Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tavo 5759/1999

The Covenant at Shechem

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Dept. of Bible

The Lord made two covenants with Abraham to give his offspring the land of Canaan: the "covenant between the pieces" (Gen. 15), and the covenant of circumcision (Gen. 17). At Mount Sinai this covenant was renewed with the Israelites who came out of Egypt (Ex. 24), but without mentioning in the ceremony that they would be given the land of Canaan, for at this stage Moses was supposed to bring them into the land and there the covenant would be made between the people and G-d, "Lord of the land", concerning the land.

The sin of rejecting the land in the wake of the scouts' mission (Num. 13-14) caused the generation of the exodus from Egypt not to enter the land but to die in the wilderness, so that the covenant with them was suspended.[1] As a result of their backsliding, Moses as well could not enter Canaan or lead the conquest of the land.

The covenant would be fulfilled for the new generation that was born in the wilderness, and so the pact had to be renewed with them. Moses, after all, in his preface to his recapitulation of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, explained the need for this repetition as follows: "It was not with our fathers [who died in the wilderness] that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today" (Deut. 5:3), to which we may add: and about to enter the land of Canaan.

Under the new circumstances, in which Moses would not be the one to lead the conquest of Canaan, the process of making the covenant was split into two. First, it was verbally made by Moses on the plains of Moab, across from Jericho; and second, by Joshua, his successor, in a ceremony on Canaanite soil. The verbal covenant made by Moses subsumes most of the book of Deuteronomy, as detailed towards the end of the book, in Nitzavim: "You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d, ... to enter into the covenant of the Lord your G-d, which the Lord your G-d is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions" (Deut. 29:9-11).

As part of the covenant on the plains of Moab, Moses commands where and how the future covenant is to be made in Canaan. Initially only in brief principle, in the first third of Deuteronomy (11:26-32), and later, in this week's reading, chapters 27-28, in greater detail.

The ceremony was to be held in the valley by Shechem, Arab Nablus, Roman Neapolis, between the two hills flanking it--Mount Ebal to the north, and Mount Gerizim to the south, and above them. This contour is responsible for the name Shechem, which means "shoulders". Perhaps this location was chosen for pragmatic reasons, the valley being broad (but not overly so), flanked by two hills like an amphitheater, and thus well-suited for the ceremony.

Perhaps there were ideological reasons, as well, such as associations of the place with the patriarchs: Abraham received his first divine revelation in the land of Israel in Shechem, was promised the land there, and built his first altar at the site (Gen. 12:7-8); Jacob purchased a field there (Gen. 33:18-20). It has recently been pointed out that Shechem is situated approximately (the land not having fixed borders) in the middle of the land the Israelites settled: between Beer Sheba to the south and the Litani River (or, if you prefer, Metulla and Tyre) to the north. Thus this could be viewed as a sort of "covenant between the pieces," between the parts of the land that would be inherited.[2]

The ceremony of the covenant had four components: the stones, the altar, proclamation of the accursed, and lastly, the blessing and the curse. On the stones (Deut. 27:2-4) were written the words of the Torah, i.e., the commandments binding Israel to the covenant.[3] Ostensibly, since the covenant was reciprocal, one might expect the obligations of the other party, of the Lord, to be written down as well, but clearly this is out of the question since the Lord of Heaven and Earth cannot be bound by a contract inscribed in stone.

The second component was building an altar on Mount Ebal in order to make burnt offerings (olot) and offerings of well-being (shelamim) (Deut. 27:5-7), as was also done in the covenant at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:4-5). The offerings of well-being, part of which went to those who brought the offering (in this case, representatives of the Israelites), and part to the altar, symbolize the covenantal feast shared by those making the pact. The burnt offering which is added serves as a token of thanks and submission to G-d, since the covenant made here is not between equals.

It is surprising that the altar was built on Mount Ebal, since further on, as well as previously, in Deuteronomy 11, this place is described as the site of the curses. This has been explained in terms of custom in royal treaties in the ancient Near East and in terms of psychological impact, the curse being the primary component of the pact, as a deterrent against its violation. Indeed, a structure resembling an altar from the appropriate period was discovered not long ago on Mount Ebal,[4] and may be identified as the altar of the covenant. The Samaritan version of the Bible resolves this difficulty by placing the altar on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritan's altar is to this day.

The next component of the covenant consisted of placing six tribes on Mount Gerizim, "to bless the people," and six on Mount Ebal "for the curse" (Deut. 27:11-13; note that the Torah is careful not to say "to curse the people"). How are these blessings and curses formulated? Immediately we have twelve verses beginning "Cursed" (15-26), but they are not spoken by the tribes, rather by the Levites (v. 14). Moreover, there are no corresponding proclamations of "Blessed," nor, according to common sense, would it be reasonable to contrast these verses with blessings, save for the last one; for just because a person does not, for example, lie with his mother-in-law does not mean he is blessed. Indeed, as Ibn Ezra noted, the blessings spoken by the tribes are the six statements beginning with "Blessed" in chapter 28, vv. 3-6; and the corresponding six statements beginning with "Cursed" (vv. 16-19) are the proclamations of the curse spoken by the other tribes.

In contrast, the list of "Cursed" in chapter 27 (15-26), were said by the Levites alone, with the people accepting the statements by answering "Amen".[5] All of these, save for the last one,[6] apply to sins that are usually committed in secret, or where secrecy is an explicit component (vv. 15, 24). Rashbam and Ibn Ezra long noted that these maledictions serve to personally curse those who sin covertly--since the community cannot judge them and therefore is not responsible for their actions--so that G-d will punish them, removing them from the community worthy of blessing.

This principle regarding covert sin is stated explicitly in Deut. 29:28, in the verse concluding the section on sins by individuals and small groups within the population. There it says, "Concealed acts concern the Lord our G-d; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching." In other words, the community is responsible for upholding overt obedience to the Torah but it cannot punish covert transgressions; the latter are given to G-d for judgment.

After the six statements of "blessed" comes further elaboration of the blessings (28:7-14), and after the "cursed" statements comes an even greater elaboration--49 verses--of the curses, proving what has been said, namely that the curses are the primary component of the pact. This leads to the question whether these elaborations were said by Moses in the covenant made on the plains of Moab, or whether they would be said in some manner when the covenant would be made in Shechem, i.e., when the rite described was later performed, as told in the Book of Joshua 8:34: "After that, he read all the words of the Teaching, the blessing and the curse...".

That they were uttered by Moses is indicated by the parallel conclusion of the covenant at Sinai (Lev. 26:46), where a detailed list of blessings and longer detailing of admonishments is given. One could also suggest a more complex intermediate explanation for our section: the admonishment in this week's reading is not only lengthy, but also involved. First comes a passage listing increasingly severe disasters, from human beings and plants suffering disease, to total defeat and exile. Another, similar cycle can be found in verses 38-68. Perhaps one passage belongs to the covenant made on the plains of Moab, and the other to the pact at Shechem; these two covenants, after all, are intertwined in this week's reading.

Lastly, we note that the admonishments that conclude the covenant at Sinai, towards the end of the book of Leviticus, end on an optimistic note: the exiles will submit to the Lord and confess, then the Lord will remember them and redeem them (Lev. 26:40-45). It might appear that this is not the case with the admonishments in this week's reading, which conclude with the degradation of slavery in exile (Deut. 28:68). However, this is only seemingly so, because after the verse about "concealed acts" (Deut. 29:28), which as we have seen is part of the covenant, comes the response (30:1-10), which is the sequel to the admonishment: after Israel in exile turns its heart back to the Lord, the Lord will return to them[7], bring them back to the land, and renew the covenant with them.

[1] Midrash Tanhuma (Nitzavim 3; Buber ed., Nitzavim 6.25a) ascribes suspension of the covenant to the sin of the golden calf. Midrash Tanhuma lists three covenants: in Egypt (the Passover and circumcision?), at Sinai, and on the plains of Moab.

[2] From a conversation with Rabbi Joel ben-Nun, who intends to write on the subject.

[3] For a discussion of the scope of what was inscribed on the stones, cf. R. D. Z. Hoffman, Deuteronomy (Heb. trans., D. Har-Shefer), Tel Aviv 1961, pp. 33?-341.

[4] Cf. A. Zertal, "Has Joshua's Altar Been Found on Mt. Ebal?", BAR 11,1 (1985), pp. 26-43.

[5] Did the Torah intend for the Levites to stand in between, with the two groups of tribes on eiether side, as the nature of the ceremony seems to imply and as follows from Joshua 8:33? Or were they to stand with the tribes on Mount Gerizim (Deut. 27:12) when they pronounced the statements of "cursed"?

[6] "Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them" indicates positive precepts and can be associated with sins done in secret since it is difficult to attest that a person has refrained from performing a positive command. Indeed, save for two exceptions, the Torah does not impose punishments on failure to perform positive commands.

[7] Deut. 30:3: "Then the Lord your G-d will restore your captivity"; cf. M. Ben-Yashar, "Shuv-Shevut," Mordechai Breuer Jubilee Volume, Jerusalem 1992, vol. 2, pp. 639-656.

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