Mount Gerizim and the Polemic Against the Samaritans
Becoming a Nation at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal
Deuteronomy describes two commandments that the Israelites are to fulfill immediately upon arriving in the Land of Israel:
- The construction of an altar on Mount Ebal.
- A convocation with a ceremony of blessings and curses on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.
This ceremony appears twice in Deuteronomy, first in the section of Re’eh (11:26–30) and later in Ki Tavo (Deut. 27:1–26), thus forming a frame or an inclusio around the collection of laws in chapters 12–26. The ceremony establishes the people of Israel as a nation upon entry into the land (Deut 27:9):
הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם לַי-הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of YHWH your God.
A Parallel Altar to Sinai
The construction of the altar on Mount Ebal and the writing of the Torah on the stones of the altar parallel the construction of the altar and the writing of the Torah at Mount Sinai/Horeb (Exod. 24:4):
Sinai account (Exod 24:4)
וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ-הוָה וַיַּשְׁכֵּם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ תַּחַת הָהָר וּשְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה מַצֵּבָה לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Moses then wrote down all the commands of YHWH. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Altar law (Deut 27:2-3)
…וַהֲקֵמֹתָ לְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ אֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד. וְכָתַבְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת…
…You shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching…
The Disappearance of Gerizim and Ebal in the Rest of the Bible
Joshua 8 (vv. 30-35) narrates that the namesake of that book faithfully executed the instructions given by Moses, thereby underling the importance of this ritual. Nevertheless, these mountains never again surface in any of the following books of the Bible, and are not assigned any significance in Jewish tradition. This contrasts sharply with Jerusalem, which occupies a central place in the books that follow the Torah (referenced hundreds of times!), though it is never mentioned by that name in the Torah.
Even Deuteronomy’s law of centralization of worship, in which Jerusalem might be expected to appear, never mentions it. The Masoretic Text instead uses the expression “the place that God will choose (המקום אשר יבחר ה),” a phrase that occurs no fewer than 22 times. The Samaritans have a slightly different version of the Pentateuch, and the exact wording of this phrase in Deuteronomy is one of the key differences between these versions.
The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Sanctity of Mount Gerizim
Some six thousand variants distinguish the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch (SP) from the Masoretic Text (MT). Most of these did not originate with the Samaritans, and already existed in the Torah text they inherited, the Proto-Samaritan text, attested among the Dead Sea Scrolls. One group of variants that likely did originate among the Samaritans are readings that underline the importance of Mount Gerizim as God’s chosen place of worship. This difference appears in three forms:
- Mount Gerizim not Mount Ebal is the mountain upon which the altar is built and the “torah” (teaching? set of laws?) written on. In the Samaritan view, it is only logical to construct the edifice on Mount Gerizim, designated “the mountain of the blessing,” rather than “the mountain of the curse,” Mount Ebal.
- The SP reads, “the place that God has chosen (בחר),” wherever the MT uses the phrase “the place that God will choose (יבחר),” a reading also reflected in the LXX. Since the only place in the Torah in which God commands an altar be built is on Mount Gerizim (according to the SP), then clearly, Gerizim is God’s chosen mountain.
- The Samaritan version the Decalogue as recorded in both Exodus and Deuteronomy contains a commandment to erect an altar on Mount Gerizim.
The Pentateuch is the Samaritan Bible; Samaritans do not subscribe any of the other books in the current Jewish Bible, and see these as sectarian Jewish works. Thus, no sacred text in their tradition consecrates Jerusalem as a holy city, and the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch strongly supports the holiness of Mount Gerizim and the Samaritan tradition that Mount Gerizim is God’s chosen location and the rightful place of the Temple.
The Samaritan Temple and its Destruction
Josephus (Antiquities 11:321–330) states that the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was constructed during the fourth century BCE, but archeological excavations there indicate that the temple was extant even earlier, in the fifth century, i.e., during the Persian Period.
The Samaritan temple was destroyed by the Hasmonean ruler of Judea, John Hyrcanus, in 109 BCE, and was never rebuilt. Nevertheless, the Samaritans retained—and still retain—the social order that pertained when their temple was in existence: their high priest continues to be the leader of the community, and to this day they offer the paschal sacrifice on Mount Gerizim, even though it has lacked a functioning temple for over two millenia.
The Location of Mount Gerizim: Did the Rabbis Agree with the Samaritan’s Identification?
Given the precision of the geographic description given by the Torah in its description of the ceremony of the blessings and the curses (Deut 11:30), the location of Mount Gerizim should be obvious:
הֲלֹא הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה.
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.
The terebinths of Moreh are mentioned in Genesis (12:6) as adjacent to Shechem. This is attested as well in m. Sotah (7:5):
ברכות וקללות כיצד כיון שעברו ישראל את הירדן ובאו אל הר גריזים ואל הר עיבל שבשומרון שבצד שכם שבאצל אלוני מורה שנאמר (שם י”א) הלא המה בעבר הירדן וגו’ ולהלן הוא אומר (בראשית י”ב) ויעבר אברם בארץ עד מקום שכם עד אלון מורה מה אלון מורה האמור להלן שכם אף אלון מורה האמור כאן.
Blessing and curses how so? When Israel come to cross the Jordan and arrived before Mount Gerizim and before Mount Ebal in Samaria, near Shechem, beside the oak of Moreh, as it is written, “Are not they beyond the Jordan….” (Deut 11:30) and elsewhere it says, “And Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem to the oak of Moreh (Gen. 12:6) – just as the oak of Moreh spoken of there is at Shechem, so the oak of Moreh of here.
The Rabbis thus were familiar with the location of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, and generally were in agreement with their identification of these mountains.
A Polemical Alternative
A contrary opinion explaining the location of the mountains in Deut 11:30 is recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (j. Sotah 7:3). While Rabbi Yehudah approves of the Samaritan identification of Mount Gerizim, Rabbi Eliezer opines that the geographic features described by the Torah are not Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal located in Samaria, but two artificial hills near the Jordan that were formed for the purpose of the ceremony.
שתי גבשושיות עשו וקראו זה הר גריזים וזה הר עיבל.
They made two heaps of stones and named them Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.
Although the Yerushalmi explains exactly how Rabbi Eliezer reads each phrase in the verse, he is motivated by a polemic to discredit the sanctity ascribed to Mount Gerizim in the Samaritan tradition.
Eusebius Takes Rabbi Eliezer’s Side
Eusebius of Caesarea, a significant Church Father of the early fourth century CE, in his Onomasticon, writes:
(307) Ebal – (Γαιβαλ; Deut 11:29). A Mountain in the land of promise, where Moses commanded an altar to be erected (Deut 27:4-5). It is said that there are two mountains located near Jericho across from each other in close proximity, one being Gerizim and the other Ebal. But the Samaritans show others that are near Neapolis. They are mistaken, because those that are shown stand too far apart from each other, to the extent that it is not possible to hear from one (mountain) the calling from the other.
Oddly, both traditions about the location of these mountains are evident in the Madaba Map (ca. sixth century CE), on which Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal appear twice, once adjacent to Shechem (Neapolis) and again near Jericho. This double-counting of the mountains defangs R. Eliezer’s polemical position, and ends up merely confusing map makers and traditional readers of Bible.
The Identity and Status of the Samaritans: An Ancient Polemic
Rabbinic literature also polemicizes against the Samaritan accounts of their identity and status. The Samaritans view their origin as Israelite, with roots in the Israelite kingdom of the First Temple Period, members of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as priests of the tribe of Levi, the latter of whom claim descent from Phineas, the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron.
The Judaean tradition, however, maintains that the Samaritans originated among the exiles transferred to the Land of Israel by the Assyrians from various places in Mesopotamia after the 721 BCE destruction of the Northern Kingdom. This claim first appears in 2 Kings 17, which states that the Samaritans were pagans who adopted the worship of the Israelite God only after they were being killed by lions (v. 25) and wished to appease the local gods. The biblical account further accuses them of never having really accepted Israelite monotheism:
מלכים ב יז:מא וַיִּהְיוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה יְרֵאִים אֶת יְ-הֹוָה וְאֶת פְּסִילֵיהֶם הָיוּ עֹבְדִים גַּם בְּנֵיהֶם וּבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתָם הֵם עֹשִׂים עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
2Kings 17:41 Those nations worshiped YHWH, but they also served their idols. To this day their children and their children’s children do as their ancestors did.
Most modern scholars recognize that the biblical account is polemical, and assume that the Samaritans derive from a combination of Israelites and Judeans, perhaps with an admixture of some foreigners who were exiled there after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In the years between the writing of 2 Kings 17 and the Rabbinic Period, the relationship between the Judeans and Samaritans has many ups and downs.
In the late Second Temple and Rabbinic periods, however, many Jews took the biblical account in 2 Kings 17 as factual. For this reason, Josephus and the rabbis use the appellation Cutheans for the Samaritans, a reference to one of the locations—Cuthah (2 Kings 17:24)—from which this group was brought to Samaria. Use of this term is designed to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the Samaritans. Some rabbis declared explicitly that “the Cutheans are lion (=insincere) converts” (כותים גירי אריות הם, b. Bava Kamma 38b), using the scriptural account to express their own attitude toward the Samaritans of their time.
Samaritans and Jews during the Tannaitic Period
During the Mishnaic period, the sages were ambivalent toward the Samaritans. Some of their practices were considered Jewish, such as ritual purity, circumcision, Sabbath observance, unleavened bread on Passover. Other halakhot treated them as non-Jews, forbidding consumption of bread and cooked foods prepared by a Samaritan, testimony by a Samaritan, etc.
One example of a positive attitude toward the Samaritans is found in Tosefta Pesachim (2:3):
מצה של כותיים מותרת ואדם יוצא בה ידי חובתו בפסח. ור’ לעזר אוסר לפי שאין פקיעין בדקדוקי מצה. רבן שמעון בן גמליאל או’ כל מצוה שהחזיקו בה כותים הרבה מדקדקין בה יותר מישראל.
The unleavened bread of Samaritans is permitted. And a person fulfills therewith his obligation for Passover. But R. Eleazar prohibits doing so, for they are by no means expert in the details of the laws of unleavened. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says: “Any religious duty which the Samaritans preserved they observe with far greater punctiliousness than Israelites.”
The anonymous first sage (the tanna kama) accepts Samaritan matza; although R. Elazar disagrees, this is because the Samaritans are not proficient in all the fine details pertaining to the making of matza, not because they are “gentiles,” whose matza would be forbidden for per se.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s strong approbation of Samaritan piety is particularly important due to his position as president of the Sanhedrin in the Usha generation (after the Bar Kochba Revolt, in the middle of the second century C.E.). As a whole, these tannaitic sources indicate that the Samaritans were regarded as quasi-Jews rather than gentiles.
Yehuda HaNasi’s Negative Turn
Yet, only one generation later, R. Shimon ben Gamliel’s son, R. Yehuda HaNasi, expresses a starkly different view in the context of the law of separating terumah and tithes for the priest and levites (t. Terumot 4:12):
הכותי כגוי דברי ר’ רבן שמעון בן גמליאל או’ כותי כישראל.
“A Samaritan is [treated] like a gentile” the words of Rabbi. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says, “A Samaritan is [treated] like an Israelite.”
Samaritans and Jews during the Amoraic Period
This negative attitude dominates the rabbinic discourse in the Amoraic period. For example, R. Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea in the early 4th century C.E., relates to the Samaritans as gentiles, and expresses himself aggressively about them.
בעון מר’ אבהו חלוט שלהן מהו אמר לון הלואי היינו יכולין לוסר גם מימיהן.
They asked Rabbi Abahu: “What is the status of their vinegar?” He answered them: “If only we could forbid even their water” (j. Avodah Zarah 5:4, 44d).
רבי יצחק בן יוסף שדריה רבי אבהו לאתויי חמרא מבי כותאי, אשכחיה ההוא סבא, א”ל: לית כאן שומרי תורה. הלך רבי יצחק וספר דברים – לפני רבי אבהו, והלך רבי אבהו וספר דברים לפני רבי אמי ורבי אסי, ולא זזו משם עד שעשאום עובדי כוכבים גמורין.
R. Isaac b. Joseph was sent by R. Abbahu to fetch some wine from among the Cutheans. He was met by a certain old man who said to him: “There are none here that observe the Torah.” R. Isaac went and reported the matter to R. Abbahu who reported it to R. Ammi and R. Assi; the latter forthwith declared the Cutheans to be absolute heathens (b. Hullin 6a, Soncino translation).
Samaritans and Jews: Present and Future
The total rejection of Samaritans as Israelites in the Amoraic period characterized later Judaism, and brought about a rift that lasted for almost 2000 years and their version of the Torah was almost unknown outside their community. In modern times, renewed scholarly interest in the Samaritan Pentateuch has produced numerous books, translations, and articles. Studying the SP has become standard fare in Bible departments.
At the same time, the modern period, with the massive return of Jews to the Levant and the founding of the State of Israel, Samaritans and Jews live together once again. This time, the ancient antagonism seems to have been left by the wayside and a new rapprochement has begun. Where that will lead is anyone’s guess.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 18, 2016
April 11, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Eyal Baruch teaches at the Department of Jewish Art and at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Lan of Israel Studies and Archaeology in Bar-Ilan University, where he completed his Ph.D. in archaeology as well as his M.A. and B.A. from Bar Ilan University. Baruch specializes in the archaeology of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods and is co-editor of the periodical New Studies of Jerusalem, published by the Ingeborg Rennert Center of Jerusalem Studies, at Bar Ilan University.
Essays on Related Topics: