The shocking part of the discovery of the Mount Ebal tablet is how little new information it provides. Most of the information it gives us about the early years of Israelites in Canaan is well-known to researchers, even to those who strenuously (and sometimes mendaciously) deny the importance of this information.
The site at which the inscription was found, an archaeological site on the northern slopes of Mount Ebal, is clearly a cultic site, dating to 13th and 12th centuries BCE. The quantities of bones found at the site show that it was used for worship. The pottery found at the site links to it a larger settlement phenomenon in the highlands of the Samaria region. In the period between roughly 1250 and 1100 BCE, hundreds of new settlements were founded in this region. Mostly small hamlets, their inhabitants survived by subsistence farming, generating few surpluses that could be used for trade. Apparently independent of any larger political formation, these were mostly distant from the only urban center in the region (Shechem) and many were concentrated in the northern reaches of the Samaria region. As such, they could be seen from the slopes where the altar was located.
None of this information is new. But a battle royal has emerged over its interpretation.
The simplest explanation for this new settlement phenomenon is that many people had moved to the region. They established a new settlement pattern, dissimilar to that which had characterized the region since 2000 BCE, and in so doing, rejected the traditional political structures of the area. In a carefully-argued scholarly work, entitled Israel’s Ethnogenesis, Avraham Faust enumerated over a dozen ethnic markers that show how these new settlers set themselves apart from those who inhabited the Samaria region before them, and from the Canaanites who lived in other parts of Palestine in the 13th and 12th centuries.
Despite the coherence of the argument that the new settlement patterns and new political organization indicate a new group, many in Israel’s archaeological community have expressed reservations about seeing these settlers as a distinct ethnic group. Their opposition revolves around similarities between the 13th-century settlers of the Samarian hills and the Canaanites who lived at the time in the lowlands. It is incontrovertible that much of the ceramic repertoire found in the hills in this period is similar to that found in the lowlands. But these similarities come alongside important differences in the choice of how to decorate these ceramics, and how to relate to imported wares, beyond differences in settlement pattern and political organization.
While these scholars may refuse to recognize the new settlers as a distinct nation, the 13th-century Egyptian king, Merneptah, felt otherwise. Writing of a campaign launched against a point in the region between Gezer (near the modern Ben-Gurion Airport) and Yeno’am (apparently in Transjordan, opposite Beit-Shean), he speaks of the defeat of a group of Semitic-speaking individuals, lacking a king, whom he calls “Israel.” Despite repeated attempts to question this reading, the text clearly refers to Israel, and clearly designates this group as Semites. Significantly, Merneptah’s stele places this group in the same region where the 13th-12th century wave of settlements were centered, in the Samarian hill-country.
Merneptah’s inscription may not be the only Egyptian text to speak of the Israelites. From his predecessor, Raamses II, we have a topographical list of nomadic pastoralist groups known as the “Shasu.” From other Egyptian texts, we know that one group of Shasu were those of ‘Aduma, apparently the Edomites, whom Genesis describes as the Israelites’ first cousins. Raamses’ list mentions the “Shasu of Yahw,” which some have seen as a reference to Israel’s God, known as YHWH. Is Raamses’ list the oldest known mention of the Israelites, whom he calls the “nomads of YHWH”?
The excavators of the Mount Ebal altar have stated that the inscription they recovered also mentions a God called YHW. Their reading of the poorly-preserved text will need to go through the customary scholarly review by recognized experts in epigraphy. If the proposed reading is sustained, this would clearly demonstrate that already in the 13th or 12th centuries BCE, in the period of Raamses II and Merneptah, the new settlers of the Samaria region worshiped YHWH. These were the settlers whom Merneptah called “Israel” — probably because they called themselves “Israel.” If these Israelites can be shown to have worshiped YHWH already in the 13th or 12th century BCE, the link between the “nomads of YHWH” in Raamses’ list and the Israelites will become hard to deny.
We could then show that YHWH-worshiping nomads from outside of Palestine entered the hill-country of Samaria sometime in this period. The Mount Ebal inscription, therefore, may be a small but significant additional link in a long chain of texts used for historical reconstruction.
It could link the new settlers to the Shasu “nomads of Yahw” mentioned by the Egyptian king Raamses II, nomads who lived in lands under Egyptian control. This link would make it much harder to argue that the 13th and 12th century settlers in the Samaria region were simply Canaanites who sought new stomping grounds.
Why does all this matter? Why have scholarly publications and newspapers devoted much attention to a small slip of rock 3,300 years old? What is at stake is not simply a battle about how to reconstruct the ancient history of the Israelites, but about modern Jewish identity and how we view Israel’s future. Yigal Allon famously said that Israel’s future is defined by knowing and respecting its history. Each side in the current historical debate is trying to refashion the ancient Israelites in light of how that side sees Israel’s modern identity. Israelis committed to Israel’s place among the nations and to a cosmopolitan view of their own identity would like to view the ancient Israelites as cosmopolitan traders. Therefore, they emphasize Israel’s origins as an offshoot of the Canaanites known for their trading prowess and close relations with ancient empires. To other Israelis, the distinctive nature of Israel’s history is worth highlighting, and the desire to do so finds expression in how they view the ancient Israelites.
Interestingly, the current excavations at Mount Ebal are headed by American Christians, rather than Israelis. For them, the question is not one of identity so much as proving the historicity of biblical events, a desire founded in the Protestant Christian emphasis on the importance of the literal meaning of Scripture. They seek “proof” that Joshua indeed established an altar at Mount Ebal, and view the tablet as an element in that proof.
The problem with this approach is that archaeology can never prove narrative. It cannot prove narrative because any narrative, biblical or otherwise, only narrates a small selection of the events that occur. Events are chaotic, narrative is orderly. Any narrator chooses to emphasize certain events, to re-cast others in order to force them to make sense, and to ignore those events that do not fit into the narrative. Archaeological data reflects the messy and disorderly events that occurred in real time, rather than a narrator’s attempt to fit those disorderly events into a narrative framework. So that, rather than discovering Joshua’s altar, the excavators may well have found an altar established around the period when Joshua lived, but a different one, from the early period of Israelite settlement. Does this altar matter? If one seeks to find “the true Joshua altar,” then the altar where the tablet was found matters very little. But if one seeks to understand more about the larger series of events that transpired in the 13th and 12th centuries, and how these relate to the narrative told by the Hebrew Bible, this altar is one link in a very long chain.