Mount Ebal and the Tale of Two Altars

Has the site of Joshua’s altar been discovered?
Melissa Barreiro/Let the Stones Speak
From the March-April 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

Just before he died, Moses gave Joshua instruction on how he should lead Israel into the Promised Land. Following the battles at Jericho and Ai, the Israelites were told to assemble in the mountains surrounding Shechem, the place Abraham first sacrificed to God when he entered the region roughly 500 years earlier.

Moses’s instructions were explicit and detailed. Six tribes were told to gather on Mount Gerizim, the other six on Mount Ebal. Joshua then had leading men read from the book of Deuteronomy. The people were reminded of the blessings they would receive if they obeyed God and the curses that would come if they disobeyed. After that, the six tribes on each mountain were instructed to sing back and forth, their voices resonating across the valley. The tribes on Mount Gerizim rehearsed the blessings; the six tribes on Mount Ebal responded by singing the curses (Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:1-13).

But before this grand alfresco choral performance, Joshua did something important. “Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord, the God of Israel, in mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron; and they offered thereon burnt-offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace-offerings” (Joshua 8:30-31).

Joshua began this momentous event by building an altar on Mount Ebal and giving offerings to God.

Like many stories in the Bible, the tale of Joshua’s Mt. Ebal altar and Israel’s epic outdoor concert is widely considered to be fiction. But what if it isn’t? What if, like many stories in the Bible, this account is corroborated by archaeology?

What if Joshua’s altar has been discovered?

Let the Stones Speak

A Chance Discovery

Mount Ebal is situated in the mountains of Samaria, roughly 50 kilometers north of Jerusalem. While there is agreement on Mount Ebal’s identity, the question of whether there is an altar on the mountain has been debated for nearly four decades. This debate began in the 1980s largely as a result of the work of Prof. Adam Zertal, the late Haifa University archaeologist.

Following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Zertal was keen to survey and explore the territory acquired from Jordan. He was especially interested in the northern territory, in what was known in biblical times as the hill country of Manasseh. “A window of opportunity had opened, and for the first time, my generation would steal a glimpse at the place where the central narratives of the Bible took place,” Zertal wrote in A Nation Born. “No one before us had been granted an opportunity so grand and a responsibility so great.”

Professor Zertal’s massive “Manasseh survey” began in 1978 and ended in 1990. During his 12 years of exploration, he located dozens of ancient sites, 80 percent of which had never been documented.

On Sunday, April 6, 1980, Zertal made his most famous and most electrifying discovery. His team was exploring El-Burnat, the Arabic name of a site on the east side of Mount Ebal, about 200 meters down from the mountain peak. “As usual, the surprise of the day came at the last minute!” Zertal recounted in his field journal. “We’d spotted the rock pile earlier, but attached no significance to it. When we approached from the east, however, it looked like a fortified tell. … It seemed likely that at the very last minute we had stumbled upon an extraordinary site—there is no other explanation for its shape or location. But we must be careful; only excavation can reveal the truth.”

Professor Zertal began to excavate El-Burnat two years later. Between 1982 and 1987, his team conducted five separate excavations on Mount Ebal.

During the first excavation, the team removed layers of field stones. These stones, Zertal observed, seemed to have been placed intentionally for the purpose of covering the structure below. With the stones gone, Zertal was able to more clearly delineate the large structure. The structure was 30 meters square and protruded 3 meters high.

Through the next four excavations, Zertal found large amounts of ash and bone in the area around the large structure. In fact, he found more than 1,000 bones, all of which came from young, choice male animals. This indicated the site had been used for animal sacrifices carried out according to biblical guidelines.

But what exactly was the large structure? The “aha” moment occurred toward the end of the day on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1983. Zvi Koenigsberg, a colleague of Zertal, wrote for the Jerusalem Post on January 26 this year: “Zertal and I were having coffee while the volunteers were busy washing the pottery they had dug from the ground that day. Zertal was working with a pencil and paper, and then handed me a drawing of what he thought the structure beneath the pile of stones would look like when it was completely revealed.

“I was thunderstruck, and bolted from the table without saying a word. I returned moments later with a book, opened to the page I had been seeking, and handed it to Zertal. It was now his turn to be thunderstruck. The book was one of the tractates of the Mishna, the first post-biblical code of Jewish law, compiled around c.e. 200. The page had a drawing of the altar of the Jerusalem temple, drawn to the specifications of the description in the text. The similarity between the two drawings was striking.”

According to Professor Zertal, the square altar matches descriptions of Jerusalem’s temple altar but was built two centuries after the biblical date for Joshua. The smaller circular altar (Installation 94) sits directly under and in the exact center of the later 13th-century B.C.E. altar. Dr. Stripling believes Installation 94 is likely Joshua’s altar.
Melissa Barreiro/Let the Stones Speak

To say the altar Joshua built on Mount Ebal was discovered would be a sensational claim—one that would inevitably be greeted with both excitement and staunch criticism. The evidence was compelling. The excavation was situated on what was known to be Mount Ebal. Zertal had uncovered a massive structure, one with design and function that was unparalleled in the archaeological world. And he had uncovered both ash and animal bones, both signs of sacrifices.

Yet even Zertal struggled to accept that he had discovered archaeological evidence of this early period of biblical history. He was a secular archaeologist, not a religious crusader striving to verify the Bible. But faced with compelling evidence of an altar site on Mount Ebal, Zertal could not ignore or reject the remarkable connection between the stones he had excavated and the biblical narrative.

Zertal described his thought process in A Nation Born: “The problem now was how to present what we’d found. My academic background made it difficult for me to accept the idea of Joshua’s altar being a tangible reality. After all, Moses is not a historical figure, and the Torah lacks any substantive archaeological support. In the end, I was obliged to overcome each of my thousand-and-one doubts, for it seemed that we had made a discovery as unlikely as finding Sodom and Gomorrah. … If we have found material evidence of a story as early as Joshua’s, who knows how far back the archaeological record can take us” (emphasis added throughout).

As credentialed and respected as Professor Zertal was, the announcement that he had found Joshua’s altar was met with skepticism by many in the archaeological community. Most agreed with his dating (around 1200 b.c.e.) of the large structure and did not deny the presence of ash and sacrificial animal bones. Still, the assertion that it was an altar was a step too far.

Not everyone rejected Zertal’s claim, however. In fact, a handful of experienced and esteemed scientists were believers, including Prof. Benjamin Mazar, the head of Hebrew University and one of Israel’s most respected archaeologists. Professor Mazar first visited and examined the site on Oct. 16, 1983. “His appetite for information was almost insatiable,” wrote Zertal. “Around noon, as we snacked in the shade of a canopy, Mazar stirred the sugar in his cup deliberately and said, ‘This is really a tremendous discovery. But get ready for a long and difficult struggle. Not everyone will agree with you.’” Professor Mazar was right.

Zertal debated the merits of his Mount Ebal discovery for more than three decades, up until his death in 2015. In that time, more of Zertal’s colleagues came around to his identification of the Mount Ebal structure as an altar. For many others, however, it was easier to simply ignore the discovery.

Recently, a third view of Professor Zertal’s discovery on Mount Ebal has emerged.

An Earlier Altar?

A few years ago, American archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling turned his attention to Mount Ebal and Professor Zertal’s excavations. Stripling began studying the mount because he wanted to understand how it might connect with his important excavations in Shiloh.

Given the choice, Dr. Stripling would have liked to have continued Zertal’s excavations on Mount Ebal. But this is largely impossible as the site is situated in politically sensitive territory. So Dr. Stripling did the next best thing: He wet-sifted the material excavated by Zertal that was left in piles adjacent to the large structure.

Entering the project, Stripling believed Zertal had found the altar mentioned in Joshua 8, but that it was an earlier altar built on the same site. To understand Stripling’s view, it’s important to understand exactly what the Bible relates about Joshua’s conquest. The biblical text firmly supports an early date of the conquest, indicating that Joshua and Israel began conquering Canaan around 1400 b.c.e.

Professor Zertal stands in front of the altar on Mount Ebal.
robert wallis/Corbis via Getty Images

This date is different from the one suggested by Professor Zertal and others. Those who propose a later date for Joshua’s conquest believe Israel entered the Promised Land in the late 13th century, sometime close to 1200 b.c.e. (For more on this, see sidebar “Dating the Exodus.”)

In Zertal’s excavations, he documented the presence of an earlier altar directly underneath the massive square altar. This altar, which he termed Installation 94 in his preliminary report, is much smaller than the large square structure. It has a diameter of only 2 meters.

The shape of this smaller altar is also important. It’s not square, like the large altar. It is circular and made from unworked, medium-size stones. In his report, Zertal noted that directly on top of this smaller altar was a 10-centimeter layer of clean ash containing animal bones, many of which were burnt. Here’s what Zertal wrote about this smaller altar just before he died: “It would be some time before we’d realize that this was the core, the very heart of the ritual within the ancient structure. This was it—the primogenial ritual site on Mount Ebal.”

Zertal believed this smaller altar was built shortly before the larger altar and dated to the same relative period (around 1200 b.c.e.). While Dr. Stripling agrees that the smaller altar was built prior to the larger structure, he believes the evidence indicates that the smaller, earlier altar was built much earlier, even 200 years earlier (around 1400 b.c.e., the time of Joshua’s conquest).

Dr. Stripling supports his view with evidence uncovered during the wet-sifting of Professor Zertal’s fill material. Upon examining the fill, Stripling’s team uncovered a higher percentage of pottery styles that can be dated to an earlier period than what Zertal suggested in his preliminary report. The presence of pottery from an earlier period suggests an earlier use of the site.

Stripling also takes issue with the traditional interpretation of the Egyptian scarab of Pharaoh Thutmose iii, which was found in the assemblage associated with the round altar. The traditional view, held by experts like Baruch Barndl, is that the Thutmose iii scarab is commemorative and belongs in the 13th century. “This is nothing new,” writes Stripling. “The identification of 18th-dynasty scarabs from sites like Mount Ebal, Shiloh and Jericho are often judged to be commemorative because they challenged the dominant late-date theory. The theory now drives the interpretation” (Five Views on the Exodus).

Stripling believes the Thutmose seal is likely not commemorative but instead provides the very evidence of a far earlier date for the construction of the earlier circular altar. Finally, he notes that a small amount of Late Bronze Age (15th century) pottery found beneath the square altar belongs to the earlier activity on the site.

When you consider the various elements, a new view emerges. “I believe that this pottery, a Late Bronze pumice chalice from (Pit 250), a small amount of animal bone from inside the round altar and the Thutmose iii scarab all point to a 15th-century date for the round altar,” writes Stripling. “Everyone agrees with Zertal that the rectangular altar dates to the 13th century. [But] the round altar likely belongs to the late 15th century and is plausibly the altar that Joshua built” (ibid).

A Future Excavation

As Dr. Stripling noted, the only way to conclusively settle this debate is to excavate the site further. Sadly, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. But if it could, Zertal left part of Installation 94 intact, meaning modern excavation methods could help settle the age of the earlier altar. Yet even without excavation, we are not without options or answers.

Dr. Stripling’s wet-sifting project on Mount Ebal continues and could furnish new finds (see our interview with Dr. Stripling for more such evidence).

In the meantime, much like Professor Zertal, those curious to know more can continue to hope. In spite of his detractors, Zertal believed that the truth based on evidence would prevail. As he wrote in A Nation Born, “I couldn’t comprehend the blistering reactions. I believed then as I do today; that in the end, the truth will come to light.”

Let the Stones Speak

Sidebar: Dating the Exodus

There are two primary schools of thought on the date of the Exodus. One believes the Exodus occurred in the 15th century b.c.e.; the other, the 13th century.

The first view is based on biblical chronology. The Bible records many genealogies and events, some of which can be aligned with secular events recorded in historical documents. Putting together the Bible and ancient secular history, it is possible to fix a reasonably solid date for the construction of Solomon’s temple: circa 967 b.c.e. (a date agreed upon by proponents of both schools). 1 Kings 6:1 states that the temple began to be built in the 480th year after Israel left Egypt, thus putting the Exodus around 1446 b.c.e. and the entry into Canaan 40 years later, around 1406 b.c.e. This date matches several other scriptures, including Jephthah’s speech (around 1100 b.c.e.) about the Israelites having been 300 years in the land (Judges 11:26); and genealogical information, such as the 19 successive generations from the Exodus to David, listed in 1 Chronicles 6. (For a 13th-century Exodus, this would have each new generation conceived at an average of roughly 12 years old.)

The belief that the Exodus occurred in the 13th century b.c.e. is based on the interpretation of select archaeological evidence. A number of sites across Israel have destruction layers dating to the 13th century. Some archaeologists believe these destruction layers represent the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land following their departure from Egypt. Further, Exodus 1:11 says the Israelites built a city in Egypt named Ramses. Pharaoh Ramesses ii (popularly considered the pharaoh of the Exodus) reigned during the 13th century and built the city Pi-Ramesses.

However, there are other explanations for both the 13th-century destruction layers and the city of “Ramses.” The 13th-century destruction layers in Canaan fit arguably better within the brutal period of the judges (as the Bible only describes three cities being burned during Joshua’s conquest, with an emphasis on others being spared—i.e. Joshua 11:3; Deuteronomy 6:10-11). Additionally, placing the Exodus in the 13th century overlooks 15th-to-14th-century destruction layers discovered at specific post-Exodus sites whose destruction is mentioned in the Bible.

As for the city “Ramses,” the Bible actually mentions this location during the days of the patriarch Jacob, many centuries before its construction (Genesis 47:11). It is, then, clearly used as an anachronistic name for an earlier site.

Let the Stones Speak