The Ebal Amulet – the oldest Israelite text ever found

It was as if I had been finding, and putting together the pieces of a large, difficult jigsaw puzzle – pieces that came from ancient history, archaeology, geography and biblical textual analysis.

 The writer, Zvi Koenigsberg, holding up the amulet. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The writer, Zvi Koenigsberg, holding up the amulet.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Stunning! Remarkable! Explosive! These words are typical of headlines in the media since March 25. That’s the date of the press conference that introduced the world to the text on the lead amulet found recently at Mount Ebal. According to the experts who deciphered the text, it is a curse in ancient Hebrew script dated to the Settlement Period (circa 1200 BCE).

Why is this news so explosive? The most obvious reason is that it’s the oldest text in ancient Hebrew ever found in Israel. And we know that record-breaking finds always capture the imagination. Until, and unless, an earlier object containing ancient Israelite writing is found, that record speaks for itself. (Note: isolated words have been found on pottery shards, but we are referring to text containing full phrases and/or sentences.)

Two additional reasons for the excitement about the amulet came up over and over in the tsunami of articles: first, the object attests to literacy among the ancient Israelites many hundreds of years earlier than conventional academic thinking. At the press conference, Prof. Gershon Galil – one of the experts who deciphered the amulet – said this suggests that some biblical texts may have been written as early as 1200 BCE. Also, finding a curse amulet on the biblical Mountain of the Curse (i.e., Ebal, according to Deuteronomy 27) connects the physical archaeological site of Ebal with the biblical texts about Ebal. This is another record-breaker – it is the first time a site has been discovered that matches a segment of the Torah point-by-point.

The backstory – starting with the decision 40 years ago of Prof. Adam Zertal to excavate at Mt. Ebal – appears in my February 7 article in The Jerusalem Report and on The Jerusalem Post’s website. The article touches on the entire 40 years, including the discovery during excavations of the so-called “Joshua’s Altar” and the recent discovery of the amulet, which was still in the process of being deciphered when the article was written. 

After I participated with Zertal in the excavations, during those next 40 years I developed and ceaselessly researched theories relating to the site. I read and spoke to experts on a variety of issues, among them the nature of oral tradition and written texts in ancient Israel as well as the definition of an Israelite temple. I came to the conclusion that Ebal was a cultic site, an actual temple, that was built at the beginning of the Settlement Period as outlined in the biblical texts. I had scholarly and biblical bases for these theories, and – in a Jerusalem Post op-ed from February 12, 2020 – I actually predicted that writing would be discovered at the site! 

 Visitors on Mount Ebal where the amulet was found. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Visitors on Mount Ebal where the amulet was found. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It was as if I had been finding, and putting together the pieces of a large, difficult jigsaw puzzle – pieces that came from ancient history, archaeology, geography and biblical textual analysis. And the discovery of Israelite writing at the site was the missing, last piece of the puzzle.... With it, the puzzle has come together, and my theories have been further solidified.

Let’s look at the possibility mentioned above of earlier dating of parts of the Torah. We recounted that Prof. Galil said the dating of this writing suggests that biblical texts may have been composed as early as circa 1200 BCE. My research shows that the sections of the Bible relating to Ebal were indeed composed around that time. There is evidence in the text that the author of that segment of the Bible was present at the time that the site was active. There are details in the text that are both specific and accurate. They must have been written by someone who was there around that time because the site was deliberately covered up circa 1150 BCE, after a brief period of activity, and was undisturbed for 3,300 years until our excavations, starting in 1982. Further, the details could not have been passed down to someone who wrote about them hundreds of years later because – according to my research – the details here are not of the type that oral tradition ever preserved in Israelite history. 

My earlier dating of the Ebal segment of Deuteronomy is contrary to the almost universal academic opinion that these biblical texts were written 600 years later, during the time of King Josiah. The theory has been that the “discovery” of the ancient scroll in the temple circa 620 BCE as described in II Kings 22-23 was a religious fraud. In other words, the scroll was not “discovered” at that time, but actually written at that time and put in the mouth of Moses to give it historical sanctity. The ostensible purpose was to justify centralizing the cult in Jerusalem under Josiah. Further, the assumption has been that the phrase “the place that He will choose” – i.e., the home of God – which appears repeatedly in Deuteronomy, reflects the centralization of the cult by Josiah and referred to Jerusalem.

But, dating the text to the time of Ebal, some 250 years before the Jerusalem temple was built, undermines the identification of “the place that He will choose” as Jerusalem. Let’s consider my theory that the original “place that He will choose” referenced in those texts is Ebal. My research shows that Ebal matches all the criteria for an Israelite temple according to scholars who specialize in this issue. Long before the amulet was found, I had reached the conclusion that Ebal must be a temple, i.e., the home of God, and “the place that He will choose.” 

The discovery/deciphering of the amulet gives additional credibility to that conclusion. Although the existence of objects containing writing is not a necessary requirement for a temple, it is accepted by the experts that formal writing took place exclusively in temples during early Israelite periods... another strong indication that Ebal was a temple. And as for Ebal being the location originally referred to as “the place that He will choose” – it was the “only game in town” in 1200 BCE.

Defining Ebal as a temple and as the original “place that He will choose,” undermines fundamental tenets of Western scholarship and religion, especially relating to Jerusalem. My theories about Ebal have been – and will undoubtedly continue to be – met with fierce resistance and opposition. Hopefully, the intensity of the opposition will abate somewhat after publication of the final report for the original excavation and the report about the amulet, both of which are in process.

Possibly the most striking sentence in the Ebal portion of Deuteronomy reads: “This day you have become the Nation of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 27:9). The late Prof. Adam Zertal adopted this verse in the title of his book about Ebal, A Nation Born. How fitting that this article is appearing on Independence Day – Yom Ha’atzmaut – a day that commemorates the rebirth of the Nation of Israel in 1948.  

Editor’s note: For more about Zvi Koenigsberg’s search and the details that led him to his theories, read his Kindle book, The Lost Temple of Israel.