In the seventh chapter of Sotah we move away from the details of Sotah laws and into a fascinating conversation about what must be recited in Hebrew and what can be said in other languages. In that context, we have a comprehensive discussion of what happened to the Israelites on their first steps into the land with Joshua: crossing the Jordan, reciting the blessing and curses, and building an altar on Mount Eival. Let’s take a look at these stories through the lenses of geography and topography.
In Devarim 11 Moses commands the Israelites to proclaim blessings and curses when they first enter the land, as part of the renewal of their covenant with God. Verses 30 and 31 detail where this event should take place:
“When your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Eival. Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah—near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.” (Devarim 11:30-31)
There are many geographical details in those verses, not all of them fit together. Sotah 33 discusses whether מבוא השמש means east or west, connects the story to Abraham who goes to Elon Moreh and brings in the Samaritans who insert the words “near Shechem” into their Bibles. But one of the more puzzling details is מול גלגל , opposite (or near) the Gilgal. The Gerizim and Eival that we know of are two mountains that flank the city of Shechem. In fact, Shechem means shoulder in Hebrew and the city sits in the valley between the “shoulders” of these mountains.
A view of Shechem from the east with Gerizim (left) and Eival (right)
יאיר דב, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
While we are unsure about where Gilgal is, it seems to be much closer to the Jordan than Shechem, which is inland. How can we reconcile these two locations? The Yerushalmi suggests that there are not one but two sets of mountains named Gerizim and Eival:
“How does Rebbi Eleazar uphold “Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival”? They were two mounds [near Gilgal] called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival. In the opinion of Rebbi Yehudah, they walked 120 mil on that day [since he places the mountains near Shechem]. In the opinion of Rebbi Eleazar, they did not move at all [since he places the mountains near Gilgal where they camped].” (Yerushalmi Sotah 7:3)
By stating that there was an alternate Gerizim and Eival, besides the well known ones, the Yerushalmi not only solves the problem of near Gilgal but also explains the logistical issue of how Bnei Yisrael could possibly have gotten from the Jordan to near Shechem in one day.
In a fascinating example of traditions moving from Jews to Christians, the sixth century mosaic map of Israel in the Madaba church in Jordan adopts this explanation and shows two sets of mountains, one near the Jordan and one near Shechem:
Section of the Madaba map, “alternate” Gerizim and Eival are highlighted
Paul Palmer, architect in JerusalemGuthe, Friedrich Wilhelm Leopold Hermann (* 10.5.1849 Westerlinde (Braunschweig), † 11.8.1936 Leipzig)1954 reproduction by Survey of Israel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The other element of the Gerizim and Eival story that I want to discuss here is the topography of the site near Shechem. On daf 37 there is a debate over whether the Cohanim and Leviim stood on the slopes of the mountains or down in the valley between them. If they stood in the valley and the tribes stood on the slopes of their respective mountains, how did the people hear the blessings pronounced below? If you look at satellite images of the area between Gerizim and Eival you can see that on the side of each mountain is a scooped out area, creating a natural amphitheater that reflects sound. This phenomenon was already noticed by a Christian traveler in the area in the late 19th century, Father J.W. McGarvey. Here is an excerpt from his diary:
“Our route took us back through the valley, and we resolved that while passing between the two mountains of Eival and Gerizim, in the still morning air, we would try the experiment of reading the blessings and curses. . . But it is interesting to know that the spot chosen by God for this reading is a vast natural amphitheater, in which the human voice can be heard to a surprising distance. About half-way between Shechem and the mouth of the valley in which it stands there is a deep, semicircular recess in the face of Mount Eival, and a corresponding one precisely opposite to it in Mount Gerizim. No man with his eyes open can ride along the valley without being struck with this singular formation. As soon as I saw it I recognized it as the place of Joshua’s reading. It has been asserted repeatedly by travelers that, although two men stationed on the opposite slopes of these two mountains are a mile apart, they can read so as to be heard by each other. We preferred to try the experiment in stricter accordance with Joshua’s example; so I took a position, Bible in hand, in the middle of the valley, while Brother Taylor and Frank, to represent six tribes, climbed halfway up the slope of Mount Gerizim; and Brother Earl, to represent the other six tribes, took a similar position on Mount Eival. I read, and they were to pronounce the amen after each curse or blessing. Brother Taylor heard me distinctly, and I could hear his response. But Brother Earl, though he could hear my voice, could not distinguish the words. This was owing to the fact that some terrace-walls on the side of the mountain prevented him from ascending high enough, and the trees between me and him interrupted the passage of the sound. . . (quoted in (http://blog.bibleplaces.com/2008/12/acoustics-of-mounts-gerizim-and-ebal.html)
Old picture with a view to Eival from Gerizim, highlighted area is the natural indentation in the mountain
Although today Shechem is far more developed and sprawling than in McGarvey’s day, you can still see the dramatic vista of the two facing mountains and the valley in the middle. The best place to see this is from a third mountain called Mount Kabir, above the modern Jewish community of Elon Moreh.
Did all the people gather at these mountains or only some? Did it happen on the day they crossed the Jordan or many years later? Have we discovered Joshua’s altar on Mount Eival? We have many unanswered questions about this story but without a doubt it was one of the formative moments in the early history of Am Yisrael. As Moses himself tells them:
“Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of your God” (Devarim 27:9)