The Iron Age I Structure on Mt. Ebal: Excavation and Interpretation
By Ralph K. Hawkins
(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012), xii + 287 pp., $49.50 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Aren Maeir
In 1980, during an archaeological survey, Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal discovered the site of El-Ahwat on Mt. Ebal (near Nablus/Shechem). He excavated the site for several seasons (between 1982 and 1989) and in a series of academic, semi-popular and popular articles,* as well as in chapters of a popular book on his understanding of the development of early Israel, he argued that the site was an Israelite cultic site, and that it can be equated with the altar that Joshua built on Mt. Ebal, as described in the Bible (Joshua 8:30–35). He also contended that the main structure at the site should be understood as a stone-built altar whose architectural plan and design was similar to the large altar described in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
Ralph Hawkins, now associate professor at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the site and has now published the volume under review in an attempt to summarize and discuss the archaeological, historical and Biblical data regarding the site, now often popularly referred to as “Joshua’s altar.”
There is no doubt that it is a very interesting but no less controversial site. And Professor Zertal is to be commended for publishing his ideas during (and since) the excavation. He has also published a preliminary report on the 1982–1987 seasons.1 But despite the fact that almost 25 years have passed since the end of the excavations, a full scientific report has yet to appear. Almost immediately with the publication of Zertal’s initial reports and interpretations of the site, a vigorous debate emerged among archaeologists and Biblical scholars in favor of and against Zertal’s interpretations (including in BAR**). Although not as intensively, this debate has continued until today, with varying opinions, from full acceptance of Zertal’s claims to full denial, and anywhere in between.
Into this gauntlet Ralph Hawkins has entered. After describing the history of research of the site, Hawkins tries to collect all published data (and in some cases, unpublished data that includes conversations with Professor Zertal) regarding the site. He then assesses the various architectural and artifactual data. Following this, he attempts to place the site within a broader context, analyzing possible parallel noncultic architectural features (e.g., villages, houses, towers), followed by an analysis of possible cultic parallels. Next, Hawkins proceeds to discuss the literary parallels to the site, both Biblical and extra-Biblical.
In the book’s most important chapter (Chapter 6), Hawkins tries to tie together the evidence from Mt. Ebal into the larger picture regarding the possible roles of the site and its relationship to our understanding of the emergence of ancient Israel. Weighing the pros and cons by Zertal and others, he tries (and I believe he succeeds) to suggest a sensible interpretative framework for the site.
While most scholars have not accepted Zertal’s suggestion connecting the site to Joshua’s altar, the majority have accepted that what he has found is in fact an early Israelite cultic site. Hawkins accepts this viewpoint, suggesting that this site was a cultic pilgrimage site of importance for the early Israelites in the northern “Central Hills,” and, if only briefly, the Mt. Ebal site was of significance in the process of the emergence of the Israelite tribes.
Hawkins deserves our thanks for a comprehensive discussion of the data regarding this fascinating site and for providing a synthetic and judicious overview of its significance. Until the final report on this site appears—and I hope it will be soon—this is the best place to go for detailed information on this early Israelite cultic site at Mt. Ebal.
1. Adam Zertal, “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal: Excavation Seasons 1982–1987—A Preliminary Report,” Tel Aviv 13–14 (1986–1987), pp. 9–30.
** Aharon Kempinski, “Joshua’s Altar—An Iron Age I Watchtower,” BAR, January/February 1986; Adam Zertal, “Different Interpretations: How Can Kempinski Be So Wrong?” BAR, January/February 1986.
Aren M. Maeir is professor of archaeology at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. He is director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.