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The Altar on Mount Ebal by Richard S. Hess
It is quite rare for archaeology to actually excavate something that is referred to in the Bible. A few examples exist where the ruins of a building are believed to belong to something mentioned in Scripture (for example, the possibility that the Temple of Baal Berit mentioned in Judges 9 has been excavated at Shechem; or that Omri and Ahab’s palace has been located in Samaria). One of the more recent finds that has been identified with what is referred to in the Bible is the Altar on Mt. Ebal. In his Joshua contribution to ZIBBCOT, Richard S. Hess evaluates the evidence:
Joshua 8:30–31 clearly states that Joshua built "an altar of uncut stones" on Mount Ebal in accordance with divine instruction to Moses (Deut. 27:2–8). Israeli archeologist Adam Zertal surveyed Mount Ebal, north of Shechem. He found no evidence from the Late Bronze or Early Iron Ages with the exception of one site. That site was located on the third highest peak near (though not on) the ridge facing an open area where a large number of people could easily gather and reasonably expect to hear what was said from the site. Zertal identified the site as an open air altar with two levels of occupation. Based on scarab and pottery evidence found at the site, he suggested that a rather simple pit was built and used for sacrifices in the second half of the thirteenth century b.c. This was followed peacefully by a more elaborate structure built of field stones, surrounded by a veranda, and accessed by a ramp. Its occupation occurred in the first half of the twelfth century b.c.
Zertal found that the main animals killed there (for sacrifice) were cattle, sheep, and a local species of deer. No pigs were slaughtered at the site. Suggestions that the site was a watchtower raise the question of its isolated structure with no sign of human occupation nearby and its location away from the ridge itself. Theories that it was a single farm house create an anomaly in a region otherwise comprised of villages and the absence of what one might expect to see at a domestic dwelling of the Early Iron Age.
Is this the altar described in Joshua 8:30–35 and perhaps suggested again in chapter 24? It is not possible to say with certainty. However, after reading the excavator’s report and conducting a visual tour of the site, it certainly looks like an early Israelite altar such as is described in this text in Joshua. Despite strong opposition by others, there remains no better explanation than that this represents an anomalous Early Iron Age cultic site that has no clear cultural antecedents anywhere in the region.1
Hess’ caution is commendable and we should adopt a similar posture, for as he noted, the association remains controversial with authorities lining up on both sides. Nonetheless, it is exciting to entertain the possibilities and to learn from what has been found on the site even if it should turn out to have a different explanation.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 A. Zertal, "Has Joshua’s Altar Been Found on Mt. Ebal?" BAR 11/1 (1985): 26–43; idem, "How Can Kempinski Be So Wrong!" BAR 12/1 (1986): 43, 47, 49–53; idem, "An Early Iron Age Cult Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987," TA 13–14 (1986–1987): 105–65.
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