Discovered on the Mountain of Curse
It is hard to overstate the importance of a tiny biblical archaeological discovery released to the public on March 24. Measuring 2 by 2 centimeters, the square curse tablet (defixio) contains the most ancient Hebrew inscription ever discovered in Israel, dating to the Late Bronze Age ii period (circa 1400–1200 b.c.). In the words of epigrapher Prof. Gershon Galil of Haifa University, the discovery represents “absolutely the most important inscription ever found in Israel.” Put together, the 40 alphabetical characters that have thus far been deciphered make a stunning pronouncement:
Cursed, cursed, cursed—cursed by the God yhw
You will die cursed
Cursed you will surely die
Cursed by yhw—cursed, cursed, cursed.
The inscription is by far the earliest use of the Hebrew name of the Israelite God found in Israel, yhw (more commonly spelled yhwh), predating the next-earliest inscription by centuries. But outside the discovery of the writing itself, or even the use of God’s name, the other startling element is where the tablet was found: Mount Ebal.
Just before he died, Moses instructed Joshua on how he should lead Israel into the Promised Land. Following the battles at Jericho and Ai, the Israelites were told to assemble in the mountains surrounding Shechem, the place where Abraham first sacrificed to God when he arrived in the region roughly 500 years earlier.
Moses’s instructions were explicit and detailed. Six tribes were to gather on Mount Gerizim, the other six on Mount Ebal. Leaders of the tribes then read from the book of Deuteronomy about the blessings they would receive if they obeyed God and the curses they would receive if they disobeyed. The six tribes on each mountain then sang back and forth, their voices resonating across the valley. The tribes on Mount Gerizim sang the blessings; the tribes on Mount Ebal sang the curses (Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:1-13).
Before this grand alfresco choral performance, Joshua did something important. “Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in mount Ebal, As Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings” (Joshua 8:30-31). Joshua began this momentous event by building an altar on Mount Ebal and sacrificing offerings to God.
Many people have considered the account of Joshua’s Mt. Ebal altar and Israel’s epic outdoor concert to be fiction. However, the discovery of the Late Bronze Age curse tablet on Mount Ebal, the mountain of curses, at the precise location of a massive stone structure resembling an altar, vindicates the accuracy of Bible history.
A 40-Year Journey of Discovery
Mount Ebal is located in Samaria, roughly 30 miles north of Jerusalem. Historians agree on Mount Ebal’s identity, but have debated for decades whether Joshua actually built an altar there.
This debate began in the 1980s largely as a result of the work of the late archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal of Haifa University.
Following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, Zertal surveyed and explored the territory that had been acquired from Jordan, especially the northern territory known in biblical times as the hill country of Manasseh.
“A window of opportunity had opened, and for the first time, my generation would steal a glimpse at the place where the central narratives of the Bible took place,” Zertal wrote in A Nation Born. “No one before us had been granted an opportunity so grand and a responsibility so great.”
His massive “Manasseh survey” began in 1978 and ended in 1990, yielding dozens of ancient sites, 80 percent of which had never been documented.
On April 6, 1980, Zertal made his most famous and electrifying discovery. His team was exploring El-Burnat, the Arabic name of a site on the east side of Mount Ebal, about 200 meters below the mountain peak.
“As usual, the surprise of the day came at the last minute!” Zertal recounted in his field journal. “We’d spotted the rock pile earlier, but attached no significance to it. When we approached from the east, however, it looked like a fortified tell. … It seemed likely that at the very last minute we had stumbled upon an extraordinary site—there is no other explanation for its shape or location. But we must be careful; only excavation can reveal the truth.”
He went on to conduct five excavations at El-Burnat between 1982 and 1987. During the first excavation, the team removed layers of field stones that seemed to have been placed intentionally for the purpose of covering the structure below. With the stones gone, Zertal was able to more clearly delineate the large structure, which measured 30 meters square and 3 meters in height.
Through the next four excavations, Zertal found large amounts of ash and bone in the area around the large structure. In fact, he found more than 1,000 bones, all of which came from young, choice male animals. This indicated the site had been used for animal sacrifices carried out according to biblical guidelines.
But what exactly was the large structure? The “aha” moment occurred toward the end of the day on Thursday, Oct. 13, 1983. Zvi Koenigsberg, a colleague of Zertal, wrote for the Jerusalem Post on January 26 this year: “Zertal and I were having coffee while the volunteers were busy washing the pottery they had dug from the ground that day. Zertal was working with a pencil and paper, and then handed me a drawing of what he thought the structure beneath the pile of stones would look like when it was completely revealed.
“I was thunderstruck, and bolted from the table without saying a word. I returned moments later with a book, opened to the page I had been seeking, and handed it to Zertal. It was now his turn to be thunderstruck. The book was one of the tractates of the Mishna, the first post-biblical code of Jewish law, compiled around a.d. 200. The page had a drawing of the altar of the Jerusalem temple, drawn to the specifications of the description in the text. The similarity between the two drawings was striking.”
The structure on Mount Ebal was massive and had a distinctive design and function, as the ash and animal bones attested. Yet even Zertal struggled to accept that he had discovered archaeological evidence of this early period of biblical history. He was a secular archaeologist, not a religious crusader striving to verify the Bible. But faced with compelling evidence of an altar site on Mount Ebal, Zertal could not ignore or reject the remarkable connection between the stones he had excavated and the biblical narrative.
“The problem now was how to present what we’d found,” he wrote in A Nation Born. “My academic background made it difficult for me to accept the idea of Joshua’s altar being a tangible reality. After all, Moses is not a historical figure, and the Torah lacks any substantive archaeological support. In the end, I was obliged to overcome each of my thousand-and-one doubts, for it seemed that we had made a discovery as unlikely as finding Sodom and Gomorrah.”
As credentialed and respected as Professor Zertal was, the announcement that he had found Joshua’s altar was met with skepticism by many in the archaeological community. Most agreed with his dating of the large structure (around 1200 b.c.) and did not deny the presence of ash and sacrificial animal bones. Still, experts considered its identification as an altar to be a step too far.
Zertal debated the merits of his Mount Ebal discovery for more than three decades, up until his death in 2015. In that time, more of Zertal’s colleagues came to agree with his identification of the Mount Ebal structure as an altar. Many others found it easier to simply ignore the discovery.
Recently, a third view of the discovery on Mount Ebal has emerged.
An Earlier Altar and Curse Tablet
A few years ago, American archaeologist Dr. Scott Stripling turned his attention to Mount Ebal and Professor Zertal’s excavations. Stripling wanted to look for connections that would help him understand his excavations in Shiloh.
Given the choice, Dr. Stripling would have liked to have continued Zertal’s excavations on Mount Ebal. But this is largely impossible as the site lies in politically sensitive territory. So Dr. Stripling did the next best thing: He wet-sifted the material that had been excavated decades earlier by Zertal and left adjacent to the large structure. It was in these massive dump piles that Stripling and his team discovered the curse tablet.
Entering the project, Stripling believed Zertal had found the altar mentioned in Joshua 8, but that it was an earlier altar built on the same site. To understand Stripling’s view, it’s important to understand exactly what the Bible relates about Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. The biblical text firmly supports an early date of the conquest, indicating that Joshua and Israel began conquering Canaan around 1400 b.c.
This date is different from the one suggested by Professor Zertal and others. Those who propose a later date for Joshua’s conquest believe Israel entered the Promised Land in the late 13th century, sometime close to 1200 b.c.
In Zertal’s excavations, he documented the presence of an earlier altar directly underneath the massive square altar. This altar, which he termed Installation 94 in his preliminary report, is much smaller than the large square structure. Its diameter is only 2 meters.
The shape of this smaller altar is also important. The large altar is square, but the smaller one is circular, and made from unworked, medium-size stones. In his report, Zertal noted that directly on top of this smaller altar was a 10-centimeter layer of clean ash containing animal bones, many of which were burnt. Zertal, just before he died, wrote about this smaller altar: “It would be some time before we’d realize that this was the core, the very heart of the ritual within the ancient structure. This was it—the primogenial ritual site on Mount Ebal.”
Zertal believed this smaller altar was built shortly before the larger altar and dated to the same relative period (around 1200 b.c.). While Dr. Stripling agrees that the smaller altar was built prior to the larger structure, he believes the evidence indicates that the smaller altar was built much earlier, even 200 years earlier (around 1400 b.c., the biblically supported time frame for Joshua’s conquest).
Dr. Stripling supports his view with evidence uncovered during the wet-sifting of Professor Zertal’s fill material. Upon examining the fill, Stripling’s team uncovered a higher percentage of pottery styles that can be dated to an earlier period than what Zertal suggested in his preliminary report. The presence of pottery from an earlier period suggests an earlier use of the site. Stripling also notes the presence of 15th-century Egyptian scarabs, as well as the discovery of a Late Bronze Age pumice chalice, as further evidence of the dating of the earlier altar. “Everyone agrees with Zertal that the rectangular altar dates to the 13th century,” wrote Stripling. “[But] the round altar likely belongs to the late 15th century and is plausibly the altar that Joshua built.”
As Dr. Stripling noted, the only way to conclusively settle this debate is to excavate the site further. Sadly, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. But if it could, Zertal left part of Installation 94 intact, meaning modern excavation methods could help settle the age of the earlier altar.
According to Stripling, only 30 percent of the excavated material from this site on Mount Ebal has been sifted. As the rest of the dump piles are analyzed, other Joshua-era discoveries are likely.
Regardless of the debate over which of the two altars belong to Joshua, the evidence from Mount Ebal proves beyond doubt that the earliest narratives of the Israelites’ entrance into the land of Israel are based on fact. And as Zertal wrote, “If we have found material evidence of a story as early as Joshua’s, who knows how far back the archaeological record can take us.”
No longer can anyone say that the history of Joshua is a reconstruction by later scribes. As Professor Galil noted: “The scribe that wrote this [tablet] could have written every chapter in the Bible. Now no one can claim that the Bible was written in later periods … because they were able to write it very, very early.” Combined with the fact this was found on the biblical mountain of curse and dates to Joshua’s time period, it’s hard to think of more conclusive proof for a biblical event.
To quote the late Harvard professor Lawrence Stager, who visited Zertal’s altar excavations in 1984: “If this is really what it looks like it is, we [scholars] all have to return to kindergarten.” As Dr. Stripling commented to the Trumpet’s sister publication Let the Stones Speak: “School’s in session!”