Ebal: The Place That the LORD Chose?

The Book of Deuteronomy often commands the Israelites to sacrifice in only one sanctuary: the place that the LORD shall choose. Where was that sanctuary? When I was in Israel this last summer, I heard a lecture from Sandra Richter of Asbury Theological Seminary. Professor Richter argued that Mount Ebal was the central sanctuary of Deuteronomy. One reason she offered was that Deuteronomy 27 mentions an altar on Mount Ebal. She also presented archaeological evidence for the existence of an altar at that site.

When I first heard her presentation, I thought, “How can people miss this? It is right there in Deuteronomy 27!” When I did my weekly quiet time in Deuteronomy 27, however, I could see how scholars missed it. Jeffrey Tigay, for example, argues in his Jewish Publication Society commentary that the altar was intended to be temporary, for a brief ceremony. In Deuteronomy 27, God commands the Israelites to set up stones on Mount Ebal and to put plaster on them. They are to write on the plaster the words of the Deuteronomic law. They are also to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings on an altar as they rejoice before God. Tigay points out that rain can erase the words on the plaster, so he concludes that the stones, the plaster, and the altar were all part of a brief ceremony. He does not seem to believe that the altar was to be part of a long-standing central sanctuary.

Interestingly, however, there are scholars who believe that Deuteronomy 27 contradicts the prevalent theme of Deuteronomy: that Israel is to sacrifice only in the place that God shall choose. In the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Ebal,” Adam Zertal states the following:

“Although the biblical passages attesting to the Mt. Ebal ceremony are clearly Deuteronomistic (and therefore late), their reference to an important ceremony outside Jerusalem and in the heart of N territory is in sharp contrast with the so-called ‘main theme’ of the Deuteronomistic historian: namely, the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem. Thus, many scholars assume that the historical witness of these texts is generally authentic[.]”

But, if the altar was only part of a brief ceremony, why should we assume that Deuteronomy 27 contradicts the emphasis on the central sanctuary? Couldn’t Deuteronomy assume that the Israelites would do the brief ceremony on Ebal to celebrate God’s goodness and remember the law, and then the central sanctuary rules would apply?

Any thoughts?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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