal, one must first understand the archaeological context in which these discoveries were made. We found the altar and cult center, not in the course of excavating a tell, but in the course of conducting an archaeological survey. The recent history of archaeology in Israel and in adjacent lands has seen a slow movement away from the excavation of large, well-known tells in favor of surveys of larger geographic areas. A survey not only provides a comprehensive background of an area, but […]