I know I said several chapters back that I’d pay attention for whenever Mt. Ebal was mentioned to know why there was a curse set on it (Deut. 11:29). Well, here’s the next mention of it, and it’s not clear why it has a bad connotation. Mt Ebal is the place where the Israelites are supposed to set up a plastered stone with the commandments and an altar of unhewn stone (27:6).
Then there’s another odd command: “When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.” (v 12-13) Here again Gezirim (the mountain of the Samaritans) gets a “blessing,” while Ebal gets a “curse.” But why are the tribes divided up that way? What does this even refer to?
Well, I don’t think it’s in this chapter. There are curses at the end, twelve of them, but no blessings. It’s in the next (incredibly long) chapter that there’s a contrast of blessings and curses. So why two mountains, and why divide up the tribes? I don’t think the tribes are being cursed, since the division isn’t divided up into good tribes and bad tribes per se. I double-checked the winners vs losers charts that I made at the end of Numbers, and they don’t match, nor do the geography of where the tribes were supposed to live. It seems randomly chosen.
So if the division isn’t to lay a curse or a blessing on either party, why was it necessary for the tribes to be there? Maybe it was something like a people’s mike: the Levites read off the curses or the blessings and everyone repeats them back. Or maybe they were to each memorize a portion of it, passing it down as part of their tribal tradition. Or maybe what was written on the stones was different from mountain to mountain; on Gezirim they wrote the blessings, on Ebal they wrote the curses.
But why does Ebal get associated with curses in spite of it being where they built the first altar? Well, maybe that’s the problem – it’s an altar that’s no the temple, it’s competition. But then why preserve the mention that it was a place to build an altar in the first place?
There is another possibility: there is one portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls that says “Mt. Gezirim” rather than “Mt. Ebal,” something the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch agrees with. Could it be that, originally, they were to build the altar on Mt. Gezirim, the mountain where the blessings are placed, but that later copyists, knowing that Gezirim was sacred to their rival Samaritans, changed it to the other mountain, even though it didn’t make as much sense? Could the Samaritans actually be worshiping at the oldest altar site, one that dates back to before the centralization in the temple?
Well, enough of the speculation that nobody can really prove one way or the other. Let’s focus on what’s more important: what gets you cursed. They are:
- dishonoring one’s parents (“hating and cursing” in the NCT)
- moving your neighbor’s boundary marker (to steal his land)
- misleading a blind person
- depriving aliens, widows, and orphans of justice
- sleeping with your mother or stepmother
- sleeping with your sister or half-sister
- sleeping with your mother-in-law
- taking bribes
- not upholding the law
That twelfth one potentially becomes an “etc.” marker, but it’s interesting what is considered grave enough to bear special mention: worshiping other gods, incest, and injustice. What exactly comes with a curse? That’s the next chapter, which is 68 verses long and I really wish they’d divide them up smaller than that…
The Japanese: ikutsuka “some, a few (indefinite number),” shikkui “plaster,” nuru “to paint” (v 2), sengen suru “to declare, to proclaim” (v 14), anchi suru “to enshrine” (v 5), karonzuru “to despise, to belittle, to look down upon” (v 16), wairo “bribe” (v 25).