Bible in Hand: The Altar of Mount Ebal

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses, knowing he is destined to die east of the River Jordan, and not enter the Promised Land with the Children of Israel, whom he has led since leading them out of Egypt, takes his farewell with a long speech which comprises most of the Book, in which he reminds them of their history and, in order to ensure that it remains forever etched in their collective memory, charges them to build an altar and offer up sacrifices, and to write all the words of the Torah down on large, plastered stones, which they are to set up, on Mount Ebal, on the day that they cross the Jordan. (See Deuteronomy 27: 1 – 8).

According to the Book of Joshua (Chapter 8:30 – 35), Joshua did, in fact, carry out the charge Moses had laid upon him, but not, apparently, on the very day the Israelites crossed the River Jordan (as Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 27:2), since the building of the altar was preceded by the conquest of Jericho and of Ai (the latter, at the second attempt only, the first having failed as punishment for the taking of loot at Jericho by Achan the son of Carmi – see Joshua 7).

Be that as it may, the Bible is very clear that the altar – an altar of unhewn stones – was built on Mount Ebal, burnt offerings were offered up there, and Joshua wrote down on the stones a copy of the Law of Moses. So – where was Mount Ebal and what can be learned from the archaeological finds there? This was what we set out to discover earlier this month, when I joined another study tour with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, deep in Samaria.

In the Bible, Joshua is commanded to divide the people up and set half of them on Mount Gerizim, to pronounce blessings and the other half on Mount Ebal, to pronounce curses. The two mountains lie on either side of the city of Shechem, Ebal to the north, Gerizim to the south. Shechem itself is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority, as are the villages lying on either side of the main road leading to that city, but the road itself is in Israeli hands (Area C according to the Oslo Accords). On the way to the archaeological site, we drove through the town of Huwwara, which lies in Area B, meaning municipal matters and regular daily life is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but security is in Israeli hands. I am not sure how good the security aspect is, since, minutes after we “escaped” from a seemingly interminable traffic jam near the northern exit from the town, there were reports of stones being thrown at Israeli vehicles using the road, which is lined on both sides by “Palestinian” shops and garages.
Perhaps it was just as well that our bus was bullet-proof – a fact which added several tons to its weight and thus, reduced its manoeuvrability.

In light of the security issues, it will come as no surprise to learn that civilians can only visit the Mount Ebal site with a military escort. In fact, we joined a convoy that was delivering supplies (including petrol) to the IDF base further up the mountain.

Mount Ebal, as I mentioned, overlooks the “Palestinian” city of Shechem. The Arabic name of the city is Nablus (a corruption of the Greek name Neapolis, or Flavia Neapolis – the name given to the city by the Roman emperor Flavius Vespasianus aka Vespasian). From the mountain, there are spectacular views of Shechem and the surrounding countryside, such as this one, taken from the bus:

And these:

Take note of the steep path in the foreground. I shall have more to say about it later on.

Leaving the bus, escorted by a couple of good-looking young servicemen 😉 , we began walking down what started off as a paved road (for the use of military vehicles, one assumes) and which eventually morphed into an unpaved dust track, towards the site of what the archaeologist Adam Zertal (whom we mentioned in connection with the Footprint Site last month) has identified as the site of Joshua’s Altar. This identification has been hotly disputed by other scholars (of course, it would be. Such is the nature of archaeological research, especially archaeological research in the Holy Land).

The ground was covered with early crocuses, of the kind known in Hebrew as Hanukkah Candles (נרות חנוכה – Nerot Hanukkah) because their white petals, with a golden heart, are reminiscent of white candles with a yellow flame.

Mingled among them were the delicate blossoms of meadow saffron, or stavanit (סתוונית) as it is called in Hebrew, no doubt from the Hebrew word for autumn (סתיו – stav), which is when it blooms:

As we drew closer to the site, even the natural rocks seemed to take on the appearance of mythological creatures, such as this one, centre foreground, which reminded me of the White Horses to be found on the chalk Downs of southern England:

Finally, we reached the site which Prof. Zertal identified as the altar. The excavations which took place during the 1980s uncovered scarabs, seals and animal bones dating to the early Israelite period (13th – 11th centuries BCE).
Note what appears to be the remains of a ramp leading up to the altar:

Here is the ramp seen from the side:

Here is the altar seen from the other side:

Still not convinced? Well, Prof. Zertal also discovered plaster plates at the site of the supposed altar. Remember the commandment given to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 27:2?

And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster.

And if that isn’t enough to make you think, remember the further charge laid upon the Israelites by Moses:

And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.

Among the archaeological finds excavated on Mt. Ebal in the “soil dump pile”, and only deciphered earlier this year, was a tiny lead tablet dated to the 13th century BCE, written in very early Hebrew text – and bearing a curse in the name of “Yahweh”.

Of course, like everything else surrounding the Mt. Ebal site, this, too, is disputed by many scholars, many of whom have a political axe to grind. I should add that last year, roadwork carried out by the Palestinian Authority (which has civil jurisdiction over the site, which lies in Area B) destroyed part of the site, by grinding stones from the exterior wall, as well as some from the site itself, into gravel to pave the road.

On our way back to the bus, we now had to walk up the steep path we had previously walked down. About half way along, I began to feel difficulty breathing and was forced to stop several times to catch my breath. Eventually, I started to feel faint and dizzy and had to take the arm of one of the young soldiers who were escorting us, until we reached their jeep. As it was still some way to go before our own bus was reached, one of them gave up his place in the jeep so that I could be driven to the bus – where I nearly passed out. That, however, happened only after I boarded the bus – not before taking a cordial farewell and thanking our military escort. And I wasn’t feeling so “out of it” that I couldn’t feel a faint pang of regret that I wasn’t 30 or 40 years younger 😉 .

We were supposed to be visiting the Biblical site of Shiloh next, but our guide decided that there would not be enough time to do the site justice, so instead, as we were passing the settlement of Havot Yair, and one of our group happened to have a cousin living there, our guide suggested we take in the sunset from the walkway and lookout point in the settlement, which overlooks the Nachal Qana Nature Reserve. This we did – and it was well worth it, as I think you will agree:

After admiring the view to our hearts’ content, we were invited to join the aforementioned cousin (whose name, alas, I have forgotten) in the settlement’s beautiful synagogue, which overlooks the lovely valley depicted above, and hear about her life in the Samarian heartland, from the earliest days of coping without electricity, to the present day.

Note that the Holy Ark, seen above, contains both Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrahi-type Torah scrolls.

It was, by now, completely dark and it was a long way home, so, regretfully, and with a promise by our guide that we would visit Shiloh on a later trip in the series, we boarded the bus and set off homewards, back to Jerusalem.


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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5 Responses to Bible in Hand: The Altar of Mount Ebal

  1. Carole Schulman says:

    As of course you would know without my saying (I know you are a thought reader!!) I love every word and read this carefully. I will refer to it again to make sure I missed nothing. I pass these on to other members of my family who are all interested in Biblical history.

  2. Lynn Riley says:

    I so enjoyed your trip here. The photos tell so much along with your description. How I learned the books of the Old Testament when I was young and I do appreciate being reminded of all. You do a wonderful write up. Hope you are no longer dizzy or out of breath, lol. I look forward to the next adventure you have. The rock Menorah is really unusual. A very Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. Lynn

  3. Pingback: Another Link In The Chain | THE VIEW FROM THE PALACE

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