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Ebal and Gerizim

In mountain, Old Testament, physical geography on May 4, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Nablus, showing Mount Ebal (right) and Mount Gerizim (left of picture). Photo from Wikimedia Commons by uwea.

Nablus, showing Mount Ebal (right) and Mount Gerizim (left of picture). Photo from Wikimedia Commons by uwea.

The modern West Bank city of Nablus (previously Shechem) sits in the shade of two mountains: Ebal (940m) to the North and Gerizim (881m) to the South. The two are intrinsically linked, not just in geographical proximity but in God’s commandments to Israel, symbols of the heavy demands of the law.

The mountains are first mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. 29 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.

Although yet to cross the Jordan and entered the promised land, the Israelites new these mountains already: “As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal.” (11:30) About twenty miles West of the river Jordan, the Israelites could likely see these mountains from their encampments on the Eastern side – they are the highest points in what’s now the West Bank.

The instructions are made more specific in Deuteronomy 27, which lists the curses read out from Mount Ebal and Deuteronomy 28, listing the blessings. Half the nation (the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali) stood on Ebal to pronounce the curses of God, that is, a list of further, quite particular commandments that the nation would be cursed for failing in. The remaining tribes stood on Gerizim and countered with God’s blessings, introduced with the lovely expression that “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.”

Image of the Nablus valley from Google Earth via guidedbiblestudies.com

Image of the Nablus valley from Google Earth via guidedbiblestudies.com

The mountains’ roles are finally fulfilled in Joshua 8, after the destruction of the city of Ai. There was an altar built on Ebal and plaster-cast copies of the law, and the whole of the law was read out with the nation of Israel arrayed on these hills, the ark of the covenant in the middle. It must have been a pretty spectacular scene with the nation numbering in the hundreds of thousands at least, by this stage. An awesome statement of the primacy of the law of God in the nation of Israel, and a visual representation that the Old Covenant, the Hebrew Law, was both a blessing and a curse to the people. They had blessings beyond comparison by being God’s people; but they had standards like no other nation could imagine.

That remained true and was borne out very graphically: throughout the times of the judges then the kings, when a leader and the people followed God, prosperity was found – not always in a financial sense, but through God’s provision. When the nation strayed, so they would founder and this proved especially true when the people were carted off to Babylon to be taught a lesson. The warning of mount Ebal rang true – fail to follow God and know His curse.

This salutory lesson, logically, should have stayed true. All have sinned, Paul says; and the wages of sin is death. But Christ intervened:

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death… He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:1-4

Christ overcame the requirements of the law, He met its asks. I can live therefore according to the spirit of the law, not in fear of its letter; that’s my Christian liberty. My salvation doesn’t depend on my consistency or purity anymore, but on Christ’s – thank God. I can take the grim proclamations of Mount Ebal as a serious lesson in natural consequences – even to the believer, sin makes its mark in so many ways. But I don’t stand in the hand of an angry God any more, as Mr Edwards would have put it; I’m stood on solid rock.

Mount Gerizim pops up once more in Judges 9, when Gideon’s son Jotham has a rare attack of holy boldness and stands on the mountain representing blessing to deliver a curse on the people below. It didn’t take long for the blessings of obedience to God to be forgotten and violence and disobedience to become the norm. Important then to stay on the case as Christians; shame to see our blessings turned to accusations.

Location: Mounts Ebal and Gerizim sit overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus, in the West Bank.

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