A Biblical Altar on Mt. Ebal and Other Israelite Footprints in the Jordan Valley?
Potential archaeological evidence of the Israelites entering the Promised Land
Archaeological sites in the shape of a foot or sandal—dated to the 13th or 12th century B.C.E.—have been found throughout the Jordan Valley. For decades, archaeologists have debated the purpose of these sites and the identity of their builders—with some suggesting that these sites were built by the Israelites entering the Promised Land and settling it. Ralph K. Hawkins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Averett University, addresses these varying interpretations in his article “Israelite Footprints: Has Adam Zertal Found the Biblical Altar on Mt. Ebal and the Footprints of the Israelites Settling the Promised Land?” in the March/April 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
During the course of the Manasseh Hill Country Survey, the late Adam Zertal and his team discovered a half dozen sites in the Jordan Valley with foot-shaped enclosure walls. The size of these sites varies. For example, el-’Unuq, one foot-shaped site, measures 816 feet long and 228 feet wide. This 4-acre site is larger than two soccer fields next to each other with their end zones connected. Bedhat esh-Sha’ab, another foot-shaped site, is 3 acres. The shape of these sites was not determined by terrain; they were intentionally built in this design.
The most famous of these foot-shaped sites—also called sandalim and gilgalim—is on Mt. Ebal. This site was discovered by Adam Zertal and his survey team in 1980 and subsequently excavated from 1982–1989. There they uncovered a large altar, which was built of unhewn stones. The altar can be divided into two strata—both dated to the Iron Age I. The earlier level was built on bedrock and had a depression in its middle. Charred animal bones and ash were found inside this depression. Belonging to the later level was a monumental altar, measuring 23 by 30 feet and 10 feet tall, with a 23-foot long ramp leading up to it. This altar was filled with bones, many of which had been burned, ash and Iron Age I pottery.
After excavations, Adam Zertal identified the Mt. Ebal site as cultic in nature, and he made the controversial claim that the altar on Mt. Ebal was the Biblical altar to which Joshua8:30 refers. There was much opposition to this view, and although Hawkins addresses it in his article, we do not have space to cover it all here. In summary, although many still reject this as the Biblical altar referenced in Joshua 8:30, others think there might be a relationship between it and the Biblical tradition. Further, many now accept the cultic nature of the Mt. Ebal site. Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar writes, “Zertal may be wrong in the details of his interpretation, but it is tempting to accept his view concerning the basic cultic nature of the site and its possible relationship to the Biblical tradition.”1 Anyone interested in other scholarly opinions about the Mt. Ebal site and its altar should readHawkins’s full article.
The purpose of the other foot-shaped sites has also been debated. Because of the scarcity of pottery and lack of buildings at these sites, they were not likely to have been dwelling places. At first glance, they look like they might have been animal pens, but Hawkins rules out this interpretation because of the large size of these enclosures and the high quality of their construction. Along those same lines, he also discounts the possibility that they served agricultural purposes. Hawkins concludes that these sites are “unique and appear to have been built by semi-nomads who used a pottery repertoire similar to that of the new population group that entered Canaan from the east at this time [Iron Age I].” The foot-shaped sites may have served as gathering places for the semi-nomads, and it is possible that they had a cultic purpose as well—similar to the Mt. Ebal site. Since the pottery
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