Israel Enters the Land in Worship or War?
“Crossing Over” in the Song of the Sea
The Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1b–17) describes how the Israelites came to live in their land. The first part of the song relates how YHWH saves the Israelites from the clutches of their pursuers by drowning the latter in the sea. It continues by describing how YHWH leads the people towards His land, causing local populations to become incredibly frightened:
שמות טו:יד שָׁמְעוּ עַמִּים יִרְגָּזוּן חִיל אָחַז יֹשְׁבֵי פְּלָשֶׁת. טו:טו אָז נִבְהֲלוּ אַלּוּפֵי אֱדוֹם אֵילֵי מוֹאָב יֹאחֲזֵמוֹ רָעַד נָמֹגוּ כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי כְנָעַן.
Exod 15:14 The peoples hear, they tremble; agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. 15:15 Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; the tribes of Moab—trembling grips them; all the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.
This fear serves a practical function, allowing the Israelites to enter the land unopposed:
שמות טו:טז תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד בִּגְדֹל זְרוֹעֲךָ יִדְּמוּ כָּאָבֶן עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ יְ־הוָה עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם זוּ קָנִיתָ.
Exod 15:16 Terror and dread descend upon them, through the might of Your arm they are still as stone, till Your people cross over, O YHWH, till Your people cross over, those whom You have ransomed.
How Many Crossings?
Traditional commentators, bothered by the repetition of the phrase עַד יַעֲבֹר עַם “until the nation crosses over,” look for two different crossings. Thus, the rabbinic period Aramaic Targum Onkelos translates:
עַד דְּיִעְבַּר עַמָּךְ יְיָ יָת אַרְנוֹנָא עַד דְּיִעְבַּר עַמָּא דְּנָן דִּפְרַקְתָּא יָת יַרְדְּנָא.
Until your people, LORD, cross the Arnon, until this people that you redeemed cross the Jordan.
Other traditional translations suggest the crossing of Yam Suf (the Reed Sea) and the crossing of the Jordan (Lekah Tov), or even the crossing of the Jordan in the time of Joshua and the crossing in the time of Ezra in the Second Temple period (b. Sotah 36a). And yet Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir) writes that it refers to a single crossing:
שניהם עד יעבור את הירדן אל ארץ ישראל, כפל אחר של עברת הירדן.
Both of them refer to the crossing of the Jordan into the land of Israel, it is a doubling of the Jordan crossing.
Rashbam’s term here, כפל, doubling, refers, in this case, to the poetic style that modern scholars call climactic parallelism, in which a phrase is interrupted, often by the name YHWH, and then repeated again until completion.
Planting Israel Near YHWH’s Temple
The entry into the land leads to the climax of the song:
שמות טו:יז תְּבִאֵמוֹ וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ יְ־הוָה מִקְּדָשׁ אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ. טו:יח יְ־הוָה יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד.
Exod 15:17 You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, the place You made to dwell in, O YHWH, the sanctuary, O YHWH, which Your hands established. 15:18 YHWH will reign forever and ever.
The song, therefore, appears to be a temple hymn that describes how Israel heads directly to YHWH’s Temple after crossing over into the land unopposed, since the neighboring nations are so frightened.
Deuteronomy: Proceeding Directly to a Worship Site
Another text that envisions Israel crossing the Jordan and heading directly to a worship site is found in Deuteronomy 11, where Moses states:
דברים יא:כט וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָתַתָּה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה עַל הַר גְּרִזִים וְאֶת הַקְּלָלָה עַל הַר עֵיבָל. יא:ל הֲלֹא הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה. יא:לא כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לָבֹא לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם נֹתֵן לָכֶם...
Deut 11:29 When YHWH 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 Ebal.—11:30 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 the Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh. 11:31 For you are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land that YHWH your God is assigning to you...
This passage suggests that the Israelites are to cross the Jordan River and head straight for the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, where a ritual of blessing and curse recitation are to take place.
In Deuteronomy 27, Moses expands on this command, informing the people that on the day when they will cross the Jordan, they should set up stones, plaster them, and write this Torah (probably a reference to an early form of the Deuteronomic Law Collection) upon them. Moses then continues:
דברים כז:ד וְהָיָה בְּעָבְרְכֶם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן תָּקִימוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּהַר עֵיבָל [נה"ש: הרגריזים] וְשַׂדְתָּ אוֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד. כז:ה וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ...
Deut 27:4 Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal [SP: “Mount Gerizim”] and coat them with plaster. 27:5 There, too, you shall build an altar to YHWH your God, an altar of stones...
The premise of Deuteronomy 11 and 27, wherein the Israelites are to cross the Jordan and head directly to the Gerizim and Ebal mountains, perform the blessings and curses, and build an altar there, agrees with the description of Israel’s peaceful entry into the land in the Song of the Sea. Both of these descriptions are at odds with the conquest account as it appears in the book of Joshua, according to which the Israelites enter the land and begin a military conquest.
Joshua’s Military Campaign
The basic storyline of Joshua 1–10 suggests that immediately upon crossing the Jordan, the Israelites set up camp near Jericho, a large city in the Jordan River valley, and destroy it. They then head west into the hills of Benjamin and destroy the city of Ai. Following this, they make peace with cities of the Gibeonites, who live just south of Ai, after which they go to war with an alliance of southern cities led by the king of Jerusalem.
The Bible thus has at least two separate traditions for how Israel enters the land: In one, Israel enters and goes to war; in the other, Israel enters unopposed and heads to a temple.
Joshua’s Trip to Ebal
To harmonize these two traditions of military conquest, and of peaceful entry ending at Ebal, a redactor of Joshua added a description of Joshua’s trip to Ebal at the end of chapter 8. Thus, immediately after Ai is destroyed, we read that suddenly Joshua and the Israelites are on Mount Ebal far to the north:
יהושע ח:ל אָז יִבְנֶה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר עֵיבָל. ח:לא כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְ־הוָה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּכָּתוּב בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה...
Josh 8:30 At that time Joshua built an altar to YHWH, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 8:31 as Moses, the servant of YHWH, had commanded the Israelites, as is written in the Book of the Torah of Moses…
Then, in the very next scene, the narrative describes Israel back in the vicinity of Ai, where the Gibeonites, who live near Ai, approach Joshua for a peace treaty!
This geographical problem likely motivated the scribe responsible for 4Q47 (=4QJosha), an abbreviated retelling of Joshua found in Qumran, to move the trip to Mount Ebal to an earlier spot in the story, immediately after the crossing of the river.
Two Entry Points
The two traditions outlined above, that of Joshua’s conquest on one hand, and Deuteronomy 11 and 27 on the other, differ also in their entry point and itinerary.
Jordan River Opposite Shechem—Deuteronomy
In Deuteronomy, the crossing envisioned is located in the Tirzah Valley, in the area known in Arabic as Jisr ed-Damya (“the Damia Bridge”) and in Hebrew as Gesher Adam (“the Adam Bridge”), because it is near where the biblical city of Adam once stood. This was the main entry point into the Cisjordan from the west for much of history, and is familiar as the route Abraham, and later Jacob, takes when entering the land (Gen 12:6, 33:18).
Jordan River Opposite Jericho—Joshua and Numbers
The entry point into the Cisjordan envisioned in Joshua is further south near Shittim, where the Israelites were encamped in Numbers 25:1. The book of Joshua describes how the Israelites leave their camp in Shittim and approach the Jordan River:
יהושע ג:א וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַשִּׁטִּים וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד הַיַּרְדֵּן הוּא וְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיָּלִנוּ שָׁם טֶרֶם יַעֲבֹרוּ.
Josh 3:1 Early next morning, Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and marched to the Jordan. They did not cross immediately, but spent the night there.
Shittim or Abel-shittim, literally “the Brook/Plain of Acacias,” is at the very south of the Jordan River, right by the wasteland (Beth-hayeshimot) north of the Dead Sea, and opposite Jericho in the Cisjordan.
The text, therefore, is picturing a crossing opposite Jericho and near the Dead Sea, probably in the vicinity of either the (defunct) Abdullah Bridge or the Allenby Bridge of today. These were common crossing points between Israel and Moab in ancient times, what the Bible calls (Judg 3:28) מַעְבְּרוֹת הַיַּרְדֵּן לְמוֹאָב “the fords of the Jordan towards Moab.”
Once they have crossed, the Israelites set up camp in the Cisjordan at the Gilgal near Jericho, where the war will commence:
יהושע ד:יט וְהָעָם עָלוּ מִן הַיַּרְדֵּן בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּגִּלְגָּל בִּקְצֵה מִזְרַח יְרִיחוֹ.
Josh 4:19 The people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho.
This is also the route envisioned in Micah:
מיכה ו:ד כִּי הֶעֱלִתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתִיךָ וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם. ו:ה עַמִּי זְכָר נָא מַה יָּעַץ בָּלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וּמֶה עָנָה אֹתוֹ בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר מִן הַשִּׁטִּים עַד הַגִּלְגָּל לְמַעַן דַּעַת צִדְקוֹת יְ־הוָה.
Mic 6:4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 6:5 “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. Recall your passage From Shittim to Gilgal—and you will recognize the gracious acts of YHWH.”
Gilgal, a generic name for an oval-shaped site found in various parts of ancient Israel, here, is almost certainly referring to the Gilgal near Jericho, since Shittim and Jericho are across from each other.
In sum, the two traditions differ both in what the Israelites did upon entering the land (peacefully head to the temple vs. conquer the natives) and even where exactly they entered (opposite Shechem vs. opposite Jericho) and what route they took.
Israel’s Entry into the Land in the Song of the Sea
Many scholars assume that the Song of the Sea originated in the Jerusalem Temple and thus cannot reflect the same tradition as that of Deuteronomy. This view is problematic, since no biblical tradition has the Israelites head directly to Jerusalem in the settlement period. In fact, the dominant tradition is that Jerusalem was conquered only in the time of David and the Temple built only in the time of Solomon, hundreds of years after the settlement. Even the book of Joshua, which does mention Joshua defeating the king of Jerusalem in battle and executing him, says nothing about Joshua entering this city, and certainly nothing about his building (or encountering) a temple there.
Furthermore, Frank Moore Cross, late Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard University, argued on linguistic grounds that the Song of the Sea was very ancient:
In short, all the evidence points to a pre-monarchic date for the Song of the Sea, in the late 12th or early 11th century B.C.E.
If the Jerusalem Temple was built only in the 10th century, then this song could not possibly be referring to it.
The Song of the Sea and the Ebal Temple
Instead, the song must be connected to El-Burnat, the cultic structure on Mount Ebal. First, this early 12th century site is the oldest Israelite ritual site archaeology has uncovered, ancient enough to be the referent of the Song of the Sea.
Second, the tradition found in The Song is the same as that found in Deuteronomy 11 and 27. As noted, the Deuteronomy passages tell the Israelites that when they cross over, they are to head directly to Mount Gerizim and Ebal, and there build the altar, set up the stones, and recite the blessings and curses. Similarly, the Song of the Sea describes how YHWH brought Israel across the Jordan and then straight to his temple where he planted them.
The confluence of these two traditions works well with the archaeological evidence. According to the late Haifa University archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal, in his survey of the Manasseh Hill Country, the earliest settlements are near the Adam Bridge crossing, implying that this is where the Israelites entered.
This is also the period in which a number of oval-shaped sites (Gilgalim) were built, including the cultic site of El-Burnat on Mount Ebal, the first “Place that He will Choose.” Thus, the Song of the Sea, possibly the earliest biblical text, is a mythopoetic rendition of the later command in Deuteronomy 11:26–30, and tells the story of Israel’s entry into the land, as it was understood at the time of the Mount Ebal temple, the earliest Israelite worship site.
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Zvi Koenigsberg worked alongside the late Prof. Adam Zertal throughout the Ebal excavations (1982-88). His long-term mentors include the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar and Prof. Yair Zakovitch. Koenigsberg wrote The Lost Temple of Israel, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2015. Questions welcome at email@example.com.
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