At sacred and ancient Jewish site Joseph’s Tomb, battles rage on

In discussing Joseph’s Tomb, the late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost archaeologists, noted that its “location is known with the utmost degree of certainty … based on continuous documentation since biblical times.”

While Joseph was initially buried in Egypt, Moses took Joseph’s bones with the Israelites as they escaped from slavery, in accordance with Joseph’s entreaty “‘G-d will surely visit you and you shall carry up my bones with you from here’” (Exodus 13:19). The very fact that Moses managed to find the bones of Joseph was itself miraculous, given that over 210 years had passed. As the Talmud explains, “It is related that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked if she knew where her uncle was buried. She answered him, ‘The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters shall be blessed.’ Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and exclaimed, ‘Joseph, Joseph! The time has arrived which the Holy One blessed be He swore — I will deliver you and the oath which thou didst impose upon the Israelite has reached the time of fulfillment.’ Immediately Joseph’s coffin floated on the surface of the water.”

According to the Book of Joshua (24:32), “The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.” From here we see that his remains have rested in Joseph’s Tomb since the Exodus.

There is also consensus on the location of Joseph’s Tomb in a wide range of sources, including ancient rabbinic texts and Midrashic literature, as well as the records of early church historian Eusebius, Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, and 19th century British cartographers. As Irish writer and historian William Cooke Taylor wrote in 1838, “The present monument is a place of resort not only for Jews and Christians but Mohammedans and Samaritans; all of whom concur in the belief that it stands on the verifiable spot where the patriarch was buried.” In 1847, John Wilson claimed that one of the visitors’ names written in Hebrew and Samaritan letters on Joseph’s Tomb hinted at the tomb’s repair around 1749 by a Jew from Egypt, Elijah son of Meir.

Following the Six Day War, Israel regained access to Joseph’s Tomb and a Jewish seminary was built at the holy site in the 1980s. While Shechem (Nablus) was given to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, Israel retained control of Joseph’s Tomb. However, in October 2000, Israel withdrew in reaction to violent clashes around Joseph’s Tomb, with the understanding that the Palestinian Authority police would keep order there. It remains unclear what role these authorities played when a mob ransacked Joseph’s Tomb, destroying Jewish holy books in the process. Soon afterward, the Palestinians attempted to rebuild Joseph’s Tomb as a mosque. Since then, the Palestinians have desecrated the holy site on more than one occasion. At press time, a limited number of Israelis are allowed to visit Joseph’s Tomb, only once a month under tight IDF supervision.

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By Rachel Avraham, staff writer at United with Israel