The Jordan Valley
10. Galgala, also the twelve stones - (Kh. al-Nitla)
GILGAL: A common place name in the OT. In all but two cases (Josh 5:9; Josh 12:23), it is prefixed with the definite article or the definite article and preposition. The name appears to mean "circle (of stones)," apparently based on a duplication of the root gll "to roll" or "roll away." The MT refers to at least three, and perhaps as many as five, distinct locations by this name.
1. A place near Jericho where the Israelites established their first encampment after crossing the Jordan River (Josh 4:19). As a memorial of passing over the Jordan on dry land, the Israelites set up at Gilgal twelve stones taken out of the dry river bed (Josh 4:20). It was here that the generation born during the wilderness wanderings was circumcised (Josh 5:29). The connection of the name Gilgal with the verb form "I have rolled away" is perhaps better seen as a word play rather than a folk etymology. The Israelites celebrated their first Passover in the promised land at Gilgal (Josh 5:1011), at the conclusion of which the provision of manna ceased (Josh 5:12). During their encampment at Gilgal, the Israelites were approached by emissaries of Gibeon, who "tricked" them into agreeing to a nonaggression pact (Josh 9:6). In fulfillment of this agreement, the Israelites used Gilgal as a base for their attack on the anti-Gibeonite coalition (Josh 10:67, 9, 15), and it was to Gilgal that they returned after their victorious sweep through S Canaan (Josh 10:43). It was also here that Joshua granted Hebron to Caleb as a reward for faithfulness during the wilderness wanderings (Josh 14:6). The allotment of tribal territories recorded in Joshua 1519 is also implicitly associated with Gilgal. Judg 2:1 records the movement of the angel of the Lord from Gilgal, where he had previously appeared to Joshua (Josh 5:1315), to BOCHIM apparently signaling a downturn in Gilgal's significance. It is possible that this downturn resulted from the capture of Gilgal by the Moabites, for it is in the vicinity of Gilgal (Judg 3:19) that Ehud assassinates Eglon, king of Moab.
In the time of Samuel, Gilgal appears to have undergone a renaissance, becoming an important cultic center. It was one of the three places where Samuel sat during his yearly judicial cycle (1 Sam 7:16). Following their initial encounter, Samuel asked Saul to await him at Gilgal (1 Sam 10:8). It is here that Samuel makes Saul king (1 Sam 11:1415), and here where Saul rallied the Israelites after Jonathan's victory over the Philistine garrison at Geba (1 Sam 13:34). Impatient because Samuel was late, Saul presumptuously made burnt offerings at Gilgal, resulting in a stinging rebuke from Samuel (1 Sam 14:815). That such offerings were considered appropriate at Gilgal under certain circumstances is demonstrated by the reference to peace offerings performed when Saul was made king (1 Sam 11:15). After his victory over the Amalekites, Saul met Samuel at Gilgal (1 Sam 15:1213), where his failure to destroy the flocks of the Amalekites called forth another rebuke from Samuel (1 Sam 15:2230), resulting in Saul's rejection as king. Saul's unacceptable excuse, that he was saving the flocks for sacrifice at Gilgal, is further indication of the cultic significance of the site at this time. A few years later, the men of Judah gathered at Gilgal to greet David on his return from exile following the death of Absalom (2 Sam 19:15).
Gilgal fades into obscurity until the 8th century, when in the thought and words of Amos and Hosea it becomes a symbol of apostacy. In the book of Amos, Gilgal appears in parallel with Bethel as a symbol of transgression and illegitimate sacrifice (Amos 4:4), and the people are encouraged to seek Yahweh instead of Bethel and Gilgal (Amos 5:5). Hosea warns the sons of Ephraim against entering into Gilgal (Hos 4:15), tells them that they have been rejected because of the evil they have done in Gilgal (Hos 9:15), and informs them that sacrifices in Gilgal are useless (Hos 12:11). Only Micah presents a positive image of Gilgal when, as part of Yahweh's legal case against his people because of their violation of the covenant, he asks them to "remember what happened from Shittim to Gilgal" (Mic 6:5).
Some scholars (e.g., Kraus 1951) have argued that the description in Joshua 36 of the events surrounding the crossing of the river Jordan reflect an annual cultic celebration in which these events were reenacted. This is a provocative, but also highly speculative, theory. It is difficult to believe that such a celebration would have been entirely ignored in other portions of the OT, especially if it were associated with one of the other major feasts of the cultic calendar.
The only OT clue to the exact location of ancient Gilgal occurs in Josh 4:19, where it is located "on the east border of Jericho," meaning, of course, the territory of Jericho and not the city itself. Although Tell en-Nitla, about 3.5 km E of Jericho, seems to provide the best fit for this description, excavations have yielded no evidence for occupation before the Byzantine period (Muilenberg 1955: 1920). Two more promising candidates are to be found in the vicinity of Khirbet Mefjir (M.R. 193143), about 3 km NE of Jericho. Archaeological soundings at one of these sites, a little N of Khirbet el-Mefjir, yielded characteristic Iron Age pottery (Muilenberg 1955), while work at the other site, slightly W of Khirbet el-Mefjir, left the question unanswered (Bennett 1972; Landes 1975). Although it seems quite possible that ancient Gilgal is to be found somewhere nearby, its exact location remains enigmatic.
Bibliography: Alt, A. 1953. Das System der Stammesgrenzen im Buche Josua. KlSchr 1: 199202. Bennett, B. M., Jr. 1972. The Search for Israelite Gilgal. PEQ 104: 11122. Kraus, H.-J. 1951. Gilgal. Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte Israels. VT 1: 18191. Landes, G. M. 1975. Report on an Archaeological 'Rescue Operation' at Suwwanet eth Thaniya in the Jordan Valley North of Jericho. BASORSup 21: 122. Muilenberg, J. 1955. The Site of Ancient Gilgal. BASOR 140: 1127.
Wade R. Kotter, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ad v. "Gilgal (Biblical Place)" (extract)
Map of the Jericho region
showing the various locations proposed for Gilgal
Michael Avi-Yonah (The Madaba Mosaic Map, Jerusalem 1954, 37)
The tradition of Galgala near Jericho goes back beyond the Christian sources to Tosephta Sota VIII,6 and its parallels (ed. Zuckermandel, p. 310,22). There were rabbis mentioned all belong to the third generation of the Tannaites, i.e. they lived in the middle of the second century A.D. The stones were therefore venerated already at that date.
Eusebius (On., 66,4) places them two miles from Jericho "to the east" following the Septuaginta version of Joshua 4:19 and he adds that they were worshipped by the Gentiles. St. Jerome emends this to "ab illius regionis mortalibus" thus not precluding the participation of Jews.
The position of the site north-east of Jericho does not exclude agreement with the common directions; but it disagrees with the common identification of Byzantine Galgala with Khirbet en-Nitle. The early Christian itineraries (Itinerarium Burdigalense, ed. Geyer, p. 24) up to and including Theodosius refer only to the site and never to the church. The first to speak of a church is Antoninus 13 who, however, adds puzzlingly that the stones were "in basilica post altarium". The Madaba map shows them clearly in front of the church, and we must assume a mistake, unless we are to think that the mosaicist departed from his usual rule and represented the church with its east side (the apse and the altar) towards the spectator. The basilica mentioned by Antoninus must have perished in the Persian invasion, for Willibaldus (723-726 A.D.) calls it the church on the spot "ecclesia lignea et non magna".
Noël Duval ("Essai sur la signification des vignettes topographiques", in The Madaba Map Centenary, Jerusalem 1999, 117)
Galgala ou Dôdekalithon. La localité est représentée par une église conventionnelle, à laquelle le mosaïste a ajouté un rectangle avec les douze pierres (qui étaient, en fait, dans l'église derrière l'autel). (See also the complete article)
Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Samaria, Jerusalem - in the press)
In Search of Byzantine Galgala
It is not my intention to investigate the location of the biblical Gilgal where the Jews restored the rite of circumcision but only to raise the question, where the Byzantines supposed it to be and where was the church they erected there. Some locate it at Tell el-Matleb, a site very close to Jericho; others at Kh. en-Nitle toward the Jordan.
The intinerary of the pilgrim Theodosius, dated about 530, speaks of the Lord's Field in Galgala (Ager Domini qui est in Galgala) in which grain and wine for Jerusalem were harvested (De situ Terrae Sanctae, ch. 18, CCSL 175,121). This field, he says, 'is irrigated by the fountain of Eliseus'; so we are led to believe it was found approximately near the spring. Theodosius does not speak of a church; on the other hand, another sixth-century pilgrim. the anonymous of Piacenza, who visited Palestine in 570, expressly mentions it when he writes that the twelve stones used by the Jews for re-establishing circumcision were placed 'in the basilica behind the altar' (Itinerarium, ch.13, CCSL 175,136). According to Arculphus (De locis sanctis II, 14-15, CCSL 175,212 the church was 'large', and it is thus represented in the mosaic map of Madaba.
May scholars identified Byzantine Galgala with the ruins of en-Nitla, situated to the left of the road running from modern Jericho to the Jordan River, at a distance of 3km. Excavations carried out by the Americans in 1950 have uncovered the ruins of a church which apparently was rebuilt four times with slight modifications (J.L. Kelso et al., Excavations at New Testament Jericho and Khirbet en-Nitla, AASOR 29-30 [1949-1951], 50-60). In the excavators' opinion, 'the identification of the site with Byzantine Gilgala must be abandoned. None of the features of the church built in Gilgal were present at Kh. en-Nitla' (p. 52, cf. p. 60). The mosaic floor of the third stage of building, which was decorated with geometric designs and remained in use in the fourth and last stage, contained two Latin inscriptions of barbarian style. One reads: 'D(omin)e meserere' and the other: 'Toto feci leto die': I did it all on one happy day.
Here Clermont-Ganneau (ARP II, 17-20) found architectural fragments and capitals, among them one of pulvinar type decorated with crosses, and others with floral decoration. They are obvious remains of a building used for Christian worship. Tell el-Matleb, as Father Augustinovic notes (Gerico e dintorni, 145), 'is certainly a Byzantine site but it has been looted, especially by the Russians who used some of the ancient material for their buildings in Jericho. Many carved stones were adorned with crosses and the material in general would suggest an important edifice. Actually one could speak rather of a complex including three tells.' In fact, there are three separated clusters of ruins. However, in all of them can be seen Byzantine sherds are scattered in surface and in one we have also collected a small Byzantine coin. Father Augustinovic thought that the largest building was a church, but even if it was not, the finds clearly attest that the place was inhabited by Christians. Augustinovic advanced the hypothesis that the place represented Byzantine Galgala. He took this position against the opinion of earlier scholars, in the belief that it was justified by the ancient sources and by the representation of the site on the Madaba mosaic map.
In a chronicle of the excavations in Jordan in 1962, Farah S. Ma'ayeh (Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 6-7 , 109) relates that the Department had begun an excavation in an area west of Tell Matleb, where the main road had been cut through the tell. A colourful mosaic pavement with geometric designs was two meters below the surface. The lack of funds prevented further work.
For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Galgala", 128.
Map Section 2 Place Sources