Place names become fraught with meaning by association with people and events. The name “Wittenberg” calls to mind Luther and the Reformation for Protestants and Catholics alike. Geneva has a wider range of associations, but the Reformation Wall, with its four main statues of William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox, guarantees that its Reformation past will not be forgotten. Just as these place names are pregnant with theological and historical meaning for post-Reformation Westerners, for Israel “Gerizim” and “Ebal” abound in covenantal connotations.
When Moses commands the people of Israel to conduct a covenant renewal ceremony at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:11 ff.), he is tying the new nation into the rich history of its fathers, Abraham and Jacob, as well as bringing to mind the covenant ceremony at Mt. Sinai. Modern readers, not familiar with Israel’s geography, might miss this, but I think we can assume Moses’ original auditors and later readers picked up the allusions immediately.
To begin with, the mountains Gerizim and Ebal are side by side in the middle of the land of Israel, essentially equidistant from the farthest north and south of the land. The ceremony that Moses prescribes in Deuteronomy 27 presumably took place with six tribes standing at the foot of each mountain, and, thus, not far from each other. The arrangement is based primarily upon the tribal mothers, and perhaps also, secondarily, upon their assigned places in the promised land. The key word is “Joseph.” Not mentioning Manasseh and Ephraim and referring instead to “Joseph” clues the reader to consider the most primitive form of the sons of Israel. In other words, every detail of the ceremony evokes the history recorded in Genesis.
The Genesis background is what makes these two mountains significant. What Israelites in Moses’ day would have known is that the two mountains are both near one of the most important cities in the covenant history of Israel — Shechem. Moses’ command to hold a covenant renewal ceremony near this important city points in particular to the stories of Abraham and Jacob.
The first Biblical mention of Shechem is in Genesis 12:6. When Abraham entered the promised land, the first place that he came to, the first place where Yahweh appeared to him and affirmed the covenant promises, was Shechem. Naturally, it was also the first place that Abraham built an altar to worship Yahweh (Genesis 12:7).
So, Moses instructs the Israelites to build an altar on Mount Ebal as soon as they enter the land: “And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you . . . And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 27:2, 5). Just as Abraham built an altar to worship Yahweh when he entered the promised land, so the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership are to build an altar to Yahweh. They are to be self-consciously following in the steps of Abraham, their father in the faith — Abraham the patient believer, the great patriarch whom the generation which died in the wilderness most emphatically did not imitate.
An allusion to Jacob is also in the background here, though the story is more complex. When he was finally set free from Laban, Jacob had to meet Esau. With God’s blessing all went well, so Jacob, no doubt thinking of Abraham, went to Shechem and built an altar to worship El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:18-20). But in the story of Jacob, the visit to Shechem ended in tragedy.
His daughter Dinah was taken forcibly by the prince of Shechem, who is also named Shechem (Genesis 34:2). He seems to have genuinely loved her (Genesis 34:3-4). Jacob’s sons, especially Simeon and Levi, however, plotted to get revenge against prince Shechem and the whole city through a perverse misapplication of the ceremony of circumcision. What should have been a ceremonial introduction into the covenant with Abraham’s God and a fulfillment of the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations was distorted into a opportunity to attack men in their physical weakness. Shechem became the place of shame for Jacob and his sons. Jacob, filled with fear for his family rebuked Simeon and Levi for putting them all in extreme danger (Genesis 34:30), but God appeared to Jacob and told him to go to Bethel, the place where Yahweh initially appeared to Jacob and affirmed His covenant promises (Genesis 28:10-22).
Bethel, the new name Jacob gave to the place that Yahweh appeared to him and the second place he settled in Canaan, was also the second place that Abraham had built an altar (Genesis 12:8). So, the stories of Shechem and Bethel connect in multiple ways, but both places evoke the history of Abraham and Jacob and Yahweh’s covenant.
Why, then, doesn’t Moses command the Israelites to perform this important ceremony at Shechem? What is the point of getting the mountains involved? The answer is that ceremony is also connected to another story, the revelation of Yahweh at Mount Sinai. The once-only ceremony at Mount Sinai recorded in Exodus 24 is not, of course, being repeated. But the similarities between the ceremony at Ebal and Gerizim and the Sinai ceremony are clear enough to make a literary and theological connection.
Seven general similarities are noteworthy: 1) building an altar by the mountain (Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 27:5-6a); 2) erecting pillars (Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 27:2); 3) offering burnt offerings and peace offerings (Exodus 24:5; Deuteronomy 27:6b-7); 4) reading the law (Exodus 24:7a; Deuteronomy 27:3); 5) taking an oath of obedience on the part of the people (Exodus 24:7b; Deuteronomy 27:15-26); 6) announcing the confirmed covenant (Exodus 24:8; Deuteronomy 27:9-10); 7) eating and rejoicing before God (Exodus 24:11; Deuteronomy 27:7b).
Add to these the fact that the ceremony at Gerazim and Ebal is designed as an outstanding exception to what had become the rule in Israel after the building of the tabernacle. The ceremony at Sinai in Exodus 24 was conducted before the tabernacle and its sacred altar had been built. But once God had given Israel the tabernacle and its altar as the place of sacrifice and worship, other places of worship could only be exceptions. Thus the altar at Ebal is an extraordinary one, built according to the instructions given for the pre-tabernacle altar at Sinai (Exodus 20:24-26; Deuteronomy 27:5-6).
The literary link between the exceptional ceremony at Sinai in Exodus 24 and the ceremony at Gerazim and Ebal is thus certain. Both ceremonies are one-time-only covenant-making sacrificial oath rituals and ceremonial meals. The tribes of Israel at Gerazim and Ebal, therefore, are to recall their fathers Abraham and Jacob, especially the covenant promises given to them and celebrated in their worship at Shechem. They are also to rejoice in the gift of the law and remember Sinai.
The prominence of the tribe of Levi in the ceremony of Deuteronomy 27 suggests another dimension to the allusion to Sinai and offers at least a partial answer to the exclusive list of curses in verses 15-26. At Sinai, the tribes of Israel worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-10), when Moses called “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me” (Exodus 32:26), the tribe of Levi came to Moses and they applied the covenant curse to the idolaters. In other words, to stand with Yahweh is to curse rebellion against Yahweh. The twelve curses of Deuteronomy 27:15-26 recall the loyalty of the Levites to Yahweh at Sinai and invite all Israel to curse what the law curses, which implicitly includes the idea of blessing what the law blesses.
Of course, the emphasis on the curse stands as a strong warning to a nation that had been prone to disobedience. In fact, Moses will say to them in chapter 29, verse 4: “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Moses will also teach them a song which includes the following lines.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
who made you and established you? (Deuteronomy 32:5-6)
Israel’s father Yahweh loves His wayward son and seeks to warn him from his crooked ways.[i] The larger purpose of the covenant ceremony near Shechem was to draw Israel into the path of Abraham and Jacob and to remind them of the wonderful covenant grace of Sinai. Yahweh warns them through curses that they participate in pronouncing — thus aligning themselves with Yahweh — and gives them the joy and blessing of an abundance of peace offerings.
Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] Ralph Allan Smith, Hear, My Son: An Examination of the Fatherhood of Yahweh in Deuteronomy (Monroe, LA., Athanasius Press, 2011).