Gilgal - A New Archaeological Theory
Updated: May 3, 2019
The place name Gilgal is mentioned dozens of times in the Old Testament. It is described as the scene of many important events such as the place where Israel camped after crossing the Jordan (Joshua 4:19); the site where Saul was crowned (I Samuel 11:15); and a place associated with the lives of Elijah and Elisha (II Kings 2:1). In the book of Hosea, Gilgal was identified with idolatrous worship (Hosea 4:15; 9:15).
The Bible seems to point to several different locations for Gilgal including near Jericho; near Bethel; and in the valley of Shechem. Another site that is today known as Tel Jiljulieh, is also thought by some to be Gilgal. This causes a great deal of confusion and is an argument used by skeptics to show that the Bible is unreliable. One new archaeological theory may explain the discrepancies.
If this theory is correct, Gilgal is not a single place or city, but a site of religious significance and a gathering place. There were probably numerous sites called “Gilgal” throughout ancient Israel. There is a way to identify a Gilgal and differentiate it from other religious sites. Aerial views of several sacrificial altars from the time that the Israelites entered the land show a large stone enclosure surrounding the sites. These enclosures are several hundred meters long and are in the shape of a foot (sandal).
Building altars was common throughout the Old Testament before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. They were used to worship God and to mark the place of a covenant with God. They could also be used as gathering places or landmarks.
The footprint shape can be explained by another Old Testament custom. Walking around a piece of land signified ownership in several cultures in the ancient world. God used the same custom to make a promise to Abram:
Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord. -- Genesis 13:17-18 (ESV)
Later, when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, God reaffirmed this promise:
For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. -- Deuteronomy 11:22-24 (ESV)
These giant footprint outlines may be explained by the Israelites claiming their land as they advanced through it. They were also a celebration of God's promise.
(To see aerial photos of these sites, do an online search for “Gilgal footprints”.)