The natural amphitheater outside the Moshav Argaman along the Jordan River provided stadium seating for the earliest most incredible event in the calendar for the Ancient Israelites. It is here at the footprint of Argaman where thousands of people would gather from all over in order to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals, and might be the earliest archaeological evidence of how Sukkot was celebrated.
This rarely visited archaeological site provides us with a window into what might be Judaism’s first holiday, Sukkot, hundreds of years before King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem. This footprint shaped site has left tracks to decipher its little-known history throughout Tanakh and even in the modern Hebrew words we use to describe Jewish holidays.
What we can see from the picture here is the giant footprint excavated by archaeologist Adam Zartal from Haifa University. By the pinky toe of the foot, there is a large round altar where 107 male kosher animal bones were found and pottery of cooking utensils – dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century, around the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan during the time that the Israelites were camped in this region. This is a signal sought after by archaeologists to distinguish the transfer of settlement from Canaanite tribes to Israelites who from the beginning avoided using pigs and dogs as sacrificial animals.
The Argaman footprint is one of five ancient holy sites (identified as the Gilgal sites) from this period that hug the west bank of the Jordan River. This supports both the academic and traditional analysis of Tanakh that the formation of the Israelite people and their traditions began to the east of Israel – long before the Temple of Jerusalem and even before the holy site of Shiloh.
Now that we understand the significance of the date and place of the footprint, let’s dive a little deeper. The heel of the footprint in Argaman has a double wall with about 1.5m of space between them and a flattened floor to walk on all the way around the heel. This may give us insight to the origins of the hoshanot, where Jews circle around the synagogue with the four species during Sukkot.
In the center of the footprint there is a courtyard with the same dimensions as the mishkan (tabernacle) as outlined in the Torah, matching the same dimensions as other ancient Israelite holy sites up until the destruction of the First Temple. These two findings demonstrate that the footprint was used by a staff of priests and even had some sort of activity for the pilgrims who came to perform their acts. There is also no evidence of a permanent settlement around these sites, meaning that pilgrims had set up temporary huts out of organic material that would have disappeared or disintegrated long ago. Maybe this was the origin of the sukkah itself!
To this day, the three pilgrimage festivals Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, are known as the שלוש רגלים (shalosh regalim — literally the “three legs [or feet]”). Maybe this term originates from when three times a year, the people would gather at literal footprints to give thanks to God. The term עליה לרגל (aliyah laregel — literally “ascent to the leg/foot”) also employs this strange turn of phrase. Even the word for holiday, חג (chag), might have its root in the word לחוג (lachug) meaning to circle. This is reflected in Islam during the Haj, when Muslim pilgrims walk around the qaba in Mecca. Walking in a circle around the heel of the footprint was clearly a major event of this site. To this day, the holiday referred to simply as chag, is Sukkot – the holiday where the main public event is when Jews circle around the synagogue with the four species in hand.
So why is the site a footprint and not simply a circle surrounding a sacrificial area? To find this out we can search for clues throughout Tanakh for metaphors of footprints that might not seem so metaphorical after understanding this site. There are many different times feet or footprints are referenced, and here are some examples of the four themes they all seem to touch on:
1. Ownership over the land – Deut. 11:24 — “Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours.” Josh. 1:3 — “Every spot on which your foot treads I give to you.” This could be giving the Israelites literal instruction to place a footprint to mark where the boundaries of their new land. (See also Josh. 14:9, Deut. 2:5)
2. Connection to the Land — 2 Kings 21:8 — “And I will not again cause the feet of Israel to wander from the land that I gave to their fathers.” King Menashe (seventh century BCE) tries to rally the people together using the feet metaphor, possibly invoking a reference to a time when long before when the people of Israel would unite as pilgrims to footprint temples. (See also 2 Chron 33:8, Deut 28:65)
3. Destroying Enemies — Psalms 47:4 — “He subjects peoples to us, sets nations at our feet.” Interestingly enough, this use of the metaphor has its origins in ancient Egypt in the Pyramid Inscriptions where “stepping” on a land is a typical way of describing the act of conquering: “The land of Punt, a land that had not been trodden by the god Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut” (1453-1419 BCE). (See also 1 Kings 5:17, Is. 49:23, Ps. 47:4, 2 Sam 2:22….)
4. Footprints as a Physical Place of Worship — Ezekial 43:8 — “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.” From this verse, the footprint was not simply a metaphoric idea connecting the people to each other, the land, or to God, but it was a concept that was understood throughout all of the generations of the people of Israel to be a physical place of worship in Israel’s history. (See also Is. 60:13, Is. 66:1, Ex. 24:10, Ps. 99:5, Lam. 2:1….)
As the Israelites grew stronger and moved westward, the footprints of the 13th century fell out of use and new pilgrimage places were formed to serve the Israelites for their holidays. Meanwhile, the Hebrew and Jewish lexicon has never forgotten the terms chag, aliyah laregel, and shalosh regalim. And the images of the footprint are inescapable all throughout Tanakh. The footprint of Argaman, reminds us modern Jews of the Israelite religion that first started to celebrate these holidays, specifically Sukkot, as they left Egypt and entered the Promised Land. These footprints give us a clear window into the first few centuries of Israelite religious life, and how this impacted the later kingdoms and Judaism as it continued after the destructions of the Temple.