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Tabor in the Old Testament

(by Teresa Petrozzi - translated by Raphael Bonanno ofm)

The book of Joshua places sixteen cities in the territory of Issachar and specifies that the frontier "touched Tabor" (Js 19: 17-22). Moreover it says that the lands assigned to Zebulun reached the edge of Dobrath (Js 19:12), today called Daburiyeh or Khirbet Dabura respectively to the west and north of the mountain, while the lands of Naphtali reached up to Aznot Tabor (Js 19:34), which according to research lies probably to the east. Tabor then was right at the point of convergence of the boundaries of the three tribes.

In many religions the mountains have a sacred character. The Israelite religion was no exception and in the Old Testament we find numerous references to mountains that were considered sacred. We cite some here: "When Yahweh had finished talking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony" (Ex 31:18); Elijah climbed up Horeb, "the mountain of God" (1 K 19:8);

Isaiah foretold: "It will happen in the final days that the mountain of Yahweh's house will rise higher than the mountains and tower above the heights" (Is 2:2); Daniel prayed: "Lord, by all your acts of saving justice, turn away your anger and your fury from Jerusalem, your city, your holy mountain" (Dn 9:16).

Tabor, with its stately summit dominating the surrounding plains,must have impressed the Israelite mind. The mountain could have endured with its sacred character in Israelite popular religious feeling, which at times was not fully orthodox.

On the other hand, in the episode of Deborah (Jg 4 & 5), which happened around Mount Tabor, it is obvious that the cult of Yahweh has already been set up on the mountain. In this sense the verse 4:6 is especially important. In this verse Deborah commanded Barak to gather his troops on Tabor: this movement must not have been dictated so much by strategy as by the wish to pray to the true God in view of the coming battle against the invaders. The blessing of Moses can also be considered as recognition of a legitimate cult in his time. The redactor of Dt 33: 18-19, in writing " Prosper, Zebulun, in your expeditions, and you, Issachar, in your tents ! On the mountain where the people come to pray they offer upright sacrifices," would have thought of Tabor, the only important mountain where the two tribes could easily climb and meet.

Tabor appears later in the episode of Jg 8:18: on the mountain the leaders of the Madianites killed the brothers of Gideon.

Then there are two controversial passages. In 1 S 10: 3 Samuel orders Saul, who was recently anointed as king, to go to the "Oak of Tabor" in the region of Bethel. It is also possible that "on the mountains of Ephraim" there was a place called Tabor; Mt Tabor seems more certain and different good translations read "Oak of Deborah", recalling Jg 4:5 where it says that the prophetess "sat below Deborah's palm tree, between Ramah and Bethel."

In I Chr 6:62 the Levitical cities are listed: “The rest of the Merarites received from the tribe of Zebulun: Rimmon with its pasture lands, and Tabor with its pasture lands.” According to the scholars this “Tabor” is an improbable reading because a city with this name in the territory of Zebulun is not recalled in other passages. Consequently some propose to read Chislot-Tabor (Js 19: 12; 23: 35); others, remembering the parallel text of Js 19: 15, say that it means Nahalal.

Tabor appears later in Hosea, the prophet who ministered in the second half of the 8th c.BC in the kingdom of Israel. After Deborah’s time the idol of the mountain must have been restored to honor because the tribes of the north continued to practice a syncretistic worship.

This cult had become official under Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel (930-910 BC), with the erection of the images to the bulls in Bethel and Dan. Achab (874-853 BC) also constructed a temple dedicated to the god Baal, in Samaria, at that time the capital of his kingdom. Later Elijah had killed off the idolatrous priests (I Kgs 18: 40) and Jehu in addition destroyed the temple in Samaria (II Kgs 10:25-27). Moreover these actions had no lasting effect and so Hosea declared firmly: “Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked” (2: 19) and he denounced the priests and princes for their responsiblity in the matter: “Hear this, O priests, pay attention, O house of Israel, O household of the king, give ear ! It is you who are called to judgment. For you have become a snare at Mizpah, and a net spread over Tabor” (5:1).

We find Tabor later in another prophet, Jeremiah, who considers it, together with Mt Carmel, as a symbol of preeminence. In the prophecies against the nations Jeremiah actually emphasizes the superioity of Nebuchadnezzar and compares him to the two mountains: “Like Tabor among the mountains he shall come, like Carmel above the sea” (48:18). In the Old Testament Tabor is mentioned for the last time in Psalm 89, which is full of celebration of God’s faithfulness: “Tabor and Hermon rejoice at your name” (v. 13).

In the panorama of the Old Testament the story of the encounter between Melchizedek and Abram merits a special study because it is linked to Tabor by a tradition.

The reference is in Gn 14: 17-20: "When Abram returned from his victory over Chedorlaomer and the kings who were allied with him, the king of Sodom went out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). Melchizedek, king of salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram with these words: `Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High who delivered your foes into your hand.'Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything."

Different theories are advanced about the place of this encounter. Due to the reference in Ps 76:3, which makes Salem close to Sion (In Salem is his abode, his dwelling is in Zion), a Jewish tradition placed the site in Jerusalem. According to the targum Onkelos and the targum Jonathan the two personages would have met "in the plain of Mefana, where there was a camp for the king's races"; according to Flavius Josephus, in the Valley of the King, that is, near the pool of Siloam. Later it is transferred up to the esplanade of the Temple.

A second tradition came to light with a Qumran scroll from cave 1, written in aramaic and discovered in 1947: "And the king of Sodom [...] went up towards him and came to Salem which is Jerusalem. And Abram was encamped in the Valley of Shave, that is the Little Valley of the King, in the plain of Beth ha-Kerem." Therefore the meeting would have happened near present-day Ain Karim. Avigad and Yadin hold that the scroll dates from the 1st c. BC to the 1st c. AD.; which moreover does not fix the original date, inasmuch as the scroll can be either the tradition of a more ancient hebrew text or the copy of a more ancient aramaic one. Consequently even the time when this tradition began remains obscure; it is only possible to say that this tradition is parallel to the first.

Another tradition, also of undetermined origin, is that of the Samaritans, who transfer the meeting to Samaria, and exactly on Mt Garizim, their holy mountain. The Samaritans are justified in a certain sense because of Gn 33: 18: "And Jacob arrived in Salem, the city of Shechem" (Septuagint version and Vulgate) and the "valley of Salem" (Jdt 4: 4) is found in Samaria.

The Jewish-Christians placed the meeting in the grotto under Calvary, which they considered the center of the world and where all the principal actions of the Patriarchs took place and finally where Jesus would have descended into the lower regions of the earth (Eph 4: 9) through the split in the rock (Mt 27: 52). In that grotto, " the place where the redemption of the world was fulfilled", Sem had buried Adam and Melchizedek, as a priest, guarded the tomb[1]. Subsequently, the first pilgrim to speak of tradition was the Anonymous of Piacenza in 570 AD and the reference was repeated sporadically by the western pilgrims.

In the 4th c. appeared the theory that Salem was in the Jordan valley. Supporters of this theory were Eusebius and Egeria[2]. They saw this Salem in the ruins of the palace of Melchizedek. St. Jerome, after having thought it was in Jerusalem[3], took up the theory of the Jordan (PL 22, 680) and finally returned to his first opinion (PL 22, 883).

In the meantime the Melchizedekians, members of a gnostic sect, had taken the tradition on to Mt Tabor, where one of their centers existed.

Tabor was also recognized as the place of the encounter by the Church of the Gentiles. St Athanasius bishop of Alexandria in the 4th c. wrote the History of Melchizedek (PG 28, 525-530). This story, which explains with some fantasy the reason why Melchizedek is called the man "without a geneaology" (Heb 7:3), probably influenced the Copts and flourished in the tradition of the mountain at least until the 14th c. As regards Tabor, the holy bishop narrates that, after tragic events in his family, Melchizedek stayed on the mountain for seven years, naked as the day he was born. His fingernails were as long as the palm of your hand, his hair grew down to his waist, and his skin became as hard as a turtle's shell. He ate berries and drank dew-water.

After seven years a voice said to Abram:"Prepare your horse, dress in your best clothes, climb Tabor and call out three times `Man of God' and a savage will appear to you. Do not be afraid, shave him and cut his nails, clothe him and accept his blessing."

Abram did as he was told and everything happened just as God had said. After three days Melchizedek descended from Tabor and blessed Abram. Later when Abram returned from having killed the kings, Melchizedek offered him a chalice of wine with a little piece of bread in it and did the same for the 318 men with Abram. This was a prototype of the unbloody sacrifice of the Savior.

According to a Coptic text, the Lord ordered Abram to climb Tabor with bread, wine and water, to call Melchizedek, cut his hair, nails and beard and to eat of the meat-cuts before offering them to him. Abram followed the order and Melchizedek blessed him. The text, called by Goodenough "The Prayer of the Bread", ends with an invocation: "So now once again, Lord, may you be the one to bless this bread; give it to your servant as a sign of union." The magical practice of eating the meat-cuts is pre-Christian or at least independent of Christianity. Nevertheless the end of the prayer clearly indicates that the bread must be eaten as a sacrament of the mystical marriage between the faithful soul and God. In all probability, the Copts, and perhaps before them the Melchizedekians, had christianized a custom and ritual already in existence. This seems to be the journey that this tradition took. Hertsberg, who maintained that Melchizedek was a personage from northern Canaan and probably a priest of Baal Sedeq, proposed an inverted theory: the tradition of the Canaanite priest-king, originally connected to Tabor, would have been transferred by the Jews, Samaritans and Christians to their most holy places.

From their side the visitors to Tabor saw the place of the meeting in Daburiyeh, the village at the foot of the mount, or on top of Tabor or on a slope. There also were those who thought it was near to Endor, to Naim or at the foot of Mt Gilboa. Some of the chronicles are interesting on this point.

Daniel (1106) says: At the distance of a good arrowshot to the west of the Transfiguration there is a grotto from which Melchizedek came when Abram called out `Man of God'. Daniel takes up again the text of Athanasius: "Abram cut the hair and nails of Melchizedek because the latter was hirsute." In the grotto Melchizedek erected an altar and offered a sacrifice with bread and wine, which God took up into heaven. Daniel explains that this was the beginning of the liturgy with bread and wine and not with the unleavened breads. John of Würzburg (1165) must have heard tell still of one of the ancient beliefs that identified Melchizedek with Sem, Seth, Enoch, Cam, Canaan and Mesraim, sons of Cam, Job, and he specifies: "Melchizedek who was Sem, son of Noah". Theodoric (1172) translates into christian terms whatever remained of the tradition: "On this mount there was erected an elegant church in honor of the Savior, in which some monks serve God under the guidance of an abbot. It is said that in that place there was offered the sacrifice of the Mass for the first time". Moreover, Sanuto (1310), although not referring directly to the encounter, has left us a geographical indication: At two leagues from Nazareth there is Mt Tabor and beyond it to the east there is the valley of Shaveh, which is the valley of the King.

In 1928 Hertsberg recalled that a valley of the southwestern Galilee was still called the valley of the King, in Arabic, Uadi el-Melek.

In our day the tradition of the encounter survives in two places, both on Greek Orthodox property. On Tabor, in a grotto a little to the north of the Gate of the Winds, exactly a good arrowshot to the west of the basilica of the Transfiguration, and in the chapel of Adam under Calvary in Jerusalem.

In the first half of the 17th c. Roger wrote: "Between Mt Armont (Little Hermon) and the mountains of Gilboa one can see in a little valley the place where, they say, Melchizedek offered bread and wine in sacrifice and where there are no ruins left. The stone on which he offered this sacrifice is below Mt Calvary, in the chapel of the Abyssinians." This information explains the duplication of the remembrance in a way that can reflect one side of the reality[4].



[1] E. Testa, Le "Grotte dei Misteri" giudeo-cristiane in LA, 14 (1963-64), 84-105.

[2] Egeria, Sanctae Sylviae peregrinatio ad loca sancta, in P. Geyer, Itinera Hierosolymitana saeculi IV-VIII, Wien 1898,56.

[3] Hebraicae Questiones in libro Geneseos, 33, 18, in CCSL, vol LXXII, Turnhout 1959.

[4] Because of the restoration work in the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the altar of Melchizedek has been temporarily removed. It had been in the little apse, now visible, which probably harkens back to the restoration by Constantine Monomachus (11th c). From the time of Roger until now, the site has changed proprietors.

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