Last week, Israeli news sources reported on damage caused by Palestinian construction workers to an archeological site on Har Eival. This mountain is mentioned in Parshas R’ei and Parshas Ki Savo as the site of an altar built by Yehoshua bin Nun after the B’nei Yisrael arrived in their Promised Land.
“From the ancient Samaria National Park through Tel Aroma to the altar of Yehoshua bin Nun, it is shocking to see how the Palestinian Authority is rudely destroying the archaeological sites that are dear to all of humanity,” Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan wrote in a letter to the army.
In contrast to Har G’rizim, the “mountain of blessings” that is accessible to Jewish visitors and has the Jewish community of Har Brachah and the Samaritan Kiryat Luza on its slope, Har Eival was the mountain where curses were recited on the tribes assembled between the two mountains. Located on Palestinian-controlled land, it rarely sees Jewish visitors. The advocacy organization Shomrim al HaNetzach first reported Palestinian roadwork destroying portions of a 3,200-year-old wall last week on Har Eival, near a structure described by some archeologists and tour guides as Joshua’s Altar.
Why haven’t most of us heard of this historical site? We knew that it stood on Har Eival, but after the construction of the Beis HaMikdash, sacrificial altars across the land lost their purpose and became forgotten.
The story picks up in 1980, when archeologist Adam Zertal found an altar with the appearance and dimensions resembling those mentioned in the Torah. Its location connected it to Yehoshua, and bones from kosher animals were also found there. The building materials were uncut stones, composing a platform, perimeter wall, and ramp.
There is not enough conclusive evidence to say that it was built by the first generation of Jews that returned to Eretz Yisrael. Nevertheless, acts of destruction at any ancient site erases potential for it to be studied further.
“Our land has a bounty of holy sites of immense religious, historic, and archaeological value,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote in a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz. “It is inconceivable that we, who are rooted in these heritage sites all across the country, do not ensure that our heritage sites are protected against all kinds of damage and harm.”
Many years ago, when I lived in Forest Hills, I attended Congregation Machane Chodosh and used to drive shul president Herbert Jaffe to his home. On one occasion, he thanked me with a stack of Biblical Archaeology Review magazines. I can’t say that the magazine is ideal for a frum audience as it also documents physical traces of idolatrous cultures and early Christianity, but its depiction of altars matches the measurements of Maseches Midos.
In our long exile, our knowledge of the tombs, battlefields, fortresses, cities of refuge, and tribal boundaries is largely sourced from the Tanach and Shas. But when the sites identified by archaeologists match the descriptions and locations from our written sources, the argument for their preservation is more compelling.
By Sergey Kadinsky