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Joshua’s Altar?

John on December 29, 2006 at 2:35 pm

In Deuteronomy 27, God gives the Israelites a command about what they are to do upon entering the promised land:

Deuteronomy 27: 4 And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal, as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. 5 Build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not use any iron tool upon them. 6 Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. 7 Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God. 8 And you shall write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones you have set up.”

In Joshua 8, we read that Joshua did as commanded:

Joshua 8:30 Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31 as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses–an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the Lord burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings.

With that in mind, take a look at this picture from Mt. Ebal:


Here is the story that goes with it:

Prof. Adam Zertal, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, was the man who discovered and excavated the area and determined that it is the remnants of Joshua’s Altar. He appeared recently on IsraelNationalRadio, speaking with hosts Yishai and Malkah Fleisher.

“How do you know that this was in fact Joshua’s altar?” Yishai asked. “Perhaps it was built by other peoples over the years, for instance.”

Prof. Zertal, author of ” A Nation is Born: The Mt. Eval Altar and the Beginnings of the Nation of Israel,” appeared not to know where to start, given the amount of evidence he can provide. He began with the discovery itself:

“We discovered this place, all covered with stones, in April 1980. At that time I never dreamt that we were dealing with the altar, because I was taught in Tel Aviv University – the center of anti-Biblical tendencies, where I learned that Biblical theories are untrue, and that Biblical accounts were written later, and the like. I didn’t even know of the story of the Joshua’s altar. But we surveyed every meter of the site, and in the course of nine years of excavation, we discovered a very old structure with no parallels to anything we had seen before. It was 9 by 7 meters, and 4 meters high, with two stone ramps, and a kind of veranda, known as the sovev, around.”


“We found 1,000 bones in the site, and another 2,000 around it – representing something like 700 animals,” Prof. Zertal said. “We sent them for analysis to the zoology department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and all the males were young males around one year old – as the Torah commands – and were of the four animals that were brought as sacrifices: goats, sheep, cattle, and fallow deer. In addition, most of the bones had been burnt in open-flame fires of low temperature.”


Asked if he had found the 12 stones on which the Book of Deuteronomy was written there (Joshua 8, 32), Prof. Zertal said that this would be a hard task. He explained that the exact location of the stones is not clear from the Biblical account, and that in any event, “The words of Torah were written on plaster that covered the stones, because iron tools were not allowed to be used on the stones… But we did find 60 pieces of plaster near the altar; this is unusual, as usually they did not plaster the structures. The pieces are very fragile, but we are trying to see if we can find something.”

Of course some of the high profile archaeological claims in recent years have turned out to be frauds or at least highly speculative. So it is always wise to look at all the evidence and not rush to judgment. That said, this seems like a convincing case to me.

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Category: Archaeology |

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