Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy 27

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Deuteronomy 27

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Law Inscribed on Massive Stones; Curses From Mount Ebal 

God commands Israel to set up an altar and write all the words of the Book of the Law on large plastered stones, virtual walls of stone, when they cross over the Jordan River to occupy the land (verses 1-10). Joshua 8:30-35 Joshua 8:30-35 [30] Then Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal, [31] As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man has lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. [32] And he wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. [33] And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger, as he that was born among them; half of them over against mount Gerizim, and half of them over against mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. [34] And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. [35] There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.
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records that Joshua obeyed this command. Paul later refers to what was written on the massive stones as the “ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” (2 Corinthians 3:7 2 Corinthians 3:7But if the ministration of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:
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). This “ministry” or, in more current terminology, “administration” of death refers to the civil law code which administered the penalties, including the death penalty, for certain violations, as spelled out in the statutes and judgments. The Church today is not to carry out the death penalty. This is the job of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-4 Romans 13:1-4 [1] Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. [2] Whoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. [3] For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Will you then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and you shall have praise of the same: [4] For he is the minister of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil.
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). Rather, the ministry of the Church is to preach reconciliation and eternal life (compare 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 [1] Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, letters of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? [2] You are our letter written in our hearts, known and read of all men: [3] For as much as you are manifestly declared to be the letter of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. [4] And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: [5] Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; [6] Who also has made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. [7] But if the ministration of death, written and engraved in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: [8] How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? [9] For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more does the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. [10] For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excels. [11] For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remains is glorious. [12] Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: [13] And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: [14] But their minds were blinded: for until this day remains the same veil not taken away in the reading of the old testament; which veil is done away in Christ. [15] But even to this day, when Moses is read, the veil is on their heart. [16] Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away. [17] Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. [18] But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD.
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; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 [18] And all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them; and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. [20] Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be you reconciled to God. [21] For he has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
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).

God commanded Israel to proclaim the blessings for obedience on Mount Gerizim, and the curses for disobedience on Mount Ebal (verses 11-13). The Nelson Study Bible notes: “Mount Ebal was north of Mount Gerizim (vv. 12, 13). Between the two mountains was the city of Shechem (Genesis 12:6, 7; Genesis 33:18-20 Genesis 33:18-20 [18] And Jacob came to Shalem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padanaram; and pitched his tent before the city. [19] And he bought a parcel of a field, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for an hundred pieces of money. [20] And he erected there an altar, and called it EleloheIsrael.
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). Shechem and its two mountains are roughly in the center of the land of Canaan” (note on 27:4). Adding more detail: “Ebal and Gerizim are two important peaks in central Canaan flanking an east-west pass through the north-central hill country. Almost the entire Promised Land is visible from the top of Mount Ebal” (note on Joshua 8:30 Joshua 8:30Then Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal,
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). Revealing more: “The Lord used the topography of the land for dramatic, visual effect. Mount Ebal, because of topographical and climatic conditions, is normally a barren peak while Mount Gerizim is usually covered with vegetation. Consequently, Mount Ebal was an ideal place for the curses to be recited, and Mount Gerizim was suitable for the blessings. The association of the place and the word would have been unforgettable. Furthermore, the two mountains are quite close [rising up on opposite sides of Shechem], so they would serve as a natural amphitheater for the recitation of the curses and blessings by the Levites” (note on Deuteronomy 24:11-14 Deuteronomy 24:11-14 [11] You shall stand abroad, and the man to whom you do lend shall bring out the pledge abroad to you. [12] And if the man be poor, you shall not sleep with his pledge: [13] In any case you shall deliver him the pledge again when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his own raiment, and bless you: and it shall be righteousness to you before the LORD your God. [14] You shall not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of your brothers, or of your strangers that are in your land within your gates:
American King James Version×
).

This is also where the massive engraved stones and accompanying altar would be set up (Joshua 8:30-35 Joshua 8:30-35 [30] Then Joshua built an altar to the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal, [31] As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man has lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. [32] And he wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. [33] And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger, as he that was born among them; half of them over against mount Gerizim, and half of them over against mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. [34] And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. [35] There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.
American King James Version×
). Disobedience would bring “curses” or punishment from God. Twelve curses were proclaimed to which the people were to respond. Disobedient conduct included: idolatry (verse 15); disrespectful conduct towards parents (verse 16; compare verses 20, 22); dishonest, deceitful and violent conduct toward one’s neighbor (verses 17, 24-25); improper conduct towards the handicapped or the poor (verses 18-19); and sexual perversions (verses 20-23). The people were to confirm that these actions were in fact worthy of punishment—not just in responding with “Amen” but, more importantly, by living in accordance with the law that forbade them (verse 26).

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