The Altar at Mount ‘Eval
Dr. William Major z"l.
Parashat Re’eh begins with Moshe’s stark challenge to the people of
The blessing and the curse, more fully explicated in Parashat Ki Tavo (Chapter 27), are to be publicly pronounced at an assembly of all of the people to be held at the valley nestled between the twin peaks of Mount Gerizim and Mount '‘Eval, both of them located near the important town of Shechem in the northern hill country. From a topographical standpoint, Gerizim to the west, verdant and green, constitutes a perfect expression of the blessing, while arid ‘Eval to the east, beyond the watershed and therefore parched, graphically illustrates the curse. And Shechem itself, the urban marker for the future event, recalls the journey of Avraham and Sarah, who centuries earlier had journeyed forth from ‘
Thus, Moshe’s mention of the blessing and the curse, of Gerizim and of ‘Eval, to be invoked when the people of Israel enter Canaan and energetically set themselves to the task of terracing its hills, is an evocative attempt not only to impress upon them the awesome trials ahead. More significantly, the assembly at Shechem is to indicate to them that to engage the challenge and to prevail is to follow in the noble path of their ancestors, who abandoned kith and kin and their corrupt, idolatrous ways and followed the God of Israel on a life-transforming odyssey.
THE HAZARDS OF IDOLATRY
The hazards of idolatry, a central and oft-repeated subject of Sefer Devarim as the people of
Beware lest you be ensnared by them after they have been destroyed from before you, lest you enquire after their gods and say: ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I will do so as well!’ Do not do so for the sake of God your Lord, for everything that God despises and considers an abomination they have done for their gods, even burning their sons and daughters in the flames for them…(12:30-31).
THE ALTAR AT ‘EVAL AND THE WAR AGAINST IDOLATRY
The provisions of the altar at Mount ‘Eval, mentioned briefly in the opening of our Parasha, are actually part of a larger discussion, one that concerns the inevitable conflict with the Canaanites and with their gods that the people of
If you carefully observe this commandment that I command you today to fulfill, to love God your Lord, to follow all of His ways and to cleave to him. Then God will drive out all of these nations from before you, and you will displace nations greater and stronger than yourselves…No man will stand before you, for God will place the fear and dread of you upon the whole land in which you shall tread, just as He spoke to you.
Behold, I place before this day the blessing and the curse…The blessing if you listen to the commandments of God your Lord…and the curse if you do not…but rather go astray after other gods that you do not know…When God your Lord brings you into the land…then you shall proclaim the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount ‘Eval…" (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:22-30).
And in a passage from later in the Sefer Devarim, where the rite is spelled out at greater length and the unusual altar is more fully described, the war against idolatry again resurfaces:
Moshe and the elders commanded the people saying: observe all of the commandments that I command you this day. On the day that you pass over the Yarden into the land that God your Lord gives you than you shall erect large stones and cover them with plaster. You shall inscribe upon them all of the words of this Torah when you pass over, in order that you might enter the land that God your Lord gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey…you shall erect these stones at Mount ‘Eval…you shall build an altar to God your Lord, an altar of stones that are not cut by iron. You shall rather build the altar of God your Lord with whole stones, and you shall offer burnt sacrifices…you shall inscribe upon the stones all of the words of this Torah very clearly…(Devarim/Deuteronomy 27:1-8).
The first of the proclamations to be invoked at Mount ‘Eval, when the people cross over the Yarden and assemble at it base, condemns the idol worshiper to malediction:
Cursed be the man how would fashion an idol or molten image, the work of an artisan but an abomination to God, and worship it in secret! All of the people shall respond: “amen!” (Devarim 27:15).
THE UNHEWN STONES AND THE CONDITIONAL CHARACTER OF
Taken together, the Torah's command concerning the altar contains a number of distinct elements. There is a directive to erect an altar of unhewn stones and to offer sacrifices upon it, there is an injunction to inscribe those stones with the text of the Torah, and there is the commandment to pronounce the “blessing and the curse” in the presence of the entire assembly of the people of Israel. And as we have seen, the thematic glue that binds the passages is the polemic against idolatry on the one hand and the inheritance of the land of Canaan on the other, two foundation ideas that are invariably linked throughout the Torah and especially in the Book of Devarim. Overall, then, the core of the assembly is to emphasize that
Significantly, this altar, constituting the potent symbol of the relationship between heaven and earth, between God and the people, is to be constructed of whole stones that have not been defiled by implements of iron. Such an unusual provision was first mentioned at Sinai, in the aftermath of the Revelation of the Decalogue:
God said to Moshe: “Behold, you have all seen that I have addressed you from the heavens. Do not fashion gods of silver or gold for Me, do not make them for yourselves. Prepare an altar of earth for Me and offer upon it your burnt sacrifices and peace offerings, your sheep and cattle. Wherever I shall make My name known, I will come and bless you. If you fashion an altar of stones then do not make it of hewn stones, for you have defiled it by raising your sword upon it. Do not ascend to My altar by stairs, lest your nakedness be exposed upon it” (Shemot/Exodus 20:18-22).
As Rashi (11th century,
INSCRIBING THE WORDS OF THE TORAH
Significantly, at ‘Eval the altar was to include one additional element: upon it stones were to be inscribed the words of the Torah. More significantly, the Talmud asserts (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Sotah 33b) that not only was the Deuteronomic text emblazoned upon the plaster coating of those stones, but also that text's translation was inscribed next to it, in the seventy extant languages of the day (!).
The thrust of these traditions is clear: the stones of that altar will proclaim loud and clear the foundation ideas that constitute
But how to reconcile this vision of a just and compassionate law with the cruel obliteration of idols and their worshippers from the Canaanite landscape? How to understand an altar of unhewn stones – proclaiming peace and tranquility – even while idolatry is to be extirpated?
FULFILLING THE COMMAND: THE DESTRUCTION OF A’I AND THE ALTAR AT ‘EVAL
Perhaps the matter can be more fully illuminated by considering the later fulfillment of the rite, recorded in the eighth chapter of Sefer Yehoshu’a. The preceding chapters of that book describe the entry of
This time employing a clever strategy of controlled flight and concealed ambush, the army under Yehoshu’a's command is able to draw out the A’i's inhabitants and capture it without resistance. The king of A’i is taken alive, but subsequently executed. His body is hanged and remains suspended until evening, but as the sun sets, the body is removed and buried beyond the town's gates under a large heap of stones.
While the text tells us nothing else concerning the king of A’i, we do know that Yehoshu’a's directive to release his body at sunset and afford it a burial is based upon a passage from the Book of Devarim, recorded in next week’s Parasha:
If a person is guilty of a capital crime and is hanged, you shall not allow his corpse to remain suspended overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that very day, for it is a curse of the Lord to be hanged. You shall not defile your land that God your Lord gives you as an inheritance (21:22-23).
THE SANCTITY OF THE LAND
The commentaries disagree on the passage concerning which criminals are condemned to be hanged after execution. Rashi (11th century,
Significantly, however, his body was then honorably removed from the gallows and afforded a form of burial. Evidently, this was done in fulfillment of the proviso of Devarim: "You shall not defile your land that God your Lord gives you as an inheritance", for this directive not only forbids the humiliation of the deceased (which would tend to limit the application to the criminals detailed above), but also insists upon maintaining the sanctity of the land. In deference to the land's sacredness, displays of overt defamation, even when directed against the sworn enemy, are outlawed.
THE PARADOX OF WARFARE AND THE INTRODUCTION OF HIGHER IDEALS
The above episode affords us a striking example of the troubling ethical contrasts that dot the story of
While the moral aspects of Israel's war of conquest is a discussion that merits a more thorough treatment that is beyond the scope of this article, let us for now take note of the fact that while the account in Sefer Yehoshu’a clearly speaks of defeat, death and destruction, it lacks any triumphalist tones whatsoever, and nowhere glorifies the acts of conquest that it describes. The blood that is shed in the passages of the book is nowhere degraded nor is the enemy anywhere portrayed contemptuously, and in this important sense, the narratives of Sefer Yehoshu’a differ from all other accounts of wars that have descended to us from antiquity. It therefore seems that the minor act of humanity described above – the burial of the defeated king of A’i – must be understood from this perspective, for it is in fact indicative of more comprehensive truths.
The deference shown to the defeated king of A’i constituted a glimmer of hope in the otherwise barren moral landscape that was the ancient (and is still the modern!) Near-Eastern world. The text obviously took pains to point out that the king's body was removed from the gallows at sunset, even though this detail was certainly extraneous to the larger story. By so doing, the narrative not only aimed to indicate to us that Yehoshu’a was a conscientious student of the Book of Devarim, but perhaps more importantly to emphasize that although 'war is hell', the army of Israel was called upon to execute their strategic objectives without wanton cruelty or gratuitous violence. There was no MILITARY reason for the king's body to remain on the gallows indefinitely. Combatants that would cheer such a grotesque display willingly nurture a feral blood lust that is, in the end, self-consuming. In war, the enemy must be neutralized, but the image of God in which man was created must not be forfeited.
THE ALTAR AT MOUNT ‘EVAL
The theme is therefore amplified by the unusual episode that follows, namely the fulfillment of our Parasha’s directive:
Then, Yehoshu’a built an altar to God Lord of
No wonder Rabbinic tradition insisted, against the straightforward chronology of Sefer Yehoshu’a and at the danger of introducing serious geographical difficulties to the account, that the people of Israel fulfilled the injunction to erect the altar at Mount ‘Eval ON THE VERY DAY that they crossed the Yarden and entered the land, as the literal reading of Devarim implies: "on the day that you pass over the Yarden into the land that God your Lord gives you, than you shall erect large stones and cover them with plaster…" (27:3). The intent of their reading was to emphatically declare that
And in the context of the war against idolatry as recorded in Sefer Yehoshu’a, the message was especially pertinent.
Therefore, like the dignified removal of the King of A’i from the gallows, in spite of the complete annihilation of the town's inhabitants that preceded it, the description of the building of an altar at ‘Eval in the aftermath of