Mount Ebal

It’s been a quiet week for me. I haven’t had any fun adventures lately, but I have had a lot of uninterrupted hours to work on my research proposal. Over the past several weeks, I’ve felt like I haven’t made much progress. I’ve been doing a lot of research, but not much writing. That changed this week, as all the research I’ve been doing started falling into place. There are still some gaps in my research, but I have started writing again, and I have a lot of data neatly organized into spreadsheets, ready for me to type up into my research proposal.

Since I don’t have any interesting adventures to tell you about, I thought I’d write about Mount Ebal. As you might know, I wrote my Master’s thesis about Mount Ebal. I think that it is a fascinating site.

Mount Ebal in the Bible

The Bible only mentions Mount Ebal five times in connection with a single event that took place there. In Deuteronomy 11:29, 27:4, and 27:13, Moses instructs the Israelites to hold a ceremony of blessings and curses at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. He told them to build an altar on Mount Ebal and to offer sacrifices there.

Mount Ebal

The other two places where Mount Ebal appears in the Bible are in Joshua 8:30 and 8:33. Joshua had just led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As soon as they had taken an initial foothold in the land, they proceeded to Mount Ebal. There, Joshua built an altar and led the people in a ceremony, following Moses’ instructions exactly as outlined in Deuteronomy.

Although the Bible only records one event taking place at Mount Ebal, it is a significant biblical site. This was where the Israelites entered into a solemn contract with God regarding how they would conduct themselves in this new land. The Israelites pledged that they would worship and obey God alone. In a sense, this ceremony was an inauguration in which the Israelites agreed to live in a theocracy – a nation of which God was to be the king.

The Archaeology of Mount Ebal

In the late 1800s, explorers charted the land of the Bible and located many biblical sites. The location of Mount Ebal was well known, yet these and later explorers failed to find Joshua’s altar on the mountain.

That changed in 1980. Adam Zertal, an Israeli archaeologist, was conducting an archaeological survey of the Manasseh Hill Country. When he surveyed Mount Ebal, he found a site dating to the early Israelite period. He excavated the site and discovered a large, rectangular structure built over a smaller, round structure.

It was clear to Zertal that this was no ordinary site. He found large quantities of ash and animal bones. It turned out the the bones belonged to animals that were clean according to the Mosaic Law, and most of them were of sheep, goats, and cattle, which were part of the sacrificial system. This, along with some special finds such as gold and silver earrings, made Zertal suspect that this was a religious site.

Could the central structure be an altar? It appeared that the small, round structure was the original one, and that later, the large, rectangular structure replaced it. Both were built of uncut stones. The large, rectangular structure had a surrounding ledge and what appeared to be a ramp leading from ground level up to the top of the structure. The small, round structure was low enough that one could access it from ground level. Both of these structures fit the biblical requirements for an altar.

The evidence was enough to convince Zertal. He had never believed that the Bible was historically accurate. He hadn’t gone to Mount Ebal looking for Joshua’s altar, since he didn’t believe that Joshua ever existed to build an altar. Yet, what he found on Mount Ebal changed his mind. He was convinced that the structure he had found was an altar, and not only that, it was the very one mentioned in Deuteronomy and Joshua.

Debate about Mount Ebal

In the years since Zertal discovered the altar, there has been a lot of discussion and debate among scholars about the site. Some say that what Zertal found was a watchtower or a farmhouse. Some agree that it was a religious site, but not that it was Joshua’s altar. In 2012, Ralph Hawkins published a book in which he convincingly refutes these alternate theories and upholds Zertal’s identification of the site as an altar.

One problem for biblical scholars is that the altar dates to a time period that is 150 years later than the literal, biblical date for the Israelite’s arrival in Canaan. This was the issue that I addressed in my Master’s thesis. I discovered that a small portion of the pottery and artifacts that Zertal found at the site dates to the exact time period in which the Bible says the Israelites arrived at Mount Ebal.

Pottery from Mount Ebal dating to the time of Joshua

I suggest that the small, round altar was the one that Joshua built. Later, the Israelites built the large, rectangular altar over it and continued using the site. Even though the Bible doesn’t specifically mention this, it is quite possible, since the Bible is not a complete historical record. It only records events that are pertinent to its theological message.

The Bible does record that some of the judges built altars and sacrificed there, and it seems that this was acceptable. Additionally, the Bible records instances when the Israelites built altars to sacrifice to pagan deities even though this was unacceptable according to the Mosaic Law.

However, it seems likely that the altar at Mount Ebal was an acceptable altar. There is evidence that when the altar went out of use, it was buried in a layer of stones. This seems to be a symbol of respect for the site. Unlike the altar at Mount Ebal, unacceptable altars generally ended up being destroyed during religious reforms.

Present and Future Research

More research is necessary to fully understand the altar site on Mount Ebal. Zertal died before he published his excavation results, and it is currently impossible to renew excavations at the site due to the political situation in the area. However, in 2019, I was part of a sifting project in which we removed portions of the dump piles from Zertal’s excavation and wet sifted them. We found some exciting new finds including a lead tablet that may contain an inscription. We are currently in the process of analyzing and deciphering the potential message on the tablet. Hopefully this will shed additional light on the history of the site. Additionally, Zertal’s student, Shay Bar, hopes to complete the final publication of the site. I am hopeful that we will still be able to learn much more about the site.

Further Reading:

Hawkins, Ralph K. 2012. The Iron Age I Structure on Mt. Ebal: Excavation and Interpretation. Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement6. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Zertal, Adam. 1986–1987. “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (2): 105–165. 

2 responses to “Mount Ebal”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: