When Professor Adam Zertal discovered Joshua’s Altar in the 1980’s, he encountered a problem: Mt. Gerizim is not visible from the altar location.
Furthermore, if the ceremony, described in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8, took place on the slopes of the valley of Shechem, why did the Israelites choose to build the altar and the foot enclosure surrounding it 1.5 miles away on a remote slope facing eastward?
This caused many to doubt that this is indeed Joshua’s Altar. Zertal’s solution was to relocate Mt. Gerizim to the west of Mt. Ebal to a mountain now called Mt. Kabeer, thus canceling 2,500 years of Samaritan tradition.
I would like to propose another solution that might explain the decision to build the altar facing eastward.
If you ever saw a group of Jews about to start praying in an airport in New York and wondered why they are shouting “where to?”, or pointing with their hands while moving their lips, you should know that a pre-prayer debate is going on as to the right direction to face while praying.
Religious Jews convene and pray three times a day. For the prayer to start, everyone needs to know where Jerusalem is and face it. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, Jews all over the world have faced Jerusalem and directed their intent toward the place where the house of God used to be located.
As a lover and reader of the Bible, I always wondered, which direction did the ancient Israelites face to worship and sacrifice BEFORE Jerusalem was established as the principal place of worship?
Was there an agreed direction to begin with at every period? If there was a direction for worship, what was it at the time of the conquest?
Getting answers would require me to visit and focus on the earliest worshiping sites of the Israelites, known today as The Gilgals (Foot Structures) and the Mt. Ebal altar also known as “Joshua’s Altar”.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been involved in the archaeological research of Samaria and the Jordan Valley known as the Manasseh Hill Country Survey (MHCS) founded by the late Professor Adam Zertal and headed today by Dr. Shay Bar.
These areas, which previously had never been archaeologically surveyed, have yielded hundreds of new sites that were unknown until the survey’s work commenced.
My main interest was newly discovered cultic sites from the Early Iron Age period that were found thanks to the Survey’s rigorous and meticulous work. These sites would constitute the majority of sites that were in use by Israelites during the time of Joshua, Judges, and 1&2 Samuel.
Zertal and his crew discovered six compounds that were believed to be cultic sites belonging to the Israelite culture:
Argaman (Baydat El Sha'Eb)
Masu’a (Masu’a 4)
Unuk - Tirzah / Faraa valley
Ebal surrounding Joshua’s Altar
Rimmonim (Shaeb Romani)
These sites were identified by Zertal in his book The Footsteps of God 1 as Gilgals, oval shaped stone compounds that served as places of gathering for the Israelite tribes in the initial stages of the conquest period. The Bible describes Gilgals as places used for worship, sacrificing and circumcision, but also as war camps and sites for crowning kings. In that sense, Gilgal is not just a worshiping site. It is also a place of national or tribal significance. We read about their existence in the Bible from Joshua to the Prophets and indeed, according to the archaeological evidence, some of these compounds served the Israelites for hundreds of years, only ending with the Assyrian destruction of 722 BC.
Why are these enclosures identified as cultic and Israelite? Dr. Ralph Hawkins speaks in length about the criteria for defining what is a cultic site and characterizing Israelite cultic sites specifically. I highly recommend reading his books to better understand the basis for his conclusions2.
For the purpose of this article, I would like to move forward based on the understanding that these are indeed Israelite cultic structures. The more recent discovery of the Mt. Ebal Curse Inscription is a very important archaeological achievement in itself. The fact that the tablet’s origin was one of these six foot structures, makes it even clearer that all six compounds belonged to the Israelite culture and theology. In assessing the issue in hand, I tried to look for clues as to the orientation of worshiping among the six structures located at Argaman, Masu’a, Yafit, Unuk, Ebal and Rimmonim.
Every time Zertal presented the discovery of the foot enclosure compounds to an audience, the participants always tried to look for common ground. The focus was always the compound’s direction, location, and architecture.
If these structures were foot shaped, which foot was it, right or left? Why are the structures foot shaped? What is the significance of their shape? What was the consideration in placing the structures in those specific geographical locations?
Although the structures had in common an oval shape to their design, the problem was they seemed to have been built facing in different directions. Their architecture was also slightly different: some had procession roads, some had an altar or Bamah (cultic high ground), some had inner divisions.
My main question was with their differing directions, and it seemed like I couldn’t find a single direction that would connect all six structures.
I decided to take another approach: Divide and Conquer. These were conquest sites after all.
The first group of structures in my view were the three enclosures in the Jordan Valley: Yafit, Masu’a, and Argaman. The reason why I grouped them together was because of their proximity and the fact that they are in the same geographical zone - the Jordan Valley - and to be more specific, the opening of the Tirzah Valley also known in Arabic as Wadi Faraa.
Concentrating on these foot structures, I couldn’t find a shared direction. Furthermore, the Masu’a structure was never excavated and was unintentionally destroyed while building an industrial zone, so the only knowledge I had was the Survey’s sketches and description.
The Yafit enclosure wasn’t very helpful either, because of the unclear direction the enclosure faces. To speak the truth, the shape doesn’t really look like a foot in comparison to the Argaman foot structure.
I remembered visiting the Argaman structure and trying to figure out how the worship might have looked thousands of years ago, but it was really all a guess. I was stuck again. I sat on the slopes of the mountain adjacent to the Argaman foot structure, and looked with frustration into the distance.
I realized that we sometimes tend to focus on the wrong things. What I suddenly saw in the distance changed everything!
All three Jordan Valley compounds have a natural slope that is adjacent to them. This slope would have been the place where the Israelites sat, or stood, while watching the ceremonies taking place in the foot enclosure.
The great thing about the location of the slopes is that the direction to which the crowd faced was now noticeably clear to me. The slope was like a natural theater. The natural ascent made the direction of worship focus evident. The reason why I had never considered the adjacent slopes was because the enclosure itself was always the focus of the research, and I always believed that the central focus of the audience was only the events taking place in the enclosure.
But what if the whole orientation of the site was not dependent on the location of the enclosure? What if the common factor between the Jordan valley compounds was the direction that the Israelites faced while watching the ceremonies taking place in the foot enclosure? To check this possibility, I had to revisit the other two sites and check the orientation of the natural theaters.
If I did find a shared direction or location that all three Jordan Valley theaters are facing, I might be able to connect it to the other enclosures and possibly solve the orientation question of the altar on Mt. Ebal.
Revisiting the three sites at the Jordan valley, it was evident that the three theaters had different orientations. That ruled out the Four Winds. If there was a common direction, it had to be something else.
Using a map marking each of the 3 Jordan Valley foot structures and their adjacent theaters, I drew three lines starting at each of the theaters, through each of the enclosures, and continuing straight into the distance as if a person standing on each of the slopes was looking straight out into the distance from each line’s starting point.
All three lines crossed at the same location - the Jabbok or Yabok River, or in Arabic, Wadi Zarkaa and the plain of Adam.
During the conquest period, the Yabok river separated between the tribe of Gad in the south and the Half Tribe of Manasseh in the north (The Gilead). At the area where the river flows into the Jordan is Tel El Damia, the ruins of the ancient city of Adam. If all three theaters pointed in this direction, it could not be a coincidence. What was so significant about this area in the eyes of the Israelites?
For many years, archaeologists had looked for evidence of a major Israelite crossing in the area of Jericho, as it is described in the Bible. The assumption is that hundreds of thousands of Israelites crossing and settling in the area of Jericho would leave a major archaeological trace in the area. Up until very recently, such evidence had not been found, and this was used by minimalist archaeologists as a proof against the historicity of the events described in the book of Joshua.
This picture changed when Professor Zertal and Dr. Shay Bar discovered - a few miles north of Jericho - a major change of population when shifting from the Late Bronze (LB) Age to the Early Iron Age.
From an area that was empty of human habitation during LB, we see hundreds of semi nomadic encampments suddenly appearing in the area north of Jericho as we move to the Early Iron Age. The center of the settlements seems to be the Adam / Jabbok / Tirzah triangle.
Can we find any backing in the Bible to a crossing North of Jericho? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes. Many think that the miracle described in the Bible of the waters of the Jordan stopping and allowing the Israelites to cross over, happened in the area of Jericho.
If we look closely at the scriptures, we find a different account of the events:
“The waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.” Joshua 3:16
The Bible clearly states that the Jordan River miracle happened 17.5 miles north of Jericho.This would allow the Israelites to cross at any point north of Jericho and up to Adam/Jabbok.
So, who were the “People” that were crossing opposite Jericho? Could it be that the Bible is only referring to the fighting force of the Israelites that would eventually conquer Jericho and continue to Ai? The results of the Manasseh Survey show that the majority, if not all the Israelite camps and sheep pens, appeared miles north of Jericho.
I would like to suggest that this is indeed the case. The area of Jericho was populated by Canaanites that were hostile towards the Israelite presence. It would be safer for the non-combatants to cross into an area that is empty of the Canaanite population: the area north of Jericho and up to Jabbok- the place where the miracle of the Jordan River occurred.
Is it possible that the orientation of the foot shaped enclosure sites is commemorating the Jordan river miracle?
I became obsessed with the Jabbok-Adam-Tirzah area. Could I find more Biblical events connected to this area that might be crucial in turning it into a “Holy Basin”? Although this area is rarely mentioned in the Bible, there are several events worth mentioning that could increase the sanctity of the region in the eyes of the Israelites.
It can be hard for Bible readers to disconnect from the whole Bible and try to go into the mind of an Israelite’s head in the year 1400BC. The Israelites of that time cherished the stories of the miracles of the Exodus. But they also remembered their ancient heritage of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and especially Jacob - the father of the twelve tribes and the Israelite nation. In Genesis we hear of two angelic revelations to Jacob occurring near the Jabbok River: “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God's camp!’ So he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” (Genesis 32:1-2)
And the second more important one in Genesis 32:22-31:
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok…And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”
The angelic revelation at Mahanaim (the area identified with Tell Edh-Dahab al-Gharbi on the western bank of the Jabbok River), and the more important revelation at Peniel (identified with Tell Edh-Dahab al-Sharki on the eastern bank), are the two crucial events that made this area in the Jordan Valley the center of spiritual and national worship to which the Israelites were oriented.
It is also worth noting another site related to Jacob 6.6 miles northeast of the Jabbok pass. In Genesis 33:17 Jacob builds a permanent house (not a tent) and erects shacks for his flocks in a place he names Sukkot. This town is also mentioned in the book of Joshua, Judges and Kings as belonging to the tribe of Gad. Archaeologically, Sukkot is identified with Tel Deir Alla.
It occurred to me that at the Jordan Valley foot structures, the Israelites could be commemorating a number of important historical and cultural events:
Theology - Jacob’s connection with El, the God of Abraham and Isaac
Ethnicity - The transformation of Jacob from an individual (Jacob) to a people (Israel).
Redemption - Jacob’s passage over the Jordan river marks the return from exile to the homeland, similar to the return of the Israelites from the exile in Egypt.
Conquest - The victory over Esau, who left Canaan and handed it to Jacob, as a precursor to the Israelite conquest of Canaan by Joshua.
Can we find any sources in the Bible attesting to the holiness of this area?
In his book The Footsteps of God, Professor Zertal points out a verse in Psalm 78, which I am presenting from the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) translation that preserves the original Hebrew: “So that He forsook the Mishkan of Shiloh, the Ohel which He placed among adam (men).” (Psalm 78:60)
Zertal and other Bible scholars believe that this verse describes the destruction of the Shiloh Tabernacle and its move to an alternative location. Because this verse is built as two parallel sentences, Shiloh parallels Adam and therefore, Adam should not be translated as “men” but as the city Adam.
Another place in the Bible that could have a connection to the city of Adam and the Jordan Valley area in general is the story of the altar built by the east Jordan tribes.
After the three tribes fulfill their promise to Moses, they return to their tribal lands in the east. Before crossing the Jordan, they decide to build an altar on the western side of the river at a place called Gelilot. Again, the OJB translation is needed:
“And when they came unto the Gelilot of the Yarden, that is in eretz Kena’an, the Bnei Reuven and the Bnei Gad and the half-tribe of Menasheh built there a mizbe’ach by the Yarden, a mizbe’ach gadol in appearance.” Joshua 22:10
The names Gelilot and Gilgal are synonymous as we can see in the northern border of Judah and the southern border of Benjamin:
“And ran from the north, and went to Ein Shemesh, and went toward Gelilot, which is opposite the ascent of Adummim, and descended to the Even Bohan ben Reuven.” (Joshua 18:17, OJB)
“And the boundary went up toward Devir from the Achor Valley, and so northward, looking toward Gilgal, which faces Ma’aleh-Adumim, which is on the south side of the wadi; and the boundary passed toward the Ein-Shemesh Spring, and ended at Ein Rogel.” (Joshua 15:7 OJB)
Is it possible that the Eastern tribes built an altar at an existing Gilgal in the Jabbok area? The Israelites - headed by the high priest Phineas - viewed such an action as a threat to the centrality of the Shiloh Tabernacle, which would justify nothing less than a civil war. Is it possible that the western Israelite tribes headed by Phineas already viewed the Jabbok-Tirzah Basin as a possible rival to Shiloh because of its centrality to the shared Israelite heritage?
After all, Shiloh has a strong Patriarchal connection to Jacob, appearing in his blessing to Judah:
“The shevet (sceptre) shall not depart from Yehudah, nor a Mekhokek (Lawgiver) from between his raglayim, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall be the obedience of the amim (peoples, nations).” (Genesis 49:10 OJB)
When the Eastern tribes are confronted by Phineas, they explain that their motivation is the fear of being excluded in the future by the descendants of the western tribes from the covenant with the Lord. Building an altar at the Jabbok-Tirzah area related to Jacob is a clear message: we are all part of one family, the sons of Jacob. We are all in covenant with the Lord.
What about the other two enclosures at Unuk and Rimmonim? Can we learn anything from their theater-enclosure orientation? Unuk (Tirzah Valley) is on the highest point of the valley and has a collapsed wall that could have served as a fortification. This does not follow the “Stone way” pattern that appears on the other enclosures. Also, it does not have an adjacent slope that could serve as a theater. The Rimmonim enclosure doesn’t have a clear theater either and is far away from the central Samaria and Jordan Valley Israelite region. It is my understanding that these enclosures are not part of the 3 Jordan Valley and Ebal enclosures.
It was time to check my theory at Mt. Ebal. If I was right, the mountains of Jordan should be visible from the adjacent slope-theatre of Ebal.
To my surprise, not only were they visible from the higher elevation of the theatre, but they were also visible from the altar itself which lay lower than the slope.
I rest my case!
Following the orientation theory I presented, I believe that the construction of the altar compound and the orientation of the Ebal theater, correspond with the Jordan Valley compounds.
The Israelites faced Jabbok which is visible to the east just behind the Kabeer ridge.
The Jabbok pass is not visible from the Shechem valley and therefore could not serve the cultic purpose that the Israelites intended for the altar that Moses commanded to build.
If I am correct, The Israelites wanted to worship their God at a place that connected them with their Patriarchal heritage and the miracle of the Jordan river crossing.
“God has spoken in his holiness:
‘With exultation I will divide up Shechem
and portion out the Vale of Succoth.’”