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The Place(s) that YHWH will Choose: Ebal, Shiloh, and Jerusalem

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Zvi Koenigsberg

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The Place(s) that YHWH will Choose: Ebal, Shiloh, and Jerusalem

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The Place(s) that YHWH will Choose: Ebal, Shiloh, and Jerusalem

Jews have long understood “the place that YHWH will chose” to mean Mount Zion in Jerusalem, while Samaritans have interpreted it as Mount Gerizim near Shechem. Archaeology and redaction criticism converge on a compromise solution: it refers to a series of places, one place at a time.

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The Place(s) that YHWH will Choose: Ebal, Shiloh, and Jerusalem

Torah Scroll from the 1800’s at the Ark Encounter Theme Park in Williamstown, Kentucky. 123rf

Deuteronomy’s law collection begins with a description of how the previous inhabitants of the land worshipped their gods “on high mountains and hills and under every tree” (עַל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כָּל עֵץ רַעֲנָן; Deut 12:1–2). The Israelites are commanded to destroy all these worship sites, to blot out the names of the foreign gods from these places (Deut 12:3), and to avoid worshiping their God in the same way (Deut 12:4).

In other words, the Israelites should not establish worship places all over the land, but only הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, “at the site that YHWH your God will choose” (Deut 12:5). The statement leaves the location vague. This same vague description is repeated a few verses later, as part of the laws about sacrifices:

דברים יב:יא וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם… יב:יג הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תַּעֲלֶה עֹלֹתֶיךָ בְּכָל מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה. יב:יד כִּי אִם בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה בְּאַחַד שְׁבָטֶיךָ שָׁם תַּעֲלֶה עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְשָׁם תַּעֲשֶׂה כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּךָּ.
Deut 12:11 And it will be that the site where YHWH your God will choose to make His name dwell, there you must bring everything that I command you, your burnt offerings and other sacrifices… 12:13 Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, 12:14 but only in the place that YHWH will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you.

Variations of this phrase are repeated more than twenty times in Deuteronomy, one more time in the book of Joshua (9:27), and nowhere else in the Bible. What is the place which YHWH will choose, and why is it so enigmatic?

Answer 1: Jerusalem

Traditional Jewish commentators have long assumed this refers to Jerusalem. For example, in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Pascha 1):

עד שלא נבחרה ירושלם היתה כל ארץ ישראל כשרה למזבחות משנבחרה ירושלם יצאת ארץ ישראל שנאמר…
Before Jerusalem had been especially selected, the entire land of Israel was suitable for altars; after Jerusalem had been selected, all the rest of the land of Israel was eliminated. For thus it is said… (Deut 12:13–14)[1]

From a traditional perspective, the logic is clear: since we know from Kings and Chronicles that Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem, and that YHWH approves of this spot, this must be the place to which Deuteronomy refers. This also explains the enigmatic phrasing: The choice of Jerusalem is only made in the time of David, and thus Moses, the author of Deuteronomy, did not know what place it would be—only that in the future, God would choose.

The overwhelming scholarly consensus has also been that this is a reference to Jerusalem, although the argument in critical scholarship follows a different path. In 1805, one of the fathers of biblical criticism, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780–1849) suggested that “the Torah” found by King Josiah according to the story in 2 Kings 22–23 was Deuteronomy. His argument is based in part on Josiah’s subsequent campaign to destroy worship places outside the Jerusalem Temple, something commanded only in Deuteronomy.

De Wette thus argued that some form of the book of Deuteronomy was composed or was at least finalized in Judah around the time of Josiah’s reign, and that it, therefore, must have had Jerusalem in mind. That work did not refer to Jerusalem because its author knew that such a reference would be out of place chronologically, before Jerusalem was chosen by David and Solomon.[2] Nevertheless, the author of Deuteronomy knew very well that Jerusalem was meant, and assumed that his readers knew this too.[3]

Answer 2: Mount Gerizim

The Samaritans interpret the phrase as a reference to Mount Gerizim whose status as a cultic site in the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) is fundamental, explicitly legislated in the SP version of the Decalogue as the final commandment.[4] But even without this supporting text, which virtually all scholars believe to be a later addition based on Deuteronomy 27,[5] the Samaritan reading has merit, considering two key differences between the SP text and the MT text.

First, in the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, the phrase is written in the perfect tense used for completed or past actions, המקום אשר בחר, “the place that he has chosen,” which implies that by the time Deuteronomy was written, a place had been chosen.

This, the Samaritans argue, must refer to the one place that Deuteronomy explicitly refers to as a cultic site. This leads us to the second difference between SP and MT, namely, the name of the cultic site—SP has Mount Gerizim while MT has Mount Ebal:

דברים כז:ד וְהָיָה בְּעָבְרְכֶם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן תָּקִימוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּהַר עֵיבָל [נה”ש: גריזים][6] וְשַׂדְתָּ אוֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד. כד:ה וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ… כד:ו …וְהַעֲלִיתָ עָלָיו עוֹלֹת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. כז:ז וְזָבַחְתָּ שְׁלָמִים וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְ־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: Gerizim], and coat them with plaster. 27:5 There you shall build an altar to YHWH your God… 27:6 …You shall offer on it burnt offerings to YHWH your God, 27:7 and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before YHWH your God.

Whether the repeated phrase was originally in the perfect tense, המקום אשר בחר, “the place he has chosen,” as in SP,[7]  or whether the MT, המקום אשר יבחר, “the place he will choose,” reflects the older text, the argument that the phrase in Deuteronomy 12 is referring to Gerizim or Ebal can be supported by the broader context.

Chapter 12 in Context

As noted, the phrase “the place YHWH will choose/chose” first appears in the opening section of the Deuteronomic law collection. The verses immediately preceding this code, perhaps even opening it,[8] read as follows:

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.
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 Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.

Thus, at least on grounds of literary context in the text’s current form, it can be argued that “the place” introduced in chapter 12 refers back to one of the places mentioned just a few verses earlier (Gerizim and Ebal). In Samaritan tradition, this place (Gerizim, the mountain of blessing) was chosen once and cannot be altered.

Shiloh, Kiryat-jearim, and Jerusalem: Problems for the Mt. Gerizim Approach

Although the interpretation of the phrase “the place YHWH chose/will choose” as Ebal/Gerizim is persuasive, it has one serious problem: the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), which follow Deuteronomy and together with it comprise the Deuteronomistic History, suggest that the Ebal/Gerizim area was not the site where the ancient Israelites worshipped.

Although Joshua builds the altar on Mount Ebal (Josh 8:30–32) as commanded in Deuteronomy, the book of Judges references a House of God in Shiloh (Judg 18:31). The book also ends with mention of a yearly festival in Shiloh:

שופטים כא:יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ הִנֵּה חַג יְ־הוָה בְּשִׁלוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה
Judg 21:19 They said, “The annual feast of YHWH is now being held at Shiloh.”

The book of Samuel similarly opens with the description of Shiloh as an important worship site for pilgrimage.[9]

שמואל א א:ג וְעָלָה הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מֵעִירוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת וְלִזְבֹּחַ לַי־הוָה צְבָאוֹת בְּשִׁלֹה וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי עֵלִי חָפְנִי וּפִנְחָס כֹּהֲנִים לַי־הוָה.
1 Sam 1:3 This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh—Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of YHWH there.

As the story unfolds, we learn that the Tabernacle, with the Ark of the Covenant, resided at Shiloh, where it was was served by a priestly family, and even a resident prophet, Samuel.[10]

After the Israelites lost the battle with the Philistines led by the priestly family of Eli, and Shiloh presumably was destroyed,[11] we are told that the ark is returned to the Israelites and a holy site is established in Kiryat-jearim:

שמואל א ז:א וַיָּבֹאוּ אַנְשֵׁי קִרְיַת יְעָרִים וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה וַיָּבִאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל בֵּית אֲבִינָדָב בַּגִּבְעָה וְאֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ קִדְּשׁוּ לִשְׁמֹר אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה. ז:ב וַיְהִי מִיּוֹם שֶׁבֶת הָאָרוֹן בְּקִרְיַת יְעָרִים וַיִּרְבּוּ הַיָּמִים וַיִּהְיוּ עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וַיִּנָּהוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה.
1 Sam 7:1 The men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the Ark of YHWH and brought it into the house of Abinadab in Gibeah (=Gibeon?);[12] and they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the Ark of YHWH. 7:2 A long time elapsed from the day that the Ark was housed in Kiriath-jearim, twenty years in all; and all the House of Israel yearned after YHWH.[13]

In 2 Samuel 6, David brings the ark from Kiryat-jearim to Jerusalem, and YHWH agrees that David’s son may build YHWH a permanent home there. Solomon does this in 1 Kings 7,[14]and for the remainder of Kings, which completes the Deuteronomistic History, Jerusalem is considered the only legitimate worship place to offer sacrifices to YHWH.[15]

We thus are faced with a problem: The Deuteronomistic History is clearly working with the Deuteronomic concept of centralized worship, and yet, it allows for positive accounts of worship centers in Ebal, Shiloh, Kiryath-jearim, and others, in addition to Jerusalem. How can this be?

Rabbinic Answer

The rabbis, well aware of this problem, claimed that YHWH delayed his choice for a permanent, single place until the time of David, a concept known as היתר במות, literally, “permitted high places,” referring to periods in which worship at high places, and not at a central shrine, was permitted (m. Zevahim 14:9).

The rabbis use Deuteronomy 12:9 to interpret the multiplicity of worship sites:

דברים יב:ט כִּי לֹא בָּאתֶם עַד עָתָּה אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
Deut 12:9 Because you have not yet come to the resting place and inheritance that YHWH your God is giving you.

The Mishnah interprets the first bolded term as a reference to Shiloh and the second as Jerusalem, and lays out the development as follows (m. Zevahim 14:4–8):

ד עד שלא הוקם המשכן היו הבמות מותרות… משהוקם המשכן נאסרו הבמות… ה באו לגלגל והותרו הבמות… ו באו לשילה נאסרו הבמות לא היה שם תקרה אלא בית של אבנים מלמטן ויריעות מלמעלן והיא היתה מנוחה… ז באו לנוב ולגבעון הותרו הבמות… ח באו לירושלים נאסרו הבמות ולא היה להם עוד היתר והיא היתה נחלה…
Before the tabernacle was set up, the high places were permitted… When the tabernacle was set up, the high places were prohibited… 5 They came to Gilgal and the high places were permitted… 6 They came to Shiloh and the high places were prohibited. There was no roofbeam there but below was a house of stone and hangings about it and it was “the resting place” (Deut 12:9)… 7 They came to Nob and Gibeon and the high places were permitted… 8 They came to Jerusalem and the high places were prohibited and they were never again permitted, and it was “the inheritance.” (Deut 12:9)[16]

In the rabbis’ conception, the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness was the first instantiation of the requirement for centralized worship, but once they entered the land, the requirement was suspended, which is why the people were allowed to offer the Passover sacrifice in Gilgal (Josh 5:10). Then the tabernacle was set up in Shiloh (Josh 18:1), the temporary “resting place,” and the law was again in force.

When Shiloh was destroyed, the requirement was again suspended, which explains the worship places in Nob and Gibeon (presumably referring both to Kiryath-jearim and the high place where Solomon offered sacrifices before building the Temple according to 1 Kings 3:4). Once the Temple, the permanent “inheritance,” was built in Jerusalem, the law became permanent.[17] Notably, the rabbis skip over Mount Ebal entirely, following the Priestly conception of a wilderness Tabernacle being established in Shiloh. Perhaps this was due to anti-Samaritan polemic.[18]

Samaritan Answer

The Samaritan canon is comprised of the Torah only, although this community has non-canonical works that describe the post-Mosaic period of Israelite history. For example, the Samaritan Book of Joshua, which is very different than the Bible’s book of the same name, tells the story of Joshua,[19] and then continues with addenda dealing with the Judges period as well as some much later periods.[20] The Samaritan Joshua (ch. 28) tells how Joshua built the temple on Mount Gerizim:

And he built a temple on the summit of the Blessed Mount (=Gerizim) and collected and kept in it the tabernacle of the Lord, and no one after him did hold it, except the priests and the Levites.[21]

From the Samaritan perspective, any worship site other than Mount Gerizim, such as Shiloh and Jerusalem, must have been founded as a result of Israelite sinfulness or error, and are entirely illegitimate. Thus, chapter 43 of the Samaritan Book of Joshua tells about how Eli, a wicked scion of the priestly family of Ithamar, rebelled against the high priest Uzi, a righteous descendent of Elazar and Phinehas during the period of the Judges, and established a rival worship site in Shiloh:

And this man (=Eli)—The Insidious [22]—was fifty years old and, being great in riches, had obtained for himself the lordship over the treasure house of the children of Israel; and he had obtained, through the knowledge of magic, what he had acquired of riches, proud rank, and wealth. And his self-importance being great in his own estimation, he gathered a company… and he put them under covenant that they would follow him unto the place where they purposed going… and settled in Shiloh. And he gathered the children of Israel into a factional sect and held correspondence with their leaders, and said unto them: “Whoever desires to behold miracles, let him come to me.” And there was collected to him a multitude in Shiloh, and he built for himself a shrine there, and organized matters for himself in the model of the temple, and erected in it one altar, on which he might sacrifice and offer offerings.[23]

The Jerusalem temple was also illegitimate (like Shiloh), in the Samaritan conception, because “the place YHWH chose,” was, is, and always remains Mount Gerizim. 

A Compromise Interpretation

I suggest that aspects of both the rabbis’ and the Samaritan’s treatment of the problems presented by the multiple sanctuaries are correct. The Samaritans would seem to be correct that the original referent of המקום was the Mount Ebal/Gerizim area, while the rabbinic notion that the phrase allows for the choice of place to change over time is correct as well. My basis for this is both archaeological and textual.

Archaeological Picture

Archaeology appears to confirm the idea that toward the beginning of the Israelite settlement, the Israelites made use of a centralized worship site. As I discussed in my “Joshua’s Altar on Mount Ebal: Israel’s Holy Site before Shiloh,” (TheTorah.com 2018), the late Haifa University archaeologist Adam Zertal discovered an early Iron I cultic complex at the site of El-Burnat on Mount Ebal.  

This was a free-standing site to which others—likely the new Israelite settlers of the Manasseh region—would come and bring offerings.  It was not in the center of a city or a village, and had very few permanent inhabitants (probably only the local priests).

This discovery came as part of the Manasseh Hill Country Survey Zertal conducted for decades,[24] mapping out the areas of Manasseh that were inhabited and when. During the course of this survey, Zertal discovered over 250 sites of Iron Age I:

Updated map of these sites (2010)

This map shows that Shechem (modern Nablus), and consequently nearby Mt. Ebal, are at the center of the Manasseh territory, within a few hours’ walk from even the furthest Iron I sites.  Moreover, as Shechem is near the southern border of Manasseh, the walk from much of Ephraim would have only taken several hours.

This comports with the legislation in Deuteronomy that all males must appear at the central shrine on pilgrimage festivals:

דברים טז:טז שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל זְכוּרְךָ אֶת פְּנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת פְּנֵי יְ־הוָה רֵיקָם.
Deut 16:16 Three times a year all your males shall appear before YHWH your God in the place that He will choose—on the festival of Matzot, and on the festival of Shavuot, and on the festival of Sukkot—and they shall not appear before YHWH emptyhanded.

The Shrine Moves South

The worship site on Mount Ebal was only active until the middle of the 12th century B.C.E., at which time a different cultic site was founded in Shiloh to the south, in the area of Ephraim. The book of Judges is replete with stories about serious tension, even battles, between Manasseh and Ephraim. Notably, two core heroic figures in the book of Judges, Gideon and Jephthah, were Manassites who are said to have been in tension with the weaker Ephraimites (Judg 8:1–3, 12:1–6).[25] Taken together, this evidence suggests that Ebal was decommissioned in favor of Shiloh, around the same time that Ephraim gained ascendency and the settlement of that region expanded.

Decorated Vessels

Further archaeological evidence supports the idea that such pilgrimages were made to Ebal and Shiloh. Pottery with distinctive puncture designs was found throughout the Iron I sites examined by Zertal in his Manasseh Hill Country Survey. Oren Cohen found that there were very high concentrations of this pottery at both Ebal and Shiloh,[26] and argues that these decorated vessels were used to hold offerings such as oil and grains, to be presented to the central cultic site, thus fulfilling the requirement not to appear emptyhanded.

The Deuteronomic School of Judah

After the destruction of Shiloh, multiple worship places were established in Israel and Judah. Nevertheless, the idea of cultic centralization did not disappear entirely.  It reappeared in a new form centuries later when the Deuteronomic school, which originated in the north, escaped the destruction of Israel in 722 B.C.E. and relocated to Jerusalem.[27]

As I noted in this article’s introduction, De Wette claimed that this school’s work, some version of the book of Deuteronomy, was eventually “found” in the Jerusalem Temple in the time of King Josiah (648–609 B.C.E.), and its requirement for centralized worship became a cornerstone of Josiah’s administration. Of course, by this time, the verse was interpreted as a reference to Jerusalem.  It was, however, updated in other ways as well.

An Impractical Law

In the early Iron I, the territory of Israel was relatively circumscribed, centered on the territory of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin, i.e., the Rachel tribes, which, I believe, is the ideological home from this proto-D. Over time, Israel expanded its territory, and the ideal (at least in the Bible) envisioned a territory which stretched from Judah in the south to Dan in the north.[28]

Following this more expansive conception of Israel, the idea of every Israelite male appearing in the central site with produce and sacrificial animals in hand would be impossible. If scribes from the Deuteronomic school wished their law of pilgrimage to remain viable, the law would need to be updated.

Updating the Central Site Law: The Redaction-Critical Picture

In a 1972 article, Hebrew University biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch noted that Deuteronomy describes the place that YHWH will choose in two distinct ways.  Both focus on YHWH’s name, but use different verbs.  In one, YHWH will לשכן שמו, “make his name dwell,” but in the other He will “place his name”[29] לשום שמו. Many translations, from the ancient Greek LXX to the modern NJPS, incorrectly translated these phrases as if they were identical.

Zakovitch contends that these phrases indicate two different literary layers, and that לשכן   is the earlier layer.[30] This relative dating is consistent the findings of Sandra Richter, who shows that the earlier phrase corresponds to the Akkadian term sakanu shamu, “to make the name dwell,” which appeared as early as 2300 B.C.E.[31]  In two instances, this later version of the phrase, using  “place his name” לשום שמו, introduces important revisions of the earlier law.[32]

Permission to Eat Non-Sacrificial Meat

Deuteronomy 12 requires Israelites to slaughter all their animals at a central location. The implied meaning of this requirement is that all meat must be sacrificed before being eaten. The text then offers an exception for people who live far away from the centralized place.  This exception uses the later phrase, לשום שמו, suggesting that the verses in which it is used are later than the “make his name dwell” (לשכן שמו) verses:

דברים יב:יא וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם מַעְשְׂרֹתֵיכֶם וּתְרֻמַת יֶדְכֶם וְכֹל מִבְחַר נִדְרֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְּרוּ לַי־הוָה…
Deut 12:11 You must bring everything that I command you to the site where YHWH your God will choose to make his name dwell: your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, and all the choice votive offerings that you vow to YHWH.
יב:כ כִּי יַרְחִיב יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת גְּבוּלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר. יב:כא כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ־הוָה לְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ…יב:כו רַק קָדָשֶׁיךָ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ לְךָ וּנְדָרֶיךָ תִּשָּׂא וּבָאתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה.
12:20 When YHWH enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. 12:21 If the place where YHWH your God will choose to place His name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that YHWH gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements… 12:26 But such sacred and votive donations as you may have shall be taken by you to the site that YHWH will choose.[33]

The redaction envisions a time in which Israel will be so large that it will be impractical to insist on sacrificing all animals one wishes to eat at a central shrine. Although the text is written to imply some future time, it was more likely written by later Deuteronomistic scribes faced with the reality that their ideal law was no longer possible to keep. Thus, they updated it with an exemption.[34]

Permission to Purchase Sacrificial Animals

Deuteronomy 14 sets out the obligation for Israelites to bring a tenth of their produce and the firstborn of their animals to the central shrine every year.[35] Again, this is followed by an exception for people who are far away, and again, shifts in terminology suggest that the text has at least two layers of composition:

דברים יד:כב עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה.יד:כג וְאָכַלְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם מַעְשַׂר דְּגָנְךָ תִּירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקָרְךָ וְצֹאנֶךָ לְמַעַן תִּלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל הַיָּמִים.
Deut 14:22 You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field. 14:23 You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of YHWH your God, in the place where he will choose to make His name dwell, so that you may learn to revere YHWH your God forever.
יד:כד וְכִי יִרְבֶּה מִמְּךָ הַדֶּרֶךְ כִּי לֹא תוּכַל שְׂאֵתוֹ כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  יד:כה וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתָּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. יד:כו וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ בַּבָּקָר וּבַצֹּאן וּבַיַּיִן וּבַשֵּׁכָר וּבְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁאָלְךָ נַפְשֶׁךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׂמַחְתָּ אַתָּה וּבֵיתֶךָ.
14:24 Should the distance be too great for you, should you be unable to transport them, because the place where YHWH your God has chosen to place His name is far from you and because YHWH your God has blessed you, 14:25 you may convert them into money. Wrap up the money and take it with you to the place that YHWH your God has chosen, 14:26 and spend the money on anything you want — cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of YHWH your God, and rejoice with your household.

As in Deuteronomy ch. 12, the older layer assumes that people can bring their produce and animals with them on pilgrimage, while the revision envisions a time when this will no longer be possible.[36] We see here as well the way the later Deuteronomic scribes, living in a large territory, with an even larger ideal territory, revised their ancient centralization of worship law, which assumed a limited territory.

Maintaining and Updating an Ancient Ideal

Thus we can trace laws concerning centralization of worship, from their earliest instantiation to their latest. Centralization begins as a practice among the Joseph tribes to appear at the central shrine for sacrifices and to bring their tithe of produce and firstborn animals, first in Manasseh’s Mount Ebal shrine and then in Ephraim’s Shiloh shrine. It ends (in the MT) as a requirement for all Israelites and Judahites to sacrifice in Jerusalem, and appear there every year, silver in hand.

Published

August 26, 2019

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Last Updated

November 15, 2019

Footnotes

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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 zvi@thelosttemple.com.