There is an archeological case that there was an altar or temple on Mt. Ebal from about 1250 BCE to 1150 BCE, after which the Israelite sacrifice and festival destination moved south to Shiloh. Stephen Cook, in Reading Deuteronomy, calls the existence of this Ebal altar “probable”.
But he is not one of those who uses this to claim that everything in Deuteronomy 27 is exactly literal. The claim in chapter 27 that the Israelites engraved the contents of the Deuteronomy law code on stucco-coated stones is a literary claim, not a historical one, he says.
It is interesting to me to know from reading Cook’s earlier book, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism, that he thought that a Shechem sanctuary (Ebal is one of the mountains at Shechem) had been revived in Hosea’s time by dissident Levites. He thought that Hosea 6:9 was about an event:
As bands of robbers lie in wait for a man, So the company of priests murder on the way to Shechem; Surely they commit lewdness (NKJV).
Priests from the official cult at Bethel acted violently against dissident Levites who had a shrine at Shechem. He also thought the Psalms of Asaph originally referred to this site, but that in Hezekiah’s time the references got reassigned to Jerusalem (for example, Psalm 76:2). Thus the tradition of a holy site at Shechem was not too far in the past when Deuteronomy came to be.
So how does Deuteronomy square this altar on Ebal with the centralization of worship at the Jerusalem Temple commanded in 12:5 and enacted in Josiah’s reform?
Deuteronomy never gives God a permanent home. The wilderness pilgrimage is a theme. The people are always on pilgrimage. God is always on the move with them. They pause along the way at sites where God chooses for his name to dwell.
So Moses asks the people to pause in their journey at Mt. Ebal to renew their covenant. According to Joshua 8:30-35, they did. It was a recapitulation of the covenant ceremony already enacted in Exodus 24:3 ff. Horeb, Moab, Gilgal, and Ebal were all places where Israel paused on their trek to experience God’s renewing presence. This is the view of Deuteronomy and Joshua.
I have concluded that the Deuteronomic writers did a fair amount of rewriting history, especially in Joshua. But they did not need to completely cover up the fact that Israel had previously worshiped at other places (I think the P scribes did sometimes feel that need). It was just that by the late monarchy in Judah all the earlier places were defunct or apostate. But Deuteronomy has no need to claim that Israel never worshipped any place else.
After 27:13, we are ready for the blessings and curses ceremony from the two mountains predicted in 11:26-32. However a different ceremony happens. The Levites call out that twelve behaviors are cursed. However, they pronounce no real curses, only prohibitions. The people as a whole, on both mountains it seems, shout “Amen” after each prohibition. According to 27:12 the Levites were among those on Mt. Gerizim and were supposed to shout out blessings.
The actual curses begin in 28:15. They are pronounced by Moses, not shouted out from the two mountains. Of course the people are still in Moab. So the curses may have been the ones shouted out when they got to Shechem
Cook thinks this unevenness results from the mixing of several liturgical traditions that were associated with Shechem. As I noted above, he thinks Deuteronomy is the heir of both older and more recent traditions from an active shrine at Shechem.
The twelve prohibitions of 27:14 ff. call Israel to inward transformation. Saying their Amens affirms that their personal behavior has consequences for society and the land. Cook calls these 12 prohibitions the “Shechemite Dodecologue”, a phrase I hope never to say aloud.
Something that interests me is the fact that the Samaritans, as is well known from the New Testament, had a shrine on Mount Gerizim even though the original shrine seems to have been on Mount Ebal. This was because the ceremony envisioned in 11:29 seemed to curse Mount Ebal.