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Deuteronomy 27:1-26 – Covenant Ratification

Summary

Moses gives instructions for a covenant ceremony of blessings and curses that Israel will use to accept its responsibility to live under the law that has been delivered in chapters 12-26.

Analysis

Scholars have long noticed that the Deuteronomic Law Code (chapters 12-26) is framed by a pair of exhortations to obey that law, the constitutive parts of which are presented in reverse order:

A Blessing and curse in Moab (11:26-28)
B Ceremony on Mts. Gerizim and Ebal (11:29-31)
C Summons to obedience (11:32)
X The Deuteronomic Law Code (chapters 12-26)
C′ Summons to obedience (26:16-19)
B′ Ceremony on Mts. Gerizim and Ebal (chapter 27)
A′ Blessing and curse in Moab (chapter 28)

Chapter 27 also relates to Deuteronomy 5:24-27, where, following the Ten Commandments, the elders commission Moses as covenant mediator, essentially God's spokesperson. Here, they recognize that Moses has completed his task of delivering what he has heard on Mt. Horeb and prepare to accept their responsibilities in the covenantal relationship.

The location is important. Mounts Gerizim and Ebal overlook Shechem, an important site for each of the primary patriarchs, where Abraham erected his first altar and heard God's promise of the land (Genesis 12:6-7), Jacob purchased land including a well (Genesis 33:19), and Joseph was buried (Joshua 24:32). As the people's first stop, Shechem connected them with their past and helped them to identify with the promises God made to their ancestors.

The text, itself, falls into three unequal sections, each with an introductory formula:

  • "Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people" (v. 1)
  • "Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel" (v. 9)
  • "Moses charged the people" (v. 11)

The first and third sections (vv. 1-8; 11-26) instruct the people about four ceremonies of covenantal confirmation to be observed at Shechem (Mts. Ebal and Gerizim) following the crossing of the Jordan River: the writing (painting?) of "this law" (improbably, all of Deuteronomy 12-26!) on stones erected on Mt. Ebal and covered with plaster, as was done in Egypt (vv. 2-4, 8); the erection of a stone altar and the offering of sacrifices on Mt. Ebal (vv. 5-7); a fragmentary account of the ratification of the covenant on Mts. Ebal and Gerizim (vv. 11-14); and twelve curses delivered by the Levites (vv. 15-26). By means of these curses, Israel pledges to keep the unenforceable aspects of the law, those sins committed in secret or in private.

Separating these two sections is a brief fragment of exhortation in which Moses dramatically states the purpose behind the liturgical ceremony (vv. 9-10): "This very day" Israel has "become the people of…God" (v. 9)! This accurate translation does not mean to say, however, that Israel has not been the people of God before (see, for example, 4:20; 7:6-7; 10:15; 21:8; etc.). Rather, there is a liturgical nuance to this bold statement. Moses means that Israel needs to claim their special relationship with God again and again in renewal ceremonies such as these, much as Lutherans affirm the need to crawl back to the promise of one's baptism on a daily basis.

Deuteronomy 27:1-26

The Inscribed Stones and Altar on Mount Ebal

27Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. 2On the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and cover them with plaster. 3You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over, to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. 4So when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster. 5And you shall build an altar there to the Lord your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. 6You must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn* stones. Then offer up burnt-offerings on it to the Lord your God, 7make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the Lord your God. 8You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.

9 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. 10Therefore obey the Lord your God, observing his commandments and his statutes that I am commanding you today.

Twelve Curses

11 The same day Moses charged the people as follows: 12When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites:

15 ‘Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image, anything abhorrent to the Lord, the work of an artisan, and sets it up in secret.’ All the people shall respond, saying, ‘Amen!’

16 ‘Cursed be anyone who dishonours father or mother.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

17 ‘Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbour’s boundary marker.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

18 ‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

19 ‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

20 ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has violated his father’s rights.’* All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

21 ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with any animal.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

22 ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

23 ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

24 ‘Cursed be anyone who strikes down a neighbour in secret.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

25 ‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

26 ‘Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

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10 February 2011

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