by Dr. David Schreiner
Mt. Ebal tops out just above 3,000 feet above sea level. If you live near the Rocky Mountains or any other significant mountain range, you may snicker at this height. However, in ancient Israel this was the highest location in the country. Yet Mt. Ebal’s importance transcends topography. Symbolically, it stared Israel in the face as they crossed into the Promised Land and Deuteronomy 27 calls it out as the location of an important covenantal ceremony.
In 1980, Adam Zertal led a survey team into the Central Highlands. Upon Mt. Ebal his team found a number of things that piqued their interest and encouraged them to divert their attention to Mt. Ebal. What they excavated would eventually produce one of the greatest firestorms in archaeological discourse…and it shows no signs of abating.
On Mt. Ebal, Zertal and company found a singular installation that exhibited the following features.
- There were two Strata, and Stratum II represents the earliest phase of usage, dating to the Late Bronze Age. Its small structure had a dividing wall and was built upon bedrock. A depression with layers of ash, bone, and cultic paraphernalia was discovered within that structure, suggesting that the site had a cultic function.
- There was a 4-room house built just off this central structure. In conjunction with the site’s expansion, this too was modified.
- Stratum I represents the latest phase of usage. It dates to the early Iron Age and manifests a significant expansion of the site. The central structure was expanded with unhewn stones to approximately 30 x 20 feet. In addition, there were immense layers of ash, almost 3,000 animal bones (including sheep, cattle, goats, deer, and other animals), and these bones were burnt and exhibited cut marks (They were slaughtered, butchered, and then burnt). Stratum I also exhibited a 3-foot high enclosure wall.
- The site was put “out of commission” in the middle of the 12th Century BCE by overlaying the entire site with large stones.
Now, if I told you that a singular installation was found on a geographically prominent area with what appeared to be demarcations of space and that there were thousands of burnt and cut bones, what would your initial thoughts be with respect to describing its function?
If you said a cultic site, I would agree.
If I told you that a cultic site upon Mt. Ebal has important Scriptural attestation, including a function for Joshua’s covenant renewal ceremony (Joshua 8:30-35), would you consider the possibility that Zertal found Joshua’s altar?
I know I do.
Yet some historians and archaeologists run away screaming at the sound of this possibility. Instead, they are more comfortable with the notion that this site was an Iron Age watchtower or farmstead. Apparently, there was a fierce market for animal destruction in the early Iron Age. Perhaps guards burnt a few loads of animals between shifts.
But seriously. Why do so many people argue against the cult-site conclusion when it comes to the installation on Ebal, even to the point of sounding unreasonable? Well, there are a number of reasons. For example, if you hold to an early date for the exodus event, then the structure at Ebal presents some problems for your chronology. Also, there is the reality that the structure does not offer a nice line of sight for Mt. Gerizim, but the traditional site of Gerizim may not be correct. Then there is the issue that things not present at Ebal are present at virtually every other Iron Age cult site. There were no cultic figurines or standing-stone altars. Furthermore, there was essentially no continuity with previous cultures, which is usually always present in some form or fashion across the archaeological record. In other words, because the Ebal site does not conform to expectations, then many people are hesitant to accept the notion that Zertal discovered an important Iron Age cultic site.
But if one considers legislation in the Biblical record, such as building materials, cultic paraphernalia, architecture, and types of sacrifices, the installation on Ebal makes sense. Of course, this also requires an acceptance that Scripture attests to reality and not some “revisionist history” executed by some later Judean scribe or a Persian era institution. If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.
I am going to proceed with the assumption that the installation on Mt. Ebal is not only very likely to have been cultic in nature, but that it is also likely that this was the altar remembered in Joshua 8:30-35 (I mean, we don’t have an inscription that says, “Joshua slept here.” So we can’t say things with absolute certainty). Naturally then, the obvious importance of the site smacks us in the face. “Joshua’s altar! Yeah!” However, I want to go beyond this for a moment and consider the implications of this site for the fledgling identity of Israelite culture.
Ebal represents an early centralized cult site. Moreover, there is a likelihood that is was the original place where the Lord symbolically declared his “ownership” of the Promised Land—“the place where the Lord chose to put his name” (Dr. Sandra Richter wrote a very interesting article in Vetus Testamentum on this). From a socio-political point of view, we know that centralized cultic sites played a role in a culture’s identity formation. For example, much has been said about this in the development of Greek culture. For Israel, Ebal shows us that corporate worship was an important factor in the earliest years of Israel’s existence in the land. Religion offered an ideological fabric that would knit the community together. Furthermore, if we take seriously the implication that what Zertal observed resembles biblical legislation, then we can surmise that the biblical traditions were a factor in the earliest stages of Israelite identity.
Figure 1: Mt. Ebal from Mt. Gerizim; Courtesy of Todd Bolen
Figure 2: https://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/עיבל_הר_מזבח
Figure 3: Frontal view, showing ramp; Courtesy of Ralph Hawkins