Joshua’s Altar on Mount Eval

How do we know that this is this an altar?

Large sacrificial altars existed, according to the Bible, on Mount Eval or Eval, Beth-El, Jerusalem, Gibeon, Dan and other places. Of these, none survived except the one at Ebal. The description of the altar of the First Temple in Ezekiel 43:13-19 is very similar to that at Ebal. Descriptions of Jerusalem’s Second Temple altar appear in the Mishnah, tractate Middot, ch. 3.; in the Temple Scroll: in Josephus Flavius’ writings and other sources. In all of those, features found in Mt. Ebal are described, including a large elevated altar platform, a stone ramp adjacent to the main one. The architectural similarity suggests that the structure at Ebal was the prototype of the Israelite sacrificial altar, resulting in the similarity to the Second Temple altars. It is well known that sacred constructions maintained their traditional form due to their holiness. Where is Mt. Gerizim?

According to the Book of Joshua 8:33, both summits of Ebal and Gerizim should be visible from the altar. However, the present Gerizim cannot be observed from it, while Mt. Kabir is well in sight, matching Mt. Ebal. Professor Adam Zartal assumed that Mt. Gerizim of the Torah is Mt. Kabir. At a later stage, during the rift from the Jews, the Samaritans transferred the name to the present mountain south of Shechem.

Erick Stakelbeck with Dr. Yechiel Shabi at Joshua’s Altar

The significance of the discovery and the site The presence of an Israelite sacrificial altar on Mt. Ebal, dated to the beginning of the Israelite settlement, greatly influences our standpoint regarding the Bible as an historical source. The close correlation between the ancient texts of Deuteronomy and Joshua and reality supports both the antiquity and accuracy of the description. The discovery adds much weight to the historicity of the descriptions of early Israel in the Bible, the credibility of which is subject to great controversy.

Your visit to Mt. Eval could be the most significant and moving tours of your lifetime. You are visiting the ancient Israelite altar built by Joshua at the order of Moses. In 1980 a small archaeological site from the early Iron Age (Israelite settlement) was discovered on the north-eastern shoulder of Mount. Ebal, the highest peak in the northern Samaria region (940m above sea level). The place provides a magnificent view of Tirzah Valley, Mount Kabir, the valleys of Shechem, Elon Moreh, eastern Shomron and the Gilead. This is the fascinating story of the site, its findings and their significance.

The excavations: what was found? When discovered, the place was fully covered by stones. This has been understood as a sacred burial (“Genizah”), which was performed before the final abandonment. The altar site was excavated over eight years (1982-1989), by the universities of Tel-Aviv and Haifa, directed by the author. The high place itself consists of the enclosures and the altar.

The offering installations About a hundred stone structures have been found around the altar, containing ceramic vessels, jewelry, two scarabs and other finds. The bringing of offerings to the holy site is mentioned in I Samuel 1:24 and elsewhere in the Bible.

The altar is a ancient construction (7x9m and 4m high), built of large, un-sculpted stones. It is ascended by a double stone ramp (see Exodus 20:23). In front of the altar and connected to it there are two courtyards, each about 8x6m, with offering installations and stone slabs, presumably for the preparation of sacrifices. A porch-like wall, 1m wide, surrounds the altar on three sides. In the Mishnah (Middot, chapter 3) it is called “surround” or sovev in Hebrew. Inside the altar and below the upper pavement there was a layer of ash containing nearly 1,000 animal bones. The upper pavement was used for walking, though the High Priest used to walk mainly on top of the walls.

The site was discovered in 1978, when a team of archeologists and volunteers began to explore the Samaria region and the Jordan Valley on foot, meter by meter. This effort covered 3,000 km2 of territory that is very relevant for biblical history and had never before been surveyed. This area belongs to the stage of history when the stories of Ancient Israel transpired: the crossing of the Jordan and the ceremonies at Mount Ebal, Shechem and Shiloh. During the survey, more than 1,500 sites were found, changing many of the historical views about ancient Israel

Dating The local pottery, radiocarbon analysis and two scarab seals of Pharaoh Ramesses || (ca. 1282-1220 BCE) – all point to 1200 BCE, the time when the Israelite tribes crossed the Jordan into Canaan, as the date of the construction and use of the altar.

The scarabs and the die The scarabs bear a very great archeological importance for the dating of the site and its relationship with Egypt. Similar scarabs have been found in Egypt, and Cyprus. Nearby, an engraved and pierced limestone die was unearthed. It was used as a “pour” a die for seeing into the future. Similar dice have been found in the Land of Israel and Mesopotamia.

The ceramic inventory and the abundance of shards represents a catalogue of the early Israelite ceramic ware. Especially outstanding are the jars with handles marked with different patterns of indentations. In our opinion, these markings indicate the sending of tithes and contributions to the holy place. This custom continued during the era of the Second Temple, possibly an indication of ancient Israelite identity.

What does the Bible say? Mt. Ebal played a central role in Ancient Israel. The book of Deuteronomy speaks twice of the mountain: in Chapter 11:29-30, Moses tells the Israelites to go to Ebal and Gerizim for the great ceremony to come. In Chapter 27:1-10, he orders them to cross the Jordan and then to go directly to Mt. Ebal, in order to “become the people of God” (Deuteronomy 27:9). They should build an altar “Of unhewn stones, which no iron was raised Map of the enclosures upon” make sacrifices and rejoice “in the presence of all Israel.” Then in Joshua 8:30-35, the construction of the altar and the assembly is described in detail. For centuries, the Ebal story was considered late, “Deuteronomistic” (from the time of King Josiah, 7th century B.C.E. 600 years after the event!) and non-historical. This is why the discovery was a great surprise, and even a shock, for the scholarly world and also for w the general public.

The site that enclosures the altar is located within a double enclosure: a large (external) and small (internal). They were built to emphasize the division between the outer (non-sacred) and inner (holy) areas. In A scarab-seal of Joshua 8:33, Israel Ramesses II is divided into three groups: the common people; the judges, elders and policemen; and the priests and Levites, bearers of the Ark of the Covenant. It was suggested that this division matched that at the site.

The bones Within the entire site, some 3,000 animal bones, (including those inside the altar) were found: of cattle, sheep, goats and fallow-deer. Surprising is the great number of bones charred by fire (sacrifice), and the gender and age of the animals: young males. This find matches the rules of sacrifice in the Torah (especially in the book of Leviticus). It is exceptional also due to the absence of other common animals (horse, mule, donkey, dog, etc.), abundant in the period’s domesticated livestock. The fallow-deer appears as a kosher animal in Deuteronomy 14:5.

Leave a Reply