Mount Ebal is located in the central Samaria mountains, some 1.2 miles (2 km) north of Shechem-Nablus, 20.5 miles (33 km) east of the Jordan River, 49.7 miles (80 km) north of Jerusalem, and 31 miles (50 km) west of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the highest peak (3,084 ft [940 m] above sea level) in the northern and central Samaria region, consisting of a large and isolated ridge some 7 square miles (18 km2). The mountain is bounded in the north by Wadi Hamam, in the east by the deep Wadi Abrad, in the south by the narrow vale of Shechem-Nablus, and in the west by other wadis. Geologically, it is built of different limestone formations dated to the Eocene era, which produce, when cracked, squarish stones that are suitable for construction. It is partly covered by fertile terra-rossa red soil, which produces good crops when cultivated. No perennial water source is available near Mount Ebal, apart from a small fountain (ʾAin Kekub) on the lower eastern slope, some 0.6 miles (1 km) from the site. The climate is typically Mediterranean, with some 29.5 inches (750 mm) of annual rain- and snowfall every year.

History of Research.

The identification of Mount Ebal has never been questioned, in spite of some Mishnaic debates. Searches for the “legendary” altar mentioned in Deuteronomy and Joshua began in 1866. Between that year and 1922 four different explorers mounted the peak of Mount Ebal in search of the precious monument: the British colonel John Anderson (1866), the French explorer Victor Guérin (May 1870), Claude R. Conder and H. H. Kitchener of the British Survey of Western Palestine (1872), and, finally, the French scholar Raphael Tonneau (1922). These efforts were in vain as they focused only on the southern slope of the mountain. All the explorers based their searches on Joshua 8:33, concluding that one must see Mount Gerizim, “the mount of the blessings,” from the site of the Mount Ebal altar. The farm of el-Quleh on the southeast side of the peak was suggested and quickly rejected, after a short dig in 1874, by the members of the Survey of Western Palestine. This farm is dated to the Persian period (ca. 539–332 B.C.E.). After 1922, no further attempt to find the Mount Ebal altar was undertaken, though the American Edward F. Campbell conducted a survey nearby. In this context, the biblical traditions about Mount Ebal were considered, by many scholars, to be primarily Deuteronomistic and partly mythical and to have been established centuries after the events they purport to describe.

The Manasseh Survey and the Discovery of the Site.

The Manasseh survey, begun in 1978 and directed by Adam Zertal, covers an area of some 1,160 square miles (3,000 km2) in the Samaria hills and the Jordan Valley. Five volumes of survey results have been published by the staff, in Hebrew, along with two in English. The survey, conducted by foot, is a meter-by-meter project, which aimed to fully cover those areas that were previously unknown and significant for understanding the biblical text and others. The survey discovered that Mount Ebal was hardly occupied in the Bronze and Iron Ages; only from the Persian period onward was it gradually more cultivated and settled. During the 1980 survey season, however, an oddly shaped site east of the summit with pure Iron-I pottery was identified, and the decision was made to excavate. The excavations, eight seasons of two weeks to one month each, began in 1982 and ended in 1989, when a preliminary report was published in the journal Tel Aviv. Only in the third season did the interpretation of the site as a unique Israelite altar for burnt offerings begin to crystallize.

Stratigraphy.

Judging by the architecture and pottery, the site was in use for not more than 30 to 50 years. In the first stage, stratum 2 (ca. 1220–1210 B.C.E.), ceremonies and festivities with animal sacrifices took place. These “foundation sacrifices” seem to have preceded the erection of the main altar. Immediately afterward, the two enclosures, the entrance, and the altar were built (stratum 1b, ca. 1200 B.C.E.). To fill the altar, stratum-2 remains were collected and sealed by the upper pavement. This main stage (stratum 1b) saw large-scale pilgrimage to the site. At some point during the twelfth century B.C.E., the site was “buried” under stone cover and deserted (stratum 1a).

The enclosures.

The site is defined by a double-enclosure wall, a small one within a much larger one. The enclosures were constructed on the western slope of the ridge, presumably designed for a large crowd. People would have gathered in the nearby vale southwest of the altar; from there, they would be able to see and hear the rituals enacted within the enclosures. The larger enclosure is ca. 590.5 ft (180 m) long and 262.5 ft (80 m) wide (161,459 ft2 [15,000 m2] in area), its entrance perhaps in the south. It was constructed as a low, 6.6 ft (2 m) wide stone wall, built to leave the view open in all directions. The three sections that the excavators cut along the enclosure wall contained only Iron Age–I pottery. The much smaller interior enclosure (ca. 295.3 ft [90 m] long and 131.2 ft [40 m] wide) is positioned at the upper, northeastern side of the larger one and is similar in shape. The interior wall of the inner, small enclosure was built with one row of very large, unworked boulders. It utilized the wall of the large enclosure on its northern and eastern sides. A 23 ft (7 m) wide entrance, with three steps paved by stone slabs, connects the two enclosures.

The main complex: the altar.

Inside the small enclosure and along its southern side is the main complex, a large, nearly complete Iron Age–I altar for burnt offerings. It is a relatively large, box-like construction, some 29.5 by 23 ft (9 by 7 m) and 13.1 ft (4 m) high, built of large, unworked stones. This “box” has an inner space encircled by walls 4.6 ft (1.4 m) wide. Into this inner space, two straight walls, one facing the other, were positioned; and they were supported by the fill. The fill consists of layers of dirt, stones, and a great quantity of ash, which contained 980 animal bones. The fill was sealed by a pavement of medium-sized stones. This construction was accomplished by building the stone “box” first, then constructing the straight interior walls, with the inner fill and finally the upper pavement. A 4.6 ft (1.4 m) wide stone ramp ascended from the outside to the center of the southwestern wall of the altar; to it was added a secondary stone ramp 23.6 inches (60 cm) wide. The main altar (the box) was surrounded on three sides by a lower wall about 4.9 ft (1.5 m) wide; it was 3.3 ft (1 m) lower than the upper face of the altar. The smaller, secondary ramp, which was connected to the main one, led to it.

Mount Ebal

Aerial view of Mount Ebal complex. Zev Radovan/www.BibleLandPictures.com

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Two stone-paved courtyards constructed in front of the main building, measuring approximately 26.2 by 19.7 ft (8 by 6 m) each, contained several stone boxes. In all, some 100 or more little stone boxes, each ca. 20 by 20 inches (50 by 50 cm), were found scattered in the courtyards and around the altar. They were built in layers that indicate several stages of use. Different pots, above all jugs, were found inside most of them. The pots had been broken on the spot, enabling their archaeological reconstruction. Many of the vessels had marks such as indentations on their handles and rims. In addition, a scarab of Ramses II (r. ca. 1279–1224 B.C.E.) was found in one of those caches, together with gold, silver, and bronze jewelry. In addition, two stone slabs with incisions, presumably for the preparation of sacrifices, were found in the northwestern courtyard.

The pottery.

The pots and potsherds found create a unique catalog of early Israelite pottery, dated to ca. 1200 B.C.E. The more than 4,000 sherds and vessels present a narrow typology of, above all, containers and storage vessels in the Late Bronze II (Canaanite) and early Iron-I (Israelite) traditions. The inventory, according to Ron Beʿeri and Oren Cohen (2013), presents an “organized, conservative, and isolated society,” far from trade routes and from the Phoenician and Philistine influences of the Mediterranean coast. In the western storehouses large, collared-rim pithoi (storage jars) were used to store various products and, above all, water.

Indented pottery.

Of the nearly 800 marked handles and rims from Manasseh and Ephraim published by Oren Cohen (2005), about 240 came from the Mount Ebal site. This unusual method of marking pottery before firing was found on pots in more than 70 other early Iron-Age (twelfth­–eleventh centuries B.C.E.) settlements. Cohen identified more than 80 indentation patterns. The excavator has suggested that these were used to mark tithes sent to Ebal and Shiloh.

Small finds.

The rich collection includes two scarabs of the late part of the reign of Ramses II. Also found were a die made of soft limestone, with markings and indentations (presumably made for seeing into the future), jewelry, a pumice chalice with a high foot, some bronzes, and more.

The animal bones.

The assemblage of some 3,000 bones included only three domesticated animals (sheep, goats, and cattle) and one wild animal (fallow deer). The bones, mostly burned, were from young males. In contrast to other Iron Age–I sites, no other animals were found at Mount Ebal. This unnatural set of animal remains shows that those who used the Mount Ebal altar and enclosure chose animals by species, gender, and age, likely in order to meet the requirements of the Mount Ebal cult.

The Biblical Tradition of Ebal and Its Derivatives.

Mount Ebal is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible, always in the context of the great ceremony of blessings and curses that took place there. Deuteronomy 11:29–30 contains the directions Moses gave to the people about how to get to Ebal. These directions, when read carefully, do not necessitate that the Ebal altar be erected at the summit of the hill. In addition, Deuteronomy 27:1–10 relays Moses’s directive regarding a large gathering to take place at Mount Ebal; an altar was to be constructed, and the laws of Moses were to be written on plastered stones; animals were to be sacrificed, and Israel would be a nation dedicated to its god. Joshua 8:30–35 then describes this covenant ceremony.

Scholarly opinion is divided as to the historical value of these Deuteronomistic texts. While some believe in their basic historicity, others look upon them as mythology. Excavations at the Mount Ebal site revealed a construction architecturally similar to the altars described in the biblical and rabbinic texts. These include Ezekiel 43, a vision of an altar to be built in Jerusalem but actually a description of the Solomonic Temple; the Mishnaic tractate Middot 3, describing the Second Temple altar in Jerusalem (ca. 20 B.C.E.–73 C.E.); Josephus (J.W. 5.222–227), describing the Jerusalem altar; and the “Temple Scroll” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, also describing the Second Temple altar. These later sources describe a relatively large altar built of unworked stones, square or rectangular in shape. It has a double ramp ascending to its upper side and a surrounding wall (presumably the yesod or foundation described by Ezekiel and the Mishnah), which enclose it on three sides. The Mount Ebal construction matches these indications well and has other cultic characteristics: distinctive bones and stone boxes as receptacles for gifts. Also, with its identity as a cultic center established, its complete lack of statues like those at nearby Shechem/Tel Ballatah becomes an indication that its cultic practices were different from normal Canaanite ritual.

This distinctive combination has led the excavators to the conclusion that this open-air high place on the northeastern slope of the mountain, erected around 1200 B.C.E., represents the prototype of the early Israelite altar for burnt offerings and that Deuteronomy and Joshua correctly describe a uniquely Iron-I practice of worship and sacrifice on Mount Ebal.

[See also BIBLE AND HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY; SAMARIA/SEBASTE; and SHECHEM.)]

Bibliography

  • Albright, W. F. “The Babylonian Temple Tower and the Altar of Burnt Offerings.” Journal of Biblical Literature 39 (1920): 137–142.
  • Beʿeri, R., and O. Cohen. “The Pottery of Mount Ebal.” In An Early Iron Age I High-Place and Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavations 1982–1989, a Final Report, edited by Adam Zertal. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming.
  • Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:121:9. World Biblical Commentary 6A. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
  • Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 21:1034:12. World Biblical Commentary 6B. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2002.
  • Cohen, O. “Marks on Pottery in Samaria during Iron Age I.” In An Early Iron Age I High-Place and Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavations 1982–1989, a Final Report, edited by Adam Zertal. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming.
  • Kolska Horwitz, Liora. “Faunal Remains from the Early Iron Age Site on Mount Ebal.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 173–189.
  • Zertal, Adam. “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987, Preliminary Report.” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987): 105–165.
  • Zertal, Adam. An Early Iron Age I High-Place and Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavations 1982–1989, a Final Report. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming.
  • Zertal, Adam. A Nation Is Born: The Altar on Mount Ebal and the Beginning of Israel. The Survey of Samaria and Jordan Valley, Publications, 2012.

Adam Zertal