Holy Land Pilgrimage and Biblical Archeology



Deuteronomy 11:29     


Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Astonishing headlines about the retrieval of a “curse tablet” from a pile of earth turned over by excavators at Mount Ebal, the “mount of curses,” sent me scurrying back 22 years down memory lane to a day spent with the chief archeologist of the site, Adam Zertal.  Here’s what I wrote at the beginning of the turn of the millennium:

Tour guiding is an exciting profession, and one of its greatest thrills is getting an exclusive scoop on Israel's archeological discoveries.  Best of all, we usually get them straight from the source, right on the sites where researchers are digging out the stories from the ancient stones.
Last fall [September 22, 1999] I followed archeologist Adam Zertal to Mount Ebal (towering 3100 feet over biblical Shechem, modern-day Nablus) to see the newly-discovered altar built by the Israelites under Joshua's supervision.  It was a wonderful opportunity to ask what every tour guide wants to know: Why did Adam choose to work at this precise location?  What were the theories that led him here -- the first ones, the revisionist ones, the wildest ones?  What did he want to find -- and did he?
He was by no means the first dedicated digger here on Mount Ebal.  Since the 19th century, scholars have been trying to locate the altar cited in Joshua 8:30-31:
"Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, God of Israel on Mount Ebal, as Moses, the Lord's servant, had commanded the children of Israel, as is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, 'an altar of uncut stones that no iron tool has ever worked.' On this they offered burnt-offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace-offerings."
Four 19th-century expeditions set out to search for the altar of Joshua 8, each choosing a different spot on the mountain.  None of them found anything resembling an altar.  In the 20th century, the ideology changed.  Scholars lost their belief in the "literal truth" of the Bible, so they simply stopped looking for the lost altar.

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Mount Ebal as seen from Mount Gerizim, September 2016

When Adam Zertal arrived at Mount Ebal in the 1980s, the whole area was virtually terra incognita, as he put it, completely unknown.

Courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Looking northwards, Mount Gerizim is on the left, Mount Ebal on the right

But he didn't actually come looking for an altar.  On the contrary.  He was participating in an archeological survey, walking the land in order to map out the territory that had belonged to the tribe of Menashe.
At Mount Ebal (Jebbel Ibal in Arabic), Adam Zertal and his fellow surveyors came upon a non-distinguished heap of stones nine feet high.  What made this particular heap of stones different from the innumerable heaps of stones everywhere else were the early Iron Age pottery sherds scattered on its surface.  Digging beneath the stones, the archeologists found lots of ash and bones.  They had no idea what they were looking at -- but clearly it was "something."
They looked for parallels in Egypt, Greece, Turkey, within Israel, anywhere but the Bible.  After all, Zertal was one of those 20th-century archeologists who believed that the Bible was passé -- at least for archeologists.
Finally, though, he had no choice.  As the facts stared him in the face, Zertal came to the conclusion that there were at least six good reasons to believe that this was the location where the Inaugural Ceremony of the Nation of Israel was held.  The equivalent, you could say, of Philadelphia and the Constitutional Convention of the USA.
But with one major difference: rather than just the Founding Fathers, the entire nation of Israel was present.  Half of the tribes were standing in front of Mount Gerizim, the other half in front of Mount Ebal.  The ones at Ebal, by the way, were having more fun -- they got to shout "Amen!" to the juiciest curses imaginable! (Check out Deut. 27.)
Zertal shared with us an astounding discovery: 93% of the bones had belonged to sheep, goats, bulls or fallow deer (all kosher animals).  They found no remains of dogs, donkeys, gazelles, foxes, pigs.  All the bones were from young males.  According to the Torah, sacrificial animals such as sheep, goats and bulls have to be under a year old, male and unblemished -- and that's exactly what they found!
Most of the bones were scorched, sure signs of sacrifice.  With no dwellings nearby, 3,000 animal bones found on Mount Ebal are a very strong argument in favor of the site being the sacrificial altar of Joshua 8.  (Zertal told us he thought that the Israelites first carried out the ceremony of dedication, with animal sacrifices on stone.  Then they gathered the ash and buried it. Then in the third stage, they built an altar.)
But there's more.  We can actually see the outer perimeter where the "elders, officers and judges" (zekanim, shotrim, shoftim) (Joshua 8:33) stood facing the Levitical priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant.  Also still intact is the ramp where the high priest would have ascended to make the sacrifice on the altar.  We can even see the "ledge" (see Exodus 27:5) along which the high priest would walk while sprinkling blood over the altar.
This undistinguished "heap of stones" on Mount Ebal turned out to be the earliest, most complete Israelite ritual center ever discovered, the site of the altar which generations of archeologists sought.  Unearthed and decoded, it offers us an extraordinary glimpse into the practices of ancient Israel in the days of Joshua.

Courtesy of Wikipedia commons

The walls of Joshua's altar were intact up to six feet (2 meters) in height

Mount Ebal awaits us -- let me bring you and your group to the mount of the curses on your next pilgrimage.  We'll take out our Bibles, listen to each curse of Deuteronomy 27 and shout AMEN before inspecting Joshua’s altar for ourselves.

Copyright March 2000 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Postscript March 2022
With the announcement on March 18, 2022 of the sensational identification of a 3,000 “curse tablet” by means of wet sifting debris from Adam Zertal’s dig at Mount Ebal, I excavated my notes of a full-day seminar for guides with Adam Zertal in September 1999.  The following is a summary of Adam Zertal’s arguments in favor of the heap of stones he showed us as being Joshua’s altar as described in the Book of Joshua chapter eight.
A. Pottery. The pottery found was from one period only.  Early Iron Age 1240 to 1200 BC.  Most of it was found inside the altar site, and some along the way to the mini-amphitheater below it.  Inside the structure were found two scarabs from the last 20 years of the reign of Ramses II (1245 to 1220 BC)
B. Bones.  93% of the bones belonged to sheep, goats, bulls and fallow deer.  (The first three are specified as sacrificial animals).  Higher than usual percentage of the bones were scorched, a sure sign of sacrifice.  Ancient Middle-Easterners didn’t eat a lot of red meat.  Only at feast time when a lot of people sat around together to eat the meat.  (This is obviously before the days of refrigeration.)
C. Plaster.  In Joshua 8 Joshua was commanded to write upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses.  They would have needed plaster to write down the words.  Zertal and his team found signs of plaster.
D. Temenos wall.  Temenos is a Greek word meaning “an enclosed sacred space”. There were no structures (no houses, nor temples) inside the wall enclosing the site.

In this photo taken by tour leader Tom Brewer in early September 2000 (just a couple of weeks before the second intifada broke out), the tenemos wall is right behind my orange hat and the altar is at the top of the photo.  I am holding a reconstruction of what the ramp might have looked like.
E.  The ramp.  The ramp on the Mount Ebal altar indicates a strict adherence to the law in Exodus 20:26 requiring a ramp rather than steps.  There were no steps so that the priest would not reveal his nakedness.  There was no exit or entrance.  The construction is similar to a description of the altar by the rabbis in the Mishna (tractate Middot).  We walked around the altar to the ramp side, facing the altar with our backs to Mount Ebal).  We were outside the porch, the lower level, where the high priest would stand.  It was like a ledge.
F. The “ledge”.  Exodus 27:5 speaks of the altar of the Tabernacle having a ledge where the priest would walk as he dabbled in the flood of the sacrifice and sprinkled it on the altar.  It’s a kind of balcony.  Leviticus 7:2 says the blood of the guilt-offering should be dashed against the altar “round-about.”
When approaching and visiting the site several times after the guide seminar, I noticed further evidence for the authenticity of the altar.  Sitting or standing on the opposite hill, all Israel could see what was happening by the altar.  Joshua 8:32, “And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote before the children of Israel.”
Now to the “curse tablet”:
In 2019 the debris from a dump pile formed during the 1980s excavation of Mount Ebal by the late Adam Zertal and his team was re-examined by the technique of wet sifting.  A tiny 2 by 2 cm lead artifact had been missed by Zertal’s team.
Contemporary scholars just announced (in March 2022) the deciphering of an inscription of 40 letters in a proto-Canaanite script dating to the Late Bronze Age.
According to high-tech scans done in Prague by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and deciphered by Professor Gershon Galil of the Haifa University, among others, the tiny lead tablet reads in translation “Cursed, cursed, cursed by the God YHW / You will die cursed. / Cursed you will surely die. / Cursed by YWH – cursed, cursed, cursed.”  Arur is cursed in Hebrew.  And the scholars making the announcement claim that the tetragrammaton (Hebrew name of God transliterated in four letters as YHVH ) is visible as well.

Courtesy of IAE

Enlargement of the "Curse Tablet" -- Can you read it???

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The tetragrammaton in proto-Canaanite script  (yod/hey/vav/hey) from right to left

This “curse tablet” and its translation has yet to be analyzed, debated and authenticated by scholars from around the world.  Stay tuned and we shall see!!!

Copyright March 2022 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Gila Yudkin, a Connecticut-born Yankee living in King David’s Court, has been guiding holy land pilgrims for forty years.  (“Forty” in the language of the Bible means a very, very long time!)  So much has changed in our perceptions of biblical archeology since those early days.  But one thing has remained constant: archeologists find the stones, and Gila takes on the challenge "of making the stones speak."
Gila craves sharing her passion for adventure in the Holy Land with like-minded pastors, teachers and students of the bible.  Come join her! 

Read about other biblical adventurers like Connecticut Yankee Edward Robinson or British Captain Charles Warren.

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Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin