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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Covenant Renewal Ceremony - Deuteronomy 27


With Deuteronomy 26, Moses started ending his second speech. He reminded the Israelites of the most important things – God chose them to be His people and their response to His love (their offerings and obeying His commands). In chapter 27, Moses reminded them of the rewards for obeying and disobeying God’s commandments and statutes. He taught them, too, about a one-time ceremony God commanded they hold when they entered the Promised Land.
Chapter 27 differs from the rest of Moses’ second speech/sermon. In it, the writer spoke of Moses in the third person using past tense. This gives chapter 27 a narrative feel just as Deuteronomy 4:44-46, 5:1, and chapters 31-34. Because of this, many scholars believe another person added to Moses’ writing of Deuteronomy. It would make sense to hold this understanding. Perhaps Joshua added more to the book of Deuteronomy than just the last chapter, which chronicles Moses’ death.

Another thing to notice, it looks like it comprised of three sections - vs. 1-8, vs. 9-10, and vs. 11-26. A few scholars believe verses nine and ten have no direct connection with the rest of the chapter. They consider it the transition between chapter twenty-six and chapter twenty-eight. If that is the case, then these scholars state another writer added verses 1-8 and 11-26 after Moses and Joshua penned the original book of Deuteronomy. After studying the text, I agree with scholars such as Matthew Henry and John Wesley. Verses nine and ten start the ceremony Moses taught the Israelites for when they entered the Promised Land. The silence at the time of Moses’ teaching applied, too, because he just reminded them of God’s love to them. Any time a person is reminded of God’s love and mercy, a moment of silence is good to reflect on it and return thanks, reverence, and love to Him. Because verses nine and ten fit into the whole of the ceremony, I feel just two distinct parts to this chapter occur with four distinct groups of players – Moses, elders, priests, and Israelites.

Ceremony for Covenant Renewal

The altar.

In verses 1 through 8, Moses and the elders ordered the Israelites to follow God’s commands about writing His laws in plaster upon stones and setting up an altar made of unhewn stones. In the beginning of this speech, Moses told them when they crossed the Jordan River into the land that God gives them they were to set up stones. From verse two, Moses said the Israelites were to set up the stones as soon as they crossed the river at Gilgal, yet verse four told them they were to set up the stones at Mount Ebal, which was further north in Shechem. Most people believe they set up the altar and stones after Gilgal when they reached Shechem
God’s gave specific commands on how to set up the stones. Verses 2-3 say they were to use large stones, coat them with lime, and write on them all the words of the law. Verse 4 reiterates this. Later in verse 8, Moses commanded the Israelites write the law in a distinct manner on the stones. The word “write” in verses three and eight comes from the Hebrew word kathab and means to inscribe or engrave. This marker was to be a permanent reminder of the Israelites’ covenant with God. Many scholars over the millennia have queried which “laws” God commanded them to write on the stones. Did “laws” mean the Ten Commandments, all the commands, statutes, and decrees of God in the book of Deuteronomy, or a shortened version of it? No definitive thought has emerged as to which is correct, but we must consider that if the Israelites engraved Deuteronomy 4:44-26 on the stones, the engraving would have taken many months to finish. Some scholars believe the “laws” to be engraved were the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy 5. Others think God could have meant a much shorter version such as what Moses wrote in Exodus 24:4 or Joshua in Joshua 24:26.

Besides setting up stones and engraving God’s laws upon them, Moses commanded they set up an altar on Mount Ebal. Verses 5-7 say,
Moreover, you shall build there an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones; you shall not wield an iron tool on them. You shall build the altar of the LORD your God and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there and rejoice before the LORD your God. [NASB]

The Israelites were to stack and plaster stones to hold the engraving of God’s laws as a way to renew their vows with God. In addition, God commanded them to build and altar in a specific way. Then they were to offer a peace offering on it while rejoicing before the LORD God. God gave a specific command about the altar. The Israelites were not to shape the stones, but stack them unhewn into an altar. Moses used the English word “uncut” in verse six to describe the stones God commanded the Israelites to use. The Hebrew word for “uncut” is shalem, which comes from the same root word as shalom (peace). Shalem means complete, whole, and perfect. The stones that man may consider imperfect and try to shape, God called perfect for His altar. This reminds us that Jesus, the chief cornerstone, was a stone the builders cast away, but God called Him the perfect cornerstone upon which to build His church. God had the Israelites build this altar out of uncut stones He considered perfect for such a task.

      After building the altar on Mount Ebal, Moses commanded the Israelites to offer burnt and peace offerings to the LORD. Of the peace offerings, they were to eat and rejoice at the site of the altar before the LORD. If you remember from the Bible study that dealt with offerings, burnt offerings were the offerings the Israelites gave to God for Him only (Leviticus 1). None of them ate from that part. The peace offerings were a means of offering thanks to God praising Him for His goodness. It comprised unleavened cakes/bread and flesh of animals. In Leviticus 7:11-21, a part of what the Israelites gave to the LORD belonged to the Priests. The Israelites could eat the rest of the offering. Notice in Deuteronomy 27:7 the Israelites were to eat the peace offering before the LORD while rejoicing. The opportunity to worship and praise God came with rejoicing and thanks by each person as they each brought their sacrifices and by the community when they ate and rejoiced together.

      We must not forget the purpose of sacrifices lest we lose the meaning of setting up the altar and engraving God’s laws on stone. When people of Bible times made a covenant, they offered sacrifices to seal the covenant between the two people. For people of God, they laid out the sacrifices and God’s tongue of fire walked between the pieces of the sacrifice as an avowal to the validity of the covenant. Hence, God was part of the covenant of the two parties because He was a witness to the covenant. When a person places his or her hand on the Bible when taking and oath, that is a vow/pledge/covenant before God. From this then, we see the burnt and peace offerings were the seal on the covenant the Israelites made with God and God with them. This action professed the absolute validity of the covenant. The Israelites’ renewed their covenant with God on Mount Ebal when they entered the Promised Land by writing His laws on the stones. They sealed it with their burnt and peace offerings on the altar. From Deuteronomy 27:15 through 28:67, the Israelites pledged to follow God’s laws and to be His people.

The Silence.

Moses no longer spoke using the elders, but the priests. Here, as verse nine says, he and the priests spoke and commanded the Israelites, “Be silent and listen, O Israel!” Scholars have debated the purpose and placement of verses nine and ten. They said based on the future purpose of the rest of the chapter, these verses should be a command to do something in the future, too. Yet, they appear to be a command for the present time when Moses gave God’s commands to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. “Which is it, present or future?” scholars have wondered.

Priests often used silence in worship. They used it as a way for the people to prepare to be in the presence of God – to still themselves. I think Moses and the priests intentionally used verses nine and ten for their present time. Moses did not mean for these verses to be at the end of chapter twenty-six. Moses and the priests used the verses to silence the people. This enabled the Israelites to still their restless minds, remember who they were because of God, and consider what their response should be to Him. The priests used this call to worship perhaps when the Israelites worshipped God at Mount Ebal, too.

Moses and the priests called the people to be silent (still their inner and outer voices) and listen. Pastors do this today at the beginning of a worship service. They offer a call to worship with communal prayer. It stills the voices of the people before the LORD. The people can then become attune to God’s speaking to them.

Besides being a call to worship, Moses highlighted two other significant things in verses nine and  ten. The first significant part of these two verses is that Moses and the priests called the people to worship – to be silent and listen – as we understand from the aforementioned paragraphs. The second significant part is that Moses and the priests called the people to obedience man times. In verses 9 and 10, Moses said “listen” and “obey.” Both come from the Hebrew word shama. Remember, shama means to hear, listen, and obey. Within Hebrew society, an automatic response to hearing is listening and obeying. The first cannot be separated from the other two. Hearing calls a person to act, which is what Moses commanded the Israelites do in verse ten. Three words in these two verses call the Israelites to action – listen, obey, and do. Moses emphasized obedience by stating it three times in these two verses. That leads us to the third significant part of these two verses.

The third significant part of these two verses is Moses told the Israelites who and what to listen to and obey. They were to obey God. Moses gave them the reason in verse nine. He said, “This day you have become a people for the LORD your God.” Because God chose them and loved them, their response to Him should be obedience. God’s covenant with them was a gift to the Israelites. Their obedience was not a condition that preceded the covenant, but should result from it out of gratitude. That is the important part. Obedience is not required as part of the covenant, but is the response of the person out of gratitude to God. It comes as part of their worship, lives, praise, and thanks. What God commanded of the Israelites should have been the automatic and natural response because of thanks to Him for His saving and loving them. Obedience to God today should come because of thanks to God, too. It should be the natural action in return to God who loves us.

Moses used these two verses at this place in the chapter to still the voices in and around the Israelites so they could remember the love and salvation of God for them. Mentally, from verses one through eight, they were ready to worship and thank the LORD. In commanding them to set up an altar to God and engrave on stone His laws, the Israelites remembered God’s actions for them. Moses’ call to silence emphasized the call to return to God. His use of silence at the time of his commands about what to do when they entered the Promised Land taught them how to calm and silence themselves before the LORD at their first worship and consecration service in Israel. It helped them focus their minds and hearts on the magnitude of their vow renewal before God on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim.

The Participants.

Scholars have considered Moses’ third speech of this chapter began with verse eleven. Remember, I and other scholars such as Henry and Wesley consider this section as part of the second speech of the chapter, verses nine and ten. In this section of the chapter, Moses spoke alone, without elders or priests as in the earlier parts of this chapter. In verses one through eight, Moses told them what to build, how to build, what to engrave, and how to worship as people of the LORD, but  in verses eleven through thirteen, he divided the Israelites into two groups to speak different parts of the renewal ceremony.

Moses commanded one group of the Israelites stand on Mount Gerizim and the other on Mount Ebal. These two mountains were in Shechem. The valley formed between the base of these two mountains was about one mile long. Moses commanded six tribes to stand upon each mountain. He told the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin to stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people. Moses then told the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali to say the “Amen” to the curses. Some scholars say the tribes who said the “Amen” for the blessings all came from the free women, so it was right for them to say “Amen.” That reasoning does not hold for the tribes who say the “Amen” to the curses because Leah and Rachel, free women, bore Reuben and Zebulun. Some scholars have tried to understand why God chose Mount Gerizim to be the place of blessing and Mount Ebal for the curses. Several have said it was because Mt. Gerizim was more green and produced vegetation while Mt. Ebal was rocky and barren. We do not know for a fact why God chose specific tribes to offer the blessing or curse “Amen.” We, too, do not know for a fact why He chose one mountain as the site for the “Amen” to blessings and the other for curses. What we know is that God commanded this ceremony by the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land to renew their covenant with Him.

The other participants in this ceremony were the Levites. In verse 12, Moses commanded the tribe of Levi to stand on Mt. Gerizim and offer blessing for the people. How then can they be on the mountain and in the valley? The Levites of verse fourteen were the priests who bore the ark of the covenant. The Levites of verse 12 were the non-priests of the tribe of Levi who stood on the mountain. Levitical priests’ in this ceremony were to shout to the Israelites the different parts of God’s covenant after which the tribes offered the “Amen” to the blessing or curse.

The ceremony of consecration and renewal began with the writing of God’s laws on the stones, continued with the erecting of the altar and burning of offering, and concluded with the antiphonal agreement by the people to the blessings and curses of God. Those where mental reminders and physical actions. The verbal part of the ceremony occurred the priests stood in the valley shouting (answering/‘anah) to either the tribes on Mt. Gerizim or Mt. Ebal. As they stood at the base of the mountains, the tribes antiphonally replied “Amen” in agreement and acceptance to the curses and blessings of God’s laws.

The Curses.

Moses told the Israelites to affirm the twelve curses in this chapter. These curses carried implied blessings both of which the Israelites were to affirm in the ceremony at Shechem. The implied blessings are what the Levitical priests shouted to the tribes on Mt. Gerizim. Those tribes replied, “Amen,” after the tribes on Mt. Ebal replied, “Amen,” to the curse. Each  of the first eleven curses paralleled at least one of the Ten Commandments. The twelfth curse (vs. 26) is the bubble proviso. It incorporates all God’s laws including the ones not listed in the previous eleven verses so it touches everyone.

In looking at the eleven curses of verses fifteen through twenty-five, we recognize the most important commandments occurred in the first two curses. Verse 15 says, “Cursed is the man who makes an idol or molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman and sets it up in secret.” This verse speaks of any image whether carved or molded by the hands of a craftsman. Added to this, it says whether a person hid or displayed the idol, God considered both an abomination. This curse related to the second commandment, but incorporated each of the first four commandments. God said He was to be their only God and they were to worship just Him. As per Moses’ command, after the Levitical priests shouted this curse, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” “Amen” means “truly” or “so be it.” Their affirmation was an acceptance of God’s terms set up by this command. Once the priests shouted the curse, they turned to face the tribes on Mt. Gerizim and shouted the blessing. They said something like this, “Blessed is the man who does not make images and worships God alone.” To this, those tribes would agree with an “Amen.”

Verse 16 reflected the second most important relationship in the Ten Commandments – the relationship to one’s parents. The fifth commandment addresses this. Verse 16 says, “Cursed is he who dishonors his father and mother.” A person’s relationship with his parents reflects his relationship with the rest of his family and other people. If the two primary relationships in a person’s life were not right, as in the person dishonored God and his parents, then the foundation for good relationships with others was not solid. To this curse, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” Then the priests shouted to the tribes on Mt. Gerizim, “Blessed is he who honors his parents,” and the tribes said, “Amen.”

Verse 17 reflected a person’s respect for another person’s property. That property was the second person’s inheritance from the LORD and the rightful inheritance for that person’s descendents. By moving a neighbor’s boundary mark (landmark), the person showed his jealousy of a neighbor and coveted the neighbor’s property. The first person stole from the second person. This curse went with the eighth and tenth commandments. To this, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests then shouted the blessing of not moving a neighbor’s boundary mark, to which the people on Mt. Gerizim answered, “Amen.”

Verse 18 says, “Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.” An unjust person maliciously counsels a person to do something not in the blind person’s best interest. He or she imposes his or her will on the weaker person, a disadvantaged person, for his or her own good fortune. They malicious person could give a false witness against a weaker person to gain the person’s property. He or she could counsel the person to take specific steps when that would be to the person’s detriment. This curse relates to the eighth and ninth commandments, not stealing and not bearing false witness against one’s neighbors. The tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests then would shout the blessing, “Blessed is he who does not mislead a blind person on the road,” to which the tribes on Mt. Gerizim answered, “Amen.”

Verse 19 speaks against distorting justice to the weak or low. This verse specifically speaks about the lowest in society – the widow, orphan, and alien. The previous verse could have meant these people or any other member or society. The word “distort” comes from the Hebrew word meaning to pervert or bend. If a person distorted the justice due an alien, widow, or orphan, it showed he or she had no scruples. The ones who were weakest in society were the ones picked on instead of those who could stand up for themselves. The laws and justice of Israel, as given to them by God, were there to protect all Israelites, especially the lowest who had no one else to defend them. This curse relates to the eighth and ninth commandments. To this the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests then turned and shouted, “Blessed are they who do not distort justice to the weak or low,” and the tribes on Mt. Gerizim shouted, “Amen.”

Verses 20, 22, and 23 relate to the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” God’s laws say anyone who slept with his mother, father’s wife, sister, or mother-in-law committed adultery. For this crime, God’s judgment required death (Leviticus 20:11). By lying with a family member, the person exerted his power on a family member to usurp the head of the family. This act showed covetousness of another person’s position and wife, sister, or mother. To this curse, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests then shouted the blessing, “Blessed is he who does not lie with his mother/sister/mother-in-law,” to which the tribes on Mt. Gerizim said, “Amen.” These three verses relate to the seventh and tenth commandments.

Verse 21 relates to the seventh commandment, too. If you remember that adultery means the unlawful mixing of two things God said not to mix, then lying with animals is adultery. It is against the natural order God established. To this the Mt. Ebal tribes said, “Amen.” The priests shouted, “Blessed is he who does not lie with an animal,” to which the tribes on Mt. Gerizim said, “Amen.”
Verse 24 speaks a curse on anyone who kills a neighbor. Remember, in both Deuteronomy and in Jesus’ teachings, a neighbor is anyone with whom you come in contact. This verse says, “Cursed is he who strikes his neighbor in secret.” Whether the people knew the murderer or not, God knows who killed another person and His judgment will occur even if not administered by people. Secrecy in killing a person does not make a person innocent. God’s curse follows the murderer. God gave this law in the sixth commandment. To this, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests then shouted, “Blessed is he who does not kill,” to which the tribes on Mt. Gerizim replied, “Amen.”

Verse 25 states, “Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person.” The Hebrew meaning for “strike down” is to kill. The meaning of “innocent person” comes from the Hebrew word naqiy, which means innocent or free from guilt. To kill someone is murder and God forbade that in the sixth commandment. God mandated laws that required the judgment of death for adulterers or murderers. This law does not affect consider adultery. It speaks about killing an innocent person. To this curse, the tribes on Mt. Ebal said, “Amen.” The priests would say to the tribes on Mt. Gerizim, “Blessed is he who does not kill or accept a bribe to kill an innocent person.” To this blessing, the tribes on Mt. Gerizim would say, “Amen.”

In the final verse of this chapter, God commanded through Moses, “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” We understand these words, but let us look closer at the word “confirm.” The Hebrew word for this word is quwm. It means to stand up for or to arise. If a person did not do God’s laws mentioned in these twelve verses, His curse rested on that person. This verse has two other deeper meanings. If a person did not stand up for God’s laws, but turned a blind eye when someone committed a forbidden act, God’s curse rested on that person as well as the transgressor. Added to this, the law forbade doing evil omitting doing good implied by the law. This last curse is the bubble proviso mentioned at the beginning of this Bible study. It meant that any person who disobeyed any of God’s laws, whether mentioned above or not, received God’s curse.

Confirming the words of the law required doing them – action as well as words. The first eleven curses came upon a person for disobeying and the tribes agreed. The last law said any person who did not keep any of God’s laws that, not just the above eleven, received His curse. Obedience to the law showed love of God and confirmed acceptance of God’s laws. Each of the twelve tribes agreed to enact God’s laws when they said, “Amen.”

Just agreeing that a law is God’s law is not enough. God required acting upon them by following and obeying them not going against them. Moses had been with the Israelites for about forty years at this point. They were on the verge of entering the Promised Land and receiving the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At this important point in their lives, on the verge of receiving the land gushing with milk and honey, Moses reminded them of God’s covenant with them. He recalled for them their covenant with God resulted in obedience to Him out of love and reverence for Him.


God understood the Israelites needed to revisit their pledge/covenant with Him before they took possession of the Promised Land otherwise it would be easy to forget Him, the Giver. We recognize this being like a child on Christmas day. When the child sees the mass of toys under the tree, he or she runs with glee to scramble and open the presents without looking at who gave it and thanking the giver. God commanded them to take the time and make a solemn vow renewal, to consecrate themselves anew to Him. Moses reminded the Israelites God chose them. He explained that a covenant needs a sacrifice, which required an altar. He led them to recall God’s laws by engraving them on plaster on the stones and by antiphonally agreeing to them with the shouts of “Amen.” This chapter does not encompass every one of God’s laws with its curses and blessings, but the last curse implies it does. Chapter 28 adds sixty-eight more verses containing more laws as a reminder for the Israelites before they possess the land.

Relevance and Conclusion

We people who live after Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection understand the true curse and blessings of God. Before Jesus, the Israelites had no eternal hope or blessing. Their blessings were earthly – possession of the Promised Land, productive land and livestock, and provision for daily life. They could never completely erase the stain and guilt of their sins and remove the curse. Jesus broke the power of sin with His death and resurrection. He removed the stain of sin and guilt. By Jesus’ resurrection, when He rose back to life on the third day, He beat death, the eternal judgment for sin. Sin has no more power over Christians, people who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Jesus gives His strength to not sin because He was sinless when He lived on earth. Jesus was the perfect (shalem) cornerstone the builders rejected. The Jews refused to accept Him as the Messiah, but crucified Him instead. They did not receive the fulfillment of the hope of the Messiah because they did not accept the cornerstone for the church God built. God’s chosen people chose not to accept God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah.

Today we have the choice of believing Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the One whom God sent to be the Savior of the world. Until we die, we have the opportunity to accept Him as our Savior. Until we choose to believe, we are dead because of our sons. Once we take our last breath, our time for deciding is finished. By not accepting Him, we have rejected Him. That means we have rejected His love, salvation, and the gift of eternal life with God in heaven. When we reject Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior, God will judge our sins and mete to us the judgment of our sin – death. Sinning against God is rebelling against Him. For that, the judgment is death – eternal death. Eternal death is eternal separation from God. Eternal death is living separate from God in hell.

Today is your chance to decide to believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who provides salvation from your sin. Today you can have salvation and accept Jesus’ gift of salvation from sin’s death penalty. By this you will be accepted in God’s presence forever. You will live forever with God because Jesus paid with His death the price for your judgment that your sin required. He died for each of us though He was sinless. Jesus’ death paid the judgment price for everyone’s sins. When you give Him your life and accept Him as your Savior, the one who paid your sin judgment, you are saved from your sin and can live with God forever.

What will you decide today?