Where is the holy place?

Where is the holy place?

Everyone knows the most holy place in Israel is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But is it?

This was the question I wrestled with for some time after being introduced to the Israelite Samaritan perspective, which features a belief that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the chosen place mentioned throughout Deuteronomy, the one and only location in the land where sacrifice and pilgrimage feasts would take place.

It was a fascinating question. I uncovered many pointers to the possibility that the Israelite Samaritans are correct, that Jerusalem is not the “chosen” place mentioned in Deuteronomy. After all, the Torah never mentions Jerusalem in any context, nor a temple.

Eventually the scriptural answer became clear to me, and when it did, the simplicity of it stunned me, and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed it before.

Let me start with two simple scriptural illustrations of exactly where the chosen place is, as demonstrated by a command in the Torah, and its subsequent fulfillment. Deuteronomy is the book where a “place that YHVH will chose” is mentioned over 20 times.

Here is just one of the commandments related to the chosen place found in Deuteronomy:

He commanded them: “At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the cancellation of debts, at the Feast of Temporary Shelters, when all Israel comes to appear before YHVH your God in the place he will choose, you must read this law before them within their hearing. Gather the people – men, women, and children, as well as the resident foreigners in your villages – so they may hear and thus learn about and fear YHVH your God and carefully obey all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 31:10-12 NET)

This commandment was fulfilled according to the book of Joshua:

Then Joshua read aloud all the words of the law, including the blessings and the curses, just as they are written in the law scroll. Joshua read aloud every commandment Moses had given before the whole assembly of Israel, including the women, children, and resident foreigners who lived among them. (Joshua 8:34-35 NET)

Notice how strikingly similar the language is between the two passages! Where exactly was Joshua when he read the Torah to the entire nation? In the Shechem area, conducting the ceremony of the blessing and curses on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal.

Here’s another simple illustration–two verses in Deuteronomy, one commanding that sacrifice and feasting only be done in the chosen place, followed by another commanding sacrifice and feasting to be done during the ceremony on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal:

But you must seek only the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there. And there you must take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the personal offerings you have prepared, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. Both you and your families must feast there before YHVH your God and rejoice in all the output of your labor with which he has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7 NET)

The above passage represents the first instance in Deuteronomy of a chosen place that YHVH will choose, the only place where sacrifice and pilgrimage feasting would be allowed. Later in Deuteronomy you find this within the instructions for the ceremony to be held on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal:

So when you cross the Jordan you must erect on Mount Ebal these stones about which I am commanding you today, and you must cover them with plaster. Then you must build an altar there to YHVH your God, an altar of stones – do not use an iron tool on them. You must build the altar of YHVH your God with whole stones and offer burnt offerings on it to YHVH your God. Also you must offer fellowship offerings and eat them there, rejoicing before YHVH your God. (Deuteronomy 27:4-7 NET)

See how easy that was? Clear as a bell, and yet few see it, apparently.

Below we will go into more detail, and also discover why this chosen place had already been chosen, (“will choose” being a later Judean change to the text), and why the altar was actually built on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Ebal (another Judean change.)

“Will Choose” or “Has Chosen”?

Deuteronomy refers to a chosen place more than twenty times, each time calling it the “place YHVH will chose”. This is according to the Masoretic text. The Israelite Samaritans, representatives of the northern tribes of Israel, insist this was changed by the Judeans, and originally read the “place YHVH has chosen”.

If it were only the Israelite Samaritan version of the Torah which read this way, one might be tempted to write it off as a sectarian edit meant to favor their position, and in fact most scholars until recently have done exactly that. However, it has been pointed out by scholar Stefan Schorch that this is not the case:

Adrian Schenker has pointed out in two recent articles that the reading בחר is not only found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, but is attested by some Greek Septuagint manuscripts, too, as well as by the Coptic and the Latin secondary translations of the Old Greek text of the Pentateuch. This indicates that the Hebrew Vorlage of the Old Greek translation of Deuteronomy read בחר, and in terms of textual criticism בחר is therefore certainly the original reading, while the Masoretic reading יבחר is secondary, being an ideological and maybe even an anti-Samaritan correction.

(From http://www.schorch.at/SchorchSt2011_The_Samaritan_Version_of_Deuteronomy.pdf)

Further, outside of Deuteronomy we can find passages showing that the Israelites were on a journey to a chosen location that had already been established. In Exodus’ Song of the Sea we find a startlingly clear instance of this:

You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of your inheritance, in the place you made for your residence, O YHVH, the sanctuary, O Adonai, that your hands have established. (Exodus 15:17 NET)

Here we see that immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites are singing about a sanctuary that YHVH has already chosen for his residence, it is already established by his hands.

And to be sure, the exodus was a homecoming to land that had already been inhabited by the forefather Jacob. The Shechem/Gerizim area was where YHVH sent Abraham, and where He promised Abraham’s descendants would live. It is where Jacob had his vision, the location he named the House of God (Beit El) and where YHVH again promised him possession of the land. It is the land where Jacob settled his family, where his sons tended his flocks, where Joseph was sold into slavery, and where he requested his bones be returned when the Israelites would leave Egypt after his death.

Can there even be a question as to where the Israelites thought they were going? Shechem obviously! And sure enough, as we read the book of Joshua, we find that once they cross the Jordan, they spend several years conquering their way to Shechem. There they hold the commanded ceremony immediately after the conquest of Bethel and Ai, located in the immediate vicinity. At this ceremony they sacrifice and read the Torah aloud to the entire nation. These are activities which could only be done in the chosen place!

Altar on Gerizim or Ebal?

Another textual issue is the location of the Altar commanded to be built as part of the ceremony at Gerizim/Ebal. The Masoretic text says Ebal, while the Israelite Samaritan Torah reads Gerizim.

Here again, we find that there is good reason to consider the Israelite Samaritan viewpoint, according to Schorch (from the same document above):

We have to realize, however, that the Masoretic reading in Deut 27:4 בהר עיבל “on Mount Ebal” is almost certainly a secondary ideological correction, as opposed to the text-historically original בהר גריזים “on Mount Gerizim”, which is preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Old Latin (Vetus Latina). According to the original text of the Book of Deuteronomy, therefore, this altar is to be built on Mount Gerizim, which is the mountain of the blessings according to the framing passages Deut 11:29 and 27:12‒13.

Further, a fragment of Deuteronomy 27:4 found among the DSS, written in the Judean script no less, agrees with the Israelite Samaritan reading, as documented at https://foundationjudaismchristianorigins.org/ftp/dead-sea-scrolls/unpub/DSS-deuteronomy.pdf

All of this points to the possibility, even the likelihood, that the Israelite Samaritan Torah preserves the correct and original reading, that the place had already been chosen, and the altar was on Mount Gerizim rather than Ebal.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few more bits of evidence from Deuteronomy.

Identifying the chosen place of Deuteronomy

The very first mention of this chosen place in Deuteronomy appears in chapter 12. Interestingly, the very first mention of the ceremony to be conducted on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal is found in the last four verses of the preceding chapter:

When YHVH your God brings you into the land you are to possess, you must pronounce the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal. Are they not across the Jordan River, toward the west, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah opposite Gilgal near the oak of Moreh? For you are about to cross the Jordan to possess the land YHVH your God is giving you, and you will possess and inhabit it. Be certain to keep all the statutes and ordinances that I am presenting to you today. (Deuteronomy 11:29-32)

Given that the chapter boundaries are not in the original, one can see this passage as beginning with the command to conduct this ceremony, demonstrating the location of the chosen place that is mentioned mere moments later. Note the admonishment of 11:32 that the Israelites be certain to keep all the statutes that Moses is presenting them on that day.

Chapter 12 continues:

These are the statutes and ordinances you must be careful to obey as long as you live in the land YHVH, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess. (Deuteronomy 12:1 NET)

Here again it is stressed that these commandments must be carefully obeyed, and for as long as they live in the land! This means the commandments go into effect from the moment they step foot on the western side of the Jordan.

You must by all means destroy all the places where the nations you are about to dispossess worship their gods – on the high mountains and hills and under every leafy tree. You must tear down their altars, shatter their sacred pillars, burn up their sacred Asherah poles, and cut down the images of their gods; you must eliminate their very memory from that place. You must not worship YHVH your God the way they worship. (Deuteronomy 12:2-4 NET)

Here the Israelites are commanded to completely destroy the Caananite religious system. Contrary to the way the Caananites worship their gods, the Israelites must:

But you must seek only the place he has chosen from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there. And there you must take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the personal offerings you have prepared, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. Both you and your families must feast there before YHVH your God and rejoice in all the output of your labor with which he has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7 NET)

Here is the very first reference to the chosen place. I have replaced the “will choose” with “has chosen”. Notice that the chosen place is the place he has chosen “to establish his name as his place of residence”. This ties very nicely back to Exodus 15:17 where the Israelite sing of the “mountain of your inheritance, in the place you made for your residence”. This is the only place where the Israelites will sacrifice and rejoice in the output of their labor (pilgrimage feasts.)

There are five additional mentions of this chosen place in Deuteronomy 12, which for brevity’s sake we will not detail, and then the chapter ends with:

You must be careful to do everything I am commanding you. Do not add to it or subtract from it! (Deuteronomy 12:32 NET)

If the Israelites were to carefully follow these commands for as long as they lived in the land, and were to neither add to nor subtract from them, then they absolutely had to know exactly where this chosen place was.

And they did, because as has been demonstrated above, when they had conquered their way to Shechem, they held the commanded ceremony and did those very things commanded to only be done in the chosen place (Joshua 8:30-35).

A new altar built near the Jordan provides more proof

Further proof that the chosen place was known is found in Joshua 22. When the conquest was complete, and the Israelites were secure in the land, the two and a half tribes that had chosen to put down roots in the Transjordan were released from their duties and allowed to return to their land. Before they crossed the Jordan back to Transjordan, they erected an altar. When the rest of Israel heard about this, they were incensed and ready to go to war. They sent Phinehas son of Eleazer the priest along with ten tribal leaders to investigate, and they confronted the two and a half tribes in this manner:

The entire community of YHVH says, ‘Why have you disobeyed the God of Israel by turning back today from following YHVH? You built an altar for yourselves and have rebelled today against YHVH. The sin we committed at Peor was bad enough. To this very day we have not purified ourselves; it even brought a plague on the community of YHVH. Now today you dare to turn back from following YHVH! You are rebelling today against YHVH; tomorrow he may break out in anger against the entire community of Israel. But if your own land is impure, cross over to YHVH’s own land, where YHVH himself lives, and settle down among us. But don’t rebel against YHVH or us by building for yourselves an altar aside from the altar of YHVH our God. (Joshua 22:16-19 NET)

Here it is crystal clear that the Israelites were extremely circumspect about following the commandments related to the chosen place. Once it was explained that this altar was simply a memorial, that no sacrifice would be offered thereon, the tension abated and the Israelites remaining in the land were satisfied.

Clearly the chosen place HAD indeed been chosen, was being carefully observed and guarded, and was not anywhere near Jerusalem, which at this time was still a Jebusite city, and wasn’t established as the Judean holy place until several centuries later.

Problems in the book of Joshua

Though I have shown from the (Judean) book of Joshua the location of the chosen place, and have further illustrated how important it was by the story of the altar in Joshua 22, the book of Joshua does present a problem regarding the location of the tabernacle.

If Mount Gerizim was the chosen place, we would expect to find the tabernacle was set up there, and remained. It is not explicitly stated in Joshua 8 that the tabernacle was present during the ceremony of the blessing and curses, but we may surmise it was present due to the sacrificial activities that were part of the ceremony. At the end of Joshua’s life described in Joshua 24, we read that he assembled all the tribes at Shechem, and set up a memorial under the oak tree near YHVH’s sanctuary (Hebrew mikdash translated “shrine” in the NET):

Joshua wrote these words in the Law Scroll of God. He then took a large stone and set it up there under the oak tree near YHVH’s shrine. (Joshua 24:26 NET).

However, according to Joshua 18, the tabernacle was set up in Shiloh:

The entire Israelite community assembled at Shiloh and there they set up the tent of meeting. (Joshua 18:1a NET)

This presents a bit of a problem, as there was to be only one chosen place, and it should be assumed that by the time of Joshua 8, the tabernalce would be permanently located at that place.

The Israelite Samaritan narrative reports this about the tabernacle at Shiloh:

Eli the priest, descendant of Itamar ben Aaron, rebelled against the High Priest Uzi ben Bookie, descendant of Pinhas ben Elazar ben Aaron. The latter was the legitimate High Priest according to the Torah commandment [Numbers 25:11-13]. Consequently, Eli was forced to leave Mount Gerizim, and went with his supporters to Shilo. (From their history page.)

We’ve already established that the Masoretic Text was changed to de-legitimize Mount Gerizim as the chosen place, so what we may have here is further Judean editing to place the tabernacle in Shiloh, where Eli and his supporters had set up the counterfeit tabernacle, this being the schism that eventually led to a temple in Jerusalem.

Despite this possible change, it is clear that there was a sanctuary in the Shechem area in Joshua 24:26. This along with the story of the ceremony of the blessing and curses in Joshua 8, and the altar of the two and a half tribes in Joshua 22 remain to testify to the truth, that the chosen place was Mount Gerizim, and the sanctity and uniqueness of this place was diligently guarded against trespass by the nation.

Could the location of the chosen place have changed?

So, how did we get from Mount Gerizim to Jerusalem? Even in the face of the undeniable facts contained above, many maintain that the chosen place changed–that Jerusalem was chosen and Gerizim rejected. Let’s contemplate the logic of this assertion.

First, let’s look at Exodus 15:17 again:

You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of your inheritance, in the place you made for your residence, O YHVH, the sanctuary, O Adonai, that your hands have established. (Exodus 15:17 NET)

The Hebrew word translated “place” in this verse is “makon”, which means “fixed or established place, foundation” according to Strong’s Condordance. This doesn’t seem to indicate a movable structure, but a fixed geographical place. This is the only instance of this word in the entire Torah, though it appears in several places throughout the remainder of the Tanakh.

Those who favor Jerusalem as the chosen place assert that the tabernacle continued to serve as the abode of YHVH until Jerusalem was finally chosen, some 4-600 years after the Israelites entered the land. Under this view, wherever the tabernacle was located served as the chosen place until the temple was built.

There are some logical problems with this, however. By the time Israel starts clamoring for a king, we find that Samuel was going from town to town sacrificing at high places, NOT at the tabernacle:

As they were going up the ascent to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water. They said to them, “Is this where the seer is?” They replied, “Yes, straight ahead! But hurry now, for he came to the town today, and the people are making a sacrifice at the high place. When you enter the town, you can find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people won’t eat until he arrives, for he must bless the sacrifice. Once that happens, those who have been invited will eat. Now go on up, for this is the time when you can find him!” So they went up to the town. As they were heading for the middle of the town, Samuel was coming in their direction to go up to the high place. (1 Samuel 9:11-14 NET)

Samuel was apparently deliberately breaking the Torah commandment to only do these things at the chosen place. Not only that, but he is sacrificing at a high place, which is also forbidden:

You must by all means destroy all the places where the nations you are about to dispossess worship their gods – on the high mountains and hills and under every leafy tree. 3 You must tear down their altars, shatter their sacred pillars, burn up their sacred Asherah poles, and cut down the images of their gods; you must eliminate their very memory from that place. You must not worship YHVH your God the way they worship. (Deuteronomy 12:2-4 NET)

Speak to the Israelites and tell them, “When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 you must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places“. (Numbers 33:51-52 NET)

In fact, YHVH had already warned them what would happen if they turned from him:

If in spite of this you do not obey me but walk in hostility against me, 28 I will walk in hostile rage against you and I myself will also discipline you seven times on account of your sins. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars, and I will stack your dead bodies on top of the lifeless bodies of your idols. I will abhor you. (Leviticus 26:27-30 NET)

So we find that according to the Judean writings, the chosen place had been abandoned. In fact, it seems that everyone was offering sacrifice at the high places:

Now the people were offering sacrifices at the high places, because in those days a temple had not yet been built to honor YHVH. (1 Kings 3:2 NET)

Interestingly, 1 Samuel 13, where David is chosen to replace Saul as King, YHVH is said to have instructed Samuel to take a heifer along with him to Jesse’s residence in Bethlehem for a sacrifice:

And YHVH said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.

And Samuel said, How can I go? if Saul hear [it], he will kill me. And YHVH said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to YHVH.

And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me [him] whom I name unto thee. (1 Samuel 16:1-3 NET)

Here even YHVH seems to be ignoring his own instructions regarding the chosen place, sending Samuel to sacrifice in Bethlehem. Does this make sense to anyone?

Where was the tabernacle? Why had it been abandoned in favor of the high places? One explanation that has been offered for this is that the tabernacle may have been destroyed by the Philistines around the time they captured the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4), and YHVH condoned the breaking of his commandments for a time until the temple was built. The text does not say this, so this is strictly hypothetical.

Is this reasonable? Does it make sense that a commandment that was to be observed for as long as they lived in the land was okay to break due to these special circumstances?

Even Solomon, supposedly given extra wisdom by YHVH Himself, sacrificed at high places even after the temple was built!

How does any of this make sense? Exodus 15:17 speaks of a place YHVH has already established as his residence. It is not referring to the mobile tabernacle. To believe any of this regarding Jerusalem requires one to believe that the chosen place can change, and that has to lead one to conclude it may change again in the future. If once believes in a future temple, one should acknowledge it may end up somewhere other than Jerusalem. This is particularly the case when one considers that YHVH was so upset with his people that he allowed both temples in Jerusalem to be destroyed.

The Judean writings are actually of two minds on the question. On the one hand, they have edited “has chosen” to “will chose” to allow centuries of Israelite presence in the land before Jerusalem is “chosen”, but on the other hand they agree that there were two “tents”, but that the original was rejected, as seen here:

[Psa 78:67-69 NET] 67 He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim. He chose the tribe of Judah, and Mount Zion, which he loves. He made his sanctuary as enduring as the heavens above; as secure as the earth, which he established permanently. (Psalms 78:67-69 NET)

This psalm acknowledges the tent of Joseph, but then claims it was rejected in favor of Judah. Then, after having claimed a “change”, it goes on to call this new choice to be permanent and unchangeable, as enduring as the heavens. Where is the logic in that? According to this, YHVH moved to a new residence, apparently because the original neighborhood was going south, but this was absolutely the final move. Does that sound like the YHVH you know, picking up and moving around based on the actions of his creation?

I’m sorry, but I choose to see what the text is saying, that His chosen place was fixed and unmovable, and that the Judeans were rogue and split from the truth. As is typical, the victor writes the history, and thus the rest of the Tanakh, compiled and approved by the Judeans, presents their story, which most have accepted uncritically.

If you step back and read the Judean writings without bias, the Israelite Samaritan story seems far more rational. You find dozens of severe contradictions between the Kings and Chronicles, you find rampant sacrificing at high places throughout, you find human sacrifice in Judges, you find YHVH choosing as king some random handsome guy wandering aimlessly in search of his fathers donkey, later demonstrating how terrible a choice for king he was, only to be replaced by David, a bloodthirsty, murderous thug who at one point lives with his arch enemies the Philistines, and even seeks to accompany them to war against his own people! As king he breaks every commandment related to Kings, as does his son Solomon in even more spectacular fashion!

Is it any wonder that the Judean writings attest to the fact that the other tribes wouldn’t take part in this?

Now a wicked man named Sheba son of Bicri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He blew the trumpet and said, “We have no share in David; we have no inheritance in this son of Jesse! Every man go home, O Israel!” So all the men of Israel deserted David and followed Sheba son of Bicri. But the men of Judah stuck by their king all the way from the Jordan River to Jerusalem. (2 Samuel 20:1-2 NET)

Sheba may have been wicked in Judean eyes, but he was obeying YHVH. The southern kingdom and Jerusalem as the new chosen place was purely a political move, and nothing more.

Where do we go from here?

This information can be disconcerting, as it paints a picture of the Judeans as rogues, rebellious to the commandments of YHVH. If they edited the Torah to legitimize Jerusalem as the holy place, can you trust the writings they have assembled as part of the Tanakh? I can’t answer that question fully yet, but what I can say is that this shouldn’t come as a big surprise, and doesn’t have to be as significant a problem as it may seem.

Those of us who have been Tanakh-only have already rejected the Mishnah/oral Torah as authoritative, with its additions to the written Torah which violate Deuteronomy 4:2. We have rejected the new testament writings as well, which grew out of Judean messianic fervor during Roman occupation, in second temple times. We need not fear the possibility that we may need to reject additional writings which fail to measure up as truth.

We seek to obey YHVH, and all that is required to do that is the Torah. Whether or not we can trust some or all of the Judean writings is superfluous. Whether the prophets can be trusted, whether their future prophecies are true, really makes no difference in our daily lives.

I have long maintained that the Torah is the word of YHVH, and everything else is subservient to it. In light of that, this discovery is not as monumental or fearsome as it may seem. We’ve always known that the history of the people of Israel is replete with rebellion and sin, so it shouldn’t surprise us that we may need to critically consider even the post-Torah writings of the Tanakh.

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