Mount Nebo PDF Print E-mail
Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. Yahweh showed him all the land of Gilead, to Dan, and all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, to the hinder sea, and the South, and the Plain of the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, to Zoar. Yahweh said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your seed.’ I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”
So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Yahweh. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor: but no man knows of his tomb to this day. (Deuteronomy 34: 1-6)
The mountain called Nebo juts out from Jordan's central plateau across from Jericho. At 2230 feet above sea level, it affords a fantastic view. Even on the clearest of mornings, however, the eye does not stretch as far as Moses' did. Our view is blocked by the Mt. of Olives to the west; south of it we can make out Bethlehem and Herodium; further south, we can look down the length of the Dead Sea toward ancient Zoar. When we turn to the north, however, our line of sight is limited by the highlands of Gilead on the Jordanian side. We can see, west of the Jordan, the mountains of the central range. There is no hulk to impede us from seeing the Beth Shean Valley and even part of Naphtali, but Dan (then Laish) lies just around a corner out of sight. Fertile land is at best a green blur in the far distance. What we see clearly all around is wilderness punctuated by oases, plus a salty sea. We may wonder what Moses' response would have been if his eyes had been as limited as ours: What! More desert?

Sightlines from Mt. Nebo

Despite the limitations, this peak is the best candidate for the Biblical mountain. In the 4th century AD there was a rectangular structure on the site which the Byzantines converted into a small church. Around 380 Egeria, impelled by God, made a trip from Jerusalem “into Arabia, to Mount Nebo,” accompanied by holy men. After seeing the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan (but she does not mention Jesus’ baptism !), she asked the presbyter from a town nearby to guide them, “because he knew the area so well.” They made a little detour to see the place where Moses had gotten water from the rock, in her day “a plentiful spring ... beautifully clear and with an excellent taste…. A great many monks lived there, truly holy men of the kind known here as ascetics.”

Note that the Byzantines located this miracle, "water from the rock," far from the area where logic would put it. For directly after this event, according to Numbers 20, Moses seeks permission from the king of Edom to pass through his territory. In the area of Nebo, however, we are north of Edom - the Israelites are long past it! Perhaps the Byzantines weren't sure where Edom had been, and because the story of "water from the rock" ends with Yahweh's punishing Moses (as reiterated in the Nebo story), they were led to place the event near Nebo.

Egeria continues:
Then we set off for the mountain, and with us came the holy clergy and monks who had accompanied us, and many of the holy monks who lived near the spring were kind enough to come too, or at least the ones who had the energy to ascend Mount Nebo. So we set out and came to the foot of Mount Neho; it was very high, but mostly possible to ascend on the donkeys, though there were some steeper parts where we had to dismount, and it was hard going.
On reaching the mountain-top we came to a church, not a very big one, right on the summit of Mount Nebo, and inside, in the position of the pulpit, I saw a slightly raised place about the size of a normal tomb. I asked about it, and the holy men replied. “Holy Moses was buried here by angels, since the Bible tells us ‘No human being knoweth his burial’. And there is no doubt that it was angels who buried him, since the actual tomb where he was buried can he seen today. Our predecessors here pointed out this place to us, and now we point it out to you. They told us that this tradition came from their predecessors”. (Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land, translated by John Wilkinson, Jerusalem: Ariel, 1981, pp. 103, 108).
Then the presbyters and monks of the place asked Egeria and her party: “Would you like to see the places which are described in the Books of Moses? If so, go out of the church door to the actual summit, the place which has the view, and spend a little time looking at it. We will tell you which places you can see.” Egeria reported that “the height in front of the church door, where we were standing, jutted out over the valley. In fact from there you can see most of Palestine, the Promised Land and everything in the area of Jordan as far as the eye can see.” But when it comes to particulars, Egeria mentions no places beyond the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, and some nearby towns on the Arabian side. Pointing south, her guides showed her
…the whole country of the Sodomites, including Zoar, the only one of the five cities which remains today. There is still something left of it, but all that is left of the others is heaps of ruins, because they were burned to ashes. We were also shown the place where Lot’s wife had her memorial, as you read in the Bible. But what we saw, reverend ladies, was not the actual pillar, but only the place where it had once been. The pillar itself, they say, has been submerged in the Dead Sea - at any rate we did not see it, and I cannot pretend we did. (Ibid.)
Nebo in its Setting

It may seem odd that the monks at Nebo claimed to have Moses’ tomb, since the Bible is quite explicit on two points: that he was buried in a nearby valley (gai in Hebrew) and that no one knows where. Yet a century later, Peter the Iberian, an old infirm bishop from Gaza, visited Nebo while seeking a cure and heard the identical claim. Peter raised the Biblical account as an objection, but he was told by the monks in reply:
A shepherd from the village of Neho (Nabu), which is situated on the south side of the mountain, whilst leading his flock to pasture, brought it to this place. On arriving here, he saw, as in a vision, a very large cave, filled with much light, pleasing odor and splendor. Filled with astonishment for never before had anything of the kind been seen at that place - he, strengthened by divine power, ventured to descend into that cave, and saw a venerable old man whose face was brilliant and beaming with kindness, and who was reposing on a luminous bed resplendent with glory and grace. (From John Rufus, "The Life of Peter the Iberian," translated by S. Saller, The Memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo, 1, Jerusalem 1941, pp. 341-347).
Realizing that this was Moses, the shepherd made heaps of stones to mark the spot, for he understood that the sight might be gone when he returned. He then ran to tell his neighbors. Although there were only the stones to see by the time the excited crowd arrived, people believed the shepherd and built a "temple" there, as Peter the Iberian puts it. Perhaps it was the rectangular structure that formed the basis for the church that Egeria and Peter saw. Many healings, reports Peter, have occurred at the spot since then. None occurred for him, however, and he continued his journey to hot springs further south.

The example shows how easily a tradition could spring up in the Byzantine period, even one that plainly contradicts the Bible. Unfortunately, we depend on Byzantine traditions for many site identifications. It is hazardous to rely on them alone.

Beneath the mosaic floors of the earliest church, archaeologists discovered six tombs carved from bedrock. One was in the center. Perhaps this was the cave the shepherd entered, and the builders kept it in the center to honor it. On the east side of the southern aisle, the archaeologists discovered near the pulpit a platform of the original church; they identified it as the memorial of Moses seen by Egeria and Peter. The place is marked in the basilica of today.

In 531 AD (we know from a mosaic inscription), the church was enlarged. The central panel of its baptistery has a mosaic showing scenes from animal herding and hunting. Its inscription credits the work to three artisans from nearby Madaba.

Mosaic in baptistery on Mt Nebo

The Franciscans comment on this mosaic:
There is a hieratic formality in the composition of these three artisans of Madaba, a canon of conventionality which has transformed the original meaning of the episodes into more or less symbolical decorative patterns. Contributing to this effect is the poverty of color; everything is reduced to the few essential shades which could be provided by local materials, plus the black outline that locks the mosaic figures into a frozen immobility, even when depicted in motion. This latter technique was generously exploited by the mosaic artisans of the Madaba school and the work at Nebo is one of their earliest and most beautiful achievements. (Source)
In 597 the church was rebuilt, and a mosaic was laid on top of the shepherds and hunters. This newer one is now displayed on the wall above its predecessor.

The monastery and church, including a 7th-century chapel dedicated to Mary the God-bearer (Theotokos), remained here until at least the 13th century. By the 16th it was abandoned. In 1933, the Franciscans purchased the land with the help of the Emir Abdullah of Jordan. They founded a modern monastery and erected the basilica that stands today.

Mount Nebo Basilica

Outside, on the edge of the promontory, is a bronze by Giovanni Fantoni. It combines the story of the bronze serpent made by Moses in the wilderness, as told in Numbers 21: 4-9, with John 3:14:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up."

Cross at Nebo