Mount Nebo

What biblical traditions are associated with Mount Nebo?

Mount Nebo is located atop a prominent mountain at the edge of the highlands of western Jordan. Alternatively called Pisgah, Mount Nebo is best known within the biblical text through its association with the traditions of Moses and the early Israelites. In the Hebrew Bible, after the Israelite exodus and desert wanderings, the Israelites camped in the vicinity of Mount Nebo prior to their conquest of Canaan (e.g., Num 23, Num 27). From this camp, Moses climbed Mount Nebo to be shown the entirety of the land of Canaan from north to south (Deut 32,Deut 34). Indeed, the view from Mount Nebo is quite commanding, allowing modern visitors to see much of the Jordan Valley, Dead Sea, and Judean Highlands to the west, including the cities of Jericho, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. The biblical tradition holds that Moses was buried in the vicinity of Mount Nebo (Deut 34).

The Hebrew Bible also records a town called Nebo that is related to the Israelite tribe of Reuben (Num 32:3, Num 32:38; 1Chr 5:8) before it was claimed by the kingdom of Moab (Isa 15:2; Jer 48:1, Jer 48:22). The town called Nebo also appears in an ancient inscription called the Mesha Stela that dates to approximately 850 BCE. The inscription records the account of Mesha, the king of Moab who overthrew Israelite rule by capturing a number of cities including Nebo. An account of these events is also partially recorded in 2Kgs 3, though the biblical text does not mention Nebo.

How was Mount Nebo commemorated?

Mount Nebo does not appear in the New Testament, although the site was revered by Christians for its associations with Moses. Christian reverence of the site is well attested by the construction of a church on the mountain during the Byzantine period (324–640 CE) and by the monastic communities living in the surrounding region.

The Byzantine church was a pilgrimage site, as attested by the female Christian Egeria, who journeyed from western Europe to the holy land in the late-fourth century CE. Egeria describes a visit to the church atop Mount Nebo as well as a small spring to the northwest, traditionally associated with the narrative of Moses striking a rock with his staff to receive water (Num 20). The modern Arabic name of this spring similarly preserves this tradition: ʻUyun Musa or “the Spring of Moses” (one of many such named springs).

What archaeological research is happening at Mount Nebo?

While archaeology cannot substantiate the traditions of Moses, research has clarified two important points. First, it appears that the location currently commemorated as Mount Nebo, locally called Jabal Siyagha, was primarily occupied during the Byzantine period. Second, the Iron Age (1200–500 BCE) town associated with Nebo, as recorded in the Mesha Inscription and the biblical texts, was most likely located 2.5 km to the southeast of Jabal Siyagha at a site called Khirbat al-Mukhayyat. Today, cultural heritage work and archaeological research are conducted at both sites by the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the Town of Nebo Archaeological Project in coordination with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities.

Contributors

  • Danielson-Andrew

    Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles

    Andrew Danielson is a Lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles with research interests in the Bronze and Iron Age Levant. He is currently the Field Director in the Town of Nebo Archaeological Project, directed by Debra Foran of Wilfrid Laurier University.