I'm just finishing my first day lecturing in the Old Testament at R.T.C. in Belfast - I'd been telling the men about, in salvation's story, just how massive a figure Moses is. We had a brief look at Joshua's witness to the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as a written Mosaic work. I took them to the passage of the blessings & curses on Ebal & Gerizim, at the moment of Covenant Renewal, recorded in Joshua 8.30-35.
At that time Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, "an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool." And they offered on it burnt offerings to the LORD and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the Law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
When I got home after lectures, I began to reflect a little further on the events of that momentous occasion & how it was the later fulfillment of a ceremony commanded beforehand by Moses. The passage in question is found in Deuteronomy 27.1-28 - 28.68 which envisages public reading of the Covenant curses & blessings: the recital was scheduled to take place, after Moses death, when Israel departed the plains of Moab and began the conquest of Canaan.
There are a number of points that can be brought out of this passage which will help us grasp something of the monumental importance of that unforgettable event which, by God's grace, should help to turn our stare in the direction of an even more glorious truth:
Institution Dt 27.1-2
This event was commanded by Moses by specific instruction - it was revealed & appointed by God that a covenant renewal ritual be held after Joshua had led the people into the Promised Land (entrance into Canaan itself was a fulfillment of God's promise to Israel's Patriarchs). This renewal rite was an act of obedience in light of God's manifest grace - His redeemed took very seriously this strict obligation commanded of a Church in Covenant with God. While this was clearly a special epochal act, which savors somewhat of a once-for-all Israelite (or at least an inter-generational) act, a principle is being established: that when God makes good His promises, an appropriate response is an act of fresh covenant commitment on the part of a thankful people. Jericho and Ai had crumbled into dust & been incinerated to ash. What the people must now do is hear the words of blessing & curse!
Inscription Dt 27.3-4
Stones were to be set up, plastered head to foot, and as common custom dictated, a scribe (or his team) was then to get to work. Stelae or boundary stones were common in that time, and were often multilingual - in this case the text was Hebrew - and can be seen in the British Museum (friends in the States - why not visit London & get in for FREE!). I find it hard to grasp but the text does imply the whole of the text of Deuteronomy was inscribed which is "all the words of this Law": the 5th book in the Pentateuch was the recently update version of the Covenant, specfically adapted, now wilderness wanderings were over, to settled life in Canaan - it was the full-orbed covenant document, intentionally designed, for a more-settled, centralized, politico-religious, nation. Given the fact that the covenant treaty of Moab, including preamble & prologue, runs to some 28 chapters (if Meredith Kline was correct), it seems most likely what was written by Joshua was, at the bare minimum, the adapted edition of the Decalogue (chapter 5), together with two chapters of blessings & curses (chapters 27-28).
Can you visualize the sight, with the scaffolding set up, around two massive stones? How long did it take to painstakingly, and accurately, finish the inscription of the Hebrew characters on the chalky, stony, edifices? With the plaster gloss indented, and the scribal work now finished, the scaffolding was removed - can you see the dramatic sight of this concrete, indelible, republished, Covenant Book? The vision was never, ever, to be wiped off the mental retina of Israel's adults and infants - the revelatory rocks were to be impressed on their hearts. Nor should this memorial ever dim or diminish in us! This record we are told was to be indelible and large so that the characters could not be hidden but be visible, in bold, to all the nation of Israel as they passed by their 'Covenant Rocks'! In our hearts, too, such concrete covenant blocks, are to be an object held in constant, reverent, remembrance!
Immolation Dt 27.5-6
The next step taken was the construction on an altar and presentation of slain beasts - burnt offerings signified among other things grateful dedication to God for propitiation of sin, while peace-offerings with the accompanying covenant meal, stressed, beyond these things, specifically fellowship with the LORD - now redeemed & reconciled, God's people were ready to renew their pledge of loyalty to the LORD who had proved faithful to His Word: this fidelity to the faith was to be outworked in obedience. How much more then, should we commit to holy covenant service in every aspect of life in nation, home, work & church - our redemption is greater now Jesus, our Passover and crucial Propitiator, has, by His blood, made peace for God with us. Covenant obedience, a life embossed by love, is the natural outworking of Christ's Gospel achievement: this comes to us with far greater impelling force, for a Christian, knelt at the Cross, offers themselves again "as a living sacrifice" (Romans 12.1-2). In view of Calvary's merciful immolation, child of God present yourself! How would this commitment be emblazoned forever on their minds?
Incantation Dt 27.9-14
Please don't get me wrong - I'm not talking about spells - these curses & blessings had no magic, yet they were nonetheless supernatural: these stones would witness to the covenanting parties, and the sovereign LORD would see to it, the inscribed words would be worked out in national life, whether for good or ill, by their conformity or breach of the Law which Levites read: two groups of Levites stood before the congregation - one on Ebal and the other on Gerizim - looking up at the whitewash with the letters carved on each cliff face. One would shout out 'cursed', the other would bellow 'blessed'- the oration took some time, as they worked through the specifics of Deuteronomy 27.13-28.68: when all was done, the Covenant was renewed in faith. What a serious thing it is to be in covenant with God - to break faith with His truth is no slight or trifling thing!
Blessings of the Covenant - what gladness that brought their hearts! Cursings of the Covenant - as the years went by, those terms began to haunt, for those guilty of disobedience (all Israelites without exception)! Of course these terms aimed to unmask the nations crimes, and put them in constant reliance on the Levitical Priestly system! There would be atonement, through the blood of bulls and goats, but the animals could not effect the final removal of their guilt - and so Ebal remained to haunt!
Before we slump back into the sofa in spiritual gloom & despair, we should not miss the Gospel concealed in this text - beyond the redemption of Egypt, and the entrance into Palestine, the work of Christ presides over the curses & blessings of Ebal & Gerizim. Perhaps what we need to do, in our own mind's eye again, is to go to those monuments & see a new scaffold put up. The rugged frame is wood, it is fashioned as a Cross, and the man on the beam is Christ - head wounded, back torn, limb-pierced & side-riven. With a blood red chisel he is removing the words of the curses. The scaffolding comes down, His blood has erased the curse, for choirs of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun & Dan there's now nothing left to read - and while the choir of cursing falls silent, no longer able to declare the curse, there is a belting out of blessing, by Levites grouped on Gerizim.
You see, that is what the Gospel does to the covenant curse, for as Paul said sometime later, as Moses himself knew well "cursed is a man who is hung on a tree." Jesus has borne our curse - by the wrath Calvary heaped on Him, as He bore punishment for our sin, according to God's will, as the Trinity's volunteer. There is only blessing left to be declared upon the Church - every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ. As the apostle put it later, it was God's purpose from the start, before the world began, to predestine us to adoption in love, and be "blessed in the beloved ...in whom we have redemption & forgiveness of our sins"!
Calvary's Gospel choir of preachers can now declare good news - all in Christ are blessed for He has borne our curse! All the more reason then, in the light of His marvelous grave, to rededicate ourselves in regularly renewing covenant faith.