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Joshua's Altar

In the masoretic text and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 27, an instruction is given to build an altar on Mount Ebal, constructed from natural (rather than cut) stones, to place stones there and whiten them with lime, to make peace offerings on the altar, eat there, and write the words of this law on the stone.

circa 1220-1000 BCE

In the late 20th century there was a large stone heap found on Mount Ebal; this one was known to locals as el Burnat (Arabic for the Hat), and was found by Adam Zertal. The rectangular building (illustration) was unlike anything else ever excavated in the Levant. The entire structure was made of whole, uncut fieldstones, which conforms to the command in Exodus 20.

circa 1220-1000 BCE

Zertal uncovered the remains of what seems to have been a 2-meter-high ramp leading to the top of the structure, and descending 7 meters (at a 22◦ incline) to the bottom. On either side of this ramp was a shorter ramp, leading to the ledges on the two sides of the structure. At the bottom of the ramp there were two paved courtyards, one on each side, in which a number of installations and pottery remains were found. This entire complex is surrounded by a very low wall (only 1 meter high).

circa 1220-1000 BCE

This ritual complex (illustration) existed for less than a century, after which it was deliberately covered with stones. This was likely done to both decommission the site and to protect it from being looted or reused. Zertal labeled this covering Stratum IA, and dated it to around 1140 BCE. Not only does the structure of the building fit with the biblical picture, but certain aspects of the building fit well with other ritual laws and concepts known from the Bible.

circa 1220-1000 BCE

Zertal concluded that El-Burnat stratum IB was a cultic site, i.e., a bamah or high place, with a massive stone altar as its main installation. Yet, from the time of Zertal’s first publication of his theory, many scholars reacted quite aggressively and dismissively. The real issue was less with the idea that the structure was an altar, and more with the corollary to his claim: Zertal was not merely saying that this was an ancient Israelite altar, but that this was a specific altar, one described in detail twice in the Bible.

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