When Did the Ceremony on Mt. Eival Occur?


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"On the Day that You Cross"

In Devarim 27, Hashem speaks of the ceremony to be held on Mt. Eival and Mt. Gerizim after the nation enters Israel.  The people are told to set up stones, write upon them words of Torah, make an altar, and to recite the blessings and curses which are to befall those who observe or transgress the commandments.  The verses further stipulate that this event is to take place on the very day that the nation enters Israel:

(ב) וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וַהֲקֵמֹתָ לְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ אֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד.
(2) And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over the Jordan unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee,that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaster them with plaster. (3) And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over; that thou mayest go in unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of thy fathers, hath promised thee.

Yehoshua 8 describes the fulfillment of the command:

(ל) אָז יִבְנֶה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מִזְבֵּחַ לַי"י אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר עֵיבָל. (לא) כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד י"י אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּכָּתוּב בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא הֵנִיף עֲלֵיהֶן בַּרְזֶל וַיַּעֲלוּ עָלָיו עֹלוֹת לַי"י וַיִּזְבְּחוּ שְׁלָמִים.
(30) Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord, the God of Israel, in mount Ebal, (31) as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron; and they offered thereon burnt-offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace-offerings.

The event is placed after the conquest of the Ai, suggesting that, in contrast to the original directive, Yehoshua did not enact the ceremony on the day of the crossing of the Jordan, but rather much later.  The verse nonetheless goes out of its way to tell us that Yehoshua acted as commanded.  How is this contradiction to be understood?  When did the ceremony take place, on the very day that the nation entered Israel, or only months later?  If Yehoshua veered from Hashem's command, what led him to do so?  If not, why is the story not told in its chronological place?

Location of the Mountains

Devarim 11 elaborates on the location of Mt. Eival and Gerizim, giving several different landmarks to help identify the mountains:

(כט) וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ י"י אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָתַתָּה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה עַל הַר גְּרִזִים וְאֶת הַקְּלָלָה עַל הַר עֵיבָל. (ל) הֲלֹא הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה.
(29) And it shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal. (30) Are they not beyond the Jordan, behind the way of the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites that dwell in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the terebinths of Moreh?

Despite the detailed description, however, the location is unclear as the verse's markers appear to contradict each other.  On one hand, the phrase "בָּעֲרָבָה מוּל הַגִּלְגָּל" suggests an eastern location, close to the Jordan and Yericho.  Yet, the very next descriptor, "אֵצֶל אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה", suggests an area in the vicinity of Shekhem, in the central region of the land.1 The third term, "אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ" is ambiguous.  Is "דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ" where the sun rises or sets?  What does it mean that the mountains are "after" such a path?  The issue is crucial for understanding the timing of the ceremony.  If the mountains were close to Shekhem, it is difficult to see how it would have been possible for the entire nation to travel such a distance in one day, especially considering that much of the path would have been through enemy territory!

Doublings in Devarim

The wording of the directive in Devarim 27 raises further questions. Verses 4-8 appear to repeat the content of the first three verses of the chapter.  Where verse 2 opens "וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן", verse 4 echoes "וְהָיָה בְּעׇבְרְכֶם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן".   In both units Hashem commands the nation to establish stones and to write upon them.  However, only in the second section does Hashem mention the building of the altar or the names of the mountains. How are both the doubling and the differences to be understood? In addition, though the unit ends with the discussion of the recitation of the blessings and curses (verses 11ff), this is set off as a new command, with its own opening.2  Why is this directive disconnected from what preceded it?

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