From where we were standing, near the top of windy barren Har Eval, we could not see any towns, houses, or farms. All we could see were the gently sloping ridges of the mountain top. It was noon, and we could hear the muezzins’ calls to prayer in Nablus.
“Listen,” said Eve Harow, our guide. “Standing up here, as B’nai Israel did when they entered the land with Joshua, you can hear what is happening in the valley on the other side of the mountain.”
I had always read the story about the blessings and curses in the Book of Joshua with skepticism. How could people standing on two mountains hear and respond to what priests were declaiming in the valley between them? Yet I was standing on one of those mountains, listening to the sounds from that valley.
We had driven an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on this One Israel Fund trip into the territory once held by the tribe of Menashe (Menassah). In Shavei Shomron we had stopped to meet up with our army escort. Har Eval, on the outskirts of Nablus, is within Area A which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Because we would be traveling on roads which are both illegal and dangerous for Israeli cars to drive on, we had received permission from the IDF for our excursion and would be accompanied by an IDF escort.
Nablus was originally built by the Romans on the site of ancient Shechem, the town near which Jacob and sons lived and pastured
their sheep. Joseph’s grave is located there, in the oldest part of Shechem. In the 1980s a yeshiva was established at Joseph’s Tomb but it came under attack by the Arabs during the Al Aksa Intifada. When violence erupted, it became increasingly difficult to protect the students. The Yeshiva was evacuated. After the Palestinian Authority, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, guaranteed police protection for the tomb, the IDF also left. That very day, the Palestinian Authority police watched a mob burn the tomb. Today, Jews can visit what is left, as long as they do so in a protected group escorted by the IDF.
Like almost all Israelis, Allen and I had never seen Har Eval. All I knew about it was from the Bible. It was first mentioned in Deuteronomy (11: 29) when Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael that when they enter the land, blessings and curses would be read to them by the priests standing between two mountains. Half the tribes would stand on Har Gerizim. When they heard a blessing, what would happen when they obeyed G-d’s commands, they would answer “Amen.” The other half of the tribes would stand on Har Eval. When they heard the curses, the consequences of flouting G-d’s laws, they would answer “Amen.”
The Book of Joshua describes the people crossing the Jordan, walking up a broad valley, arranging themselves on the two mountains, and hearing the blessings and curses. Joshua then had an altar built (8:30), sacrifices were offered, and the people left.
The mountains themselves were neither blessed nor cursed by the ceremony. Nevertheless, somehow the tradition arose that the mountain on which the people stood to answer “Amen” to the curses was itself cursed. The two altars built there, one on top of the other, were each used only one time. There is no archaeological evidence of any settlement, building, or farm anywhere on Mt. Eval.
As we drove towards the mountain, we could see much of the town of Nablus. It spreads out in the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains, and up the slopes of Mt. Gerizim. Nablus looks prosperous, with large well built houses featuring intricate stone walls that let light on to the patios and balconies, yet prevent passersby from seeing any women who might be sitting on them.
And then we were on a narrow winding dirt road ascending Har Eval. Fairly high up, a turn took us to the other side of the mountain, and Nablus disappeared. Our escort stopped and the bus parked in a small area cleared of rocks.
The hill around us was littered with large stones. Between them were smaller stones, pebbles, and small plants and grass. We older people carefully walked down the dirt track towards the altar, while the children with us raced down the hill, sure footed as gazelles.
We saw down to the flat green Tirza Valley, winding through the rocky mountains toward the Jordan River. Tirza is the only valley wide enough to enable thousands of people to walk from the Jordan to the mountains in one day, and it leads directly to Har Eval and Har Gerizim.
Although pagan altars were always built on the highest place around, Jews were commanded to build their sacrificial altars in lower places. Whenever the ancient prophets wanted to turn straying people back from idol worship to the worship of G-d, they cried out to destroy the Bamot, the high places.
So we walked from a high place on Mt. Eval down towards what is believed by some to be Joshua’s altar. Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who, with his students, discovered this altar, is sure of its identity. It is definitely a Jewish altar, made of unhewn stones. approached by a ramp. Only bones of kosher animals—sheep, goats, deer—have been found in its vicinity, despite the plenitude of wild boar in the area at the time of its construction. It was used only two times, around 1250 and 1200 BCE, which puts it in the period of the entrance of the Jews into the land. The pottery shards found here date from that time or earlier.
The evidence against this being Joshua’s altar? It faces the wrong direction. Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritans, is on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the city of Nablus.
This does not bother Zertal. He says the traditional Mt. Gerizim is not the actual site of the blessings. According to him, despite their unbroken tradition going back to First Temple times, the Samaritans offer their Passover sacrifices on the wrong hill top. Zertal claims that Tel Kabir, the mountain that can be seen from the Mt. Eval altar is the real Mt. Gerizim.
Others have suggested that the traditional Mt. Gerizim is correctly identified. The Bible does not say that Joshua’s altar was built where the people stood to listen to the curses. They could have listened while facing Mt Gerizim across the valley, and then walked to the other side of Har Eval to build the altar and offer the sacrifices.
Until further evidence is uncovered, the question remains unresolved. It is likely to remain so for a long time. The two mountains are in Palestinian Area A. No Muslim authority will grant an archaeologist permission to conduct a dig which might support the authenticity of the Jewish Bible or evidence that might support Jewish claims to the land.
Even if the authenticity of the altar is in question, seeing places like Mt. Eval makes them real. When reading the stories in the Bible, we believe them because we want to believe. Actually seeing an altar that Joshua may have built helps make a visceral connection—it makes the story physically real. Seeing the valley that probably served as a highway for the Jews crossing the Jordan into Canaan and hearing the Muslim calls to prayer from a valley far below us turn the Bible story into an event that actually could have happened the way it is written.
Which is why we go on so many trips around the land. Having seen so many Biblical sites, I read the Bible with different eyes than I used to, eyes more open to how the stories unfolded. It is endlessly fascinating.