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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 27

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

Chapter 27 The Future Recording and Sealing of the Covenant and The Twelvefold Cursings.

The declaration of the covenant and its stipulations now being completed, a ceremony is described in two parts, one which will be public acceptance of the covenant at the present time, and the other which would be a confirmation of it once they were in the land.

First the secular leaders of the people were to step forward to call on the people to obey Yahweh’s commandments, and demand its subsequent recording in the land, and then the religious leaders of the people were to step forward to inform Israel of its religious significance as revealing them as the people of Yahweh. The secular leaders would confirm the covenant by declaring their agreement along with Moses, and that once they entered Canaan this covenant was to be recorded on stones in the land. The religious leaders would do so by declaring that even at this point in time the covenant stood and renewed their position as the people of God. Moses then went on to proclaim the blessing and cursing which would accompany the covenant.

But why does this chapter come in before the blessing and cursings? The reason for it could only have been in order to indicate that Deuteronomy 27:11 to Deuteronomy 28:68 were not to be written down as a part of those stipulations which were to be recorded, but were to be received as a verbal warning on top of them. This is the simple explanation of why this chapter is included here.

It should be noted that Deuteronomy 27 is pivotal. It brings everything together. It caps chapters 12-26, arranging for a record of them to be written down, it connects up to Deuteronomy 11:26-32, demonstrating that Deuteronomy 5:1 to Deuteronomy 11:32 are also within its remit, and it connects up with Deuteronomy 12:5-6 illustrating the place which Yahweh has chosen, and it feeds on into Deuteronomy 28 where the blessings and cursing are pronounced in order to complete the covenant pattern. It is the cornerstone that holds all together.

For while it undoubtedly caps chapter 12-26 there can be no doubt that it also clearly takes up and expands on the thought in Deuteronomy 11:26-32. There are a number of connections between them, so much so that Deuteronomy 27:1 b could almost literally continue on from Deuteronomy 11:31-32 if what was between dropped out. But it is constructed in such a way as to make clear that this continuation is a taking up of Deuteronomy 11:26-32 rather than a direct continuation of it. For Deuteronomy 27:1-2 a are basically the same thoughts in reverse as Deuteronomy 11:31-32, deliberately reintroducing the ideas in that section having first of all expounded what lay between. Add to this that the last reference to a place in Deuteronomy 11:29 was to the setting up of the curse on Mount Ebal, and that this is now, in Deuteronomy 27, taken up in the setting up of stones on Mount Ebal to contain ‘the words of this Instruction’ (Deuteronomy 27:4), on a Mount Ebal which is ‘for the curse’ (Deuteronomy 27:13), and the connection is clear and emphatic. Consider also that in Deuteronomy 11:29 the mention of Mount Ebal on which was the cursing, was preceded by the blessing on Mount Gerizim, while here in Deuteronomy 27 the covenant is to be written down on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:8) and the cursing pronounced (Deuteronomy 27:13; Deuteronomy 27:15-26), and again it is to be preceded by the blessing on Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27:12).

For verbal connections between the two consider for example the following. Israel are to ‘keep all the commandment which I command you this day’ (Deuteronomy 27:1). Compare for this Deuteronomy 11:22, ‘this commandment which I command you’; along with Deuteronomy 11:32, ‘all the statutes and the judgments which I set before you this day’, while Deuteronomy 11:28 refers to ‘the curse if you will not listen to the commandments of Yahweh your God --- which I command you this day’. They are to ‘pass over the Jordan’ (Deuteronomy 27:2), compare this with Deuteronomy 11:31, ‘pass over the Jordan’. In Deuteronomy 11:20 Moses’ words were to be written on their doorposts and gates, here they are to be written initially on great stones (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) as a perpetual reminder. In Deuteronomy 11:32 reference is made to ‘all the statutes and judgments which I set before you this day’ which compares with ‘all the commandment which I command you this day’ (Deuteronomy 27:1). For the fact that ‘the commandment’ is the equivalent of ‘the statutes and judgments’ see Deuteronomy 6:1.

There can therefore be no doubt that Deuteronomy 27 is a taking up and expanding of Deuteronomy 11:22-32.

That having been said Deuteronomy 12:1 also connects directly with Deuteronomy 11:32. It is not therefore to be seen as an interpolation. It is rather that we are to see two strands coming from the one source, placed one after the other. Deuteronomy 11:26-32 is first of all continued in 12-26 as far as explaining what the statutes and judgments are, and then expanded on in Deuteronomy 27 in order to complete the picture of the covenant ceremony. For Deuteronomy 11:26-32 is incomplete by itself. The observant listener would be waiting for the fuller explanation and expansion of what Deuteronomy 11:26-32 was all about, and it is found in this chapter.

But Deuteronomy 12:5-6 is also be seen as in mind in Deuteronomy 27:5-7. In Deuteronomy 12:5-6 reference is made to ‘the place (maqom) which Yahweh your God shall choose’ (compare ‘the place’ (maqom) of Shechem (Genesis 12:6)), which was where they were to ‘bring your whole burnt offerings and your sacrifices -- and there you shall eat before Yahweh your God ’, while here in Deuteronomy 27:5-7 they are to ‘build an altar to Yahweh -- and offer whole burnt offerings on it to Yahweh your God -- and shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there’. Shechem is clearly one place which Yahweh their God has chosen. And the fact that the altar in Deuteronomy 27:5-6 is spoken of in terms that remind us of Exodus 20:24-25 (‘of hewn stones’ on which no tool has been lifted) which was to be built ‘in every place where I record my name’, in other words in every place which Yahweh chose, and was where He would bless them, can only confirm the connection with Deuteronomy 12 where offerings and sacrifices were to be made at the place where He ‘put His name there’ and ‘caused His name to dwell there’ (Deuteronomy 12:11) and which He had chosen.

There can therefore be little real doubt that Deuteronomy 27:1 is coming back in thought to, and amplifying on, Deuteronomy 11:26-29, and Deuteronomy 12:5-6, once the regulations have been expounded. For chapters 12-26 have certainly been necessary in order to amplify Deuteronomy 11:32.

Deuteronomy 27 Parallels Exodus 24 : The Confirming of the Sinai Covenant .

Deuteronomy 27 also parallels features of Exodus 24, and is thus an essential part of completing the covenant, which would not be complete without it. Once they were in the land the record of this covenant was to be written down, as it was written down in Exodus 24:4, but this time they would enter it on the very rocks of the land, in Mount Ebal near Shechem. The land itself was to be the material on which the covenant was written. The covenant of Sinai was to be sealed in the land. And here they were to build an altar like the one described in Exodus 20:24-25, and offer on it peace offerings, and feast before Yahweh as their elders had done in Exodus 24:11. So the same general covenant pattern is being followed. At Sinai the ceremony had been the initial receiving of them as His holy people. Here at Shechem it is to be a receiving of them as His own people within the land that He has given them. It is a confirmation and renewal of the covenant of Sinai which had been clearly laid out in chapter 5. So Deuteronomy 27 is vital to the completing of the whole picture, and Deuteronomy 5-27 is an expansion on Exodus 20-24.

Shechem Was To Be The First ‘Place (Maqom) Which Yahweh Shall Choose’.

Whatever would follow in the future Shechem was at this stage to be the centre of their thinking. It was to ‘the place (maqom) of Shechem’ by ‘the oak of Moreh’ that Abraham had come when he first entered the land, and were he had received his first revelation in the land, and built his first altar to Yahweh (Genesis 12:6-7), and had received the first promise of the land (Genesis 12:7), and it was to Shechem that Jacob had come when he left Paddan-aram, and where he had purchased his first piece of land as a dwelling place, and had built an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel (Genesis 33:18-20). Shechem and the oak of Moreh thus had holy associations with possession of the land and a place which Yahweh had chosen.

As we have seen Moses had already taken up this idea in Deuteronomy 11:29-30, for it was to be in the very mountains ‘beside the oaks of Moreh’ that Israel were to re-establish the covenant (the reference to blessing and cursing could only refer to a covenant ceremony). And now, the regulations of 12-26 having been proclaimed, Deuteronomy 27:2-4 takes up where Deuteronomy 11:32 left off. The cursing on Mount Ebal had been the last thing mentioned there (Deuteronomy 11:29) and that is now taken up here. In Deuteronomy 11 it had been a preliminary preparation, here it is a description of its more detailed fulfilment.

The centrality of the environs of Shechem to the making of the covenant had already been made clear in Deuteronomy 11:26-32, having already been emphasised in Deuteronomy 11:29-30, for Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal were two mountains either side of the plain where Shechem is situated. And it is confirmed by their being described as ‘beside the oaks of Moreh’ (Deuteronomy 11:30; compare Genesis 12:6), even though Shechem is not specifically mentioned. Add to this that the stress on keeping ‘all this commandment’ (Deuteronomy 11:22) in order to obtain blessing is stressed in Deuteronomy 11:26-27 in connection with the Mountains, and it is very difficult to see Shechem and its environs as any other than a place which Yahweh has chosen to set His name there. And this is confirmed by the comparison between Deuteronomy 12:5-6 and Deuteronomy 27:5-7.

So in the last analysis Deuteronomy 27:1 to Deuteronomy 28:68 must be seen as intended to be the great finale to Deuteronomy 4:44 to Deuteronomy 28:68. Standing in the conquered territory of the two Amorite kings, which was evidence of Yahweh’s initial triumph on their behalf, Moses has declared ‘the Instruction that Moses set before the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:44)’ to ‘all Israel’ (Deuteronomy 5:1). Now he calls on the leaders of the nation to add their backing to what he has said, and they confirm together to all the people that they must keep these commandments and what must take place with regard to them once they enter the land. It is giving the whole people a focus point within the land, a focus point which will be achieved in Joshua 8:30-35.

So following Moses’ great speech, first the elders of the people came forward, and standing with Moses gave their backing to Moses’ final words as he, or their appointed leader at his behest, with due ceremony, commanded the recording of the covenant on stones of the land once they were in the land (Deuteronomy 27:1-8). It was thus made quite clear that what Moses had declared had the full backing of all the leaders of Israel. It was not just he but they as a whole who were demanding the keeping and recording of the covenant.

Compare how the fathers of these same leaders had in Deuteronomy 5:23-27 commissioned Moses to receive the word of Yahweh on their behalf with the promise that when he brought it they would hear it and do it. Here they were now keeping that promise and receiving that word from Moses and commending it to their people.

Then the Levitical priests stepped forward with ‘the Priest’ at their head and stood with Moses as he (or possibly Eliezer) proclaimed that Israel had that day, through the covenant, become the people of Yahweh their God in a renewed way and that they must therefore obey His voice and do all that He has commanded (Deuteronomy 27:9-11). It was thus made quite clear that these men, who were representatives of the people before Yahweh, all with one accord backed the covenant and required its fulfilment.

Then Moses finally declared ‘on that same day’, that on the day when the covenant was recorded at Shechem the people were to be divided up, six tribes to Mount Gerizim and six to Mount Ebal. At this point ‘the Levites’, probably to be seen as standing with the Ark in the valley, would then declare to them the twelve curses on secret sins, in order to bring home the seriousness of the covenant and exonerate the people as a whole from those secret sins. The number twelve connects these curses directly with the twelve tribes of Israel.

After this he goes on in Deuteronomy 28:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1 to expand on the ‘cursings’ of Deuteronomy 27:15-26, (which would be for secret sins with the purpose of exonerating the people from those secret sins by their adding their ‘Amen’), by applying them to future open sins. He does this by explaining the choice for them all as a nation between blessing and cursing as given in detail in Deuteronomy 28:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1, which will be dependent on their open obedience or their open sins. This caps off the whole. The close connection between Deuteronomy 4:44 to Deuteronomy 26:19 and what follows here is thus further confirmed.


Verses 1-8

e-Sword Note:

For the section, "Deuteronoomy 27 Paraellels Exodus 24", see the chapter comments.

For the section, "Shechem Was To Be The First ‘Place (Maqom) Which Yahweh Shall Choose’, " see the chapter comments.

Moses and the Elders of Israel Call For The Witness to the Covenant To Be Set Up In Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:1-8).

The covenant having been outlined in detail ‘Moses and the elders of Israel’ now speak up. It is clear that Moses had arranged for them to come and join him at the end of his speech so as to support this final step. Whether Moses spoke at their head, or whether their spokesman spoke up on behalf of Moses and the other elders, is not said. What matters is that with regard to the point being made they were shown to be at one.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, Keep all the commandment which I command you this day (Deuteronomy 27:1).

b And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, that you shall set yourself up great stones, and plaster them with plaster, and you shall write on them all the words of this instruction (law), when you are passed over, that you may go in to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).

b And it shall be, when you are passed over the Jordan, that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster, and there you (thou) shall build an altar to Yahweh your God, an altar of stones. You shall lift up no iron on them. You shall build the altar of Yahweh your God of unhewn stones, and you shall offer whole burnt offerings on it to Yahweh your God, And you shall sacrifice peace offerings, and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 27:4-7).

a And you shall write on the stones all the words of this instruction (law) very plainly (literally ‘engraving well’) (Deuteronomy 27:8).

Note in ‘a’ the commandment to keep ‘all the commandment’ (the covenant stipulations) and in the parallel it is to be written on the stones. In ‘b’ and its parallel we have two large sentences, the first commencing with ‘And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan’, and the second commencing with ‘And it shall be, when you are passed over the Jordan’. The first deals with setting up the great stones and writing on them the Torah (Instruction, Law), and will be an indication that they have begun to take possession of the land which Yahweh has promised them, and the second with setting up ‘these stones’ and building by them an altar in order to offer up offerings and sacrifices so as to eat and rejoice before Yahweh their God in a sealing of the covenant (compare Exodus 24:9-11).

Deuteronomy 27:1

And Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, Keep all the commandment which I command you this day.’

Moses’ speech to all Israel having been completed what followed directly involved ‘the elders of Israel’, including all their leading men and princes, along with Moses, with regard to those words. The intention was clearly to align the elders of Israel with all that Moses had said, for he was soon to pass on and he wanted them to feel a part of, and to be tied in with, the remaking of the covenant. They would be the ones who were responsible for ensuring the fulfilment of His words. He did not want there to be an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation.

“All the commandment” refers to the statutes and ordinances (judgments) previously given (Deuteronomy 6:1; Deuteronomy 8:1) from Deuteronomy 5:1 onwards, and from Deuteronomy 12:1 onwards, the commands given ‘on that day’. Israel were to keep them, holding on to them, remembering them and obeying them. And in order to assist them in this and to bring home the solemnity of his words, and of what he was requiring of them, he now commanded that all his words were to be written on rocks especially plastered to receive the writing, once they have entered the land. This was a technique regularly practised in Egypt.

(Incidentally there may be good reason to believe that at this point in time representatives have come from Shechem seeking to become one with the children of Israel on the grounds of their joint relationship resulting from Jacob’s previous sojourn in Shechem and ownership of land there, for once Israel did enter the land we never hear of any conquests having to be made at Shechem and Judges 8:33 specifically refers to ‘the stranger’ as being present at the covenant ceremony there).

“Moses.” The reference to Moses is in the third person. Does this then mean that it was written down by someone else? It is in fact very likely that Moses had arranged for his words to be recorded by a trustworthy scribe, or by Joshua himself, with himself confirming their accuracy, but it is not in fact required by the usage. For in writing an important document like this it would be quite reasonable for Moses to write of himself in the third person. It was a solemn covenant recorded for future generations. In such types of documents writers often speak of themselves in the third person.

The name of Moses occurs in this book in Deuteronomy 1:1; Deuteronomy 1:3; Deuteronomy 1:5; Deuteronomy 4:41; Deuteronomy 4:44-46; Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 27:1; Deuteronomy 27:9; Deuteronomy 27:11; Deuteronomy 29:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:1; Deuteronomy 31:7; Deuteronomy 31:9-10; Deuteronomy 31:14 (twice); Deuteronomy 31:16; Deuteronomy 31:22; Deuteronomy 31:24-25; Deuteronomy 31:30; Deuteronomy 32:44-45; Deuteronomy 32:48; Deuteronomy 33:1; Deuteronomy 33:4; Deuteronomy 34:1; Deuteronomy 34:5; Deuteronomy 34:7-9 twice, Deuteronomy 34:1; Deuteronomy 34:10; Deuteronomy 34:12. The main reason why he was not mentioned in the remainder is because they are claimed to be recordings of his speeches. But in Deuteronomy 33:1; Deuteronomy 33:4 we actually have an example of something claimed to be composed by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1) which openly speaks of him in the third person (Deuteronomy 33:4), in such a way as anyone might easily speak of themselves. This thus demonstrates that he is said to have used such a method. There is nothing intrinsically unlikely therefore in Moses referring to himself in this way continually in a permanent covenant record.

Furthermore in Deuteronomy 31:7; Deuteronomy 31:14; Deuteronomy 34:9 he is spoken of in conjunction with Joshua (compare Joshua alone in Deuteronomy 31:3; Deuteronomy 31:23; Deuteronomy 32:44) who was also referred to in the third person. But on the same basis that does not necessarily mean that Joshua could not have written down much of Deuteronomy.

So while this third person usage may reflect the writing of another scribe (possibly even Eliezer the Priest), it does not necessarily do so. For writing in the third person could simply be a device used in order to ensure that future readers recognised who was in mind in what the documents said. Far too many writers have used this method in history in this way for this not to be accepted as a perfectly reasonable possibility.

More difficult for the idea that Moses wrote the book himself was the recording of his death in Deuteronomy 34 as a past event. But once it is accepted that Moses would almost certainly use a scribe, whether Joshua, Eliezer, or any other, in writing down what he wanted recorded, all that that indicates is that Moses did not always himself hold the pen. It says nothing about whether the words were mainly his. The scribe would naturally finish the book off with an account of his death when that death had been specifically spoken of as near in the heart of the record, indeed so near that it had to occur before the crossing of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 1:37-38; Deuteronomy 3:25-28; Deuteronomy 4:21-22; Deuteronomy 31:2; Deuteronomy 31:7-8; Deuteronomy 31:27; Deuteronomy 31:29; Deuteronomy 32:48-52). It simply sealed what had been spoken about.

On the other hand the claim that most of Deuteronomy was based on the direct words of Moses is constant in the book. See Deuteronomy 1:1; Deuteronomy 1:5; Deuteronomy 4:44-45; Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 27:1; Deuteronomy 27:9; Deuteronomy 27:11; Deuteronomy 29:1; Deuteronomy 31:1; Deuteronomy 31:9-10; Deuteronomy 31:22; Deuteronomy 31:24; Deuteronomy 31:30; Deuteronomy 32:44-45; Deuteronomy 33:1. Furthermore he is actually said to have written parts of it (Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:22; Deuteronomy 31:24-26) and that in connection with it being regularly read before all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). That could mean ‘arranged to be written on the basis of his own words’, but it cannot mean that he had no connection with it at all. Its content is also written in such a way as to indicate that it was given in the words of Moses, and, in anybody’s language, ‘this instruction’ in Deuteronomy 31:9 must refer to at least the main speech in the book, if it means anything at all. See Joshua 8:35.

Future generations certainly saw it that way for they wrote of ‘the book of the Instruction (Torah - Law) of Moses’ (Joshua 8:31-32; Joshua 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chronicles 23:18 compare Judges 3:4; 1 Kings 8:9).

Deuteronomy 27:2

And it shall be on the day when you (ye) shall pass over the Jordan to the land which Yahweh your (thy) God gives you (thee), that you (thou) shall set yourself (thee) up great stones, and plaster them with plaster.’

“On the day” does not literally mean within that twenty four hour period, but was using yom in its other significance as a period of time. We could therefore translate, ‘at the time when’. They must do it as soon as possible after entry. Deuteronomy 27:2-3 form a quick summary of what was considered to be the crucial element of what was to happen on entering the land, the writing clearly on stones the covenant with Yahweh. This was the crux of the matter. And it was an indication that at last they were beginning to possess their land flowing with milk and honey which Yahweh the God of their fathers had promised them. The stones would be a seal on their possession of the land.

In the parallel in Deuteronomy 27:4-8 this is expanded on by declaring again that the stones must be set up, but this time the connection is with the completion of the covenant ceremony, and the site where it is to be done is named. Thus it refers to the covenant sacrifices which will be eaten before Yahweh. The repetition, which is typical of ancient writings which loved repetition, by this means puts extra stress on the most important point, the public display of the covenant actually written on the land of their possession, and draws special attention to it, while linking it with both the new possession of the land (Deuteronomy 27:-3) and the renewed covenant (Deuteronomy 27:4-8).

Deuteronomy 27:3

And you (thou) shall write on them all the words of this instruction (law), when you (thou) are passed over, that you (thou) may go in to the land which Yahweh your God gives you (thee), a land flowing with milk and honey, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you (thee).’

Once they had ‘passed over’ into the land, then Israel, through their representatives, were to write on the stones at Shechem ‘all the words of this instruction (law)’. Speaking on the basis of the book itself without any bias, that would surely signify at least 12-26, and probably Deuteronomy 5:1 to Deuteronomy 26:19, but it may also be intended to include the whole of the Law of which his speech was a popular survey, for his speech omits too much for it to be seen as the whole Law. The writing on the stones would confirm the covenant in the land so that they could then confidently go in and possess it on the basis of the promise that Yahweh had made to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

He also reminded them of the quality of what Yahweh was giving them. It was a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (compare Deuteronomy 6:3; Deuteronomy 11:9; Deuteronomy 26:9; Deuteronomy 26:15; Deuteronomy 31:20). It will be noticed that this promise is spread evenly over the different parts of the covenant. The kingdom of God could be theirs on the basis of His love and faithfulness to the fathers. But, as has been and will be pointed out, from that free gift had to spring obedience. It was a covenant gift. Without obedience the gift would be forfeit.

Deuteronomy 27:4

And it shall be, when you (ye) are passed over the Jordan, that you (ye) shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and you (thou) shall plaster them with plaster.’

This repetition is a regular feature of the Pentateuch, and here has the purpose of emphasising the tow purposes in setting up the stones. Such repetition was also a regular feature of other ancient literature. It confirmed to the hearer what had just been said so that it would become fixed in his mind and he would remember it. So Moses partly repeats what he had said, but with the additional information that it was to be on Mount Ebal, and then he adds the requirement of sealing the covenant with offerings and sacrifices what follows and a covenant feast. All that he described was to be done as soon as possible after passing over the Jordan.

It may be asked why the Instruction was to be recorded on Mount Ebal, and not Mount Gerizim. This was partly because it was there that the sacrifices were to be offered, which themselves warned of the threat of death to any who broke the covenant. That was hardly suitable for the Mount of blessing. But added to this was the fact that the curses on secret sins were an essential part of the covenant. While the blessings were to result from keeping the covenant, that was the result of, rather than part of the essential nature of, the covenant. The blessings did not come because the covenant was kept, for they were already promised, rather the keeping of the covenant simply maintained their flow, which primarily resulted from God’s graciousness. On the other hand the cursings in Deuteronomy 27 actually directly affected the covenant. Disobedience directly affected the covenant itself. The curses came to fruition because of the disobedience. They had therefore to be accepted as a part of the covenant.

Deuteronomy 27:5-7

And there you (thou) shall build an altar to Yahweh your God, an altar of stones. You shall lift up no iron on them. You shall build the altar of Yahweh your God of unhewn stones, and you shall offer whole burnt offerings on it to Yahweh your God, And you shall sacrifice peace offerings, and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God.’

(Up to verse 10 it is now all ‘thou, thee’).

On Mount Ebal they were to set up an altar to Yahweh their God. It had to be an altar of stones on which no tool of man had come, for it must be of unhewn stones (compare Exodus 20:24-25) And no iron must have touched it. This may be because the main iron known was that ‘from the sky’ in the form of meteorites, which others saw as from the gods, or it may refer to rare imported iron tools which were therefore ‘foreign’. Either way the stones must not be touched by iron in any way. Interestingly the remains of an ancient rough stone altar dating from around the time of Joshua have been discovered on Mount Ebal.

Offerings and sacrifices were regularly offered to confirm a covenant. At Mari in the 18th century BC when they intended to make a covenant they spoke of ‘killing an ass’. All knew what that signified. They were going to prepare a covenant sealed in blood. That is why the Old Testament often speaks of ‘cutting a covenant’. And similar practises were widespread. It was also common for part of the sacrifice to be offered up and part to be eaten by the participants. Thus the purposes of the whole burnt offerings, which were offerings of dedication and tribute, and the peace sacrifices which would supply the meat for the covenant feast, were to be for the sealing of the covenant (compare Exodus 24:5).

We are not actually told that the Ark (at least) was to be present at this ceremony but it is hardly conceivable that it was not. The Ark was the central point of their focus on God and was portable. It could hardly not be there. Its presence would be just assumed (compare Joshua 8:30-35). As always in Deuteronomy Moses ignores the priests’ part.

The setting up of the stones and the offering of the offerings and sacrifices are parallel to the acceptance of the covenant in Exodus 24, where twelve stone pillars were set up and whole burnt offerings and peace offerings were also offered. There too the blood was applied as a warning of what would happen to those who broke the covenant.

Deuteronomy 27:8

And you shall write on the stones all the words of this instruction (law) very plainly (literally ‘engraving well’).’

The purpose of the preparation of the stone was now repeated, stressing its importance. It was that ‘all the words of this Instruction’ might be plainly written on them and might be ‘well engraved’.

We do not know whether at this point the people made a response (see Exodus 24:3), for due to the pending death of Moses this ceremony was a strange one, for it was an acting out beforehand of the actual ceremony that would later take place, putting firmly behind it the authority if Moses. But that was not to lessen its significance, for as all the people stood there it would be powerful confirmation of the certainty that they would successfully enter the land and reach Shechem, most only being aware that that was somewhere in the land and sacred because of its association with Abraham and Jacob, and was somewhere where they already owned land as descendants of Jacob.


Verse 9-10

The Priests As The People’s Representatives Before Yahweh Confirm the Covenant (Deuteronomy 27:9-26).

The levitical priests had their own special responsibility for the fulfilment of the instruction of Yahweh. They with the appointed judges were the final court of appeal (Deuteronomy 17:9; Deuteronomy 17:18; Deuteronomy 21:5; Deuteronomy 24:8). And they represented the people before Yahweh. They are thus called on to substantiate Yahweh’s word to His people. Then when the time comes that the people are gathered on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as instructed, the Levites’ part will be to pronounce the cursing on the secret sins of Israel on behalf of all the people.

Analysis:

a And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying, “Keep silence, and listen, O Israel. This day you are become the people of Yahweh your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of Yahweh your God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command you this day” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10).

b And Moses charged the people the same day, saying, “These shall stand on mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you (ye) are passed over the Jordan; Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin” (Deuteronomy 27:11-12).

b “And these shall stand on mount Ebal for (or ‘upon’) the curse; Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali” (Deuteronomy 27:13).

a And the Levites shall answer, and speak out to all the men of Israel with a loud voice the twelve cursings for secret sins which connect with Mount Ebal as given below. By them the people will be renouncing these secret sins (Deuteronomy 27:14-26).

Note how in ‘a’ the Levites declare that Israel have become the people of Yahweh through the covenant pronounced by Moses on that very day, even prior to the covenant ceremony at Shechem. In the parallel this is confirmed at Shechem by the renouncing of the secret sins. In ‘b’ six tribes are to take their stance on Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, and in the parallel six are to stand on the mountain of cursing.

Deuteronomy 27:9

And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying, “Keep silence, and listen, O Israel. This day you are become the people of Yahweh your God.” ’

The levitical priests were then called to stand with Moses and confirm the importance of the covenant that Moses has just declared. They were witnesses to the truth of what he had said. Their combined testimony was clear. It was that the people might be silent and consider what had happened. In hearing and receiving that covenant they had ‘become the people of Yahweh your God’ by renewal. It had happened to their fathers at Sinai, now it had fully happened to them (Deuteronomy 5:3). As they stood on the verge of the land Yahweh had confirmed that they were His own people. The call to silence was in order to bring home the seriousness of the matter (see Ecclesiastes 5:2 (Deuteronomy 5:1 in Hebrew). Compare Nehemiah 8:11; Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13; Habakkuk 2:20; Revelation 8:1).

Deuteronomy 27:10

You shall therefore obey the voice of Yahweh your God, and do his commandments and his statutes, which I command you this day.”

But while this was a great blessing it also conveyed on them a great responsibility. They could not be His people and yet disobey Him. They must therefore obey His voice and do His commandments and statutes as outlined by Moses that day. And that involved keeping all the instruction of which that was an aspect.

This confirmation by the priests was of the utmost importance, for it made them feel a part of what Moses was doing and wedded them to ensuring the final carrying of it through. For the result was that it was now not just a covenant declared by Moses, but one on which both secular leaders and levitical priests had put their seal. They would no doubt repeat the words when the covenant ceremony could finally take place at Shechem.


Verses 11-26

Moses Describes How The Covenant Ceremony Will Proceed Once They Have Reached Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:11-26).

On that same day as he had spoken all the words from Deuteronomy 5:1 onwards and given instructions for the recording of them, and had with the Levites made this final pronouncement Moses describes how the covenant ceremony must proceed once they are in the land. This is not just a dress rehearsal. Moses want to feel a part of the making of this covenant and is here trying to enter into it as much as he can. It is a great blow to him that he will not be able to be there. Then the twelve cursings about to be described are to be hurled at Mount Ebal by the appointed Levites at the six tribes who are there representing the whole. These cursings too will be intended for all Israel. All the people are to say ‘Amen’ to them. They have a twofold purpose. The first is in order for Israel to renounce all the secret sins that are cursed which have already taken place unknown to Israel. The second is in order to affirm that they will not do them in the future. This will stress the seriousness of the covenant, and bring home that to break it even in secret would invoke the curse of Yahweh.

These are not general cursings related to the covenant. Those come in Deuteronomy 28. Here he lists twelve possible examples of secret breaches which if not cultically dealt with could bring judgment on Israel, and he then calls on all Israel to give their assent to Yahweh’s cursing of these secret breaches of the covenant. By their assent to the cursing of them Israel would then relieve themselves from the responsibility for them. The whole nation could then not be blamed for surreptitious treaty breaking done in secret. Then in chapter 28 he will proclaim the general blessings and cursings on all sin, whether secret or otherwise, from which they cannot relieve themselves of the responsibility.

Deuteronomy 27:11

And Moses charged the people the same day, saying,’

The stress is on the fact that this was said ‘on the same day’. We have already noted that the altar was to be set up on Mount Ebal, the mountain of the cursings, and that the offerings and sacrifices were to be made there. Thus it should not surprise us that special cursings on secret disobedience in respect of detailed aspects of the covenant should now be given. The very purpose of the offerings and sacrifices was to indicate that those who participated in the covenant would die such a death if they seriously breached the covenant, and the twelvefold cursing on them, simply emphasises that message.

These sins would appear to be specifically connected with secrecy, for ‘in secret’ is stressed in verses 15 and 24, sins which might have been openly done, while the other sins would normally be done in secret. Thus the point will be to make known that even if the judges know nothing of them, the curse of Yahweh will rest on the perpetrators, but that Israel as a whole could be exonerated if they gave consent to their cursing. As long as they repudiated them they would not be blamed for secret breaches of which they knew nothing. The number twelve is clearly connected with the number of the twelve tribes emphasising that the curses would apply to each and all if they sinned in secret.

Deuteronomy 27:12

These shall stand on mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you (ye) are passed over the Jordan; Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin.’

When they arrived at Shechem half the tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim. The tribes named are those connected with Leah’s eldest sons (apart from Reuben), and with Rachel’s own children. Reuben are possibly to be excluded because he had lost his position as the firstborn by taking his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). Thus it might have been thought that being one who was already subject to the curse (Deuteronomy 27:20) he could not be on the mount of blessing. Or it may be because the relationship of his tribe to that of Gad had become so close (they dwelt together in Transjordan) that it was felt more suitable for them to stand together. Or it may be so that the tribe of Reuben might, as the descendants of the firstborn, add weight to the tribes on Mount Ebal (as representing the eldest wife).

Note that Levi was also among the tribes standing on the mountains. This was necessarily so as they may have among them those who had committed secret sins. Thus ‘the Levites’ who were actually to take part in the ceremony were probably those who bore the Ark, or alternatively the levitical priests, or both.

It is not quite clear what the function ‘to bless the people’ was, but it is clear that Mount Gerizim was seen as the mountain of blessing. It would seem that standing symbolically on that mountain indicated the recognition of all the blessings that Yahweh had promised Israel, which they would receive if they were obedient to the covenant. They did not need to be spelled out.

Thus the two mountains indicated the possibility of either blessing or cursing for the whole of Israel, or for any in Israel who deserved it, and their standing on Mount Gerizim was seen as indicating future blessing, simply because they were not on the mountain of the curse. It was indicating a half and half chance of blessing and cursing, depending on the response of Israel to the covenant in future. There was no need for any slaughtering or shedding of blood here. That would only be required when the covenant was broken. Symbolically they were at this point being seen as not having done any of the things describes in what follows. They were to be seen as in the clear. Their standing was to be seen as what might be, if Israel remained obedient.

Deuteronomy 27:13

And these shall stand on mount Ebal for (or ‘upon’) the curse; Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.’

The remainder of the tribes were to stand on Mount Ebal ‘for the curse’. They were to be here, where the covenant animals were to be symbolically slaughtered, for the cursings to be directed at them. This presented the possible alternative that could face Israel, and individual Israelites, that of cursing. It was especially suitable that Reuben was here for he had committed an accursed sin (Genesis 35:22).

Deuteronomy 27:14

And the Levites shall answer, and say to all the men of Israel with a loud voice,’

Then ‘the Levites’ were to speak up and express on behalf of Israel cursings on those who engaged in secret sins, cursings to which all of Israel were to concur. In spite of being divided up all were to be involved together. ‘The Levites’ might indicate certain levitical priests selected for the task, or it may indicate the Levites who had actually borne the Ark there, thus symbolising them as speaking on behalf of the One Whose Ark it was. If borne in peace and covered, the Ark could be carried by its normal Levite bearers (Numbers 3:30-31). If borne in war and possibly uncovered it would be borne by levitical priests. Deuteronomy 31:9 might suggest that at this time it would be borne by the levitical priests as this would be after the holy war had begun.

These curses are specific to individuals and not general. The general blessings and curses for open sin follow in Deuteronomy 28. But these are a warning that God sees all that takes place in secret and will deal with each accordingly. They are intended to deal with secret sins among the children of Israel to prevent the guilt of them falling on all of them. By their signifying their agreement to Yahweh’s cursing of those who do such things they will be taking His side against them and relieving themselves of the guilt of such hidden sins. Note the use of the third person ‘he’ in the cursings. The curse is restricted to such people. In chapter 28 both blessings and cursings are directed at ‘you’ (thou). There all are involved.

Deuteronomy 27:15

Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination to Yahweh, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.” And all the people shall answer and say, “Amen.”

The first crime against Yahweh is the setting up in secret of a graven (wood) or molten (metal) image in order for it to be used in worship. Such, which would be merely the work of a craftsman, and a man-made thing (compare Isaiah 44:9-17; Jeremiah 10:3-5), would be an abomination to Yahweh whatever it represented. Whoever did such a thing would be cursed. All the people were then to signify their agreement by saying ‘Amen’.

Had the sin been carried out in the open that man should be put to death thus removing the guilt from Israel, but because it would be in secret the people have agreed that Yahweh is in the right to carry out his own sentence.

Deuteronomy 27:16

Cursed be he who sets light by (humiliates) his father or his mother.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The second crime against Yahweh is that of showing arrogance to the authority of father and mother in the household, and treating them lightly, even humiliating them (compare Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Exodus 21:15; Leviticus 20:9; Ezekiel 22:7). The idea here is of deliberately going against all their teaching as they sought to pass on to them the truths of Yahweh. Such a person may not be prosecuted (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), either because of family love or because they have not quite gone that far, for if they were they would be put to death. But even though it is in secret Yahweh will see and know. Again such behaviour is to be cursed, and all the people shall say ‘Amen’.

Deuteronomy 27:17

Cursed be he who removes his neighbour’s landmark.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The third crime against Yahweh is that of removing a neighbour’s landmark. The landmark makes clear what land belongs to whom. It may even have been a landmark which contained on it evidence of ownership. And its removal will make difficult the restoration of the land in the year of Yubile. The idea is that it is done falsely, either in the dark, or by malicious force. This is a stealing of the land that has been given to someone by Yahweh (compare Deuteronomy 19:14). It is a crime against Yahweh. Even if it is not detected by man it will be punished. Again such action is cursed. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’. Such crimes were a constant theme in the prophets for it was not possible to add land to land without removing boundary markers (Isaiah 5:8; Micah 2:2), for that was removing boundaries.

Deuteronomy 27:18

Cursed be he who makes the blind to wander out of the way.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The fourth crime against Yahweh is to do with the weak and disabled. They are Yahweh’s special concern for they cannot see to themselves. It is illustrated by the idea of misleading the blind. Those who do this offend specifically against the fear of God, against Yahweh (Leviticus 19:14). It may not be seen by others, but Yahweh will see. And such a person will be cursed. This is again followed by the agreement of all in saying, ‘Amen’.

Deuteronomy 27:19

Cursed be he who wrests the justice due to the resident alien, fatherless, and widow.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The fifth crime against Yahweh is to do with treating unjustly those who are defenceless and therefore also Yahweh’s special concern. These are the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow. It is Yahweh Who brings about justice for such, and Who loves them (Deuteronomy 10:18). Compare Exodus 22:21-24 where Yahweh’s swift response is described. This crime may be kept well hidden, but the perpetrator can be sure that Yahweh will know. Again the cursing is assented to by all.

Deuteronomy 27:20

Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

These next four crimes against Yahweh (the sixth to the ninth) are to do with sexual relationships which are contrary to Yahweh’s will. They all carry the death penalty (see Leviticus 20:11; Leviticus 20:14-15; Leviticus 20:17). All these are likely to be carried out in secret and not come to public knowledge. The guilt will therefore rest on the whole nation. Therefore the guilt from them must be expunged from Israel by agreeing to the curse on them.

The sixth is that of a son who seeks to usurp his father’s place by having sexual relationships with one of his father’s wives. He will have shamed his father who has been set in authority over him by Yahweh, by laying bare the nakedness of his wife. Compare Deuteronomy 22:30; Leviticus 18:8 and see 2 Samuel 16:21-22; 2 Samuel 20:3 with Deuteronomy 15:16. This would be true even if it was after the father’s death, and he was rather trying to gain an advantage over his brothers. While it may not be known, Yahweh will know, and he will be cursed. Again the cursing is assented to by all.

Deuteronomy 27:21

Cursed be he who lies with any manner of beast.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The seventh is that of someone who has sexual relations with a beast. Such an act involves being made one with the beast and thus results in dishonouring the image of Yahweh in man. It is to degrade man to being but a beast causing ‘confusion’ in the levels of creation (Leviticus 18:23). The perpetrator sins against Yahweh’s image in man and although possibly unknown to any, will be under God’s curse. Again the cursing is assented to by all.

Deuteronomy 27:22

Cursed be he who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The eighth is that of one who has sexual relations with his own sister or half-sister (Leviticus 18:9). This was in fact previously not seen as sinful for Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12). It is, however, now forbidden, probably mainly in order to protect women in a family from harassment or it may have been due to an observed likelihood of birth defects in the resulting children. Also. Again it is cursed, and the curse is assented to by all.

Deuteronomy 27:23

Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The ninth is that of a man who has sexual relations with his mother-in-law. This is likely to cause unease, unpleasantness and even enmity between mother and daughter, something to be totally rejected, and will distort family relationships in other spheres. For example if the mother-in-law has another daughter she will be sister to the man’s wife, and yet his daughter. This too is cursed, a curse agreed to by all the people.

Deuteronomy 27:24

Cursed be he who smites his neighbour in secret.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The tenth crime against Yahweh is that of smiting a neighbour in secret, the point being that by doing it in secret he hopes to get away with it because of lack of proof (compare Exodus 21:12). The word ‘smiting’ includes the idea of killing (see Deuteronomy 21:1). Had the crime been known he would suffer the death penalty, thus taking away the guilt from Israel. But he is assured that even if he is not found out Yahweh will know, and he will be cursed. And all the people will say, ‘Amen’.

Deuteronomy 27:25

Cursed be he who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The eleventh crime against Yahweh is that of taking a secret bribe to kill an innocent person, again a crime which would receive the death penalty (compare Exodus 23:7-8). That too is to be cursed, and all the people will say. ‘Amen’.

Deuteronomy 27:26

Cursed be he who confirms not the words of this law to do them.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”

The twelfth crime against Yahweh is that of rejecting the covenant, of refusing to confirm it. If the secrecy motif is in mind here as well then the idea is of those who do it secretly. Outwardly he accepts it but inwardly he rejects it. This too will result in cursing. And all the people will say, ‘Amen’.

Alternately this may signify ‘confirms not the words of this law by doing them’ (compare its use by Paul in Galatians 3:10). In that case it would be a curse against all high handed sin done in secret, the penalty for which would have been death (Numbers 15:30).

The importance in this list of sins due for cursing is not only in dissuading men from doing them, but in order to cover the whole of Israel against the consequences of such secret sins on themselves. By agreeing and publicly declaring their agreement with the fact that the perpetrators should be cursed by Yahweh they have relieved themselves from the burden of guilt arising from them, both in the past and in the future for they have taken Yahweh’s side against them. This is the essence of these cursings. That is why there is no alternative in respect of blessings. Israel are not at this time calling for a curse on themselves, but on those who have done these secret sins. As they renew the covenant they are separating themselves from such secret sinners. The general blessings and cursings will now follow.

There is for us an important lesson in these cursings for they remind us that God is not mocked. We are just as much required to obey God’s instruction as they were.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 27:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-27.html. 2013.

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