I vividly remember a hot day in late October 1982—October 27, to be exact—when, with two other archaeologists, I first visited Adam Zertal’s excavation on Mt. Ebal. Even then, during the first season of excavation, rumors had spread that Zertal had found “Joshua’s altar.” It seems that from the beginning Zertal really thought he had discovered “Joshua’s altar.” By the time we visited the site, notices had already appeared in the Israeli daily press that the altar that Joshua had built on Mt. Ebal, according to Joshua 8:30–35, was being excavated.
As wea climbed to the isolated excavation area on the ridge of a terrace far from any road or track, Zertal explained to us how he had come to the site. He was conducting an archaeological survey for his Ph.D. dissertation under the direction of Professor Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University. In the course of the survey, Zertal had found a square structure, about 25 feet by 25 feet. Zertal described the wall surrounding the square structure as a temenosb wall, thus implying the cultic nature of the site. Some Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.) pottery sherds suggested that the square structure dated to the period of the Israelite settlement in Canaan.c
When we arrived at the site and walked around it, it appeared to us to be the remains of a small settlement enclosed by a wall. In the center of the village was the major structure—a building or the base of a tower. Zertal had already identified this structure as an “altar.” Only half of it had been excavated at the time. A large collar-rim pithos, or storage jar, typical of the Israelite settlement period, appeared sunk into the floor inside the structure. This pithos was resting against a small, thin wall.
After visiting a newly excavated site, I usually write for my own files a short report with some sketches of what I saw, since it often takes years before anything is published. This habit sometimes proves very useful, and it certainly did in this case, for I drew the pithos in situ. In the report published in BAR, nothing is mentioned about this pithos inside the structure.d One would hardly expect to find a whole storage jar inside an altar—if it were an altar!
When we looked at a vertical section inside the half-excavated structure—that is, at a vertical wall of unexcavated strata that preserved the history of the fill inside the structure—we did not see what Zertal would later describe in BAR as “deliberately laid strata … of stones, earth and ashes.” As a matter of fact, the “fill” inside the structure looked more like the normal debris or remains usually found after a building has been destroyed.
My impression, looking at the structure, was that it had two rooms, with storage installations in each room at opposite corners.
Now having read Zertal’s account in BAR, and after re-reading my notes, I am more than ever convinced that what Zertal found on Mt. Ebal is simply a three-phase village from Iron Age I, the so-called Israelite settlement period. These three-phase villages are not at all rare during Iron Age I; on the contrary, they are quite common between about 1230 and 1000 B.C.
To describe the three phases of this settlement, I have simply taken apart the drawing that appears in Zertal’s BAR article, dividing it into the three phases. These three phases are shown in the drawings in the sidebar “Kempinski Takes the ‘Altar’ Apart.”
In the first phase of the settlement, seminomadic peasants occupied the site. They lived in tents or huts. Few architectural remains from these structures have survived. The principal occupational remains are pits, bins and small installations.
In the second phase, more stable habitation units were built. At this time, a two-room or perhaps a three-room house was built in the center of the settlement (the part shown in blue on Zertal’s plan). The settlement was also enclosed with a wall at this time. (A similar wall enclosed a similar ancient settlement recently excavated by Amihai Mazar at Giloh, two miles south of Jerusalem.)
The third phase of the settlement followed the destruction of phase 2, perhaps by the Canaanites from nearby Shechem or possibly by the Philistines who invaded the area in about 1070 B.C. Or was this phase destroyed in an Israelite intertribal clash? In any event, the phase 2 settlement was destroyed, thus demonstrating the need to improve security with a watchtower. In phase 3, a watchtower was built; debris was probably added to the inside of the phase 2 building to create a podium for the watchtower—a common feature of Iron Age watchtowers as, for example, at Giloh.e The remains of the phase 2 building were also used for the courtyard of the watchtower.
This phase 3 structure is what Zertal identified as an altar!
Phases (or strata) similar to phase 1 and 2 at Mt. Ebal are very well attested at most of the tribal settlements from this period. This pattern was recently found at the Israelite settlement of Izbet Sartah (strata 3 and 2, 045described several years ago in BARf) The same pattern has also been found at other excavations, such as Hazor (strata XII and XI), Tell Beit Mirsim (strata B3 and B2), and Tell Masos (strata IIIB and IIIA–II), an excavation I directed in the Negev.g
Zertal relies on the fact that his Mt. Ebal site is the “only settlement on Mt. Ebal of that period” when he suggests that he has found a cult site with a huge central altar. But there is nothing unusual about the existence of a single settlement on Mt. Ebal. Zertal found ten settlements from other periods on Mt. Ebal spread over many centuries. Since he does not specify to which periods these other settlements belong, his comparison (ten against one) is useless. Are there other periods when there was only one settlement on Mt. Ebal? Or two? Even today, most of Mt. Ebal serves as an agricultural or herding area for Arab peasants. A single settlement in such an area should not be surprising.
As for the tower in phase 3, we have an almost identical example at Giloh. After the Giloh settlement was enclosed with a protective wall and houses were built adjacent to the wall, a tower was built on a filled rampart. Still later, during Iron Age II, another tower was built nearby.
Once we understand this general settlement pattern, it becomes easy to explain most of the so-called cultic features Zertal claims to have found. In fact, they can be explained in very simple, secular terms. I will discuss here only the most outstanding cultic features.
Zertal sees a ramp leading up to the “altar.” In this perception, he relies on a Mishnaic interpretation of Exodus 20:23 (20:26 in Hebrew). In the Biblical verse God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites, “Do not ascend My altar by steps (ma‘alot), that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” Whether or not ma‘alot means steps is unclear from the Biblical text alone. More than a thousand years later, during the time when the Mishnahh was written (c. 200 A.D.), this verse was interpreted to require a ramp instead of steps. But, in fact, during the First Temple period, steps led up to temple altars.i For example, steps lead up to the altar at Tel Danj and extend along the altar’s entire width.
But Zertal’s architectural evidence does not qualify as either steps or a ramp. His “ramp” is slightly over three feet wide. This would be a dangerous passageway whether a ramp or steps. Imagine climbing up to the altar by so narrow a passage, especially if one was taking a sheep, goat or cow up with him.
In fact, Zertal’s ramp is nothing more than a wall of a room or courtyard that slopes down the hill. The remains of this wall slope down from the tower wall because the maximum height was preserved nearest the tower wall; the closer the wall was to the tower wall, the more it was protected by the debris from the destroyed tower. This is a common phenomenon in archaeological excavations. Indeed, in the picture in Zertal’s BAR article, one can see that the part of the wall (Zertal’s “ramp”) closer to the tower wall has a yellowish color. The debris from the destroyed tower covered and preserved this part of the wall to nearly its original height and preserved its color as well. The part of the wall (Zertal’s “ramp”) further from the tower wall is mostly whitish because it was exposed even before the excavation began and therefore had been eroding over the centuries, creating, for Zertal, the appearance of a ramp. Because the wall originally was built down a slope, it eroded more as it extended down the slope. This wall is most assuredly not a three-foot-wide ramp.
Next let us look at Zertal’s “cultic installations.” According to Zertal, there were round cultic installations under his “altar.” I am ready to suppose there was cultic activity here before the building and the tower were constructed. Such cultic activity would hardly be surprising. Evidence of cultic activities in Iron Age I was found in the cult room at Ai and at the so-called bull site 048recently excavated by Amihai Mazar.k In our excavation at Tell Masos, we also found buildings where cultic activities had occurred. Almost every Iron Age I settlement has one or more cultic installations. But the discovery of pits in which cultic activities took place—such as on Mt. Ebal—is not proof that Joshua’s altar was built on top of the pits.
What about the fill in the structure Zertal interprets as an altar? As I already mentioned, this fill appeared to me to be simply destruction debris from the destroyed watchtower. Or it could have been fill deliberately laid to create a surface or podium on which to build the tower in a later period.
Finally, there are problems with the osteological evidence—the bones that Zertal found and that he claims support his interpretation. These bones came from bulls, sheep, goats and fallow deer—all kosher animals and, except for the deer, animals mentioned in the Bible as appropriate for burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:5, 10). If Zertal were to excavate modern rubbish pits from nearby Nablus, he would find the same osteological material. Pigs—an unkosher animal—would not be expected either in Nablus or in the central mountain ridge of Canaan during the settlement period. The fallow deer bones Zertal found show that the excavated bones simply reflect the faunal conditions in the area and the diet of the people involved. How did this osteological material get inside the tower’s base? It was either part of the destruction debris when the tower was destroyed, or it may have been placed there as part of the fill for a later construction phase.
In short, there is no basis whatever for interpreting this structure as an altar.
No doubt Zertal was led to his mistaken identification by an uncritical reading of the Bible. He accepted literally the passages in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 that supposedly describe an altar on Mt. Ebal. Actually, the earliest version of the text probably placed the altar on nearby Mt. Gerizim, which is where the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch places it.
On March 31, 1984, Israeli television aired Zertal’s story, in a presentation very similar to his BAR article. But the program also included an interview with Mr. Binyamim Zedakah, one of the leaders of the Samaritan community. This interview was unfairly edited on television. So the next day, Mr. Zedakah wrote his complete argument for the newspaper Ha-Aretz, which published it on April 4, 1984. Zedakah reminded us that Zertal’s site was first discovered by Victor Guérin in the 1860s. Even at that early date, Guérin identified it as Joshua’s altar. In arguing that Joshua’s altar was built on Mt. Gerizim, however, the Samaritan’s holy mountain, Zedakah asks us this question: If Joshua’s altar was built on Mt. Ebal, why was such an important cult place totally forgotten in the later Iron Age? Why is there no archaeological or historical tradition at Mt. Ebal from the period of the Israelite monarchy for the existence of such a site?
I would phrase the question somewhat differently: According to our best understanding, the Deuteronomic school was active during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. and the earliest edition of the Book of Joshua was written in the seventh century B.C. For the purposes of my argument, however, it does not matter if these dates are off by 100 or 150 years. If the original texts of Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 had references to Mt. Ebal rather than Mt. Gerizim, surely there would be some remains on Mt. Ebal from the period when these texts were written. Yet we have Zertal’s word for it that there is not a single sherd from the period of the Israelite monarchy, that is, after the 11th century B.C.
It is tempting to agree with Zedakah that the earlier version of Deuteronomy 27, as well as Joshua 8, referred to Mt. Gerizim and not Mt. Ebal. On Mt. Gerizim, the Samaritans still preserve and celebrate what they believe to be the traditional site of Joshua’s altar.
In the early Israelite text, as presented in the Jewish Masoretic version, why was Mt. Gerizim changed to Mt. Ebal? To answer this question, we must look into the highly complicated political and theological disputes between Jews and Samaritans in the late Persian and early Hellenistic periods (late fourth to early third centuries B.C.). It was then that the final schism occurred between what were two branches of early Second Temple Judaism. It was then that the foundation of the Samaritan Temple was laid on Mt. Gerizim, emphasizing the final separation of the Samaritans from Jerusalemite Judaism. The rivalry between Gerizim and Jerusalem resulted in “correcting” the Biblical passages in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8, so that they referred to Ebal instead of Gerizim, which had become (and remains) the center of Samaritan worship. This textual change most probably occurred between 350 and 300 B.C.
I vividly remember a hot day in late October 1982—October 27, to be exact—when, with two other archaeologists, I first visited Adam Zertal’s excavation on Mt. Ebal. Even then, during the first season of excavation, rumors had spread that Zertal had found “Joshua’s altar.” It seems that from the beginning Zertal really thought he had discovered “Joshua’s altar.” By the time we visited the site, notices had already appeared in the Israeli daily press that the altar that Joshua had built on Mt. Ebal, according to Joshua 8:30–35, was being excavated. 044 As wea climbed to the isolated excavation […]