When he was called upon to arise and accept the high position, no one could find him. He had vanished, but the prophet Samuel knew where he was. He had gotten to know Saul, that modest man who had gone out searching for his female donkeys, and had grown fond of him.
Saul had never sought the kingship. “Here he is,” Samuel said, pointing him out, “hiding among the baggage.” An odd leader, this: he fled from power, and it pursued him. “So they ran over and brought him from there, and when he took his place among the people, he stood a head taller than all the people. And Samuel said to the people, ‘Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.’ And all the people acclaimed him, shouting, ‘Long live the king!'”
But not everyone accepted Saul. Quite a few people showed him contempt. “How can this one save us?” they asked scornfully. Today they would have said, “What — him?” But Saul pretended not to hear the doubts expressed behind his back. Maybe that was the root of the tragedy that befell him later on. Regarding the episode, our sages taught: “A king may not forgo the honor due him.”
Saul’s first test of leadership came quickly. He went to the aid of the residents of Jabesh-Gilead in the north, across the Jordan River, bordering the Ammonites and their king, who had the unpleasant name Nahash (snake). The victory was sharp and clear. Now the new king’s supporters wanted to put the people who had spoken against him to death, but Saul spared them in honor of his victory against the Ammonites. That was when the prophet Samuel ordered the people to go to Gilgal and inaugurate the monarchy; this time, everyone would accept Saul as king. Representatives came from the hill tribes, the plains tribes and across the Jordan River, a huge assembly of people. Saul’s mighty men were there too; they had just completed their first baptism of fire under his command. Many families came to Gilgal to celebrate, and of course the priests who were appointed to conduct the religious ceremonies and offer the thanksgiving offerings were there as well. The nation’s elders, judges and local leaders stood close to the priests to give the monarchy official validity. The common people and the soldiers arranged themselves on crowded hills, while the priests and the nation’s elders stood around the complex at Gilgal and conducted the ceremony together with Samuel. “So all the people went to Gilgal, and there at Gilgal they declared Saul king before the Lord. They offered sacrifices of well-being there before the Lord, and Saul and all the men of Israel held a great celebration there” (1 Samuel 11:14-15).
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Archaeologist Adam Zertal – Photo: Dudi Vaaknin
Do the stories of the Bible have an actual historical basis or are they myths — tales that created an artificial national history? This question has shaken up the worlds of archaeology and biblical research for years. Every time I join Professor Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who has been researching the period of the Israelite settlement of Canaan during the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. (Iron Age 1), I find myself able to connect to the earliest traces that our ancestors left immediately upon their entrance into the Land of Israel. Zertal repeats that the controversy regarding the beginning of the Israelite nation stems partially from the sparse archaeological artifacts. But the past four decades, and mainly Zertal’s amazing discoveries, are changing the picture of research and our knowledge of Israel’s beginnings and its coalescence into a nation, and has a direct influence on scientific research of the Bible as well.
Zertal’s discoveries include Israelite pottery, which is different from Canaanite pottery, with special marking methods that the ancient Israelites stamped and engraved on pottery vessels that they used to transport tithes to their places of worship. Most of the marked vessels were made and used during the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. An Israelite altar on Mount Ebal from the year 1200 B.C.E. matches, point for point, the description of the altar that stood in the Second Temple as it appears in the Mishna. Zertal proposes identifying it with the altar Joshua built at the beginning of the Israelite settlement of Canaan (Joshua 8; this newspaper’s article about its discovery appears here: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=3848). Zertal’s team has also discovered more than 400 settlements from that period, the first Iron Age. Science knew nothing about ninety percent of those settlements until a few years ago. Anyone who wishes to talk about biblical geography or about the Bible at all without taking these discoveries into account risks making groundless hypotheses.
Zertal has been researching Samaria for more than 35 years. Week after week he surveys the land with his team, meter by meter, documenting the region where Israel became a nation. The results of his research have been bound into thick volumes entitled The Manasseh Hill Country Survey (published by University of Haifa). I grasp the recently-published fifth volume, entitled “The Middle Jordan Valley: From Wadi Ptzael to Wadi al-Aujah.” In this one square of land alone — only 24 square kilometers in area — 157 sites were surveyed. Most had never been documented. One-third of them dated to the period of settlement by the Israelite tribes. One of the most intriguing biblical sites Zertal has surveyed is Gilgal.
A pre-Temple cultic site
The name Gilgal did not refer to a particular location. Rather, it was a place of assembly, and there were several such places scattered around the Jordan Valley and on the mountain ridge. There were large Gilgals that had a national function, and there were smaller, tribal ones. They were like neighborhood synagogues in our day as compared with the Great Synagogue, or a local community center as compared with today’s International Convention Center in Jerusalem. Scripture speaks of the varied events that took place in the various places known as Gilgal, which are mentioned 39 times in the biblical text. It was clearly the first site of worship for the Israelite tribes before Jerusalem was chosen during King David’s time and religious ritual was concentrated in a single place.
What did the Gilgals look like? Where were they located? Until recently, no one knew. The mystery fascinated generations of adventurers, biblical researchers and archaeologists. Many theories were thrown about, some of them based on ancient evidence, some on wishes, some based on searches for similarities to Hebrew names that had been preserved in the names of Arab communities, such as Jaljulia. Anyone who walked around here over the past 2,000 years hoped to find a Gilgal or two. But search as they might, they found not even one.
In 2009, Zertal presented his theory to the scientific world that the ancient Gilgal that appears dozens of times in the Bible is actually an area shaped like a footprint. In the early 1990s, Zertal found the first footprint, 190 meters long and 80 meters wide, behind Moshav Argaman in the Jordan Valley. We wrote about it at length about eighteen months ago. Since then, large footprint-shaped areas have been found on Moshav Masua and Moshav Yafit, also in the Jordan Valley, and one to the west, in the country’s interior, in Nahal Tirza (Wadi al-Far’a). The fifth is the altar complex on Mount Ebal, which is also shaped like a footprint.
These areas were bounded by a low stone barrier inside which no human habitation or livestock paddocks could be built. Inside the complexes, sample digs took place that found nothing in the ground. The complexes are approached from a low place, but on arrival, one sees higher hills around them, proving that these locations had no military value. The site at Argaman is very large, about 14 dunams (3.5 acres), and appears to have been paved entirely with stone — a job that required the efforts of much more than several families or even a tribe. The hill opposite had natural stone benches that could hold thousands of spectators. Some complexes were encircled by a processional way.
All these signs showed that this was an Israelite site of worship (all the ancient pottery was from the Israelite period). But why was it built in the shape of a footprint? No such areas were found anywhere in the ancient Near East — only here.
First, Zertal turned to the place where the nomads evidently came from — Egypt. In Egyptian symbology, the footprint signified ownership and mastery. Figures representing other nations were engraved in the sole of the Egyptian king’s sandals, and when the king walked, he trod upon them, demonstrating his rule over them. In any case, the Egyptian footprint symbol had no significance for the commoners. The only one who used it to show his power was the king.
Zertal turned to the Bible, where he found many mentions of the footprint, or sole of the foot. Of these, four main groups of meaning were prominent: 1) the footprint as an expression of ownership of territory, as expressed in the well-known verse “Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours” (Deuteronomy 11:24); 2) the link between the people and the land; 3) defeating and ruling over enemies, as in the Egyptian symbol; and 4) the sole of the foot as a symbol of God’s presence in the land, such as in the prophecy that appears in Ezekiel 43: “And he said to me: O mortal, this is the place of My throne and the place for the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people Israel forever.”
The fourth group is the Israelite development of the idea of ownership of the land. The Israelite tribes marked the territory they had gained with their feet, but expanded the symbol to include religious significance, as if the Israelite God had trodden upon the land and dwelt there (the words shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence, and mishkan, the tabernacle constructed in the desert where God was worshipped, are taken from the Hebrew root meaning “to dwell”). These footprint-shaped areas were meeting places at festival times, where the people rejoiced together on a holiday. The Hebrew word for holiday — hag — is associated with the root meaning to encircle, for the people surrounded the footprint-shaped area inside which stood the Ark of the Covenant or the tabernacle, which was actually a portable temple. One had to ascend to the area from lower down — and here, thousands of years after the source was forgotten, we now understand the meaning of the Hebrew expression for pilgrimage “aliya la-regel” (literally, “going up to the foot”). This is not only going up on foot, but going up toward the foot, literally, to encircle or surround it. They went up to the foot, but the foot was lower than the hills around it — not only to allow the people to view the ceremony, but also as an antithesis to the idolatrous Canaanite custom that sanctified the highest place in a region, as scripture notes: “on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree” (2 Kings 17:10). In this way, the new arrivals differentiated themselves from the long-time Canaanite inhabitants.
That was how Zertal came to identify the footprint-shaped areas with the biblical Gilgals. The name Gilgal appears in the Bible as a place of religious or national convocation, whether for the purpose of prayer or preparation for war or the inauguration of a new king, as we have seen. Incidentally, Gilgal was also the place where Saul lost the kingship (1 Samuel 15). So these places had great significance in the early period when the Israelite tribes were coalescing into a nation. No one knew what the Gilgals looked like until now.
A sudden inspiration: searching from the air
Armed with these insights, Zertal began looking for more Gilgals. Of dozens of appearances in the Bible, four Gilgals have been identified — in other words, presented in the scriptural verses in geographical context. The first is the Gilgal that Moses used to mark the spot when he told the Israelites where Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal were located. “Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arava — near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh” (Deuteronomy 11:30). Zertal identified this Gilgal as the one at Nahal Tirza.
A Gilgal in Rimonim – Photo: Assaf Solomon
The second is the Gilgal of Jericho, where the people assembled after crossing the Jordan River. “The people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho” (Joshua 4:19). The third Gilgal appears in the description of the route that the prophet Samuel’s took on his journey: “Each year he made the rounds of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and acted as judge over Israel at all those places” (1 Samuel 7:16). The last Gilgal identified is in the description of the tribal borders, between the portion of the tribe of Judah and that of Benjamin: “The boundary [of the tribal land of Judah] on the east was the Dead Sea up to the mouth of the Jordan. … The boundary ascended from the Valley of Akhor to Debir and turned north to Gilgal, facing the Ascent of Adumim which is south of the wadi; from there the boundary continued … along the southern flank of the Jebusites — that is, Jerusalem” (Joshua 15:5-8).
The last three Gilgals are mysteries. People have been searching for them for 200 years. Zertal focused on the fourth Gilgal. According to the verse, it faces Maaleh Adumim, “which is south of the wadi.” It was customary to think that the wadi was Wadi Qelt. The identification is based on the work Onomasticon by Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived in that city during the third and fourth centuries C.E. The Byzantines identified the border of Judah’s tribal portion with the road that linked Jericho to Jerusalem. Zertal says that the Byzantines were about a thousand years after the biblical period, and their biblical geography was Crusader geography, which did not always match the findings on the ground. The French researcher Victor Guerin visited the Land of Israel several times during the second half of the 19th century. He identified that Gilgal with Tel Jaljul on the banks of Wadi Qelt. So did a British survey team in the 1870s.
Departing from his usual custom, Zertal began surveying aerial photographs of the region. He assumed that if his theory of the footprint shape was correct, then an area shaped like a footprint would be found on the border between the tribal holdings of Judah and Benjamin.
A discovery on Lag Ba’omer
This year, on Lag Ba’omer (April 28, 2013), the lost Gilgal was found in a low-lying area, striped with white limestone against a strong brown, in the lovely hilly area east of the Ayalon Highway, south of the community of Rimonim, among the fertile valleys that border the desert.
The Gilgal sits on a rocky hill slightly north of the steep slopes of Wadi Makkuk, with its cliffs, facing eastward toward the Jordan Valley and ten kilometers north of the present-day city of Maaleh Adumim, roughly 470 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level. There it lay, splendid, clear and beautiful. The “footprint” is made of a double row of stones, an ancient greeting from our ancestors, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The same characteristics of the previous footprints are present here as well.
First, this is an area where people gathered only on occasion. It is not a permanent structure. Second, the location is similar to that of the other Gilgals: they appear only at the edge of the desert and in the Jordan Valley. They do not appear anywhere else in the Bible either. These are the earliest sites of Israel as a nation.
Third, the area is surrounded by a double row of stones, comprised of standing stones, erect, not lying on top of one another as on an ordinary building. The stones are relatively large. They were not quarried; the early inhabitants gathered them from among the local stones.
The area’s interior is also typical — it is paved. Here there was no need for man-made paving because the rocky soil covers the complex. Nothing was added to the structure in the thousands of years that have gone by. It waited for us as it was left about 3,000 years ago. The placement of the Gilgal is the antithesis of the pagan view, which sanctified the highest place in the region (“on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree”). Israelite ritual was conducted on the slope of the hill or mountain — not up on the summit or down in the valley, but “amid his slopes,” as Moses describes Benjamin’s tribal allotment when he blesses the Israelites for the last time before his death (Deuteronomy 33:12).
(Could the word for “dwells” that appears in the verse, shakhen, perhaps refer to the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence?)
And indeed, in the Bible people go up to the Gilgal and descend from it. The spectators could have assembled on the adjacent higher hill to participate in the ceremony from afar. An ancient wall was found that lay between the Gilgal and the higher hill, evidently a path that led to and from the area. Eight hundred pottery fragments were collected, most of them from the Israelite period. Three mysterious cells were found inside the Gilgal, near the wall of the enclosure, each one roughly four square meters in area. They await deep excavation; maybe artifacts will be found there that tell us more about the site. In light of the findings, the word Gilgal may be understood as a heap (gal in Hebrew), and then another heap, of stones.
Now, as the first link between the geographical datum-points in the Bible appears to have been found, an attempt may be made to identify the names and places anew. Let us return to Joshua 15: the eastern boundary of Judah’s tribal allotment passed from the Dead Sea northward along the Jordan River. From there it passed three unidentified places as it went toward Jericho — in other words, to the northeast. “The boundary ascended from the Valley of Akhor to Debir and turned north to Gilgal” — the Valley of Akhor is where Achan was punished for stealing spoils from the war against Jericho. From the area of Jericho and the Valley of Akhor, the boundary turns northwest, toward the Gilgal that stands “facing the Ascent of Adumim which is south of the wadi.” In other words, there is a stream between the Gilgal and the place known as Maaleh Adumim (not the present-day one). The Byzantines identified the stream as Wadi Qelt; in light of the recent findings, the stream might be identified as Wadi Makkuk. From there, the border continued southwest to Jerusalem, creating a kind of triangle of boundaries between Judah and Benjamin.
When I ask Zertal whether he found red stones on the northern bank of Wadi Makkuk, he answers that he has not surveyed the area yet. Between the Gilgal and Makkuk runs an ancient road known as Tariq Abu Hindi, which ascends from Jericho to the area of Mikhmas. Zertal believes that the ancient Maaleh Adumim will be found there. In any case, he says, we finally have something real that we did not have before.
Before Jerusalem was the religious and political center of our nation, bamot, or raised areas designated for worship, were allowed to be built in various places during the settlement period. The Gilgals were actually those same permitted places where sacrifices were offered and God was worshipped. These bamot are unique to the Israeli style: the same footprint shape, as if they were branches of the same chain — in this case, a religious-ideological chain. Even Elijah the Prophet and his student Elisha stayed for a time at Gilgal (2 Kings 2, 4).
In later years, once Jerusalem had been established as the capital city and the exclusive place of ritual, religious rites on the bamot throughout the country were forbidden. Since then, a change in the attitude toward the Gilgals can be seen, for example among the later prophets such as Hosea and Amos, who speak of Gilgal as a place of idolatrous ritual. The negative prophecy shows that before Jerusalem, the Gilgals were places of legitimate assembly and ritual. But once the nation split into southern and northern kingdoms, some of the Israelite tribes resumed worshipping God in the Gilgals, perhaps as a replacement for Jerusalem. Of course, this affected the idea of concentrating ritual in a single place and made room for mixing in pagan ritual.
Although Zertal’s discoveries stir the imagination, the scientific world is indifferent to them. So far, no scientific essay contradicting his findings has been written. There is a great deal of professional jealousy among the archaeologists. Zertal’s findings change a long-existing thinking and scientific paradigm about this explosive subject. They contradict the minimalists’ thesis that the Bible’s stories are a kind of “creation myth” whose purpose is to create national history artificially, and that nomadic tribes never entered Canaan during Iron Age 1.
Instead, the thesis contends that they were Canaanites who rebelled against their masters in the cities and took to the hills, where they created stories of a past that never existed in Egypt and in the desert. This thesis was based mainly on the fact that at the time (the 1960s), there were almost no material findings. Zertal’s discoveries change this way of thinking. In the late 1980s, Lawrence Stager, an expert in biblical archaeology at Harvard University, said that if Zertal was correct (at the time, he was referring to the discovery of Joshua’s altar), then “its impact on our research is revolutionary. All of us have to go back to kindergarten.”
Politics are involved as well. Zertal is a member of Kibbutz Ein Shemer, which was established by pioneers of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. But although he is not a political person, his discoveries shed light on the beginnings of Israel and are located in a “controversial” area. An intense dispute over Jerusalem is taking place in the archaeological community; when it comes to Samaria, the dispute is stronger still.
Just two months ago, the archaeologist Professor Raphael Greenberg published an essay entitled “Israeli Archaeology and the Occupation” in the Hebrew-language periodical Odyssey, which covers science, philosophy, technology and culture. Greenberg completely ignored Zertal’s abundant discoveries. At the end of the article, he hinted in a footnote: “A few Israeli researchers, also motivated by a kind of fundamentalism, joined this trend of interpretation based on religious or nationalistic feeling. Among the cases that illustrate this loss of good archaeological judgment may be counted … the archaeological doctrine … according to which archaeologists identify a series of sites from Israel’s beginnings that were found in the Jordan Valley and in Samaria … as being shaped like giant footprints, and as an architectural illustration of the verse: ‘Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours.'” Greenberg is a prominent member of Emek Shaveh, a controversial left-wing group that fights against archaeological projects in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria that it finds too nationalistic for its taste. Its members state on Emek Shaveh’s website: “We, the members of Emek Shaveh, are dedicated to changing the view according to which the ruins of the past as tools in the service of a national struggle.” But Zertal is not a combative man, nor does he have a political agenda. He believes that the findings should be the focus of discussion.
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The new Gilgal, which was found near the community of Rimonim, south of Wadi Makkuk, is not large compared to its predecessors, but its characteristics are similar to those of the previous Gilgals. Located as it was on the border of the tribal allotments of Judah and Benjamin, it was evidently used in local tribal ceremonies. The discovery of the site, which archaeologists had been searching for since the mid-19th century, adds an original layer that is linked to the beginnings of the Israelite nation in its land more than 3,000 years ago. It also adds historical credibility to the biblical text. In any case, the importance of the discovery of the Gilgal goes far beyond the site itself. It proves the theory regarding the Gilgal’s footprint shape, which symbolized Israelite tribes’ settlement of their land, and as a place where the earliest Israelite rituals were performed, where the Israelite God was present on earth through a symbolic footprint. That is how the book of Exodus describes what Moses, Aaron and the elders saw when they ascended Mount Sinai: “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (Exodus 24:10). It was to these sites that the Israelites performed what the Bible calls an aliya la-regel — what we call a pilgrimage today, but what was, at the time, literally “going up to the foot.”
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=12089