located some 50 km (30 mi.) north of Jerusalem, one of the highest peaks in Israel, rising to about 940 m above sea level. It is located in the Manasseh tribal allotment in the heart of the hill country of Samaria. Opposite, to the south, is the slightly lower Mt. Gerizim, with several excavated ruins. Between the two mountains, in a well-defined pass, lies Shechem (Tell Balaṭ;ah), once the capital of ancient Israel, on the main road leading north from Jerusalem to the Esdraelon Valley.
No archaeological sites on Mt. Ebal were known before 1980, when a survey team, led by Adam Zertal, discovered what appeared to be an Early Israelite mountaintop high place on a rocky ridge high on the eastern slopes, 800 m above sea level (map reference 1773 × 1829). The survey covered 2,000 sq km (or 1,240 sq. mi.) of the Manasseh hill country. The site overlooks the eastern Samaria hill country, the Wadi Far῾ah region, and parts of Transjordan. It was excavated by Zertal in the course of eight seasons (1982–1989), on behalf of Tel Aviv and Haifa Universities and the Israel Exploration Society.
The site was founded during the Late Bronze Age IIB/Iron Age IA transitional period (late thirteenth century BCE). The dating is based on pottery, including a few Mycenaean IIIC sherds, a dated stone seal, and two egyptianized scarabs from the latter part of the reign of Rameses II (c. 1240–1215 BCE).
Both of its levels were excavated. In level 2 (c. 1240–1200 BCE), a small stone circle 2 m in diameter was found filled with ash and animal bones; near it were two walls and an area covered with large potsherds. The circle had been arranged directly on the bedrock. Sections under later court-yards (level 1B) revealed intensive use of fire on the rock and many animal bones. On a lower terrace west of the circle, between a low rock cliff and an enclosure wall built with large boulders, a structure resembling an Iron Age four-room house was excavated and attributed to level 2. [See Four-room House.] Southeast of it, along the same wall, a portion of a storehouse was unearthed, with eleven large pithoi of the collared-rim type lying in stone “cells.”
Sometime in the early twelfth century BCE, the site underwent major changes (level 1B), without evidence of destruction or abandonment. At the center of the site was a structure measuring about 9 × 14 m; built of large, undressed stones, it is preserved to a height of 3.25 m. Two walls led from the structure's outer section to its inner section, which was filled with stones, ash, burnt animal bones, sherds, and other debris. The excavators distinguished four fill levels in the debris, which seemed to have been sealed over by a stone pavement. Surrounding the central level 1B structure on three sides, and about 0.8 m lower than it and connected to it, was a stone wall about 1 m wide. A double stone ramp led up from the outside to the central structure: the main ramp, leading to the top, was 1.2 m wide; the secondary ramp, joined to it and leading to the surrounding wall, was 0.8 m wide. The structure was built as part of a stone enclosure (26 × 26 m) whose southwestern side consisted of two adjoining, stone-paved open-air courtyards. Built into these courtyards were eleven pitlike installations, containing ash, animal bones, and pottery vessels. Some ninety similar installations were found outside the central structure on all sides. These contained metal objects, seals and scarabs, and vessels of different types.
Other changes in level 1B included the closing and covering over of the level 2 four-room house, converting it into an open square in front of the central structure, and the building of a double temenoslike enclosure with a central complex inside it. The two enclosures were connected by a flight of three stone steps 7.5 m wide. Level 1B was occupied for fifty-seventy years (c. 1200–1130 BCE); pottery finds indicate that it did not survive into the eleventh century. The site was systematically abandoned: there was no sign of destruction or fire, and it had been deliberately sealed with a stone cover (level 1A).
The excavators suggest a connection between the twelfth-century BCE level 1B complex and the traditions in Deuteronomy 27:1–9 and Joshua 8:30–35. These describe a large, stone-built sacrificial altar erected by Joshua on Mt. Ebal, under the command of Moses, where the people of Israel gathered and an important ceremony took place. Evidence for this identification—one of the few instances in Syro-Palestinian and biblical archaeology where a structure mentioned in biblical texts can be correlated with a specific archaeological discovery—is seen in the level 1B complex as a whole. It is interpreted as a raised altar surrounded by a temenos wall. The stone installations, intended for offerings; the absence of living quarters in level 1B; some special types of pottery; and, particularly, the nearly three thousand animal bones, 96 percent of which are from cattle, sheep, goats, and fallow deer (17 percent of the total sample of burnt material) attest to the area's cultic use. All but fallow deer are considered sacrificial animals in biblical and later rabbinic traditions. The installation itself can be compared with similar altars mentioned not only in Deuteronomy and Joshua, but also in Ezekiel, in the writings of Josephus, in the Temple Scroll, and in the Mishnah. Moreover, the site conforms with the biblical account in date, in the character of the place, and in geographic setting.
The cultic and biblical interpretation of the site, while strongly maintained by the excavator, has not gone unchallenged. Some archaeologists (Aharon Kempinski, 1986; Anson F. Rainey; and William G. Dever) deny the cultic connection altogether and suggest that this be seen as an isolated house or watchtower. Other specialists, however, concur as to its cultic nature, but interpret it differently: Michael David Coogan suggests a non-Israelite cult; Israel Finkelstein (1986) accepts that it is an early Israelite cultic high place, but not an altar; and Amihai Mazar (1990) concurs with its possible biblical connection. Such biblical scholars as Moshe Anbar (1985) and André Lemaire (1990) accept the site's cultic character but go no further. Finally, some historians (Nadav Na'aman and Gösta W. Ahlström) suggest that the Mt. Ebal installation may be the biblical “Tower of Shechem,” the cultic center of Israelite Shechem mentioned in Judges 9. Nevertheless, there is wide agreement over the dating of the site to the late thirteenth/early twelfth centuries BCE.
The vigor of the debate concerning the Mt. Ebal site is related to its importance regarding the problem of the date of the Israelite settlement in Canaan, the origins of Israel, and, above all, the historicity and dating of the pentateuchal traditions, thought by many to be late and ahistorical.
- Anbar, Moshe. “The Story about the Building of an Altar on Mount Ebal.” Das Deuteronomium 68 (1985): 304–309.
- Brandl, Baruch. “Two Scarabs and a Trapezoidal Seal from Mount Ebal.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 166–173.
- Finkelstein, Israel. The Archaeology of the Period of Settlement and Judges (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1986. See pages 82–85.
- Harper, Henry A. “Ebal and Gerizim.” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (1896): 85–86.
- Horwitz, Liora K. “Faunal Remains from the Early Iron Age Site on Mount Ebal.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 173–189.
- Kempinski, Aharon. “‘Joshua's Altar’: An Iron Age I Watchtower.” Biblical Archaeology Review 12.1 (1986): 42–53.
- Lemaire, André. La protohistoire d'Israël. Paris, 1990. See pages 199–201.
- Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C.E. New York, 1990. See pages 348–351.
- Tonneau, Raphael. “Le sacrifice de Josué sur le Mont Ébal.” Revue Biblique 35 (1926): 98–109.
- Zertal, Adam. “Has Joshua's Altar Been Found on Mount Ebal?” Biblical Archaeology Review 11.1 (1985): 26–43.
- Zertal, Adam. “How Can Kempinski Be So Wrong!” Biblical Archaeology Review 12.1 (1986): 42–53.
- Zertal, Adam. “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 105–165.