YHWH Is Enthroned at Gad’s Temple: The Site of Moses’ Tomb
The penultimate chapter of the Torah is a collection of tribal blessings framed with a praise of YHWH. It opens with a description of YHWH appearing from the south:
דברים לג:ב יְ־הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ...
Deut 33:2 YHWH came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, and approached from Ribeboth-kodesh…
Sinai and Paran are familiar from the accounts of the wilderness wandering, Seir is the southern Transjordan, the land of Esau, and Ribeboth-kodesh is likely a reference to Mei-Meribath-Kadesh, familiar from the story of Moses striking the rock. All of these places are south of where the Israelites are standing in Deuteronomy, as well as where they lived after their settlement in Israel.
The verse ends with an enigmatic phrase: מִימִינוֹ (אשדת) [אֵשׁ דָּת] לָמוֹ. The second word has a ketiv/qeri; אשדת is written in the scroll and but the Masoretes read it as two words אֵשׁ דָּת. This latter reading means something like “the fire of law,” but is unlikely to reflect the original text. Read as one word, ashedot means slopes, and is commonly associated with the toponym Ashdot-hapisgah (the Pisgah Slopes), mentioned twice more in Deuteronomy.
The first word of this phrase literally means “from his right/south,” but I suggest that the original text read מימינה, “from the south,” with a final heh instead of vav; this is a paragogic heh added for emphasis. This makes more sense in context, since the other cola all describe YHWH coming from the south, from the perspective of the speaker, i.e., south of Israel, not south of YHWH. If YHWH is coming from the south, then then the second word explains where he comes to. Thus, the phrase should be translated “from the south to Ashedot,” i.e., to the area of the Pisgah Slopes.
Why is YHWH coming to Ashedot?
The poem refers to a tribal convocation, during which representatives of all the tribes would gather:
דברים לג:ה וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן מֶלֶךְ בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:5 Then He (YHWH) became King in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together.
This convocation apparently included a ceremony of enthroning YHWH, and would have taken place at a holy site. We can thus deduce that such a site was to be found in Ashdot-hapisgah.
The Region of the Pisgah Slopes: Between the Wasteland and Peor
The location of the Pisgah Slopes is described twice in Joshua, near two other spots: Beth-hayeshimot and Beth-peor:
יהושע יב:ג וְהָעֲרָבָה עַד יָם כִּנְרוֹת מִזְרָחָה וְעַד יָם הָעֲרָבָה יָם הַמֶּלַח מִזְרָחָה דֶּרֶךְ בֵּית הַיְשִׁמוֹת וּמִתֵּימָן תַּחַת אַשְׁדּוֹת הַפִּסְגָּה.
Josh 12:3 and over the eastern Arabah up to the Sea of Kinnereth and, southward by way of Beth-hayeshimot at the foot of the Slopes (Ashdot) of Pisgah on the east, down to the Sea of the Arabah, that is, the Dead Sea.
יהושע יג:כ וּבֵית פְּעוֹר וְאַשְׁדּוֹת הַפִּסְגָּה וּבֵית הַיְשִׁמוֹת.
Josh 13:20 Beth-peor, the Slopes (Ashdot) of Pisgah, and Bet-hayeshimot.
Beth-hayeshimot, which should be identified with Tell el-Athemeh, means something like “Wasteland City,” and is located in the area north of Dead Sea which the Bible calls the yeshimon (wasteland). Beth-peor is famous as the place where the Israelites sinned with the Midianite women and worshipped the god Peor.
The proximity of Peor and Pisgah is seen from the Balaam story, in which King Balak of Moab moves Balaam from hilltop to hilltop hoping that a new vantage point will allow him to curse the Israelites. We see this proximity again in the opening of Deuteronomy, when YHWH says to Moses:
דברים ג:כז עֲלֵה רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה וְשָׂא עֵינֶיךָ יָמָּה וְצָפֹנָה וְתֵימָנָה וּמִזְרָחָה וּרְאֵה בְעֵינֶיךָ כִּי לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה....
Deut 3:27 Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.
The text tells us where the Israelites are then located (Deut 3:29) בַּגָּיְא מוּל בֵּית פְּעוֹר “in the valley near Beth-peor.” Mount Pisgah, therefore, is near the valley that is opposite Peor, the latter of which should be identified with Khirbet al-Mukhayyat.
Location of Ashdot-hapisgah
Given that Mount Pisgah should be located between Beth-hayeshimot and Peor, many scholars have identified it with the summit Siyagha. Down in the valley, northeast of this peak is Khirbat Iyun-Musa, Arabic for “The Spring of Moses.” I suggest identifying this with Ashdot-hapisgah; the area’s many ridges and cliffs would well explain the name “slopes.”
A Renamed City
If Ashdot-hapisgah was a holy site with enough importance to hold a holy convocation of the tribes, why is it absent from the list of Transjordanian cities in Numbers 32? That chapter provides us with a clear answer: certain cities were renamed. This city used to be called Nebo.
Numbers 32 states:
במדבר לב:לז וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בָּנוּ אֶת חֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֶת אֶלְעָלֵא וְאֵת קִרְיָתָיִם.לב:לח וְאֶת נְבוֹ וְאֶת בַּעַל מְעוֹן מוּסַבֹּת שֵׁם וְאֶת שִׂבְמָה וַיִּקְרְאוּ בְשֵׁמֹת אֶת שְׁמוֹת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ.
Num 32:38 The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 32:38 Nebo, Baal-meon—some names being changed—and Sibmah; they gave their own names to towns that they rebuilt.
These cities’ names were changed to avoid the use of non-Israelite divine epithets in Israelite towns. The most common toponym whose names were changed were those containing the name Baʿal in it, such as Baʿal-meon, but Nebo, which is reminiscent of Nabu, the Mesopotamian god of scribes and wisdom, was also changed.
This god was especially popular in Babylon, which is why many of the famous names from Neo-Babylonia have this theophoric element: Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus, Nabuzaradan, etc. The Israelites likely came into contact with Nabu in the 9th century, through their interactions with Assyria under Shalmeneser III, and would have changed the name of the city to Ashdot-hapisgah some time after this.
That Ashdot-hapisgah was the Israelite name for the conquered city of Nebo, explains the otherwise troubling fact that while Ashdot-hapisgah is absent from the lists in Numbers 32, Nebo is absent from the lists in Joshua 13. (Both texts list Transjordanian cities and for the most part overlap.)
A YHWH Temple in Nebo
The implication from Deuteronomy 33:2 that Ashdot-hapisgah was a holy spot for the Israelites fits with the Mesha inscription, a 9th century inscribed stele describing how Mesha, king of Moab, conquered territory that had been previously taken from Moab by King Omri of Israel:
ויאמר לי כמש לך אחז את נבה על ישראל. ואהלך בללה ואלתחם בה מבקע השחרת עד הצהרם ואחזה, ואהרג כלה, שבעת אלפן גברן וגרן וגברת וגרת ורחמת כי לעשתר כמש החרמתה. ואקח משם א[ת כ]לי י־הוה ואסחבהם לפני כמש.
And Kemosh (=the Moabite god) said to me: “Go take Nebo from Israel!” And I went in the night and I fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, and I took it and I killed everyone, seven thousand men and boys and women and girls and servant girls, for I had put it to the ban for Ashtar-Kemosh. And I took the [ves]sels of YHWH from there and hauled them before the face of Kemosh.
According to this, Nebo was an Israelite city that housed a worship site dedicated to YHWH. This is where the convocation and enthronement ceremony would have been held.
Moses’ Death: A Hieros Logos
The connection between Nebo and Pisgah is made explicit in the opening verse of the final chapter of Deuteronomy, describing Moses’ death:
דברים לד:א וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה מֵעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב אֶל הַר נְבוֹ רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי יְרֵחוֹ... לד:ה וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְ־הוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב עַל פִּי יְ־הוָה.
Deut 34:1 Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho… 34:5 So Moses the servant of YHWH died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of YHWH.
This passage is more than just a narrative ending to the Moses story: it is an explanation for the establishment of the holy site in Nebo/Ashdot-hapisgah.
Ancient holy sites were generally accompanied by a story, sometimes more than one, explaining how and why they were founded, which scholars refer to as a hieros logos (literally, “a holy word” in Greek; plural hieroi logoi). The Bible is filled with such stories; perhaps the most famous is Jacob seeing the stairway to heaven in Beth-El and setting up a pillar and altar (Gen 28:10–22).
Other hieroi logoi are David’s setting up an altar in Jerusalem to stop a deadly plague (2 Sam 24), Abraham building altars in Shechem, Beth-El, and Hebron (Gen 12:7–8, 18), and Joshua building an altar on Mount Ebal (Josh 8:30–35) and a standing stone in Shechem (Josh 24:21–26). I suggest that the death of Moses was once a hieros logos for the Nebo temple.
Tombs and Temples
A burial site of a holy person is not an unusual hieros logos. Shechem, for instance, has multiple hieroi logoi—Abraham and Jacob (Gen 33:19–20) both establish altars there, and Joshua makes a covenant and erects there a standing stone. Another of Shechem’s hieroi logoi is that it has the burial site of Joseph (Josh 24:32). This likely means that the worship site was associated both with an altar and with a tomb, both of which were considered holy and given pedigree with an origin story.
Hebron too has an altar established by Abraham as well as the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Nebo’s YHWH temple likely had both a holy altar and a connection to the tomb of Moses, and this is the key to understanding the enigmatic blessing of Gad in Deuteronomy 33.
Blessed be He Who Enlarges Gad
For a tribe of secondary importance, the blessing of Gad is unusually long. It begins:
דברים לג:כ בָּרוּךְ מַרְחִיב גָּד כְּלָבִיא שָׁכֵן וְטָרַף זְרוֹעַ אַף קָדְקֹד.
Deut 33:20 Blessed be He who enlarges Gad! Poised is he like a lion to tear off arm and scalp.
The blessing refers to YHWH as having expanded Gad’s land, which ostensibly the tribe took by force, hence the tearing-lion imagery. When we look at the various descriptions of tribal holdings, we find that whereas Reuben may have once been an important tribe, and appears in the very ancient Song of Deborah where Gad is absent, in later texts we find the tribe of Gad in areas that were once Reubenite.
The text continues:
דברים לג:כא וַיַּרְא רֵאשִׁית לוֹ כִּי שָׁם חֶלְקַת מְחֹקֵק סָפוּן וַיֵּתֵא רָאשֵׁי עָם צִדְקַת יְ־הוָה עָשָׂה וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:21 He chose for himself the best, for there is the paneled ‘plot of the lawgiver’, and he gathered the heads of the people. He executed YHWH’s righteousness and His decisions for Israel.
The song further mentions that Gad chose the best land for himself, and specifically notes that it is the place where “the lawgiver is entombed.” The lawgiver here is Moses, and the verse, therefore, refers to his tomb, as already noted by the rabbis. In other words, Gad’s importance is as the tribe in possession of Moses’ tomb.
Gad Hosts the Ceremony at the Holy Site of Moses’ Tomb
The song of Deut 33 commemorates a national coming together— probably a periodical one—hosted by the Gadites at their YHWH temple in Nebo/Ashdot-hapisgah, in which an enthronement ceremony for YHWH took place.
The gathering included representatives from all of Israel’s tribes, or at least those who were able to make it, and was memorialized in this song, which would likely have been recited at this temple from then on. Eventually, this text was included in the Torah and instead of being associated with Moses’s tomb it was ascribed to Moses himself as his final words.
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Prof. Alexander Rofé is Professor (Emeritus) of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he held the Yitzhak Becker Chair in Jewish Studies and whence he received his Ph.D. in 1970. Among his many books are Angels in the Bible: Israelite Belief in Angels as Evidenced by Biblical Traditions (1979, reissued 2012), Prophetical Stories (1988), Introduction to the Composition of the Pentateuch(1999), and Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretation (2002).
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