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Footprints of ancient Israel

Unusual stone circles may mark biblical 'Gilgal'

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17 Jan 2013 (All day)
Footprints of ancient Israel

There are many ways to experience the Holy Land. Most tourists traverse the land in air-conditioned buses. Locals use public buses and trains. Bedouins commute to work on donkeys. The newest way to see Jerusalem is on a two-wheeled, battery-powered Segway.

But my favorite way to see the Holy Land is by foot, like those from antiquity who had little or no choice. Hiking, running or walking through Jerusalem and the trails of the Holy Land allows a greater degree of understanding of its topography and surroundings, and therefore an increased sense of ownership.

It is one thing to see and hear the story of Masada from a distance. But it is an altogether different experience to hike up (and down) its ‘Snake Path’ and through its age-old ruins, reliving its sobering story.

The Bible describes a fascinating custom which evolved in the ancient Near East that links the idea of walking or treading the land by foot with the ownership, possession or inheritance of a parcel of land.

Gilgal stone circle, in the northern Jordan ValleyIn Genesis 13:17, for instance, God told Abram: “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.”

According to Nahum Sarna, general editor of the JPS Torah Commentary Series, “early Jewish exegesis understood this traversing of the length and breadth of the land to be a symbolic act constituting a mode of legal acquisition termed hΩazakah in rabbinic Hebrew.” That is, Abram’s walking the land symbolized legal ownership.

The background for this custom can be found in the early Egyptian and Hittite empires, where the king would take a “periodic ceremonial walk around a field or a tour of his realm in order to symbolize the renewal of his sovereignty over the land.”

In Nuzi, a Mesopotamian city east of the Tigris River, property was transferred from one person to another by the former owner lifting his foot from his property and placing the new owner’s foot on it at the same time a deed was drawn up. Thus, the action with the foot symbolized a legal property transaction.

We see a similar transfer ceremony in Ruth 4:7-9, where the kinsmen redeemer removed his sandal and gave it to Boaz to indicate that he was legally granting Boaz the right to redeem the property of Naomi and Ruth, as well as the person of Ruth. In this symbolic gesture, Boaz was literally stepping into the shoes of the previous owner.

In Deuteronomy 11:24, a similar idea is presented on the eve of the conquest of Canaan, some 600 years after Abraham (and 300 years before Ruth), when God told the Israelites through Moses, “Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours.”

The Hebrew term translated as ‘tread’ in verse 24 relates to the setting of one’s foot on territory or objects in order to take ownership. It is used throughout Deuteronomy and Joshua in reference to taking possession of the Promised Land.

Recent archaeological discoveries in the Jordan Valley and the adjoining hills of Samaria appear to indicate that as Israel took possession of the land, they marked ownership of the land by building several structures that resemble a large foot print or sandal.

These unusual structures, studied extensively by Professors Adam Zertal and Dror Ben-Yosef of the University of Haifa, date to the Iron Age I period, based on pottery and animal bones found on-site. They consist of two enclosed circles of stones that share a common border and, therefore, are joined together forming the shape of a foot print.

“The ‘foot’ structures that we found in the Jordan Valley are the first sites the people of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot,” Zertal insisted during a recent tour of the excavation site.

In addition to symbolizing ownership and possession, these “circles of stones” also are a visible reflection of the general meaning of the Hebrew term gilgal. Six such gilgal sites with the massive foot-shaped structure have been discovered so far.

This includes one on Mt. Ebal, the barren mountain towering over biblical Shechem (today’s Nablus) on the north, where Joshua led the people to build an altar of Jehovah and reaffirm their covenant with God.

Another massive foot-print can be found at Bedhat esh-Sha’ab, located in the Jordan Valley some two miles northwest of the Damiyeh Bridge across the River Jordan. It is thought by some that this site is the Gilgal where Israel initially encamped after crossing the Jordan and treading upon the land of promise for the first time.

Though there are several Gilgals (gilgalim) mentioned in the biblical accounts, the Gilgal of Israel’s first encampment represents the most significant location from the time of Joshua until the time of King Saul. It ultimately faded into obscurity in the eighth century BCE and became a symbol of apostasy in the writings of the prophets Amos and Hosea.

After the Israelites had crossed over the Jordan, Joshua was told to place 12 stones at this first Gilgal as a memorial to the Jordan River crossing, as well as to mark the renewal of the covenant, the circumcision of those born in the wilderness, the celebration of Passover, the end of the manna from heaven, and the presence of the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle (Joshua 4-5).

The name “Gilgal” was given because God had “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” from the people.

The role of the gilgalim for the Israelite community is believed to be for “seasonal gatherings” most probably of a religious character. That is, the Israelites would likely gather at the sites periodically and perform religious ceremonies, rather than live there on a permanent basis.

It was to Gilgal that Joshua and the Israelite army returned after subduing southern Canaan (Joshua 10:43). The prophet Samuel visited Gilgal during his yearly judicial curcuit (1 Samuel 7:16). Saul prematurely offered sacrifices and was installed and later rejected as King in Gilgal, when Samuel uttered the famous warning, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 11-15)

Finally, the people of Judah met King David at Gilgal as they helped him cross the Jordan to return to Jerusalem and retake the throne from his late son, Absalom (2 Samuel 19).

“Throughout biblical history, this site is associated with an array of events, all marked by the theme of renewal – Jacob reconciling with Esau, the Israelites renewing covenant with God, Samuel renewing Saul’s kingship, the people reaffirming David as their king, and more,” says Dr. John Turner, executive director of Father’s House Educational Foundation, which is involved in developing Gilgal as a major new tourist site.

To make the site more accessible, Father’s House, the Moreshet Heritage Foundation Israel and Moshav Argaman are working together to open the Gilgal Educational Center (www.gilgaleducationcenter.org).

If Zertal and others are correct in identifying Bedhat esh-Sha’ab as the first Gilgal and since the biblical record accords great significance to the locale – including the inauguration of ‘treading’ the land with the soles of their feet – it would certainly be a must-see for tourists, locals residents of the land, Segway users, and runners and hikers alike.

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This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition; www.jpost.com/ce 

 

 

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