written by Adam Zertal





Shechem and mount 'ebal in the bible: is this indeed Joshua's altar?

In early Israelite sources Shechem is considered a central holy place for the tribes coming to settle the land. Moreover, Shechem's sanctity also finds expression in the stories of the patriarchs. When Abraham migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, he came to Shechem first: "And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said: 'Unto thy seed will I give this land'; and he builded there an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him" (Genesis 12:6-7). This tradition was continued by Jacob: "And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. And he bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem's father, for a hundred pieces of money. And he erected there an altar, and called it God, the God of Israel" (Genesis 33:18-20).

There appears to be a direct connection between this and the important tradition in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 concerning an altar erected on Mt. 'Ebal and an important covenant made on the site: "And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: 'Keep all the commandment which I command you this day. And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster... And it shall be when ye are passed over the Jordan, that ye shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and thou shalt plaster them with plaster. And there shalt thou build an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones; thou shalt lift up no iron tool upon them. Thou shalt build the altar of the Lord thy God of unhewn stones; and thou shalt offer burnt-offerings thereon unto the Lord thy God... And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly.' And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: 'Keep silence, and hear, 0 Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the Lord thy God...' " (Deuteronomy 27: 1-9).

The Book of Joshua describes the performance of this commandment: "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. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote before the children of Israel" (Joshua 8:30-32).

No scholar challenges the fact that this is an extremely important and authentic tradition dealing with a central event in the life of the people. All agree that this event took place on Mt. 'Ebal. As to the date of the event and the date it was recorded, however, views vary. Another tradition, in Joshua24, accords special importance to Shechem. There Joshua made a covenant with the people, "and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem" (Joshua 24:25). According to the biblical redactor, Shechem and its environs were a major center for the emergent union of Israelite tribes. The central altar was erected on Mt. 'Ebal, and there Israel became "a people unto the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 27:9); whereas the "statute and ordinance" (whatever this obscure expression means) were given to the people in Shechem.

Thus far, archaeological research has not been bountiful on the period of the Israelite settlement. In most of the major places mentioned in the stories ofthe conquest, such as Jericho, 'Ai, 'Arad, and others, no strata of destruction from the Late Bronze Age which would accord with the biblical account have been found. Reputable scholars have suggested that the entire story of the conquest is nothing more than a later, etiological tradition which sets out to account for various manifestations in the light of mythological traditions and folklore. Recent extensive archaeological surveys of the central hill country, however, reveal clearly the process of Israelite settlement as a major settlement movement of the era (1250-1100 B.C.E.). Hundreds of newly-founded, small settlements were established within a short period throughout the hilly allotments of the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin. The settlers used a characteristic type of pottery and their houses were generally built on a three- or four-room plan. Although Israelite pottery and architecture were influenced by the Canaanites, they have certain prominent and unique characteristics. In our survey of the hill country of Manasseh we were able to study the ecology of the Israelite settlement and, using new research methods, we succeeded in reconstructing the process by which they penetrated the central hill country from the eastern Transjordan. Evidently the beginning of the penetration, sometime in the 13th century B.C.E., was made by semi-nomadic shepherd groups migrating from the edge of the desert, by way of the "ecological pipe" of Wadi el Far'a (Nahal Tirzah). Many sites with ancient pottery typical of the settlement period were discovered along the fertile and well-watered valley of this river, which is surrounded by broad pasture. In the next phase the Israelites established themselves along the edges of the internal valleys of the hill country of Manasseh: Tubas (biblical Thebez), Zebabdeh, Sanur, Dothan, and others. An economy based on olive and grape cultivation, which henceforth would characterize Israelite habitation of the hill country, did not emerge until the settlement process drew to a close at the end of the 12th century. As this complex and fascinating process was developing, the people's religious and ritual practice took shape. The cultic site on Mt. 'Ebal satisfies the three criteria necessary to identify a biblical site: chronological (beginning of the Israelite settlement), geographical, and the nature of the site (a cultic center with a burnt-offering altar). In view of this analysis, the identity of the biblical story and this site as the first inter-tribal center of the Israelite tribes can hardly be doubted.

This is the first time a complete Israelite cultic center, including an altar for burnt offerings, is available for study. Thanks to King Josiah's and King Hezekiah's activities in breaking up the "high places," only two small altars for burnt offerings have been discovered in Israel, one in 'Arad and the other (discovered no longer intact) in Beer-Sheba, and both date relatively late. The altar on Mt. 'Ebal is not only the most ancient and complete altar, but also the prototype of the Israelite burnt offering altar of the First and Second Temple periods. The Mesopotamian architectural influence on the structure of the altar is also very interesting, both in its stepped construction and in the orientation of its corners to the north, south, east, and west.


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