The true nature of Gilgal, a site that figures prominently throughout the Bible, remains a mystery. Five possible sites exist, but one of them is in danger of being destroyed before it can reveal its secrets. The site overlooking the Jordan Valley is endangered by a foreign-funded garbage dump serving the Palestinian Authority.
The Hebrew word “Gilgal” (a camp or stone-structure), is mentioned thirty-nine times in the Bible and clearly contains great significance. Despite being so prominently mentioned, the location of Biblical Gilgal is still undetermined.
Gilgal is described as serving several purposes in the Bible, usually referring to dividing the land between the tribes. Joshua was commanded to set up 12 stones as a monument in Gilgal east of Jericho, and the Jews who came out of the desert were circumcised there.
Another location given for Gilgal is near Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, much further north than Jericho, seeming to indicate these are not the same place, though they share the name ‘Gilgal’.
Thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. Are they not beyond the Jordan, behind the way of the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites that dwell in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the terebinths of Moreh? Deuteronomy 11:29
Many auspicious events occur at Gilgal, including the crowning of both Saul and David. Elisha was established as a prophet there. But no specific location is ever given.
A unique theory by archaeologist Professor Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa may offer a different solution, one that explains why the location of Gilgal is left unclear in the Biblical text.
While excavating on Mount Arbel in the Galilee, Professor Zertal discovered what seemed to be the Altar of Joshua, something his professors at Tel Aviv University, a secular institution, had taught him never existed, instead promoting the belief that the Bible was not a valid source for archaeological studies. When he reached the conclusion that the site was undeniably the Biblical Altar of Joshua, Zertal was forced to reevaluate everything he had been taught.
Bible in hand, the non-religious Zertal set out to rediscover Israel. He was fascinated by several large stone-ringed enclosures in the Jordan valley. Zertal discovered five such stone enclosures in the Jordan valley and the hill country west of it. The discoveries led him to suggest that the Biblical term ‘Gilgal’ described, not a specific location, but a type of structure.
He theorized that the Gilgal enclosures were used for assemblies, preparation for battle, and religious rituals. Zertal saw a direct connection between the distinctive “foot” shape of the Gilgal enclosures and the Biblical concept of taking ownership over a territory by walking on it.
Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the hinder sea shall be your border.” Deuteronomy 11:24
One of the Gilgal sites Zertal discovered is currently in danger of being destroyed by the construction of a Palestinian garbage dump. Though too far west to be the site ascribed to Joshua, it dates back to the Iron Age and is believed to have been first built in the 12th century BCE. The site is near the settlement of Rimonim, overlooking the Jordan Valley, about a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem.
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. The heavy equipment, all the tractors that will work in building and servicing the site, they may inadvertently damage the Gilgal site,” Filber said. “It has happened before.”
“The site also stands on a fault that leads down into the valley,” Filber explained. “It is in danger of polluting the valley below, the city of Jericho and the Bedouin villages in between.”
Construction of the dump would also endanger a rare flower, the Gilboa Iris, that grows only in the immediate area.
“The project is being financed by the Bank of Germany. The dump is substandard and wouldn’t be allowed in Europe or Israel,” Filber told Breaking Israel News. “Because it is Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria), it does not come under the civil authority, and so there is no civil authority to prevent it.”
As important as Gilgal is to understanding our Biblical heritage, it remains a mystery to archaeologists. Only two of the five possible sites have been excavated by scientists. Tragically, this site is in danger of being pushed out of the way to create a mountain of garbage before it can reveal its secrets.