Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 10 - A Pilgrimage to Mount Ebal

Mount Eball is situated in the heart of Samaria and is central to both the geography and history of Palestine. Its crest rises over 3,000 feet above sea level. Its twin, but slightly shorter uprising, Mount Gerizim, towers nearby just to the south. The site, Elon Moreh, the oak of Moreh, lies in the valley below, cradled by the mountain pair. Here, according to tradition, was the place anciently visited by Abraham where God promised the land to Abraham and his posterity as an inheritance. When standing at the top of Mount Ebal one can gaze to the north and see the snow covered peaks of Mount Hermon just over one hundred miles way. Off towards the northwest, at a distance of forty miles, stands Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice upon the altar. In the opposite direction at the same distance stands Mount Nebo, where Moses remained behind, as Joshua and the Israelites returned to repossess their land that had been originally promised to their ancestor Abraham.

Prior to the time when the Israelites entered their promised land, Moses commanded Joshua, his chosen successor, to build an altar of commemorative stones (maseboth) unto the Lord, and thereupon inscribe the words of the law. Accordingly, at the time when Joshua had led the people into the land, he constructed an altar somewhere near the summit of Mount Ebal. A biblical version of the event follows[2]:
"Then Joshua built an altar unto the lord God of Israel in mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel,
�As it is written in the Book of Moses, an altar of whole stones over which no man hath lift up any iron; and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings.
�And he wrote thereupon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.
�And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bare the ark of the Covenant of the Lord, as well the stranger, as he that was born among them; half of them over against mount Gerizim, and half of them over against mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel.
�And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law.
�There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.�

The reading of the "blessings and cursings" so critical to this occasion has survived in the recorded words found in Leviticus:
"You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep my sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord's.
"If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in the land.
"I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to a thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.
"I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new.
"I will establish my abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. I the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you erect.
"But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject my laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you - consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose; for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues.
"And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent for no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.
�And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted.
�And if these things fail to discipline you for Me, and you remain hostile to Me, I too will remain hostile to you: I in turn will smite you sevenfold for your sins. I will bring a sword against you to wreak vengeance for the covenant; and if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.
"But if, despite this, you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you in wrathful hostility; I, for My part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands; and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes.
"I will spurn you. I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will make the land desolate; so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin.
"Then shall the land make up for the sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. [Italics added] As for those who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall send them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies, but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you.
�Those of you who survive shall be heartsick over their iniquity in the land of your enemies; more, they shall be heartsick over the iniquities of their fathers; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me. When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity. Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.
"For the land shall be forsaken of them, making up for its sabbath years by being desolate of them, while they atone for their iniquity; for the abundant reason that they rejected My rules and spurned My laws. Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord."

Now at a time many Jubilees removed from the era when Joshua, son of Nun, had originally set up an altar on Mt. Ebal, read all of the Law, and concluded with the "blessings and cursings," another spokesman for the Law bearing Joshua's name, traveled the countryside during a season embraced by a sabbatical year, and expounded once again those blessings and cursings to those who would listen. The gospel records do not tell us whether Jesus ever went up to Mount Ebal, but this could have been the very place where Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John, which otherwise has been called the "Mount of Transfiguration." Mount Ebal's location sat square in the middle of the land of Israel. The mountain peaks so closely associated with the names of Moses and Elijah stood out distinctly against the distant background. There was no other place better suited for Jesus to take stock of his ministry, charter his future course, and converse with heavenly beings. Jesus had enumerated the blessings of the law, and he would, like the prophet Jeremiah, enumerate the cursings of the law within sight of the Temple.
With any consideration, one realizes that a suitable place also demands a suitable occasion. This pregnant moment could have marked an anniversary for Jesus' birth. Alternately, and probably more likely, the date of March 30th (Nisan 1) could have coincided with the commemoration for the Blessing of the Sun, which twenty-eight years earlier had marked the time when Jesus as an infant had been presented at the temple by Mary and Joseph. The words spoken then by Simeon, "mine eyes have seen thy salvation, ... a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel," seem to anticipate the words narrated by the gospel record on this second occasion, "[Jesus] was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light."[3]
The altar on Mount Ebal sits on a prominent overlook, which stands on the rim of a natural amphitheater and faces towards the east. The springtime sun rises rapidly from its eastern portal, and the rays of first light reach the altar while the bowl-shaped terrain below stays covered in the shadow. Any figure standing on the altar and facing east at this moment would be "spotlighted" by the sun, while being flanked on either side by the distant mountain peaks most commonly associated with Moses and Elijah.

The episode referred to as the Mount of Transfiguration can easily fit within the circumstances as just described. The weight of the moment prompted Peter to say to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias." The suggested placement of three "tabernacles" by Peter would further help identify the precise setting if the term "tabernacle" could be associated with a temenos wall[4], whose meaning in Greek is an enclosed sacred place. Surely, the gospels do not provide us with enough information to exactly identify the time or place for the Mount of Transfiguration, but the placement of Jesus and his close disciples at a commemoration of the Blessing of the Sun at Joshua's altar on Mount Ebal provides a reasonable staging area from which Jesus would conclude his career.

The matters exchanged between Jesus and the heavenly beings at the time of the Mount of Transfiguration went unrecorded, but from that time forward a stoic Jesus appears fixed upon a heavenly-chartered course and fervently attempts to outline his fate to his disciples. From then on, Jesus appears to proceed in lockstep with the will of heaven. It's hard to tell for sure, but the future may have been set in motion by a new moon standing square with the planets of Jupiter and Saturn. An ominous occasion would surely follow in a week's time (April 6th), when a hazardous massing of the moon with planets Jupiter and Saturn would occur just below the horizon shortly after the sunrise of April 6th. After the appearances of Moses and Elias were concluded, Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountain. They return to a crowd and the remaining disciples. There, a parent appeals to Jesus to heal a child, who his disciples had been unable to help. Jesus does so, and then a dispute arises among the disciples over their status in the future kingdom. Jesus settles the affair, and then Luke continues: "And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him."5 Here, we finally see, that perhaps we had good ground to have assumed the placement of the Mount of Transfiguration at Mount Ebal in the very heart of Samaria. Whatever the case, the intentions of Jesus appear clear; there clearly is no turning back.

[1] See �Joshua�s Altar - The Dig at Mount Ebal,� 1991, by Milt Machlin for a summary of the archaeological survey carried out by Adam Zertal at this site. Much of the material included in this chapter relating to the topography, and historical significance of Mount Ebal from the time of Joshua, son of Nun, was gleaned from this book.
Adam Zertal first published his summary in Biblical Archaeology Review, �Has Joshua�s Altar Been Found on Mount Ebal?,� January - February 1985.
[2] Joshua 8:30-35
[3] Matthew 17:2
See also:
Mark 9:3 �And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white.�
Luke 9:29: �And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistening.�
[4] Milt Machlin, �Joshua�s Altar - The Dig at Mount Ebal,� Chapter XXIII, page 160.
[5] Luke 9:51,52

No comments: