Mount Ebal (Arabic: جبل عيبال Jabal ‘Aybāl; Hebrew: הר עיבל Har ‘Eival) is one of the two mountains in the immediate vicinity of the city of Nablus in the West Bank (biblical Shechem), and forms the northern side of the valley in which Nablus is situated, the southern side being formed by Mount Gerizim. The mountain is one of the highest peaks in the West Bank and rises to 3084 feet (940 meters) above sea level, some 194 feet (59 meters) higher than Mount Gerizim. Mount Ebal is approximately 6.5 square miles (18 square kilometers) in area, and is composed primarily of limestone. The slopes of the mountain contain several large caverns which were probably originally quarries, and at the base towards the north are several tombs.
In the masoretic text of Deuteronomy and the Septuagint version of the same, an instruction is given to build an altar on Mount Ebal, constructed from natural (rather than cut) stones, to place stones there and whiten them with lime, to make peace offerings on the altar, eat there, and write the words of this law on the stone. According to the Samaritan Pentateuch version of Deuteronomy, the instruction actually concerns Mount Gerizim, which the Samaritans view as a holy site; some scholars believe that the Samaritan version is probably more accurate in this respect, the compilers of the masoretic text and authors of the Septuagint being likely to be biased against the Samaritans. Recent Dead Sea Scrolls work supports the accuracy of the Samaritan Pentateuch's designation of Mount Gerizim rather than Mount Ebal as the sacred site.
An instruction immediately subsequent to this orders that, once this is done, the Israelites should split into two groups, one to stay on Mount Ebal and pronounce curses, while the other goes to Mount Gerizim and pronounces blessings. The tribes of Simeon, of Levi, of Judah, of Issachar, of Joseph, and of Benjamin were to be sent to Gerizim, while those of Reuben, of Gad, of Asher, of Zebulun, of Dan, and of Naphtali, were to remain on Ebal. No attempts to explain this division of tribes either by their Biblical ethnology or by their geographical distribution have been generally accepted in academic circles.
The text goes on to list twelve curses, which were to be pronounced by the Levite priesthood and answered by the people with Amen. These curses heavily resemble laws (e.g. cursed be he who removes his neighbour's landmark), and they are not followed by a list of blessings described in a similarly liturgical framework; scholars believe that these more likely represent what was written on the stones, and that the later list of six explicit blessings, six near-corresponding explicit curses, were originally in this position in the text. The present position of these explicit blessings and curses, within a larger narrative of promise, and a far larger narrative of threat (respectively), is considered to have been an editorial decision for the post-exilic second version of Deuteronomy (Dtr2), to reflect the deuteronomist's worldview after the Babylonian exile had occurred.
In the Book of Joshua, after the Battle of Ai, Joshua built an altar of unhewn stones there, the Israelites then made peace offerings on it, the Law of Moses was written onto the stones, and the Israelites split into the two groups specified in Deuteronomy and pronounced blessings and cursings as instructed there. There is some debate between textual scholars as to whether this incident in Joshua is one account or spliced together two different accounts, where one account refers to Joshua building an altar, and making sacrifices on it, while the other account refers to Joshua placing large stone slabs there that had been whitened with lime and then had the Torah inscribed on them. Either way there is general agreement that the sources of Joshua predate Deuteronomy, and hence that the order to build the altar and make the inscription is likely based on these actions in the sources of Joshua, rather than the other way round, possibly to provide an aetiology for the site acceptable to the deuteronomist's theology.
Much later in the Book, when Joshua was old and dying, he gathered the people together at Shechem, and gave a farewell speech, and then wrote these words in the book of the Torah of God, and took a great stone, and set it under the doorpost which is in the sanctuary of the Lord. Depending on the way in which the sources of Joshua were spliced together, this may just be another version of the earlier narrative Joshua placing the whitened stones slabs with the Torah inscribed on them, and some scholars believe that this narrative may have originally been in an earlier location within the Book of Joshua
In the Biblical narrative, the terebinth, seemingly next to the sanctuary, was evidently in existence as early as the time of the Patriarchs, as Jacob is described in the Book of Genesis as having buried the idols of strange gods (belonging to his uncle Laban) beneath it. According to a midrash, one of these idols, in the shape of a dove, was later recovered by the Samaritans, and used in their worship on Mount Gerizim.
The higher part of the mountain, on the west, contains the ruins of some massive walls called Al-Kal'ah, and east of this are other ruins now called Kunaisah. However, potentially much more significant remains have been found on the northern side.
Like many other sites in the region, by the 20th century there was a large stone heap found on Mount Ebal; this one was known to locals as el Burnat (Arabic for the Hat), and was found by Adam Zertal, within a naturally shaped amphitheatre. Upon archaeological investigation, several potsherds were found among this heap, and were dated to 1220-1000BC, a date for which no other remains are found nearby, and so a more substantial archaeological excavation was launched at the site in 1987. The excavation found a large walled structure, seemingly built direct into the bedrock without a doorway or floor, and had been infilled by layers of stone, ash, and earth; on the southwest were found two paved areas split apart by a further wide wall higher at one end than the other and with a surrounding oval wall. Slowly burnt bones were found at the site, and after analysis were discovered to originate from bullocks, goats, and fallow deer.
Although the excavating archaeologist believed that the site was the compound containing Joshua's altar, the filled walled structure being the altar itself - the filling being a part of the altar rather than debris (and indicative of an Assyrian style altar, like that specified in the Book of Exodus as being hollow with boards) - and the wall between the two courtyards being a ramp (in accordance with the no steps instruction in Exodus), most other archaeologists believe it to be something else. The site has a significant issue in regard to the Biblical account of Joshua's altar, as it is located on the north side of the mountain, and not the south side facing Mount Gerizim, making a curse & blessing ritual held there and on Gerizim somewhat difficult to hold antiphonally; the excavating archaeologist proposed that this could be resolved by identifying a mountain to the north as Gerizim rather than the usual location, though the suggestion was ridiculed by both the Samaritans, who found it offensive to move the centre of their religion, and by other scholars and archaeologists.
Though some archaeologists agree with the consideration that the site was an altar compound (though not constructed by Joshua), and some (including Israel Finkelstein) at least agree that it was a cultic location (though not necessarily involving an altar), others believe that it was simply a farmhouse and/or the Biblical tower of Shechem. Those considering it to be a farmhouse and/or the tower of Shechem, argue that the paved areas are simply rooms, the sloping wall simply an eroded partition wall, and the infilled enclosure a room that was later changed into a tower - the foundation of the tower being the infill, and the rest of the tower now destroyed.
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- Photograph of the southern face of the mountain
- Matthew Sturgis, It aint necessarily so, ISBN 0-7472-4510-X
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Deuteronomy 27:4-8
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- ibid, et passim
- Charlesworth, James H. The Discovery of an Unknown Dead Sea Scroll: The Original Text of Deuteronomy 27? OWU Magazine; 2012/07/16
- Deuteronomy 27:11-13
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- Deuteronomy 15-26
- Deuteronomy 28:3-6
- Deuteronomy 28:16-19
- Joshua 8:31-35
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible; Jewish Encyclopedia, Book of Joshua, Deuteronomy, et passim
- Joshua 27:1-27
- Genesis 35:4
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- exodus 27
- exodus 26
- University of Haifa site
- Franciscan site
- The curses and blessings of Ebal and Gerizim, in isolation, at wikiversity
- The list of curses for Ebal, in isolation, at wikiversity
- Photos of Mount Ebal