Some Notes on the Jordan Valley “Sandal-Shaped Enclosures” and “the Footprints of God”

From WND:

ARE THESE THE FOOTPRINTS OF GOD?
6 giant sandal-shaped stone artifacts puzzle archaeologists in Israel

…Found just to the east [sic] of the Jordan River, these six sandal-shaped rock structures – one bigger than two football fields in length and 228-feet wide – are getting attention, not just from archaeologists, but increasingly from the Israeli public.

Perhaps the most famous of these sites is one found on Mount Ebal. Its unique feature is a massive altar found in the center measuring about 23 feet by 30 feet feet in size and a story high. Charred animal bones and ash were found in and around the altar.

Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who discovered the site, believes this is the altar Joshua created when Israel first entered the Promised Land. He believes he may be the one mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 8:30).

Despite the present tense, Zertal died in 2015, and his discoveries and theories received journalistic attention in 2009. It’s not clear why there is suddenly renewed interest now, although this year has seen the publication of his The Manasseh Hill Country Survey Volume 4: From Nahal Bezeq to the Sartaba, written in collaboration with Shay Bar and published by Brill.

An addendum to the preface of this book written after Zertal’s death outlines his career, but here the “sandal-shaped” structures are presented as distinct from the structure on Mt Ebal:

During the survey, four sites significant for the study of Israel were discovered and excavated: Mount Ebal, Arubboth/Narbara, El-Ahwat and the sandal-shaped enclosures (Giligalim).

Mount Ebal – a double enclosure with structures within it; the most significant one identified by Zertal as an Early Iron Age sacrificial altar… [H]e proposed that this was the altar mentioned in the commandments of Moses (Deut, 27), where the Ceremony of the Blessing and the Curse (Josh, 8) took place. This proposal aroused fierce argument because it contradicted the proposition that these books were late, written towards the end of the First Temple period.

The sandal-shaped enclosures (‘Gilgalim‘) – this is a group of five sandal-shaped enclosures, discovered during the survey in the Jordan Valley and on the eastern slopes of Samaria. Three have been excavated, and dated to the Early Iron Age… Zertal proposed that these are the ‘Gilgalim‘ mentioned in the Bible (39 mentions of at least seven different sites). Lately he proposed that the sandal-shaped form was not accidental, testifying to the ideologically religious notion of possession of the land.

Page 62 explains further:

Up to now three complete sites have been found, and one or two ruined ones may also belong to this type… In most cases these enclosures were built in the flat plain of the Jordan Valley, in the wadi estuaries near Argaman, and east of the Sartaba… We can assume that these sites, which were constructed with great care, served for public gatherings or cultic functions.

These sites are not “east of the Jordan”.

In contrast to the above, the 2009 reports clearly stated that Mt Ebal itself was such a site. Here’s Haaretz:

The two remaining structures, one inside the other, are located at Mount Ebal, adjacent to Nablus. Both are sandal-shaped and inside one is a structure Zertal identifies as the altar where the formative ceremony celebrating the people of Israel’s arrival in the land, took place as described in Joshua 8 and in Deuteronomy 27:12-13.

As noted by WND, the claim that Mt Ebal is the location of one of the “sandal-shaped” sites also appears in a 2016 article by Ralph Hawkins for the Biblical Archaeology Review (1):

Zertal’s interpretation of his sandal-shaped sites (more recently foot-shaped enclosures) is even more controversial. These are a series of sites from his Manasseh survey that are mystifyingly enclosed in the shape of a footprint or a sandal, and among them is the Mt. Ebal site.

In his preliminary report on the Mt. Ebal site, Zertal made no reference to anything distinctive about the shape of the site’s enclosure wall. Beginning in 1983, however, his survey of Manasseh had begun discovering sites, all in the Jordan Valley,whose enclosures are in the shape of a footprint, the shape of which was not directed by the topography.

There is also “no reference” to such a claim in Hawkins’s own 2007 university dissertation on the Iron Age I structure at the site (available here), and there is no “sandal shape” apparent in the plan that Hawkins included on page 8.

If Zertal revised his understanding of Mt Ebal based on observations from other sites, this is not apparent in the Survey volume and Hawkins does not provide any source or even explanation. The implication seems to be that the sandal shape is self-evident at the other sites, but that it only became apparent at Mt Ebal by looking for it – which is something of a methodological alarm bell.

General interest in the “footprints” is based on two factors: (a) that Mt Ebal actually is “Joshua’s altar”, and (b) that the “sandal shapes” directly illustrate a Biblical idea of ownership. As explained by Hawkins:

In battle, victors would often put their feet on the necks of those they vanquished to show that they had subjugated them (Joshua 10:24). Treading on territory could symbolize ownership of it (Deuteronomy 11:24), and apparently this symbol evolved into the idea of the foot—or sandal—as a symbol of ownership. When Ruth’s next-of-kin transferred his right of redemption to Boaz, he took off his sandal to show that he was relinquishing it. The Biblical text states that this was the tradition at the time (Ruth 4:7).

This is not quite convincing – certainly, Ruth indicates that sandals signify ownership, but this does not mean that footprints served the same function. And Deut. 11:24 is merely a promise of ownership expressed in general terms (“every place where you set your foot will be yours”); there is nothing “symbolic” about it, nor is it the same as saying “every place where you leave your footprint”.

And are the footprints those of the Israelites taking ownership, or are they “footprints of God”? Surely these are two distinct concepts? (2) Hawkins notes carved footprints at ‘Ain Dara temple in northern Syria, which he says “probably symbolized the deity entering the temple”, and asks:

Could it be that the gilgalim, in the shape of footprints, that Adam Zertal discovered were intended to symbolize Yahweh, the deity of the new migrants…

Yet somehow the important decision to inscribe Yahweh’s foot at various locations across the landscape escaped the Biblical authors whom Hawkins (following Zertal) cites for suggestive references about ownership and sandals. This is speculation, and the ‘Ain Dara carvings are a very poor comparator.

A 2010 book review by Raz Kletter of Helsinki University lays out the difficulties (3):

We have no evidence that the sandal shape, which is instrumental to the authors’ interpretation, was meaningful for the sites’ users. Do all the site locations offer bird’s-eye views? If not, seeing them as “sandals” comes with modern research. There are hardly religious finds at Bedhat eshSh‘ab. The “procession road” does not lead anywhere in particular, and there is no evidence that it was used as such. The Old Testament Gilgal (not gilgalim, the plural) is not a “type” of place but a place name. Perhaps this name relates to a round form… but not to a sandal form. Gilgal was near Jericho, and its etymology (Judg 5:9) is unrelated to shape. Central religious sites are rare, unlike the archaeological “sandal” sites. According to Zertal, Mount Ebal is Joshua’s altar (Judg 24). If it is a “sandal site,” it too should have been called Gilgal in the Old Testament (it is not). These and other questions await further publications.

Further, Zertal’s identification of Mt Ebal with Joshua (which is the implicit basis for concluding that the “sandal-shaped” sites must be Israelite) has also failed to find wide acceptance among archaeologists or historians – although popular websites have made much of the fact that Zertal came to his conclusions despite initially believing that the Bible consisted of myths (4), and the site has been of increasing significance in modern Israeli nationalism. A 2014 chapter by Antti Laato explains that “the discussion is still open as to whether the cultic site found by Zertal can be related to Josh 8:30–35” (5).

Excursus

The WND article also includes the detail that one of the sites

is endangered by a foreign-funded garbage dump serving the Palestinian Authority.

Green Now, an Israeli environmental NGO, launched a campaign to protest the project. Ariel Filber, the Director for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in Judea and Samaria, explained the reasons for the protest to Breaking Israel News.

“The spot is about 200 meters from this Gilgal site,” she said. “The heavy equipment, all the tractors that will work in building and servicing the site, they may inadvertently damage the Gilgal site.”

The project is being financed by the Bank of Germany. Filner [sic – should be Filber] says the dump is substandard and wouldn’t be allowed in Europe or Israel. Protests have been organized.

This has been written to leave the strong impression that the local Palestinians a polluting presence who endanger the preservation of evidence of the ancient Israelites. The Green Now Facebook post on the subject also complains that Israeli settlements will not be allowed to use the dump (a condition stipulated by the German backers), and uses the provocative term “judenrein” to describe this arrangement.

However, the planned landfill site raises a number of environmental concerns, and Palestinians and Israeli settlers both protested against the project as long ago as 2013 (6). It is also unfair to treat the environmental impact of this particular project without considering the general context of construction in the West Bank since 1967.

Footnotes

1. WND mistitles Biblical Archaeology Review as Biblical Archaeology Magazine.

2. WND quotes a certain non-archaeologist named Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz:

“Before entering the Promised Land, God gave Israel this interesting promise,” he wrote.

…”Everywhere Israel left a foot print that was to be their land,” Berkowitz writes. “It was very similar to the promise God gave Abraham after he and Lot separated because their herds were too large. So were these giant footprints, Israel’s message to God – we have walked here? This is our land. We claim it as our inheritance. They were also a reminder Who had given them the land.”

Berkowitz is in fact a a writer for a religious website called Breaking Israel News (previously discussed by me here), and the quote makes explicit the ideological reasons why Zertal’s interpretation is of interest to a website such as WND. It should noted that the sites identified by Zertal all appear to face the same way, so if they indeed depict footprints, then according to his interpretation it would be more accurate to say “we have hopped here”.

3. Raz Kletter, Review of David J. Schloen (ed.), Exploring the Longue Durée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009), in Review of Biblical Literature 9 (2010).

4. Some websites suggest that Zertal later became a religious believer, although this does not necessarily follow from taking a “high” view of the reliability of the Bible’s historical books.

5. Antti Laato, “The Cult Site on Mount Ebal: A Biblical Tradition Rewritten and
Reinterpreted”, in Holy Places and Cult, edited by Erkki Koskenniemi and J. Cornelis de Vos. Studies in the Reception History of the Bible 5:  51-84 (Turku and Winona Lake: Åbo Akademi University and Eisenbrauns, 2014), p. 84.

6. The Facebook post, from 2016, refers to the site as “near the Alon Road, coming up north from Jericho towards Bet El/Ramallah is the Rimonim Junction” – which confirms that this is the same project that was protested in 2013.

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