EXCURSUS ON GILGAL
from The Prophets of Israel: Walking the Ancient Paths
by James K. Hoffmeier
The reference to Gilgal after Saul and the Israelites returned victoriously from east of the Jordan River evokes memories from centuries earlier when Joshua and the Israelites camped at Gilgal after crossing over the Jordan from victories in the Trans-Jordan (Josh. 4:19). Gilgal had served as a base camp for military missions and a place for religious observances and cultic activity since the day of Joshua (Josh. 4:20; 5:9–10). The name Gilgal means roll away as the episode in Joshua 5:9 indicates: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you. So the place was called Gilgal to this day.” Gilgal means circular and wheel (Isa. 5:28; Ezek. 10:6). In Joshua 4, we are in- formed that twelve stones were erected at Gilgal, as the name suggests, some scholars think that these sacred stones were set up in a circular pattern.
It may be because of historic and sacral significance of Gilgal to the founding of Israel that Samuel settled on this site for renewing the Saul’s Kingship. Gilgal was also one of the stops on Samuel’s circuit as judge (1 Sam. 7:16), and it remained a place of religious sacrifice in connection throughout Saul and Samuel’s lifetime.
The identification of Gilgal has eluded archaeologists. The Bible clearly places it at the edge of the border of the city-state of Jericho (Josh. 14:19), whose location is well established. Thus it must have been located within the vicinity of Jericho, west of the Jordan River. While conducting archaeological surveys in central Israel, the late Professor Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa recently discovered a most intriguing site in the Jordan Valley called Bedhat esh-Sha‘ab, which was investigated thoroughly and excavated in 2002 and 2003. This mysterious foot or sandal- shaped site is 370 meters long and about 90 meters at its widest. It is built against a bleacher-like terraced stone hill on its west side. The surrounding walls are only a stone or two high, indicating that this was not a defensive structure or even a very large animal pen as the walls were too low. Consequently the excavator theorizes that the feature, which has what appears to be a circular stone altar and a higher walled area within outer circuit walls, functioned as a place to gather for religious festivals and services. The pottery from the site spans from the thirteenth and twelfth centuries and down to the tenth centuries, and then fell out of use in the eighth century BC. The heel area of this large feature is rounded and has two low parallel walls with a cobbled path between them. Zertal wonders if this site is a Gilgal-type site where the Israelite tribes may have assembled, and the circular path outline walls used for some sort a festive circuit. An earlier generation of biblical interpreters had thought that Gilgal was a place of sacred reenactment of liturgies commemorating the saving acts of God, from bringing the Hebrews from Egypt, through the Sinai wilderness and into the Promised Land.
Bedhat esh-Sha‘ab is located about 65 km (41 miles) north of Jericho, and thus appears to be too far north to be Gilgal of Joshua’s day. This site, however, is not the only such foot-shaped one. Zertal’s team has identified several others, including one at el-Unuq, situated about 24 km (15 miles) west of Bedhat esh-Sha‘ab, and yet another one was found 17 km farther west at Mt. Ebal this mountain was known to have been an important early religious center for the newly arrived Israelites in the land of Canaan (cf. Josh. 8:30–33). Then too, be- tween Bedhat esh-Sha‘ab and Jericho, two more foot-shaped sites have been documented in the Jordan Valley. The closest to Jericho is at Yafit, around 38 km (24 miles) to the north. Currently it is unclear whether any of these can be equated with Gilgal of Joshua and Samuel, but these sites may well have been replicas of the original one that were similarly used. It is evident from the various occurrences of Gilgal throughout the Old Testament that this name applied to different sites in different locations. Now that at least five possible Gilgal-type sites have been found, and there may have been more, we can under- stand why the name occurs at different locations.
Gilgal continued to be associated with the prophetic tradition in the centuries after Samuel. During the eighth century, Gilgal was once again a place of religious observances, although the practices must have involved a blending with pagan practices, for they are roundly condemned by Hosea and Amos. The latter put it this way:
“Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more.” (Amos 4:4)
“Do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba.
For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing.” (Amos 5:5)
 Adam Zertal and Dror Ben-Yosef, “Bedhat esh-Sha‘ab: An Iron Age I Enclosure in the Jordan Valley,” in Exploring the Longue Durrée: Essays in Honor of Lawrence E. Stager, ed. J. D. Schloen, 517–29 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
This post is adapted from The Prophets of Israel: Walking the Ancient Paths, written by James K. Hoffmeier, released October 26th 2021. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Seeing the biblical prophets in context makes all the difference in understanding their messages
In The Prophets of Israel, Old Testament scholar and longtime field archaeologist James K. Hoffmeier explores the biblical prophets through their ancient settings. Readers gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding through many practical components:
- Full-color photos and images of historical and cultural importance
- Focus on the geopolitical contexts of the prophets
- Clear explanations of the prophets’ provoking messages
- Discussion questions for Bible students or instructor use
These features and photos vividly illustrate the biblical narratives and the prophets’ concerns, helping readers better comprehend each text’s message and make informed theological applications.
The biblical prophetic tradition extends far before and far after the Major and Minor Prophets. Yet all biblical prophets–including recognizable figures like Moses and Elijah, lesser-known prophets like Huldah and Micaiah, and the New Testament prophets–ministered in distinctive cultural and historical circumstances. Hoffmeier draws on his extensive knowledge of ancient Near Eastern culture, geography, political realities, and the Old Testament message to locate the prophets in their worlds. This approach illuminates prophetic messages and ministries with a theological clarity that basic history and literary interpretation cannot achieve.