What is the Meaning and Significance of Gilgal in the Bible?

Here is a spiritual conundrum posed by a reader named victor:

What is the significance of gilgadh mentioned in 2king 2:1 – why the journey starts from gilgadh?

Gilgal Refaim ("circle of ghosts" or "circle of giants"); or Rujm el-Hiri ("stone heap of the wild cat")

Gilgal Refaim, or Rujm el-Hiri

Thanks for the question, victor! I assume you mean Gilgal, which is mentioned in 39 verses in the Bible. One of those verses is 2 Kings 2:1—the start of a story about the prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind while the prophet Elisha, his apprentice, looks on (2 Kings 2).

The name Gilgal has been associated by Bible scholars with at least five different possible locations in and around the Holy Land, none of them certain. But as we will see, it seems likely that “Gilgal” is not a town name at all. Instead, it is likely a word for a particular type of human-made site. In recent decades archeologists have made some exciting new discoveries of ancient “Gilgal” sites!

Though Gilgal is first mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:30, it gains its primary meaning and significance in the book of Joshua. The first camp of the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan into the Holy Land was at a place called Gilgal. This camp served as their base of operations during the initial conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua. Several other important events in the Bible take place either at this Gilgal or at a different one. Eventually, though, Gilgal became corrupt, and two of the prophets railed against it later in Israel’s history.

In some ways Gilgal has a story similar to that of Bethel, which is covered in an earlier article: “What is the History and Importance of Bethel in the Bible?” However, as we will see in Part 2 of this article, “the gilgal” (as it should really be translated) has its own particular meaning in the Bible story, and its own special significance for our spiritual life.

Okay, okay! I’ll spill the beans just a little . . .

As the Israelites’ point of entry into the Holy Land and their base of operations for the initial conquest of the land, the site called “Gilgal” signifies the simple, basic religious beliefs and teachings that first introduce us to a spiritual life, and that we return to again and again as we fight our early battles to reform ourselves and get our life into order.

It’s all about stones and circles.

Part 1: The Biblical and archeological background of Gilgal

Where is Gilgal?

Do you like to see where places are on the map? I do!

Thing is . . . we don’t really know where Gilgal was. As I mentioned earlier, scholars have suggested at least five different locations for the various mentions of “Gilgal” in the Bible. Most of them are on the east side of Palestine, toward the Jordan. One is located on the western, Mediterranean side.

The traditional location of Gilgal is just east of Jericho, based on Joshua 4:19. Here is a map showing this location. See the question mark? That’s because no location has been definitely identified as that of Gilgal. This is just the best guess of various Bible scholars.

Map showing the position of the Biblical town of Bethel in relation to Jericho and Jerusalem

Bethel in relation to Jericho and Jerusalem

(Map courtesy of http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/)

Though it doesn’t seem to agree with the location given in the book of Joshua, some scholars think Gilgal might be farther north—near the town labeled “Adam” on this map. That’s because back in the 1980s archeologists discovered a fascinating site there, which may have been connected to the ancient Israelites about the time of their conquest of the Holy Land. We’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s a “gilgal”?

Why has it been so hard to locate Gilgal in the Bible? It may be that scholars and archeologists had been looking for the wrong thing.

It was long assumed that Gilgal was the name of a town, like other towns mentioned in the Bible. But it’s possible, even likely, that Gilgal is not a town at all.

One subtle hint of this is that almost everywhere “Gilgal” appears in the original Hebrew, it is preceded by a definite article—Hebrew’s equivalent of our word “the.”

The one exception is Joshua 5:9, which reads: “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.” That might be why we previously thought it was the name of a town.

Everywhere else, it should really be “the gilgal.” This suggests that “Gilgal” is not the name of the town, but rather a type of place.

Consider these examples in English:

  • People often refer to the nearest major city as simply, “the city,” rather than saying its name.
  • People who live in suburban areas go to “the mall” to do much of their shopping. They may not even know the official name of their nearest shopping mall.
  • People who live near a large natural waterway commonly refer to it as “the river,” even though they usually do know its name.

Of course, there are many different cities, malls, and rivers. Each has a specific name. But as a type of place, we refer to them as “the city,” “the mall,” and “the river.”

In the Bible, the same is probably true of “the gilgal,” as it is almost always written in the original Hebrew. In other words, what is usually translated “Gilgal” is probably a type of place. And there might very well be several different Gilgals, as many Bible scholars have suggested.

The meaning of “gilgal”

So what type of place is a “gilgal”?

Like other words assumed to be place names, “Gilgal” isn’t a translation. It’s a transliteration into English of the letters in the original Hebrew word. It doesn’t give us the meaning of the Hebrew; it simply represents the sound of the original Hebrew word in Roman letters.

However, the word gilgal does have a meaning in Hebrew.

As suggested in the original Hebrew of Joshua 5:9 (quoted above), the word gilgal in Hebrew is related to the word galal, which means “to roll.” Galal is often used to refer to rolling heavy objects such as stones. So in Hebrew the related word gilgal means a wheel or circle, or something that rolls. In particular, it seems to refer to a circle of stones, or to a circular altar.

A remarkable example of a “gilgal” is the place known as “Gilgal Refaim” in Hebrew, or “Rujm el-Hiri” in Arabic. It is pictured at the beginning of this article. This ancient monument is sometimes called “the Stonehenge of the Levant,” or “Israel’s Stonehenge.”

“Gilgal Refaim” is massive arrangement of four concentric stone circles, with a fifteen-foot-high circular stone mound in the center. It is estimated to contain over 42,000 large basalt stones. The largest circle is about 170 yards in diameter, and eight feet high. Archeologists believe it was built around 3,000 BC. This would mean that it was already over 1,500 years old when Joshua and the Israelites began their conquest of the Holy Land. This ancient “gilgal,” or stone circle, is located in the present day Golan Heights region, east of the Sea of Galilee.

It is unlikely that Gilgal Refaim corresponds to any of the Gilgals mentioned in the Bible.

However, a more recent discovery may very well be associated with the Biblical Gilgals.

The foot-shaped gilgals

Bedhat esh-Sha'ab: A foot-shaped "Gilgal" near the Jordan River, located southwest of the Argaman settlement

A foot-shaped “Gilgal” near the Jordan River

Starting in the 1980s, and continuing right up into the 2000s, archeologists have discovered and done initial studies of five human-built foot- or sandal-shaped constructions that have been dated to the same general time period as the Israelites’ conquest of the Holy Land. Pictured here is the best-known one, named in modern times “Bedhat esh-Sha’ab.” It is located just southwest of the Argaman settlement in the Jordan River valley, about two-fifths of the way from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee.

To put this in Bible terms, Bedhat esh-Sha’ab is a little northwest of the town of Adam on the map above.

Why is this significant? Because when Joshua and the children of Israel crossed the miraculously dried-up Jordan river to enter the Holy Land, Adam and its neighboring city of Zarethan to its north are named as the location where the Jordan River’s “waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap” (Joshua 3:15–16).

Because of this association, some scholars think that Bedhat esh-Sha’ab may actually be the Gilgal mentioned in Joshua—though this does not square with its description in Joshua 4:19 as being “on the east border of Jericho.”

Why were these “gilgals” in the shape of feet, or sandals? And what does this shape have to do with the Bible story?

First, it should be said that the Bible does not make any specific mention of foot-shaped sites. However, Israeli scholars Adam Zertal and Dror Ben-Yosef, of the University of Haifa, who have studied five foot-shaped sites discovered in the Holy Land, make the case that the foot shape does have Biblical overtones. See the recent article, “Footprints of Ancient Israel: Unusual stone circles may mark biblical ‘Gilgal’

Here’s the short version:

In ancient times, setting one’s foot on the land and walking around the borders of a particular area of land were ways of asserting ownership or control of that land. The feet were also symbols of the defeat of enemies. Here are just a few Biblical examples:

  • In Deuteronomy 11:22–32, God promises the Israelites that if they obey his commandments, “Every place on which you set foot shall be yours.” Tantalizingly for our theme, these verses also contain the very first brief mention of a “Gilgal” in the Bible.
  • In Joshua 6, all the Israelite warriors are commanded to “march around the city seven times,” once each day for seven days, led by the priests carrying the ark of the covenant. This was an unmistakable signal to the inhabitants of Jericho that the Israelites were laying claim to their city. After the seventh day of marching around the city, the Israelites invaded and captured the city.
  • In Joshua 10:16–27, Joshua ordered the commanders of the army to put their feet on the necks of five defeated king as a sign of victory over them. The kings were then executed, and the Israelites took control of their territories.

The foot-shaped stone sites, perhaps built by the Israelites during this time period, may have been symbols of their declaration of ownership and control of the land, and their defeat of its previous inhabitants. It is likely that these foot-shaped “gilgals” were used for sacred observances and rituals. One of those rituals, scholars think, may have involved a ceremonial walking around the borders of the site, reflecting the practice of walking around a parcel of land to claim ownership of it.

There are many other Biblical tie-ins with these foot- or sandal-shaped gilgals. But these are enough for now. It should also be mentioned that these foot-shaped gilgals commonly had smaller circular arrangements of stone within them that were probably used for sacrifices and other ceremonial purposes.

In short, even though these sites are not technically circular, they invoke the circles represented by the Hebrew word gilgal in a number of ways, including being stone enclosures, the ritual of walking around their borders, and the circular stone objects commonly placed within them.

These recent discoveries throw a whole new light on what the Bible means by “Gilgal”!

What happened at the gilgals?

We don’t know how many gilgals there were in the Bible, or exactly where any of them were. However, we don’t need to know all of the historical and archeological details in order to understand the cultural and spiritual significance of the gilgals, or stone circles, in the Bible. We only need to read the stories of what took place at these important sites.

Though the gilgals certainly have a strong ritual significance in the Bible, they have an equally strong association with military conquest, and with new beginnings.

We don’t have time or space to cover all of the events described in the Bible as taking place at Gilgal. When we look at the significance of Gilgal in the Bible, we’ll focus on the initial story of the Gilgal mentioned in Joshua.

But let’s get the big picture first. Here is a list of the events that took place at one or another of the Gilgals:

  • Gilgal was the first place Joshua and the children of Israel camped after their miraculous crossing of the Jordan river. (Joshua 4:19)
  • Joshua commanded one hand-picked leader from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to set up at Gilgal twelve large stones, taken from the middle of the river, as a sign and remembrance of that miraculous crossing. (Joshua 4:1–9, 20–24)
  • At Gilgal, all of the Israelite men who had grown up during the forty years of wandering in the desert were circumcised, thus renewing the Israelites’ earlier covenant of circumcision with God. (Joshua 5:2–9)
  • At Gilgal, the Israelites also celebrated the Passover for the first time in the Holy Land. The very next day, the manna that had been the Israelites’ staple food during their forty years of wandering in the desert ceased, and they began to eat the produce of the land instead. (Joshua 5:10–12)
  • At Gilgal, the Gibeonites, who were inhabitants of the land, deceived Joshua into making a treaty with them in order to save themselves from being slaughtered by the Israelites. (Joshua 9)
  • Gilgal was Joshua’s base of operations for the Israelites’ initial conquest of the Holy Land, including his honoring of his treaty with the Gibeonites by defending them from the attacks of Amorites—another nation inhabiting the land. (Joshua 10:6–15, 40–43)
  • An angel of the Lord went from Gilgal to a place called Bokim to chastise the Israelites for breaking their covenant with God. (Judges 2:1–5)
  • Ehud, one of the “judges,” or regional leaders, of Israel (and a famous lefty of the Bible), turned back from Gilgal to assassinate Eglon, king of Moab, who had attacked Israel and imposed a tribute on them for eight years. (Judges 3:12–30)
  • Gilgal was one of the places on the circuit that Samuel, the first leader since Joshua to be recognized throughout Israel, traveled to provide judgments for Israel. (1 Samuel 7:15–17)
  • The kingship of Saul, the first king of Israel, was reaffirmed at Gilgal after Saul led a victorious campaign against the Ammonites. (1 Samuel 11:14–15; see also 1 Samuel 10:1, 8)
  • However, Gilgal was also where Saul twice ignored God’s commands, and there Samuel informed him that the Lord had rejected him as king, and that his dynasty would not continue. (1 Samuel 13:1–15; 1 Samuel 15)
  • After King David’s son Absalom mounted an unsuccessful revolt against him, David was greeted by the people and reaffirmed as the king of Israel in Gilgal. (2 Samuel 19:9–15, 40)
  • Many years later, Gilgal was the starting point of a pilgrimage that ended in the great prophet Elijah being carried up to heaven in a whirlwind while his apprentice, Elisha, looked on. Gilgal was also one of several places where Elisha began to establish himself as a great prophet in his own right. (2 Kings 2:1–14; 4:38–41)
  • Late in Israel’s history, the prophets Hosea and Amos condemned the Israelites for wickedness and corrupt worship in Gilgal. Amos associates Gilgal with Bethel in its ruin and disgrace. (Hosea 9:15–17, 12:11–14; Amos 4:4–6, 5:1–6)
  • Finally, in the course of calling the people of Israel to account for their abandonment of the Lord, the prophet Micah reminded them of God’s care for them in their early days in Gilgal and elsewhere—thus bringing the story of Gigal full circle. (Micah 6:1–5)

Whew! That’s quite a list! And it paints a picture of Gilgal as:

  1. A place of new beginnings.
  2. A base camp for many battles of the Israelites against their enemies.
  3. A sacred site that eventually became corrupted, but was still important in Israel’s history.

Like Bethel, by the time of Jesus, Gilgal had faded into insignificance. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. And like Bethel, Gilgal relates to new beginnings in our spiritual life.

However, Gilgal has its own spiritual significance, distinct from that of Bethel.

The journey starts at Gilgal not just because that happened to be where the Israelites first landed in the Holy Land, but because of the symbolism of Gilgal as pictured in the Bible.

The creation of Joshua’s Gilgal

Like our first impressions of someone that we’re meeting for the first time, the first occurrence of any person, place, or thing in the Bible tends to put its stamp on its meaning. In the Bible, Gilgal is stamped with the meaning it took on in the first major stories about it. Those stories are about its role as the first place that the Israelites camped in the Holy Land after crossing the Jordan River on dry land.

The whole story is too long to repeat here. You can read it in Joshua chapters 4 and 5. Here is the key narrative of what might have been the creation of that Gilgal:

Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan

Joshua crossing the Jordan

When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’”

Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)

.  .  .

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:1–9, 19–24)

What did Joshua’s Gilgal look like?

The Bible doesn’t say exactly how the twelve stones were arranged when they were set up. However:

  • Joshua 5:9 says, “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ So the place has been called Gilgal to this day’” (emphasis added).
  • The Hebrew word gilgal means a wheel or circle, or something that rolls.
  • The name “Gilgal” has traditionally been associated with stone circles and sacred enclosures that exist in and around the Holy Land.
  • Recent archeological discoveries have turned up a number of large stone enclosures that seem to have had sacred uses. Though the enclosure is often foot-shaped, there are also smaller stone circles or circular mounds within them that served as altars or perhaps as tombs.

All of this points to the likelihood that Joshua had his men set up those twelve stones in a circle.

Perhaps it was Joshua’s army that built the various foot-shaped stone enclosures that have been discovered in Palestine. These “gilgals” may be the strongest archeological evidence to date that something like the conquest of the Holy Land by the Israelites—which many secular scholars have considered a cultural myth—may have actually taken place historically.

Part 2: The spiritual significance of Gilgal

As fascinating is it is to speculate on these ancient circular and foot-shaped gilgals in the Holy Land, the Bible itself provides all we need to know to understand the spiritual significance of Gilgal for our own life journey. It also provides what we need to know in order to understand why the journey starts from Gilgal both in Joshua 4–5 and in 2 Kings 2. Remember, like the parables of Jesus, the entire Bible speaks to us through the use of “correspondences,” or physical imagery that speaks of deeper spiritual realities.

Here are some of the key facts from the Bible story about the Gilgal mentioned in Joshua:

  • It was marked by twelve stones.
  • Its twelve stones are associated with the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • They came from the middle of the Jordan River.
  • They came from the place in the river where the priests carrying the ark of the covenant were standing.
  • They were set up at the first place where the Israelites camped overnight in the Holy Land.
  • The twelve stones were placed there as a lasting memorial of the power of their God, who dried up the Jordan River so that the Israelites could cross over on dry ground.
  • The encampment at Gilgal became the Israelites’ base of operations for their initial conquest of the Holy Land.

We can’t cover all of these facts in detail. In fact, if we were to try to fully understand all the depths of meaning in even a single verse of the Bible, we would never reach the end of it. However, if we sketch out the significance of the stones, the Jordan River as an entryway into the Holy Land, and the conquest of the Holy Land, we can create a vivid snapshot of the meaning of Gilgal in our own spiritual journeys today.

The stones of Gilgal

Stones appear prominently throughout the Bible—and they embody a deeper spiritual meaning. Wherever they appear with a positive connotation, we can think of them as representing bedrock truths on which we can safely found our beliefs and our life.

In the Old Testament, one the most vivid examples of this correspondential meaning of stones is the fact that the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God on two stone tablets. The Ten Commandments are the most central and sacred laws given in the Old Testament. So much so that they were placed in the ark of the covenant, which occupied the most holy place in the ancient Jewish Tabernacle, and later in the Temple. They were written in stone to signify that these commandments embody basic, everlasting laws of divine truth for us to live by.

In the New Testament, when the apostle Peter said of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus said of Peter’s statement, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (He also made a play on words with the name “Peter,” which means “rock” in Greek.) For Christians, the belief that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”) or Christ (Greek for “anointed one”) and the Son of God, is the bedrock truth of the entire Christian faith.

From these and many other examples of stones in the Bible, we can understand that the stones of Gilgal represent the simple, basic beliefs, or truths, that form the foundation of our spiritual faith and life.

The River Jordan

However, these were not just any old stones. These stones came from the middle of the Jordan River, from the very spot where the priests were standing with the ark of the covenant.

What does the Jordan River mean spiritually?

For the ancient Israelites, the Jordan was their introduction into the Holy Land. To get into their Promised Land on the route that they were traveling, they had to cross the Jordan.

For Christians, the Jordan represents introduction into the Christian Church.

Why?

Because that’s where the first Christians became Christians through baptism: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4–5). Jesus himself was also baptized by John at the beginning of his ministry, as an example for all to follow (Matthew 3:13–17).

Water in general represents God’s living truth flowing in our lives. Here is how this is expressed in the poetic words of Deuteronomy 32:1–2:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.

When the rain of God’s teaching gathers together, it becomes rivers of truth. And the Jordan River, because of its special significance in the spiritual life of both Jews and Christians, represents the truth that introduces us into “the heavenly Canaan,” which for Jews is the Holy Land, and for Christians is the Christian Church . . . and for all good people in due course, the angelic community of heaven.

Stones from the Jordan

If you are a person of faith, or are following a spiritual path, what were the basic beliefs that introduced you into a spiritual life—or into the church, if you are a churchgoer?

  • Was it the laws of the Ten Commandments as a guide for honorable life?
  • Was it the realization that you must repent and reform your life or die?
  • Was it the conviction that you must love your neighbor as yourself?
  • Was it a belief in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

These and many other basic, fundamental religious and spiritual beliefs have the power to introduce us into a spiritual or religious life from our former worldly and secular life.

For each one of us, the stones of Gilgal, taken from the River Jordan where the feet of the priests had stood, represent the “sacred circle” of basic beliefs, or teachings of truth, that provided the miraculous passage through our own spiritual Jordan from our former ways of spiritual enslavement and death to our new ways of spiritual life.

The conquest of our Holy Land

Joshua's Conquest of Canaan, showing Gilgal as the base camp

Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan

If you have made that symbolic passage over Jordan into your own spiritual Holy Land, you probably discovered fairly quickly that there was great resistance to your new life. It is likely that:

  • Your family and friends didn’t recognize you anymore, and didn’t respect the new you.
  • Your old habits and addictions came roaring back, leaving you disoriented and disheartened.
  • You discovered that you are not as good and nice a person as you thought you were.
  • You realized that this new, spiritual life requires some major internal battles against the old you.

When we cross the Jordan into a new, more spiritual life, that is only the beginning. Before we can actually occupy the “promised land” of spiritual life and joy, we must battle our old self into submission. That “old self” is represented by all the pagan nations that occupied the Holy Land when the Israelites first crossed the Jordan. (No, this doesn’t necessarily mean those historical nations actually were evil or deserved to be slaughtered. That’s only what those nations represented to the ancient Jews. So they came to represent the same thing in the Bible, which was written through the ancient Jewish culture.)

What do those battles have to do with Gilgal?

Gilgal, as we have already seen, was the base camp from which Joshua and his army conducted their initial conquest of the Holy Land. And Gilgal represents the basic religious truths that introduce us to a spiritual life, or to the church.

What’s the message here?

If we are to be victorious in our early battles to set aside our old selfish, materialistic self, which was enslaved to various worldly desires and pleasures, we must continually return to those basic beliefs and teachings that got us going on a spiritual life in the first place.

  • If we are tempted to go back to our old cheating, dishonest life, we must return again and again to the commandments that say, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13–16).
  • If we slide back into our old addictive ways, we must once again heed the Bible’s call to repent (Mark 1:4), and to choose life over death (Deuteronomy 30:19–20).
  • If we find ourselves once again thinking of ourselves first, and everyone else second, we must remind ourselves that the second Great Commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39).
  • If, as Christians, our faith begins to wane, and, like the apostle Thomas, we begin to doubt, we must reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

What basic beliefs drew you into a new, spiritual or religious life? These are your “stones of Gilgal,” to which you can return again and again to steel yourself for the battles of life that you must fight both within your own mind and heart and in your relationships with your fellow human beings.

There may come a time when, as Jesus says, “our yoke will be easy and our burden light” (see Matthew 11:29–30) in living a spiritual life. But especially in the early days, it is a battle. And we fight that battle using those simple, basic true beliefs that first introduced us to a spiritual life. They represent our Gilgal.

Why does the journey start from Gilgal?

Gilgal was the Israelites’ first foothold in the Holy Land, and their base of operations for the initial conquest. Later, the center of their culture shifted to farther inland. From the low ground in the Jordan river valley where Gilgal was located, it moved eventually to the heights of the mountain on which Jerusalem and the Temple were built.

In the very same way, later on in our own spiritual journey we must move on to a higher, more complex and nuanced understanding of the Bible, of Jesus Christ, and of the meaning of a spiritual life. We must move from the Gilgal of a basic understanding of spiritual life to a more developed and complex Jerusalem of mature spiritual life.

When we do reach that stage of our journey, those simple, basic truths will no longer be enough for us. If we are unwilling to journey higher in our spiritual life, but remain stuck in those old, simple, black-and-white laws, our “Gilgal” can become a place of corrupt idol worship, as it had become when the prophets Hosea and Amos railed against it (Hosea 9:15–17, 12:11–14; Amos 4:4–6, 5:1–6).

Even so, it all starts in Gilgal. It all starts out with those first, fundamental true teachings that introduced us into a spiritual life. And the final mention of Gilgal in the Bible is a poignant reminder by the prophet Micah of the simplicity and faith of our early beginnings with God (Micah 6:1–5).

No matter how fancy and developed our spiritual beliefs and practices may become, those basic beliefs that were the starting point of our spiritual journey are never out of date. Even if we no longer spend our days in them, they still form the foundation of our spiritual life. The journey starts with the stones of Gilgal because we need a lasting foundation of basic principles of truth on which to build the superstructure of a mature, well-developed spiritual life.

What does Gilgal mean for you? What are the basic stones of truth that form the sacred circle from which your spiritual journey started?

In addition to being a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader, this is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”

See also: What is the History and Importance of Bethel in the Bible?

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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124 comments on “What is the Meaning and Significance of Gilgal in the Bible?
  1. Hello sir! Thank you for your wonderful commentary on Gilgal and your scholarly spiritual precision throughout the post! I found it informative and fascinating and pray God continues to bless your life!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words, which we appreciate very much. I’m glad you found the article helpful and informative!

  2. Richard says:

    Thank you for this valuable insight my beloved brother!
    “From Everlasting to Everlasting”
    Praise and Thanksgiving to Our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ who
    has come in the flesh, who we Worship in Spirit and Truth.
    “Gilgal” seems, to me, to be the place where God Our Father, administers
    His Power, Authority, Love, Discipline, Chastisement, Encouragement,
    Forgiveness, Comfort, Humility and Exaltation, and I will add again, Love!
    Where we are brought out from “under the curse, into the blessings of
    Abraham”.
    The Spiritual place in all Believers in Jesus Christ as Lord of all, within us,
    “The Kingdom of Heaven is within us”!
    The indwelling of the Holy Spirit Who does all, to Instruct, and father us into
    The Perfect Love, where we are able to Join with Him in Glorifying Jesus Christ,
    and Him Only!
    He is in every “footstep” we take, out of our fallen nature and back into who
    God created us to be, before the Foundation of the earth.
    I’m thinking that Gilgal could also be the place where we, the Body of Christ
    finish The Journey, and are, “caught up” into the Everlasting, Loving arms of
    Jesus Christ to see who we really are, His Beautiful Bride, redeemed by the
    blood of Jesus Christ, perfectly prepared in Love, to be with Him for Eternity!
    ‘A most Holy Place”, where the Love of God Resides!
    Hebrews 12:22-24
    Colossians 1:9-14

  3. Evelyn Maluwa says:

    thanks for wide revelations about gilgal, i have been assisted in my academic assignment and much more in my spiritual understanding. may God bless u

  4. Sylvia says:

    Thanks so much on the article on what Gilgal is.it was a blessing to me.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Sylvia,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Glad you benefited from the article. Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

  5. Jf says:

    Lee, thanks for this article. I found it very interesting and fascinating. I had heard of this “foot” phenomena before (I believe it was in the documentary called “Patterns of Evidence”), but this documentary probably even came out after your article, so props to you.

    Your article was incredible and I will link it through my bible software to point back to. There was just one small point that I sort of found myself in disagreement with in the section titled “The Conquest Of Our Holy Land”. I thought I might point it out, as I would be interested to hear your reasoning on this. In this section you wrote the following:

    “That “old self” is represented by all the pagan nations that occupied the Holy Land when the Israelites first crossed the Jordan. (No, this doesn’t necessarily mean those historical nations actually were evil or deserved to be slaughtered. That’s only what those nations represented to the ancient Jews. So they came to represent the same thing in the Bible, which was written through the ancient Jewish culture.)”

    I actually believe all these nations were set up ahead of time (as a sort of minefield) by Satan in opposition to God’s plan as he watched it unfold (beginning way back in Gen 3:15). The bible mentions these pagan nations as being wicked and full of idolatry and perversion. Israel was continually warned against adopting their practices. God instructed Israel to wipe them out completely and to not allow them to remain in the land due to their idolatry. For these reasons I would have to say these nations were definitely evil and deserved to be slaughtered, even if this sounds politically incorrect by today’s standards. Of course today (under a new covenant) we evangelize instead of slaughter militarily (even though Muslims still do).

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jf,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad you found this article thought-provoking.

      The problem with a literal reading of the Old Testament conquests by the ancient Jews is that it would require God to have changed from Old Testament to New Testament times. And yet, we know that God is not like a human being who changes. See, for example, Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17.

      Jesus Christ himself described God’s attitude toward all people, even evil people, when he said:

      You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43–45)

      And:

      But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35–36)

      If, in Old Testament times, God literally wanted the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, this would be a very different God from the one Jesus describes as “our Father in heaven.”

      I realize this creates problems for Christians who want to take everything in the Bible literally. But that sort of literalism makes God out to be very human, and very changeable. The only way to make the Bible correct in saying that God does not change is to recognize that even in Old Testament times, God did not desire the deaths of Israel’s enemies. Rather, God continued to lead and guide the ancient Israelites as best as possible, given that they were a stubborn and stiff-necked people. This included countenancing their rampant slaughter of whole cities and nations, many of whom had done nothing to the Israelites to deserve this treatment.

      Rather, those battles in the Bible are meant to symbolize our spiritual battles against the evils within our own hearts and minds, and in our societies.

      Having said that, Judaism certainly did represent an advance over the pagan polytheism that reigned in the ancient world at the time Israel had its beginnings. Though at first the Israelites were really henotheistic rather than monotheistic, over time Judaism did become thoroughly monotheistic. And monotheism is a huge advance over pagan polytheism.

      It’s not that there was no difference at all between the Israelites and the pagan polytheists they conquered and slaughtered. But . . . if God is one who “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked,” and God does not change, then we must revise our understanding of the ancient Israelites’ battles against the pre-existing inhabitants of the Holy Land.

  6. Raymond John Pickett says:

    Great work – thank you.
    May the Lord richly bless you.

  7. Gina Meneses says:

    Very scholarly and yet very interesting. I didn’t mind the long read.

    I recently started a Bible reading plan and this is such a BIG help and blessing.

    Great job, Lee!
    Hope you keep posting
    God Bless!

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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