According to Judaism there is only one place where offerings to YHWH can be made–the temple in Jerusalem. Without it, Jews are not authorized to bring offerings at all. This understanding comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which over 20 times mentions a “chosen place” as the only location for offerings and pilgrimage feasts.
Surprisingly, an objective read of Deuteronomy itself, paired with ancient manuscript evidence, verses from the Song of the Sea in Exodus, history recorded by Josephus, and confirmation from the Judaean book of Joshua and other passages in the Tanakh, shows the chosen place is NOT Jerusalem! It’s startlingly simple to confirm, but difficult to see because most of us have simply never had reason to question Jerusalem as the chosen place.
Rather than argue this position from the Samaritan Torah, I will use primarily the Masoretic Text (MT) with occasional counterbalance from scholarship, the Samaritan Torah or other ancient manuscripts. The MT, from which most English bibles today are translated, is a Judaean version of the Hebrew scriptures compiled by the Masoretes between the 7th and 11th centuries CE, using manuscripts that were available at that time. The Masoretes sought to preserve not only the scriptures, but the vowel pointings (the Hebrew language has no written vowels), cantillation and annotations indicating variant readings, given that the Masoretes understood they were working with texts that had already been corrupted (see Errors in the Masoretes’ “Original” Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bible).
Additionally, these texts were no longer written in the original Hebrew script, which was abandoned by the Judaeans in favor of the Aramaic script brought back from the Babylonian exile.
The MT presents YHWH’s choice of the location of this place as a future event, using an imperfect Hebrew verb tense. Here are some examples of how this choice is presented in an English translation (the NET):
“the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence” (Deuteronomy 12:5)
“the place YHWH your God chooses for his name to reside” (Deuteronomy 12:11)
“the place YHWH chooses in one of your tribal areas” (Deuteronomy 12:14)
“the place he chooses” (Deuteronomy 12:18)
“the place he chooses to locate his name” (Deuteronomy 12:21)
“the place YHWH will choose” (Deuteronomy 12:26)
(An aside: The NET is a Christian translation, but the translators took great care to translate the MT honestly, earning them scathing rebukes from many of their coreligionists. One can read about their method in the preface to the NET. As an example, rather than translate “almah” as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, they correctly rendered it “young woman”. For this reason plus the fact that the translation is in the public domain, I use it throughout this article, except where noted.)
There is another community of Israelites, (confirmed by DNA studies), which traces its origin and lineage all the way back to Moses, and still exists today. Many if not most are not aware of this, partly due to the fact that their numbers have dwindled from oppression, wars and forced conversions to Christianity and Islam, but also because the Judaean writings paint a negative picture of them. I am referring to the Israelite Samaritans.
This community insists that Jerusalem is NOT the chosen place, and that the Judaeans split from the Israelites, (and from the true chosen place), rather than the other way around, as told by the Judaean writings that make up the rest of the Tanakh outside of the Torah (the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy).
Indeed, it is not difficult at all, to confirm the Israelite Samaritans are correct about the chosen place. However, it can be difficult to overcome one’s presuppositions. It was for me.
However, the following facts forced me to concede that what I had always presumed to be true about Jerusalem was in fact not true at all:
1. Shechem is very prominent in the Torah; Jerusalem is never mentioned
Abram was called out of his native land to the land of Canaan, by YHWH. He traveled as far as the oak tree of Moreh at Shechem. There YHWH appeared to Abram and said “To your descendants I will give this land.” Abram built his first altar to YHWH here, then went to Bethel (on Mount Gerizim), pitched his tent and built a second altar.
Isaac’s near sacrifice may have taken place here as well. Abraham was sent with his son Isaac to the “land of Moriah”, a place unknown to modern scholars. Many scholars equate Moriah with the oak of Moreh from Genesis 12. Others believe an initial “a” has been dropped, making it the land of Amoriah (of the Amorites, who were Canaanites).
Jacob had his “stairway to heaven” vision near Luz, which exists to this day on Mount Gerizim. He named this place “Beit El” (literally House of God) from which the Bethel of our English translations is derived.
Modern day Luz is a newer village, home to about half of Israel’s Samaritan population. Some, particularly those who are opposed to the Samaritan viewpoint, might say it’s a mistake to equate modern day Luz with ancient Luz, but it can be established that the crusaders nearly 1,000 years ago accepted that the Luz on Mount Gerizim was the ancient Luz, and the Torah itself indicates ancient Luz was near Shechem:
After Simeon and Levi slaughtered the family of Shechem for raping their sister Dinah, this transpired:
Then God said to Jacob, “Go up at once to Bethel and live there. Make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob told his household and all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have among you. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. Let us go up at once to Bethel. Then I will make an altar there to God, who responded to me in my time of distress and has been with me wherever I went.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods that were in their possession and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob buried them under the oak near Shechem and they started on their journey. The surrounding cities were afraid of God, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. Jacob and all those who were with him arrived at Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. He built an altar there and named the place El Bethel because there God had revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.(Genesis 35:1-7)
In the above passage, Jacob instructed his people to purify themselves and change clothing before departing Shechem. This was because their destination was Beit El, (the House of God), a holy place. This same sort of ritual purity would be later required of the children of Israel as they approached the temporary dwelling place of YHWH among them in the wilderness. The fact that they were to purify themselves before leaving indicates the journey was not long. By foot or by donkey they could have travelled from Shechem up neighboring Mount Gerizim in less than a day.
Jacob owned land in Shechem and settled there. His sons tended his flocks in the area, and from there Joseph was sold into slavery, setting him up to become the eventual savior of his family. Shechem was so important to Joseph that he made his people promise to exhume his bones and take them with them, knowing that YHWH would be restoring his people to his homeland in the future (Genesis 50:25). Indeed, this happened in the time of Moses, and they did as they had promised (Exodus 13:19). His bones were eventually reinterred at Shechem, in a field which had been owned by his father Jacob (Joshua 24:32).
2. Verses from the “Song of the Sea” indicates the Israelites already knew their ultimate destination was the place YHWH had established as his residence.
After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites sang a song which has been dubbed the “Song of the Sea”. In this song one finds the following illustrative verses:
By your loyal love you will lead the people whom you have redeemed; you will guide them by your strength to your holy dwelling place . . . You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of your inheritance, in the place you made for your residence, O YHWH, the sanctuary, O Adonai, that your hands have established.(Exodus 15:13,17)
Here you can see there is no hint of a future choice, but a place that has already been established, not by man but by YHWH himself, as his place of residence. The Hebrew word translated place in this verse is “makon”, which means “Fixed or established place, foundation”. The Israelites already knew exactly where they were heading, and where the House of God (Beit El) was located.
3. The future looking “will chose” throughout Deuteronomy was originally “has chosen”
Throughout Deuteronomy the 20+ mentions of the chosen place are always presented with a Hebrew verb tense that casts the choice as a future event. However, it’s quite simple to see that this could not be the case. The first mention of this chosen place in Deuteronomy occurs in chapter 12, verse 5. The place is mentioned another 5 times in this chapter. However, if you pay close attention to the first and last verses of this same chapter, you conclude that the chosen place would have been known:
These are the statutes and ordinances you must be careful to obey as long as you live in the land YHWH, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess. (Deuteronomy 12:1)
You must be careful to do everything I am commanding you. Do not add to it or subtract from it!(Deuteronomy 12:31)
These commands related to this chosen place had to be observed for as long as they lived in the land, (meaning they went into effect immediately after crossing the Jordan), and they were not to add or subtract from them. Neither of these were possible with a chosen place in Jerusalem that wasn’t chosen for several centuries after entering the land!
To put it another way, imagine you are an ancient Israelite, about to cross the Jordan and repossess your ancestral home, and you are told that once you cross into the land, there is only one location where you can sacrifice and go for pilgrimage feasts, and that you cannot add or subtract from it, i.e. you can never change it. How is this even remotely possible if you don’t already know the location?
So how do we confirm that indeed the chosen place passages in Deuteronomy originally read “has chosen” just like this verse in the Exodus? Here’s where manuscript evidence comes into play. Scholar Stefan Schorch writes:
“Adrian Schenker has pointed out in two recent articles that the reading “has chosen” is not only found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, but is attested by some Greek Septuagint manuscripts, too, as well as by the Coptic and the Latin secondary translations of the Old Greek text of the Pentateuch. This indicates that the Hebrew Vorlage of the Old Greek translation of Deuteronomy read “has chosen”, and in terms of textual criticism “has chosen” is therefore certainly the original reading, while the Masoretic reading “will choose” is secondary, being an ideological and maybe even an anti-Samaritan correction.”The Samaritan Version of Deuteronomy and the Origin of Deuteronomy page 32
Extant copies of manuscripts derived from sources older than the Masoretic Text show us that indeed “has chosen” was the likely original reading. Combine this with Exodus 15:13,17 quite blatantly showing the place had already been established, and the exhortation by Moses to observe this chosen place for as long as they lived in the land and neither add to nor subtract, and you have the answer: the chosen place had already been chosen and was known to the Israelites.
4. Activities which were only allowed at the chosen place were commanded to be done on Mounts Gerizim/Ebal
In Deuteronomy there are very clear commands to sacrifice and to “rejoice in your output” (a reference to pilgrimage feasts) in a specific geographic location. These, combined with a bit of common sense, are a clear indicator of where the chosen place is located. If one can only perform these activities at the chosen place, and these commands are linked to a specific geographical location, then that is the chosen place, right?
Let’s start with the first passage that mentions this chosen place, to see what activities are restricted to only that place:
But you must seek only the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there. And there you must take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the personal offerings you have prepared, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. Both you and your families must feast there before YHWH your God and rejoice in all the output of your labor with which he has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7 NET)
From this we see that offerings and feasts were to be done only at this chosen place.
Now, let’s examine a commandment to do these things in a specific geographic location:
So when you cross the Jordan you must erect on Mount Ebal these stones about which I am commanding you today, and you must cover them with plaster. Then you must build an altar there to YHWH your God, an altar of stones – do not use an iron tool on them. You must build the altar of YHWH your God with whole stones and offer burnt offerings on it to YHWH your God. Also you must offer fellowship offerings and eat them there, rejoicing before YHWH your God. (Deuteronomy 27:4-7 NET)
Here we see those same activities, offerings and feasting, commanded to be done on Mount Ebal, during the ceremony of the Blessing and Curses commanded in both Deuteronomy 11 and 27. You might be wondering why I believe the chosen place is Mount Gerizim rather than Mount Ebal? For that, manuscript evidence again comes into play, and once again I quote Stefan Schorch:
“We have to realize, however, that the Masoretic reading in Deut 27:4 “on Mount Ebal” is almost certainly a secondary ideological correction, as opposed to the text-historically original “on Mount Gerizim”, which is preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Old Latin (Vetus Latina). According to the original text of the Book of Deuteronomy, therefore, this altar is to be built on Mount Gerizim, which is the mountain of the blessings according to the framing passages Deut 11:29 and 27:12-13.”The Samaritan Version of Deuteronomy and the Origin of Deuteronomy page 28
Not only this, but there was a fragment of Deuteronomy 27:4 in the DSS, written in the newer Judaean script no less, (the Samaritans did not change the alphabet used in their Torah scrolls as did the Judaeans), which retains Mount Gerizim as the location of the altar! (See Announcing a Dead Sea Scrolls Fragment of Deuteronomy).
And this only makes sense, given that the Levites were stationed on Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27:12) which was the mountain of the Blessing, as opposed to Ebal, the mountain of the Curses.
5. Commandment to read the Torah, at the chosen place at the end of seven years, fulfilled at Mount Gerizim
Here’s another commandment Moses insisted be done at the chosen place:
He commanded them: “At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the cancellation of debts, at the Feast of Temporary Shelters, when all Israel comes to appear before YHWH your God in the place he will choose, you must read this lawbefore them within their hearing. Gather the people – men, women, and children, as well as the resident foreigners in your villages – so they may hear and thus learn about and fear YHWH your God and carefully obey all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 31:10-12 NET)
The fulfillment of this command is found in the book of Joshua, chapter 8:
Then Joshua read aloud all the words of the law, including the blessings and the curses, just as they are written in the law scroll. Joshua read aloud every commandment Moses had given before the whole assembly of Israel, including the women, children, and resident foreigners who lived among them. (Joshua 8:34-35 NET)
This was fulfilled during the ceremony of the Blessing and Curses on mounts Gerizim and Ebal. Given that the altar would have been on Mount Gerizim rather than Ebal as mentioned in point 4, this is another indication that Mount Gerizim is the chosen place.
Here is a good place to mention that the Samaritan narrative paints the Judaeans, the southern kingdom of Israel, to be a rogue faction which departed from the truth as early as the time of Eli. As such, the Judaean writings, among them the book of Joshua, are called into question. I tend to agree with this narrative, as I struggled to understand some of the blatant problems with the remainder of the Tanakh (aka Old Testament) even before I encountered the Samaritan viewpoint. For example, the idea that Samuel was flagrantly disobeying YHWH’s command to only sacrifice at the chosen place, given how 1 Samuel 9 shows him to be offering sacrifice at a forbidden high place, and 1 Samuel 16 even suggests that YHWH himself commanded Samuel to sacrifice in Bethlehem, seems incongruous with the Torah. To contemplate the consequences of disobedience seen throughout the Torah, and to then be asked to believe that serious and flagrant misdeed by Samuel is strangely tolerable to YHWH, who is said to be directly communicating to Samuel his choice of a king for Israel, is a bit difficult to swallow, for me anyway. (See a related post about the problems with Samuel.)
Nonetheless, and regardless of the fact that there are indeed problems in the book of Joshua beyond the scope of this post, I still include this story of the fulfillment of the command to read the Torah aloud to the people of Israel as a genuine example of Judaean acknowledgement of the original chosen place, along with the following point from the same book:
6. Proof from the book of Joshua that the chosen place commandments were already being carefully kept.
Joshua chapter 22 records a very interesting story about an unauthorized altar and the civil war it nearly caused. Remember, the Israelites lived for 38 years on the eastern bank of the Jordan river, the Transjordan, awaiting the day when they would be allowed to enter the land, after the men of the exodus generation had passed away, as punishment for their cowardice (Numbers 13:1-14:35).
During this 38 years, the tribes of Gad, Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh decided they’d prefer to settle down permanently in the Transjordan. They were given permission by Moses to do this, provided they crossed the Jordan into the promised land and participated in the conquest. They agreed, and rebuilt the cities of the Transjordan where they had opted to settle (Numbers 32).
Fast forward to the end of the conquest, and in Joshua chapter 22 these two and a half tribes are released to return home to the Transjordan (Joshua 22:1-9). On their way, they build an altar on the west bank:
The Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan and built there, near the Jordan, an impressive altar.(Joshua 22:10)
When the rest of the nation hears about it, they are so incensed that they are ready to start a civil war:
The Israelites received this report: “Look, the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar at the entrance to the land of Canaan, at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side.” When the Israelites heard this, the entire Israelite community assembled at Shiloh to launch an attack against them.(Joshua 22:11-12)
Luckily, it seems that cooler heads prevailed, and representatives were sent to investigate:
The Israelites sent Phinehas, son of Eleazar, the priest, to the land of Gilead to the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. He was accompanied by ten leaders, one from each of the Israelite tribes, each one a family leader among the Israelite clans.(Joshua 22:13-14)
Here is how they confronted the two and a half tribes over the altar they had built:
“The entire community of YHWH says, ‘Why have you disobeyed the God of Israel by turning back today from following YHWH? You built an altar for yourselves and have rebelled today against YHWH. The sin we committed at Peor was bad enough. To this very day we have not purified ourselves; it even brought a plague on the community of YHWH. Now today you dare to turn back from following YHWH! You are rebelling today against YHWH; tomorrow he may break out in anger against the entire community of Israel. But if your own land is impure, cross over to YHWH’s own land, where YHWH himself lives, and settle down among us. But don’t rebel against YHWH or us by building for yourselves an altar aside from the altar of YHWH our God.”(Joshua 22:16-19)
The accusation here is that there is already a litany of sins Israel has committed, some for which proper atonement is yet to be achieved, and here you are adding to them by building an unauthorized altar?
Additionally, if one examines the commandment to build the altar in Deuteronomy, one finds this:
Then you must build an altar there to YHWH your God, an altar of stones – do not use an iron tool on them.Deuteronomy 27:5
The commandment requires an “altar to YHWH your God” to be built, and this story in Joshua 22 refers to the “altar of YHWH our God“. Clearly these altars are one and the same. This altar, built at the chosen place (Joshua 8:30), is the very same altar the nation is protecting as the one and only authorized for sacrifice, at the one and only chosen place.
As you read further, the argument presented by the two and a half tribes is that their altar is simply a memorial, that there was no intention of offering sacrifices upon it. This mollifies the representatives of the rest of the nation, and a crisis is averted.
Imagine if you will that instead of traveling east to the Transjordan, the two and a half tribes had journeyed south to Jerusalem, (a Jebusite city at the time), and built an altar there. Would it have changed this story? Not at all! Clearly the Altar of YHWH was already established, and the commandments related to it were being treated very seriously by the nation of Israel during their early years in the land of their inheritance. This makes the flagrant abuse of these commandments by the time of Samuel, as mentioned in the previous point, so difficult to understand and accept.
7. Josephus notes that when Jotham spoke from Gerizim, it was during a public festival.
In Judges chapter 9, Jotham speaks to a multitude of people from Mount Gerizim:
When Jotham heard the news, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He spoke loudly to the people below, “Listen to me, leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you! (Judges 9:7 NET)
Historian Flavius Josephus tells us this occurred during a public festival:
Now when, on a certain time, there was a publick festival at Shechem, and all the multitude was there gathered together, Jotham his brother, whose escape we before related, went up to mount Gerizzim, which hangs over the city Shechem; and cried out so as to be heard by the multitude, who were attentive to him.Antiquities of the Jews, Book V
This further demonstrates that Shechem was the capital of Israel and the chosen place where the nation was holding its pilgrimage feasts.
8. Rehoboam was crowned in Shechem
Rehoboam traveled to Shechem, for all Israel had gathered in Shechem to make Rehoboam king.(1 Kings 12:1)
Again, an indication that Shechem was the capital of Israel at the time.
There are only two ways that Jerusalem could have reasonably ended up as the chosen place: 1) “will choose” allowed for hundreds of years in the land before the chosen place was identified, or 2) the chosen place might have been Mount Gerizim initially, but moved later. In my opinion, the admonishment to observe the chosen place commandments for as long as they lived in the land (Deuteronomy 12:1) along with the story of the unauthorized altar in Joshua 22, completely invalidates the first option, while the prohibition to add to or subtract from Moses’ commandments regarding the chosen place in Deuteronomy 12:32 (13:1 in Hebrew bibles) invalidates the second.
The above eight points summarize the reasons for my conclusion that Shechem and Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem and the temple, was and remains the location of Israel’s true capital and Deuteronomy’s chosen place.
So why was a temple built in Jerusalem? I will explore the Judaean political motivation behind that in a future article.
One final point, if I may
I’m including this at the very end of this article, because it is a point that I believe is worth considering, but may lack the evidentiary strength of some of the points above. When considering the truth of a scriptural matter, I always like to have external corroboration, and for this point none exists that I have found so far.
The Israelite Samaritan version of the 10 commandment differs from the Judaean version. Whereas the Judaean version considers the first commandment to be “I, YHWH, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery”, the Samaritans consider this an opening statement rather than a commandment. Their 10th commandment is entirely absent from the MT, and is a directive to build an altar to YHWH on Mount Gerizim:
And when Shehmaa (YHWH) your Eloowwem (Elohim) will bring you to the land of the Kaanannee (Caananites) which you are going to inherit, you shall set up for yourselves great stones and lime them with lime. And you shall write on them all the words of this law. And when you have passed over the Yaardaan (Jordan) you shall set up these stones, which I command you today, in Aargaareezem (Mount Gerizim). And there you shall build an altar to Shehmaa your Eloowwem, an altar of stones. You shall lift up no iron on them. And you shall build the altar of Shehmaa your Eloowwem of complete stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings thereupon to Shehmaa your Eloowwem. And you shall sacrifice offerings and shall eat there. And you shall rejoice before Shehmaa your Eloowwem. That mountain, in the other side of the Yaardaan, beyond the way toward the sunset, in the land of the Kaanannee who dwell in the prairie, before the Gaalgaal (Gilgal), beside the Aalone moora (oak of Moreh), before Ashkem (Shekhem).(from The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version, with words in parenthesis added by me for clarification.)
This commandment is very similar to commandments related to the ceremony of the blessings and curses to be held on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal in Deuteronomy 11 and 27. While I cannot corroborate the originality of this commandment externally, I do find it very interesting that immediately after the 10 commandments in the MT, just after the Israelites have heard YHWH speak and in fear have asked Moses to speak to them on YHWH’s behalf lest they die, one reads:
YHWH said to Moses: “Thus you will tell the Israelites: ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. You must not make gods of silver alongside me, nor make gods of gold for yourselves. ‘You must make for me an altar made of earth, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you must not build it of stones shaped with tools, for if you use your tool on it you have defiled it. And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed.’(Exodus 20:22-26)
This seems jarringly out of place without the Samaritan 10th commandment, but makes perfect sense with it. This is not proof of the originality of the Samaritan 10th commandment by any means, but makes it reasonable to me that it was there originally.
Further, one must ask oneself why there is a commandment about an altar of stones here? This is very early in the 40 years the Israelite spent in the wilderness and the Transjordan before entering the land, and the altar they used in conjunction with the tabernacle was built of acacia wood and covered in bronze. The altar here is described by YHWH as altar they “must make for me” and “my altar”. In the book of Joshua the altar in the chosen place (see point 6 above) is referred to as the “altar of YHWH” which dovetails nicely with this. Where else did the Israelites ever build a stone altar? Moses built an altar for the ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24, but then by Exodus 27 the tabernacle’s portable altar is described, and is used for the duration of their journey.
In the above passage regarding these altar requirements, The MT reads “In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you”, suggesting there could be many places such an altar might be built. The Samaritan Torah reads “In the place where I have mentioned My name, I will come to you and bless you”, suggesting a single location.
We know of only the altar built for the ratification ceremony that was possibly built of unhewn stone, after these instructions were given, and then the tabernacle’s portable altar. When they are preparing to enter the land, in Deuteronomy they are instructed that there will be only one place for an altar.
Is it just me, or does the Samaritan version seem more logical and reasonable?
Certainly if the Samaritan 10th commandment is original, when the Judaeans sought to make Jerusalem the chosen place, it would have been removed along with the other changes such as Mount Ebal in place of Gerezim in Deuteronomy 27:4, and “will choose” instead of “has chosen” throughout Deuteronomy.