April 7, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

This is the first time that enclosures identified with the “gilgal” biblical sites mentioned in the Book of Joshua have been revealed in the Jordan Valley.

As the modern Israeli family readies itself for the annual Passover Seder on Wednesday, a new archeological discovery sheds light on how ancient the tradition actually is.

Researchers from the University of Haifa today revealed an exceptional archaeological discovery of “foot-shaped” enclosures for assemblies and rituals in the Jordan Valley, dating back to the time when the Jews first settled Israel.

The enclosures are significant because this is the first time that enclosed sites identified with the biblical sites termed in Hebrew “gilgal” – closed spaces used to assemble people perhaps for battle or worship – have been revealed in the Jordan Valley. To this day, no archaeological site has been proposed to be identified with the gilgal.

Gilgal is mentioned 39 times in the Bible, most notably in the Book of Joshua as the site where the Israelites first encamped after crossing the Jordan River. Joshua ordered the Children of Israel to take 12 stones, symbolizing the 12 tribes, and place them in formation. According to the Bible, a mass circumcision for the Israelite males was also held there.

Yesterday it was revealed that the researchers, headed by Prof. Adam Zertal, had found and excavated five structures, each in the shape of an enormous human foot, apparently to mark territorial ownership.

Created for human assembly

The stone enclosures were located in the Jordan valley and the hill country west of it. The date for the sites was established as the outset of the Iron Age I (the 13th-12th centuries BCE). Based on their size and shape, the researchers say, it is clear that they were used for human assembly and not for animals.

Two of the sites (in Bedhat esh-Sha’ab and Yafit 3) were excavated between 2002 and 2005. The findings, mostly of clay vessels and animal bones, date their foundation to the end of the 13th century BCE, and one of them endured undisturbed up to the 9th or 8th century BCE.

In at least two cases, paved circuits, some two meters wide, were found around the structures. The archeologists theorize that these were probably used to encircle the sites in a ceremony.

“Ceremonial encirclement of an area in procession is an important element in the ancient Near East,” Zertal said, adding that the origins of the Hebrew term hag (festival) in Semitic languages comes from the verb “hug”, which means “encircle”. The discovery can therefore also shed new light on the religious processions and the meaning of the Hebrew word for festival, hag.

But at this time of year, it is the word regel or “foot” which holds much significance. There are three major pilgrimage festivals in Judaism, known as the Shlosha Regalim: Pesach or Passover, Shavuot (The Festival of Weeks), and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles).

At these times, in ancient Israel, Jews would make a pilgrimage to make sacrifices and worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, “regel” also came to mean “festival” or “holiday” in Hebrew.

A symbol of ownership

And there may be even deeper meanings, Zertal said at a press conference yesterday, emphasizing that in the ancient world, “foot” also held significance as a symbol of ownership of territory, control over an enemy, connection between people and land, and presence of the Deity.

“The ‘foot’ structures that we found in the Jordan valley are the first sites that the People of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot,” said Zertal.

“The discovery of these ‘foot’ structures opens an entirely new system of linguistic and historical perceptions,” Zertal said, adding that the source of the Hebrew term aliya la-regel (or pilgrimage), literally translated as “ascending to the foot” could be attributed to the “foot” sites in the Jordan valley.

According to Zertal, the “foot” constructions were used for ceremonial assemblies during Iron Age I and probably afterwards. When the religious center for Jews moved to Jerusalem the command of aliya la-regel became associated with Jerusalem. However, says Zertal, the source of the term is in the sites discovered in the Jordan valley and the altar on Mt. Ebal.

“Now, following these discoveries, the meanings of the terms become clear. Identifying the ‘foot’ enclosures as ancient Israeli ceremonial sites leads us to a series of new possibilities to explain the beginnings of Israel, of the People of Israel’s festivals and holidays,” he stated.

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Jason Harris

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