Gilgal, a name that is mentioned 39 times in the Old Testament, is an important biblical destination, yet does not have an exact location. It was once an actual site, and still is—if anyone could pinpoint exactly where the original spot is located—which only deepens the mystery.
To make things even more confusing, scholars believe there were at least two locations named Gilgal—possibly even three—in the Bible that have both spiritual and historical significance. But the one most memorialized is the ancient spot where the Israelites miraculously crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
It was there that God’s Chosen People set up twelve memorial stones taken from the river, representing the twelve tribes. These stones would remind their descendants of how God had dried up the Jordan River just so they could walk through it, just as He had done for the Israelites when they were escaping Pharoah’s army while crossing the Red Sea. The stones served as a “visual aid” when teaching the younger generation, so God’s faithfulness to His people would never be forgotten.
Also taking place at Gilgal was a painful, but necessary, experience for male children born during the Israelites’ time of wandering in the desert. These offspring were circumcised at Gilgal, thereby setting them apart from the Egyptian people and their idol worshipping way of life. (The name Gilgal literally means, “rolling away” as in “rolling away the reproach of Egypt.”)
After that ritual, Passover was celebrated at Gilgal by the Israelites, and the manna that the Lord had provided for over 40 years was no longer on the menu. Instead, the Israelites had a little more choice in what they could eat, namely, all the natural bounty that could be gleaned from their new home: The Promised Land.
Other notable events that took place at Gilgal were the crowning of King Saul and conversely, decades later when the disobedient Saul was stripped of his kingship by way of a prophecy spoken by the prophet Samuel. That marked the beginning of the end of Saul’s reign over Israel. Gilgal was also believed to be where the prophets Elijah and Elisha spent considerable time together before Elijah was taken up to Heaven.
While the geographical location of Gilgal remains somewhat of a mystery, archaeologists have located ancient gilgal structures or stone rings across the Jordan River Valley. These stone rings are formed in the shape of a footprint or a sandal which adds to the overall intrigue of Gilgal due to an ancient custom that connects the idea of walking the land by foot with the legal possession of that land. This custom is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in Genesis 13:17, where God instructs Abram to, “Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.”
What most modern spiritual sojourners might prefer, however, is to visit an actual biblical geographical site. If so, they will be heartened to know that the most notable of these gilgalim, or footprint-shaped structures, can be found at Bedhat esh-Sha’ab, located in the Jordan Valley, just across the Jordan River. This site is widely considered, though not proven, to be the original site where the Israelites encamped after crossing the Jordan. Just be advised, the manna concession stand will be closed.
Follow in the footsteps of God’s Chosen People, while reflecting on the spiritual significance of Gilgal on your next trip to Israel! Email Cindy at
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