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Mt. Ebal Altar, 13th-12th century BCE

Mt EbalOn the mountain slope rising above the city of Shechem, Adam Zertal excavated an enclosure with a stone altar dating from the 13-12th c. BC. The altar consists of a rectangular platform measuring 9 x 7m and standing about 3m above bedrock with two rooms or courts to one side. Burnt bones of sacrificial sheep, goat, cattle, and fallow deer were found among the altar stones. An earlier round altar lay immediately beneath the large squarish altar, with burnt bones of the same animal species. The two superimposed altars testify to continuity in sacrificial rituals from the 13th c., before the Israelites allegedly entered the land, into the 12th c. and the period of Israelite settlement. In the two adjoining courts, which measure 30 and 48 square meters, stone-built installations contained ash and animal bones or ceramic pottery. Stone walls encircled the hilltop with the altar, about 100 stone installations surrounding the altar presumed to be receptacles for cultic offerings, plus walls and other evidence of occupation.

Mt. Ebal Altar and the Bible

In his farewell speech to the Israelites, Moses instructs the people to cross the Jordan River and then build an altar of fieldstones on Mt. Ebal. The Israelites are to sacrifice a burnt offering and an offering of well-being, eat and rejoice, and inscribe the words of God’s teachings on the altar stones (Deut 27- 1-8). As commanded, Joshua and the people built the altar on Mt. Ebal, sacrificed, and inscribed the teachings on the stones (Josh 8- 30-32). While the construction of the altar from fieldstones rather than worked stones follows the biblical injunctions, the specific animals sacrificed depart from biblical directives. Leviticus stipulates that the burnt offering must be domesticated (from the herd of flock) sheep, goat or cattle without blemish, turtledove or pigeon (Lev 1- 2-17). Wild deer, while permissible food (Lev 11- 3-8), are not listed among acceptable sacrificial animals.

The excavator identified the large squarish altar with the altar built by the Israelites upon entering the land promised to them by God. If the square altar belongs to the Israelites, then the underlying round altar must be Canaanite or one of the other indigenous peoples. According to this interpretation, the Israelites built their altar directly above that of the vanquished Canaanites demonstrating their God’s defeat of the previous god of the land. Both deities received the same sacrifices, which were also the animals consumed by humans.

For additional readings including differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of the site see A. Zertal, “Has Joshua’s Altar Been Found on Mount Ebal?” BAR 11.1 (1985) 26-43 with A. Kempinski’s challenge in “‘Joshua’s Altar’- An Iron Age I Watchtower” BAR 12.1 (1986) 42, 44-49, and Zertal’s response, “How Can Kempinski Be So Wrong” BAR 12.1 (1986) 43, 47, 49-53. For the archaeological details without the drama see “Ebal, Mount” in OEANE, or for a more detailed report see “Ebal, Mount” in NEAEHL.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

Posted in: Exodus

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