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The Altar at Mount ‘Eval

  • Rav Michael Hattin
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major z"l.


Parashat Re’eh




Parashat Re’eh begins with Moshe’s stark challenge to the people of Israel: he has placed the blessing and the curse before them, to devotedly serve the One True God and to observe His commandments or else to stray after the many false gods worshipped by the Canaanites and to follow in their ways.  The blessing will bring them life, so that they might secure their place in the new land and prosper as a people upon its soil.  The curse will bring them national destruction, for by abandoning the God of Israel they will forfeit their claim to fertile Canaan and be exiled from its borders.


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 ‘Ur in Mesopotamia at God’s behest and arrived at that place when they first entered the land (see Breisheet 12:6). 


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, a central and oft-repeated subject of Sefer Devarim as the people of Israel prepare to enter the land, are now forcefully spelled out once again.  No forbearance is to be extended towards the idolatrous shrines, and no sympathy is to be shown for their rites.  These many high places are to be demolished and completely obliterated, while the worship of the God of Israel is to be conversely concentrated at a single central location: “the place that He will choose” (12:5).  Thus is the glaring difference between God and the pretenders to be highlighted, for the Deity is supreme and indivisibly one, His law an absolute and binding pronouncement.  But his contenders, the multiple fetishes of earth and sky, wind, rain and sun, are at constant odds with each other, their hollow allures and shrill demands for devotion a vapid expression of the cruel relativism which they can never transcend:


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 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 Israel are soon about to initiate.  Linking the end of last week’s Parashat ‘Eikev with the opening of this week’s Parashat Re’eh yields the following:


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).





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 Israel's entry, settlement, and success in their new land are by no means guaranteed.  Rather, the matter is completely conditional upon the people being faithful to God and to His commandments and steadfast in their rejection of idolatry and its associated licentious rites. 


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, France) there explains: "the purpose of the altar is to lengthen man's lifespan, while implements of iron (i.e. weapons) shorten it.  It is therefore improper for the executor to be raised upon the preserver" (commentary to Shemot 20:22).  In other words, the altar must embody the ideal of peace and harmony, of closeness to God and to the fulfillment of His will.  It cannot therefore simultaneously champion the cause of bloodshed, warfare, and death.  It whole unblemished stones embody the ideal of moral and ethical perfection, the pivot point around which our relationship with God ought to revolve.  But here, we seem to have encountered a paradox, for the very altar whose construction proclaims peace and harmony is also the rallying point for the war against idolatry! 





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 Israel's bequest to the larger world. The laws that will frame the social order of their state must be just and upright, for the people of Israel are the bearers of God's word into the world.  Therefore, how they establish their state in Canaan and upon what laws they will found it are not only local or regional concerns.  Because the people of Israel are God's representatives, therefore their state and its laws inevitably reflect upon Him.  If Israel upholds the Torah and its just laws, then the truth of God's Oneness, Incorporeality, and associated ethical absolutes is proclaimed.  If Israel strays and instead adopts the dubiousness of polytheism and its underlying moral relativism, then God's name is profaned and His just statutes are maligned. 


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?





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 Israel into Canaan, as the waters of the River Yarden are miraculously held back, and then the people’s first encounter with Canaanite idolatry, as the city of Yericho is razed to the ground.  After that event, the people mount an unsuccessful assault on the fortified hilltop town of A’i to the northwest, but are routed.  Only a second battle sees them decisively prevail. 


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 commentaries disagree on the passage concerning which criminals are condemned to be hanged after execution.  Rashi (11th century, France) maintains that anyone found guilty of a crime that requires death by stoning, a serious and proscribed category of offences, is subsequently hanged.  The Ramban (13th century, Spain), however, adopts the contrasting Talmudic view that the humiliation of hanging is only applicable to the Israelite who is found guilty of blasphemy or idol worship.  In either case, the punishment meted out to the Canaanite king of A’i was therefore outside of these rather specific situations and must have been an exigency undertaken with its deterrent value in mind.


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 above episode affords us a striking example of the troubling ethical contrasts that dot the story of Israel's conquest of the land.  On the one hand, the defenders of the A’i and its inhabitants, "men and women, all of them" (8:25), are killed, and the town is burned to the ground.  On the other hand, the body of the king is not left to ignominiously rot on the gallows, but is instead removed according to Yehoshu’a's directive, and thus preserved from further degradation.  As an earlier example of this dissonance, consider the complete obliteration of Yericho and its people in Chapter 6 of that book, even while Yehoshu’a meticulously fulfilled the oath of preservation vouchsafed to Rachav the Harlot (!) and to her extended family (see Sefer Yehoshu’a Chapter 2).   


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 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 Israel at Mount ‘Eval.  (He built it) as Moshe the servant of God had commanded the people of Israel, as is stated in the book of Moshe's Torah, that whole stones should be used, stones that had not been hewn by implements of iron.  They offered burnt sacrifices to God and presented peace offerings.  He inscribed upon the stones the repetition of Moshe's Torah that he had presented to the people of Israel…Afterwards, he read all of the words of instruction, the blessing and the curse, in accordance with what is stated in the Book of the Torah.  Nothing that Moshe had commanded was omitted, for Yehoshu’a read all of it in the presence of the entire congregation of Israel, the women, the children, and the converts who were among them… (8:30-35).


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 Israel could only survive the passage over the Yarden and the entry into Canaan if they put God's Torah at the forefront of their concerns and their mission as His people as their national objective. 


And in the context of the war against idolatry as recorded in Sefer Yehoshu’a, the message was especially pertinent.  Israel's war of conquest could not be allowed to become a war of pillage, booty and sacrilege.  Their army had to adopt much more exalted aims.  Though they would need to shed blood in order to secure their place in the land, they were not to be consumed by that bloodshed so that it would become the foundation of their state and the essence of its regional policies.  Though they were not permitted to brook any compromises with idolatry, nevertheless they were to remain cognizant of the spark of divinity that animates and ennobles every human being. 


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 Israel's bloody victory should not be understood as a study in irreconcilable contrasts.  Rather, it is the deliberate introduction of more exalted ideals that, if adopted and nurtured, can yet transform the world of men, even as evil must be engaged and soundly defeated.



Shabbat Shalom