'At the Feet of My Lord'

Decades of digging in Samaria and the Jordan Valley have turned up a number of ancient structures shaped like human feet. One local archaeologist believes they reveal something about the origins of the nation of Israel.

Prof. Adam Zertal stands in a yard surrounded by a low stone wall. Even after years of research, its purpose is not entirely clear to him. The yard is square and located within a larger, strangely shaped structure that from the air resembles the sole of a shoe or a foot. Zertal, who is affiliated with the archaeology department at the University of Haifa, thinks it possible that in this yard there was a portable construction, like a tent, where rituals were held.

Zertal has definite opinions about the foot-shaped compound and its importance to understanding the period of the settlement of the Tribes of Israel and the origins of Israel. The compound, which in Arabic is called Bidat al-Shaab, is situated about one kilometer south of Moshav Argaman in the Jordan Valley, and its walls are built of two or three rows of large stones.

After the site's discovery, in 1989, Zertal and his colleagues conjectured that the people who built it were trying to draw the shape of kidney, a bean or perhaps a sandal on the arid plain. Recently, in the wake of aerial photographs, measurements and drawings, they have decided that it is not a sandal, but rather the sole of a foot - two conjoined elliptical shapes, one of them resembling a heel and the other, the larger one, like the sole of a foot. Recently this impression was reinforced when the researchers discerned toe-like shapes at the edge of the structure.

Not far away, four more, similarly shaped sites have been found, all of them built in the same period, in the early Iron Age, which is identified with the beginnings of Israelite settlement in the Land of Israel. One of them is located adjacent to Moshav Yafit, at the eastern scarp of the Sarbata Ridge; nearby, at the eastern slopes of that same ridge, is a compound called Massua. In Nahal Tirza, about 20 kilometers to the west, there is a fourth site built in the shape of a sandal, which is called al-Unuq ("the string of beads" in Arabic). The two remaining structures, one inside the other, are located at Mount Ebal, adjacent to Nablus. Both are sandal-shaped and inside one is a structure Zertal identifies as the altar where the formative ceremony celebrating the people of Israel's arrival in the land, took place as described in Joshua 8 and in Deuteronomy 27:12-13.

All of the compounds stretch over a relatively large area: between six and 12 dunams (1.5 to 3 acres). According to shards uncovered there, all were built at the same period - the end of the 13th and beginning of the 12th centuries B.C.E. They are surrounded by low walls, typically found in sites located on the plain, the kind of terrain that does not afford any topographical advantage. Therefore, the possibility that they are fortifications is ruled out, nor are they suitable to serve as corrals for sheep or cattle.

If these are not structures that were built for defense or fortification, or as pens for animals or as dwelling compounds, it appears that they were intended for ritual purposes. Their special design, argues Zertal, must be based on some conception originating in beliefs that were prevalent in the ancient East at the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. Egyptian literature of that period, especially in texts relating to government and law, is rich in expressions in which the sole of the foot or the sandal symbolize the king or his rule.

In the pyramid inscriptions of the 18th Pharaonic Dynasty (which ruled Egypt between 1570 and 1293 B.C.E.), the term "at the feet of" is used in the sense of rule over lands: "All the foreign countries ... are at the feet of this good goddess" (an inscription ascribed to Tutankhamun).

Amarna references

In the Amarna letters, a collection of correspondence between the pharaoh and kings of Canaan and other lands during the Bronze Age, there is repetition of the following expressions by rulers of relatively lesser status: "Seven times seven I have fallen at the feet of my lord," and "I am dust under my lord's feet." In Mesopotamian documents of the same period, the foot is also significant. In Babylonia, Assyria and the Hittite Empire, the foot symbolized ownership of property.

In the Bible, the Hebrew word for foot, regel, has a variety of meanings, from symbolizing the ownership of territory to the image of the footstool at the site of the Temple. In Deuteronomy 11:24, one reads, "Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours." According to Zertal, in other biblical contexts, the foot symbolizes the connection between the people and the land, as in 2 Kings 21:8: "Neither will I make the feet of Israel move any more out of the land which I gave their fathers."

The perception that the foot symbolizes ownership of territory is taken from the spiritual world of Egypt, but in the Bible the symbol is afforded additional significance, as Zertal observes: Of a connection to God and an expression of his holiness.

The footprint sites were discovered in an archaeological survey he has been directing in the northern West Bank and the Jordan Valley over more than 30 years. The survey has identified for the first time about 200 settlement sites in the valley, dating from the beginning of the Iron Age. The findings show that during this period, which is identified with the start of Israelite settlement in the land, the number of settlements in the area increased by a factor of 11, most of them belonging to nomads.

The combination of this number and the descriptions of the symbolic significance of the foot in the ancient East and in the Bible gives rise to the following picture: At the beginning of the Iron Age a new population entered the Land of Israel from the east to settle, bringing with it the Egyptian perception of the foot as a symbol of ownership of territory, and including the ideas of ancestral rights to the land and the divine promise of inheriting it. Alongside the first settlements, the group established ritual sites aimed at expressing the idea of ownership and control over the land.

Zertal's hypotheses concerning the significance of the sites have been received skeptically among his colleagues; some of them, when asked, preferred not to comment. Prof. Aren Maeir, of the archaeology department at Bar-Ilan University, agrees that, "indeed, these are sites from the beginning of the Iron Age, and it is logical to argue that they are part of the process of settlement by new groups in the Land of Israel then." However, he adds, "I am not certain that the identification of the site or sites with control over the land is correct."

Continues Maeir: "Even if these sites were established by people who came from the east - from the other side of the Jordan River - and settled in the Jordan Valley, this is just part of the new settlement process that took place in the region. Moreover, it is not correct to look for full congruence between the description in the Bible and occurrences at the start of the Iron Age. The Bible is an important historical source, but one has to relate to it with due caution."

Despite the reservations, Zertal's hypothesis regarding the structures' ritual function is reinforced by some additional findings. Structures at Bidat al-Shaab and Yafit, which were excavated by Dror Ben-Yosef, were built at the foot of a gentle rocky slope on which hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of people could sit and watch a ceremony. Both sites, or parts of them, were surrounded by a paved road slightly raised above ground level, about two-and-a-half meters wide. The road was apparently used for ritual processions, whose participants surrounded or walked around the site. This leads to the hypothesis that the origin of the Hebrew word hag, "holiday," is in these processions, derived from the root het-vav-gimmel, which in the Bible means to surround or circumambulate in a ritual fashion.

Zertal also suggests that these uniquely configured ritual sites are the source of the Hebrew expression for pilgrimage - aliyah leregel (literally, "going up to a foot"). In his interpretation, during the first centuries of settlement in the land - until Jerusalem became the spiritual and governmental center of the nation - some of the Tribes of Israel made pilgrimages to these sites at fixed times of year to hold various ceremonies. Hence, the Hebrew phrase for pilgrimage should be understood literally - going up to a place that is shaped like a foot. In his opinion, this is also the source of the interpretation of "regel" as meaning "holiday," in Exodus 23 and 34.

The ideological connection between the new population's conceptual system and the structures it erected leads Zertal to the conclusion that the verses in Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua that relate to ownership of the land by means of setting foot in it were composed close to the time the compounds were built and not later on. This view is opposed to that of certain scholars who tend not to read the Bible literally, and who believe that various parts of the text were written hundreds of years after the events described in them, and hence reflect more recent perceptions.

Zertal stresses that he focuses on facts, and that these indicate a dramatic rise in settlement in the region, precisely at the period described in the Bible. These facts contradict other hypotheses regarding the beginnings of the nation of Israel, such as the notion that it originated in the local Canaanite population - which, following a long process, separated itself from its neighbors ideologically and religiously until it became a distinct people - and the claim that any connection between the biblical description and reality is coincidental. Zertal says that the findings of the survey, among them the ritual sites, show that despite controversy over whether the Bible is truly an accurate historical source, parts of it are more firmly based in fact than has been assumed.