Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. – Deuteronomy 11:24-25 (ESV)
There is great debate among archaeologists today, as to whether the first Israelites gradually emerged from the local Canaanite population, whether they infiltrated the region from the east, or whether it might have been a combination of infiltration punctuated by conquests of Canaanite cities. Very few would endorse the Bible’s account of a massive and sudden Israelite conquest of Canaan from across the Jordan River under the leadership of Joshua, after 40 years in the wilderness. The discoveries of several large footstep-shaped enclosures, along with numerous unusual settlements in the area north of Jericho, are adding an intriguing aspect to the dispute.
At the end of August, Haaretz magazine ran an article entitled, “Is This Where the Israelites Camped on Their Way to Canaan 3,200 Years Ago?” The article features the the excavation at the unique ruins of Khirbet el Mastarah (which could be loosely translated as “hidden ruins”) located 5 miles north of the Dead Sea. The site is located in the lowlands of the Jordan valley, an inhospitable area below sea level that today is one of the hottest places on Earth. Yearly rainfall amounts to about 6 inches, and summer temperatures often reach over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The site was discovered during the Manasseh Hill Country Survey directed by the late Professor Adam Zertal of Haifa University, for 38 seasons continually from 1978 until his death in 2015. The survey covered a thousand square miles of the western Jordan valley where Zertal found signs of thousands of archaeological sites.
Among the finds were several footprint-shaped enclosures and some 70 settlements, including Khirbet el Mastarah, that he dated to the early part of the Iron Age, about 1,200 BC under standard dating. Because this was the approximate time of the biblical Conquest when using the predominant Ramesses Exodus Theory, Zertal proposed that these were early Israelite structures, built during their gradual infiltration (in his view) of Canaan.
Today, Zertal’s work is being carried on by professors David Ben-Shlomo of Ariel University and Ralph K. Hawkins of Averett University, Virginia. Khirbet el Mastarah is the first of Zertal’s sites they are excavating. According to the Haaretz article, there are several mysteries surrounding this location. The first major question is why this 2.5 acre settlement was built more than a mile from the nearest water source in an area of such extreme climate.
Another challenge is the fact that there are no signs of human habitation within the structures of the settlement, except grain grinding stones. This along with a handful of pottery shards found outside the structures makes dating the site difficult. “Maybe somebody came by 1,000 years later and left them there,” Ben-Shlomo points out in the Haaretz article.
Khirbet el-Mastarah nestled on the floor of the Jordan valley, but far from the Jordan River. (credit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project)
In the “infiltration“ model, the secluded location of Khirbet el Mastarah, hidden between the folds of hills and far from reliable water sources, might make sense for a hamlet of semi-nomadic Israelites. As recent arrivals, they could have stayed here for a few years while trying to stay out of sight of antagonistic neighbors, and building strength to continue their gradual push into Canaan.
The article shares the archaeologists’ suspicion that the structures may not actually be houses, but were instead used to shelter livestock. Today, some Bedouin continue to make stone structures to protect their livestock.
The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. – Joshua 4:19 (ESV)
More spectacular were Zertal’s finds of a half dozen “Israelite footprints” in the Jordan Valley region that he dated to the same Iron I period. According to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review, these footprints (or sandal prints) vary in size from 3 acres at Bedhat esh-Sha’ab, to 816 feet long and 228 feet wide at el-’Unuq – larger than two football fields.
An aerial view of a footprint or ‘Sandal’ enclosure made of stacked stones. (credit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project)
Zertal gave the name “gilgalim” to these enigmatic footprint structures, after the name “Gilgal,” the Israelite gathering place(s) mentioned in the Bible during and after the Conquest, which he believes the biblical text indicates were in multiple geographic locations. The footprint structures appear to have been dug into the landscape and are not simply stones piled on the existing surface. He believes they had cultic (religious) purposes.
At that time Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, – Joshua 8:30 (ESV)
One of Zertal’s footprint sites was at Mount Ebal, near biblical Shechem, where he also uncovered what appeared to be a large sacrificial altar. The altar seems to have had two stages of use, and he dated its construction to around 1,200 BC. He connected this altar to the one spoken of in Joshua 8:30. There has been much debate over its designation as an altar, with some calling it a watchtower.
The footprints, have also been the source of controversy. Were they used as huge animal pens or were they, as Zertal proposed, places of Israelite worship?
The article in BAR notes that Hawkins doubts they were merely animal pens, because of their large size and high-quality construction. He concluded that these sites are “unique and appear to have been built by semi-nomads who used a pottery repertoire similar to that of the new population group that entered Canaan from the east at this time [Iron Age I].”
Timothy Mahoney interviewing Aaron Lipkin at Argamon, Israel, the site of one of the ancient footprint structures. (Copyright 2018, Patterns of Evidence LLC)
In an effort to learn about such sites and the debates surrounding them, filmmaker Timothy Mahoney has attempted visit potential biblical locations personally, and talk with archaeologists in charge of the excavations when possible. Although it is no longer possible to meet with Professor Zertal, Mahoney did visit the site of one of the footprint structures at Argamon this past summer, about 25 miles north of the Dead Sea. Here he interviewed Aaron Lipkin, who is working to share Zertal’s ideas.
Lipkin highlighted several intriguing features of the site that included a double-wall around much of the enclosure’s perimeter, which would have allowed several people to walk side-by-side between the low walls. There is a second enclosure in the middle of the foot where he believes the tabernacle was placed with the Israelites marching around the holy space of the entire structure. He also pointed to Deuteronomy 11:24 (at the top of this article) that speaks about the Israelites possessing every place in Canaan where the sole of their feet would tread. Could this concept be the basis of these unique structures?
What About the Dates?
Having a right understanding of chronology is essential to having a right understanding of history. Once the announcement of the excavations at Khirbet el Mastarah became public, sites began running with the news that evidence for the biblical Exodus has finally been uncovered. However, a much greater degree of caution is warranted.
One reason that mainstream academia is skeptical of the Bible’s version of wandering and conquest is the popular conclusion expressed in the Haaretz article that no archaeological evidence has ever been found for the migration of Israelites from Sinai to Canaan via the Jordan valley, or for their battles in Canaan such as at Jericho.
As seen in Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, this negative conclusion about the Conquest is largely based on dating the Exodus to the time of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Around the time of Ramesses, there is no evidence for major problems in Egypt (in fact, there is much evidence for steady prosperity, power and stability), and no evidence for the conquest (including at the city of Jericho) as is described in the Bible. This in turn has caused the various “infiltration” theories to develop as possible alternatives that rescue a fragment of the Bible’s story.
The sequence of major events of the Exodus period (bold colors) centered at 1250 BC (time of Pharaoh Ramesses) based on convention thinking, compared to the pattern of evidence (faded colors) matching the Exodus found in an earlier period. The Bible points to an earlier date for Exodus and archaeological evidence indicates that archaeological periods (such as the Late Bronze Age) should be assigned latter dates than in the standard view – bringing the early pattern in line with the biblical sequence. (Copyright 2015, Patterns of Evidence LLC)
But what if the Bible’s version of history is accurate in the big picture view of things, as well as in the details? That would mean the common assumptions for which historical context the Exodus belongs to are wrong. If one puts the Exodus in a historical period that is centuries earlier than Ramesses, a remarkable pattern of evidence matching the Bible’s account emerges. These more ancient events wouldn’t just be the inspiration and seedbed for what would later become the legends found in the Bible (as many scholars think), they would be direct evidence of the biblical events themselves.
So, what is the most useful way to think about these intriguing structures found in the Jordan valley region? If they really are evidence of the Israelites, does that mandate that they come from the period of the Conquest? If the Exodus was earlier than thought, they could be Israelite sites from the time of the judges. Some sites could belong to other groups that were trying to hide from the Israelites. The only reason to insist on a conquest-related link is the conventional thinking of a Ramesses Exodus date that has so many problems matching the Bible’s account in many areas.
On the other hand, can we be sure about the Iron I designation (conventionally dated to 1200 BC and afterward) of the structures. It was already stated that there was little to no evidence of human habitation at many of the sites, with which to date their use. What about the thousands of other sites Zertal found – 70 were designated as being settlements from the Iron I period, but were there others from the Late Bronze or Middle Bronze periods, and what stories do they have to tell? So, if just regarding Zertal’s Iron I sites, we might have a wrong archaeological period designated for the ruins, we might have wrong dates assigned to the Bronze Ages and the early Iron Age, and we almost certainly have the wrong date for the Exodus (if going with 1250 BC).
With so much uncertainty, this is where the “patterns” approach becomes so helpful. We obviously need more information about these structures. When that is obtained, in order to show that it fits the Bible’s Exodus and Conquest account, the evidence from all areas need to fit into the larger pattern of the biggest events in the Bible’s report. For a true fit, evidence for all the steps needs to be present – not just a few unconnected indicators.
Looking at just the two most significant steps of the biblical sequence, there is no collapse of Egypt (that would have resulted from a biblical exodus) anywhere near 1250 BC, and there is no evidence of a destruction of Jericho within centuries of 1210 BC (40 years after the exodus from Egypt). If it can be determined that these structures definitely pertain to around 1200 BC, and if the Bible is accurate, then they couldn’t be from the time of the Bible’s Conquest – they wouldn’t fit the pattern.
Since we are uncertain of their date, they might be older than Zertal’s estimate, and therefore could fit the earlier pattern. If they are confirmed to be from the period after the strong pattern of evidence for the Exodus/Conquest, they might be Israelite structures from the Judges Period. We look forward to investigating these structures and their possible link to the Israelites in future Patterns of Evidence productions.
Many mainstream scholars are (at a minimum) suspicious of attempts to link archaeological evidence with the biblical account. They think conclusions referencing the Bible are overly biased. They charge that such views don’t consider alternatives that would call the Bible into question. However, it should also be noted that bias is present on all sides of the debate. Many scholars who don’t think the Bible is relevant to these issues are unwilling to “waste their time” with ideas that show a link between the Bible’s account and real history. Asking whether the Bible’s historical report can find matching evidence among the archaeological data is a legitimate scientific question. – Keep Thinking!