A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.
The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”
And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.
And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.
And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it up—it slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?
A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!
And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itself—completely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.
I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bones—it all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.
And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!
After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”
When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”
When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)
If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.
The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.
But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.
On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.” Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).
Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).
Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.
Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.
What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.