An Electrifying Altar

A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.

The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”

Joshua’s Altar on Mount Eval

And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.

And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.

And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it upit slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?

A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!

And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itselfcompletely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.

I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bonesit all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.

And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!

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