The Mysterious Land of Moriah
The Location of Moriah
The story of the Akedah opens with the following command:
קַח נָ֠א אֶת בִּנְךָ֙ אֶת יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת ־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶךְ לְךָ֔ אֶל אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ:
“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:2)
Where is this Land of Moriah? Neither this context, nor any other in the Torah offers a clear answer. Verse 19 combined with v. 4 suggests that it is a three-day donkey ride from Beer Sheva, and v. 14 states, quite enigmatically, “And Abraham named that site YHWH-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of YHWH there is vision,” implying that the place of the Akedah became a place of worship. It is hardly surprising, then, that the later communities of Samaritans and Jews believed that Mount Moriah was either Shechem or Jerusalem.
The Jewish tradition that associates Mount Moriah with Mount Zion in Jerusalem goes way back to the Book of Chronicles, most likely from the fourth century BCE, which states (2 Chron 3:1):
וַיָּ֣חֶל שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה לִבְנ֤וֹת אֶת בֵּית־יְ-הֹוָה֙ בִּיר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם בְּהַר֙ הַמּ֣וֹרִיָּ֔ה
Solomon began to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah.
This is the earliest, and only biblical reference that associates the place in Genesis with the Temple Mount.
The Samaritans do not accept Jerusalem as the proper place of worship, nor do they canonize any biblical book other than the Torah. The Samaritan Pentateuch spells the place name as “Moorah (מוראה)” instead of “Moriah (מוריה)”. They thus connect this land of Moorah with the place name “Elon Moorah” (מורא). This latter place is associated with Shechem in the Bible (12:6); thus, this tradition claims, the Akedah took place on the Samaritan holy mountain, Mount Gerizim in Shechem.
Despite the tradition found in the Book of Chronicles, some late rabbinic sources suggest, quite surprisingly, that Mount Moriah is Mount Sinai. The suggestion can be found in (Pseudo-)Rashi and Tosafat on b. Taanit (16a). The Talmud states,
מאי (דברי הימים ב ג, א) הר המוריה פליגי בה ר’ לוי בר חמא ור’ חנינא חד אמר הר שיצא ממנו הוראה לישראל וחד אמר הר שיצא ממנו מורא לעובדי כוכבים
What is the meaning of “Mount Moriah?” Rabbi Levi bar Chama and Rabbi Chanina disputed this point. One said: “The mount from which teaching (הוראה) went out.” The other said: “The Mountain from which fear went out to the idolaters.”
The context suggests that the Talmud is identifying Moriah with Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Pseudo-Rashi records an alternative interpretation:
שמעתי לישנא אחרינא הר המוריה הר סיני מורא לעובדי כוכבים במתן תורה דכתיב (תהלים עו) ארץ יראה ושקטה:
I heard a different interpretation: “Mount Moriah” – that is Mount Sinai. “Fear to the idolators” – at the giving of the Torah, as it states (Psalms 76:9): “The world heard and was quiet.”
Tosafot note this possibility as well. The interpretation is so strange that the 17th century commentator Maharsha (ad loc.) expresses his bewilderment that (Pseudo-)Rashi and Tosafot even suggest it as a possibility.
It is likely that all of these sources, including Chronicles, are trying to explain a reference that was no longer understood. Along these lines, Nahum Sarna writes (JPS commentary, ad loc.),
We are probably dealing with a name so ancient that its original location and meaning were already lost by the time the biblical narrative was committed to writing.
The Meaning of Moriah
Why would the Torah use this enigmatic term? What does Moriah mean? Although an academic scholar might posit that it is simply an old place name of uncertain location, traditional Jewish or Samaritan interpreters have found meaning in connecting Moriah to a particular site.
In his JPS Genesis excursus 16, Nahum Sarna surveys several suggestions for the etymology of the word “moriah”:
- The Lofty Country – Septuagint
- The Land of Worship – Aramic Targum / Ramban
- The Land of Vision – Vulgate /Samaritan Targum
- The Land of the Amorites – Peshitta / Rashbam
- The Land that I will show you – Genesis Rabba 55:9
- The Place from which fear of the Lord emanates – R. Jannai in Tanchuma
- The Place from which teaching issued to the world – b. Taanit 16a / Rab. 55.9
These multiple creative suggestions highlight the difficulty of assuming that the land of Moriah was meant to reference a particular place. The simple fact of the matter is, we cannot be sure of the actual place meant when the Torah describes Abraham taking his son into the Land of Moriah.
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November 6, 2014
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