Mount Ebal – more than meets the eye

Ebal has much more significance to the Jewish nation than is common knowledge.

The Mount Ebal excavation site (photo credit: AARON LIPKIN - LIPKIN TOURS AGENCY)
The Mount Ebal excavation site
Headlines have been splashed across newspapers in recent days about Arabs destroying part of the archaeological site at Mount Ebal. Israelis would be outraged by the destruction at any biblical archaeological site. But, this isn’t just any site... this is the site built by the Israelites upon crossing the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua. It is the site of Joshua’s Altar, described in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. And, as we will see, Ebal has much more significance to the Jewish nation than is common knowledge.
The setting
Mount Ebal is the large mountain, north of the ancient city of Shechem, in the center of Samaria, some 40 miles north of Jerusalem. The excavation site is located on a slope beneath the summit, on the northeastern side of the mountain. It consists of a burnt offering altar, an inner wall and an outer wall. It is the outer wall that was recently partially destroyed by the Arabs.
The altar sits at the top of a ledge, making it visible to potentially thousands of people in the sloping field beneath it. On a clear day, the snow-capped Mount Hermon, 150 miles away, is visible.
Archaeology - part 1
Ebal was excavated by the late archaeologist, Prof. Adam Zertal, who put forth the explanation of the nature of the site: In addition to being the site of Joshua’s altar, it was the location of the ceremony of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27. It served as a central cultic site for 70-100 years.
I participated in the excavations with Zertal from 1982 through 1988. Anyone who read his book Birth of a Nation, and remembers the story about identifying the altar, will recognize me as the guy who ran to bring Adam a picture in the Mishna of the Jerusalem Temple altar, bearing a striking similarity to the one we were excavating.
I was so intrigued with the site and the biblical references to it that I have continued to research, speak, and write about it to this day – 40 years later. I always felt that there was more to the puzzle of this site than what has been long accepted. That puzzle turned into my life’s mission. And the solution to the puzzle puts the importance of the site – and the travesty of the Arab destruction – in a new light.
Archaeology - part 2
With the support and help of some leading scholars of Bible and Archaeology, I pursued the puzzle of Mt. Ebal.
After I figured out one piece of the puzzle, the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, excavator of the Western Wall area, said: “This story, you must tell!”
Recent recipient of the Israel Prize in Bible, Prof. Yair Zakovitch, contributed a blurb which appears on the back of my book, The Lost Temple of Israel, 2015: “The challenge to certain commonly accepted ideas cannot be easily dismissed by archaeologists and Bible scholars.”
Prof. Gaby Barkay, who found the silver scroll of the priestly blessing on display in the Israel Museum, said about my research: “This is a massively important finding.”
Why did these eminent scholars spend time with me discussing a site that has been virtually ignored by academia, and which had met with occasional vehement disagreement as to its nature? Because of their willingness to think outside the box.
My interpretation of Ebal boils down to:
1. Temple – It was an Israelite temple – the first. It meets all the criteria described by the late Prof. Menahem Haran, in his definitive book about Israelite temples;
2. Home of God – It was the original object of the phrase in Deuteronomy “the Place that He will choose”, i.e. the Home of God. This phrase is attributed by academics and religious commentators to Jerusalem, but Ebal was actually the original place referenced by the phrase;
3. Captured in text at the time it happened– Detailed analysis suggests that the biblical texts about Ebal were written by someone who was present at the site, i.e. about 1,200 BCE. (This wreaks havoc with all accepted dating parameters of biblical materials.) In effect, the texts relating to the Ebal story may include the earliest Biblical texts.
In addition, a 3,000-year-old biblical riddle is solved by my interpretation of Ebal – Genesis 48, the story of the dying Patriarch Jacob blessing Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Joseph places his elder son, Manasseh, opposite the right (more important) hand of the virtually blind Jacob, and the younger, Ephraim, opposite Jacob’s left hand. In a surprise move, Jacob crosses his arms, and uses his right hand to bless the younger Ephraim, and his left for the elder. Joseph tries to correct his father’s positioning, but Jacob insists that he is doing the right thing, preferring the younger over the elder. No one had been able to figure out why.
It turns out that the Ebal site stopped being active, and was deliberately covered up, precisely at the time that Shiloh began to function as an Israelite cultic site, circa 1150 BCE. Apparently, this biblical story was written to justify the transfer of the central holy site of Israel from Ebal, in the territory of the elder son Manasseh, to Shiloh, in the territory of the younger son, Ephraim.
Why has Ebal had such a low profile?
Underplaying or ignoring Ebal began when the central cultic site moved from Mount Ebal to Shiloh, more than 3,000 years ago.
It continued in the Mishna, the first, post-biblical, written text of Jewish law, circa 200 CE. In the tractate of Sacrifices, the rabbinic concept of the sequence of Israelite holy sites is listed. Ebal is omitted, even though – according to Joshua 8:33 – the Ark of the Covenant (which necessarily denotes central cultic activity) was there. A possible explanation for this omission is that during the Mishnaic period, the Samaritans inhabited the area around Shechem. The rabbis, their arch enemies, may have been averse to highlighting a major Israelite holy site nearby.
The Talmud, written next in the 4th-7th centuries BCE, discussed the site in the Talmudic tractate of Sotah. That added little to recognition of the site, or of the ceremony of the Blessings and Curses.
Moving forward, during the latter part of the 19th century, four separate archaeological parties wandered over Mt. Ebal in search of Joshua’s Altar, but found nothing. The site that we later found was neither near the ancient city of Shechem (Nablus), nor was it opposite Mount Gerizim where they looked. As mentioned, the site was tucked away in the side of the mountain. Unlike these explorers, who assumed that the biblical Mt. Gerizim is the modern mountain of that name, Zertal’s interpretation was that the original Mt. Gerizim was the mountain now known as Tel Kabir, which is opposite the altar site. He explained that the current Mt. Gerizim was only given its name much later.
An interesting aside is that during the same period as the archaeologists were searching in vain for the altar, a famous rabbi in Eastern Europe, Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin, (the Netziv), was the first rabbi in almost two millennia to notice the importance of the ceremony of the Blessing and Curse described in the Bible. He especially noted Deuteronomy 27:9: “This day you have become a nation to the Lord your God,” i.e., he believed that the birth of Israel as a nation, was at that time of Ebal, and at there – at the place we had excavated, not at Sinai, or anywhere else!!
Ironically, even after the excavations by Zertal and the publication of his preliminary report, attitudes towards Ebal did not improve, and indeed possibly even worsened. There was a series of unbridled attacks on the scientific legitimacy of his claims, attacks which continue to this very day. Although his work was based on unequivocal archaeological evidence, the fact that it destroyed many axioms of accepted scholarship made it either the target of vehement opposition, or worse, a subject extensively ignored by the academic community at large. Sad to say, the axioms were heavily based, and not on hard evidence from the field.
I recorded my personal experiences of this saga in my book, The Lost Temple of Israel. Those interested in the more academic segments of my research are invited to read the four articles I wrote on issues relating to Ebal, and published in the past few years on the website
Now what?
So, after decades of being trivialized or ignored, only the partial destruction by neighboring Arabs brought the story of the site to the forefront of the news in Israel and around the world. And, now that Mt. Ebal has made its way into the headlines, I hope it stays in both the news and in the consciousness of the nation. It would be a silver lining to this disturbing destruction if the episode results in the raising of funds and political energy to give this site the care it deserves, and to make sure that the birthplace of Israel remains in the hands of Israel forever. Any alternative is unthinkable.
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