Mount Ebal – The Altar of Joshua?

In order to maintain my tour guide license, I need to complete at least one Ministry of Tourism training day every year – the idea being that it ensures I keep my knowledge up to date. The Ministry offers a variety of different trips and lecture days throughout the year, many sound fascinating but unfortunately it’s difficult to go to more than one or two (and sometimes even that requires a sacrifice) when managing a busy schedule.

Today’s trip was particularly special as we were able to visit a site I have been fascinated by since being on the tour guide course: Mt Ebal. First mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, Mt Ebal is next to Nablus (biblical Shechem) in the middle of the Samaria area of the West Bank. On the course we had been told about a remarkable archaeological find there, but given that it is located in Area B, which is largely under Palestinian control, visiting requires army approval and also an escort. Fortunately, for the purpose of this training day, this was obtained.

Part of our army escort
Part of our army escort

An aside. I always find it a little strange to go on a day out in the West Bank, particularly the area of Samaria in the north, which is more populated than desert in the east and south. Although the day was not focussed on contemporary politics, it’s impossible to ignore them. You can see the Jewish villages/settlements and the Palestinian villages and cities. One can’t help but think about the controversy associated with the area. It was a bit surreal to do a tour with an army escort, particularly as it always seems so peaceful and calm. Some may argue that joining such a tour day is innately political, I would say that I was there purely for interest in the history. And I also think it’s important to see the West Bank so that one knows what one is talking about when having to discuss it with visitors. Anyway, the point is that I don’t want this post to be seen as some sort of political statement, and I hope that it will not be responded to as such.

View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal
View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal

We started the day with a look out over the city of Nablus, the economic heart of the Palestinian Authority. Nablus sits in the valley between Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim; our guide explained to us the way that these two large ridges effectively form an insurmountable barrier to anyone entering from the east (as the Israelites would have done, according to the bible), hence their symbolism in the text. They are a sort of gateway to the holy land. We discussed this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, where Moses gives instructions on entering the land, and details a list of curses that are to be given on Mt Ebal, and blessings on Mt Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27).

Moving away from Nablus to the other side of Mount Ebal (the peak of the Samarian hills at around 900m/2700ft above sea level), we descended through rocky and thorny terrain to reach what this day was really all about.

Starting in the 70s-80s, an archaeologist called Adam Zertal took it upon himself to conduct a huge archaeological survey of the whole (or as much as possible) of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank). The difference between a survey and a dig is that you hike around the terrain noting areas which seem to be of archaeological significance because of limited ruins on the surface, or perhaps pottery sherds that can be found. This information is then used to prioritise where to dig.

View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal
View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal

Zertal noticed an interesting site on Mt Ebal and began to dig there. What he found was remarkable. He found an altar that completely fits the description of Israelite altars in the bible. Around it was a larger ritual site. His theory is that the site had two periods: first people came to perform various ceremonies to purify/sanctify the larger area, and then the huge altar was built.

The altar is built just as described in multiple locations in the bible (following from Exodus 20): “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your nakedness may be exposed.’” The altar we saw was definitely built with unhewn stones, and leading up to it was a ramp and not steps. The idea was that by walking up a ramp, as opposed to stairs, the priests flowing robes were less likely to expose the more private parts of their body. Also, as described in Exodus 27, the altar is square (Canaanite altars were round).

Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

It requires a bit of imagination to see this, particularly as the altar has partly been opened up to see what was inside, but it really does fit the biblical description, which is quite remarkable. What’s more, inside the stones they found over 1000 animal bones. Without exception they were all of kosher animals, under a year old (first-born animals were to be sacrificed according to the Bible) and all bore the sign of burning in an open fire.

Artist's rendition of the altar
Artist’s rendition of the altar

The evidence is overwhelming that this was an Israelite altar. The question then, is who built it? Dating the site is possible based on two Egyptian scarabs that were found in the excavations. The scarabs date to around 3200 BCE. Most scholars see this as the time that the Israelites entered the land (indeed we do begin to see evidence of a new culture in the archaeology at this time). Could this altar have been built by Joshua?

The book of Joshua describes how he fulfils Moses’ command, as described at the end of chapter 8:
Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings. He wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written, in the presence of the sons of Israel. All Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had given command at first to bless the people of Israel. Then 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 had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.”

It really seems to fit the text, and so Zertal argued that this was in fact the altar of Joshua. There’s one problem. It seems from the text, that the altar was visible from Mt Gerizim, but in this part of Mt Ebal you can’t see Mt Gerizim – it’s the other side of the peak. Zertal considered the option that Mt Gerizim has been identified incorrectly, but there are a number of reasons that this doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you could infer from the text that although the ceremony happened in view of everyone, the altar where the offerings were made may not need to have been in full view? It remains a problem and no one has a good answer – what is clear is that this is the only altar on Mt Ebal from any period.

Maybe it is the altar of Joshua, maybe it isn’t. As with many things here, it comes down to faith. However, I must admit to feeling emotional when seeing this altar, no matter who built it, as it undoubtedly would have been used by the ancient Israelites, as described in our most ancient of texts. I climbed the ramp, imagining the priests doing so over 3000 years before, in order to make their sacrifices. As I stood on the top of the altar, I enjoyed the stunning view before me, including the Tirtza Valley, which Zertal and others believe the Israelites used to enter the land after crossing the Jordan. I pictured the mixed multitudes arriving finally at this ancient gateway, having heard so much about it, and preparing to live in their promised land. And here I am, over 3000 years later, in their footsteps. For a few beautiful moments, it was possible to put all the tensions and politics aside, and drink in a remarkable atmosphere.

View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

Unfortunately, our time was up – the officer who was accompanying us told us that it was time for us to leave. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Mt Ebal – it’s so complicated to do so. But I’ll never forget it.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.