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Thursday, September 28th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 27

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-68

The Publication and Enforcement of the Terms of the Covenant (27:1-28:68)

Chapter 27 interrupts the second address of Moses, which, according to the book’s general pattern, has been proceeding since the beginning of chapter 5. In chapter 27 the third, rather than the second, person form of address appears, and instructions are given by Moses and the elders concerning the publication and enforcement of the laws. In chapter 28 the second person reappears and the address continues. It is apparent that chapter 27 is logically out of place. The instructions of chapter 27 would more suitably come after chapter 28. How and why chapter 27 got in this position in the book is not known.

The material of chapter 27 centers in a great ceremony to be held after the entrance into the land. It was to consist first of all in the setting up on Mount Ebal of plastered stones on which the Deuteronomic law was to be written. It was a practice of antiquity to inscribe the laws of the land on slabs of stone and erect them in public places (the Code of Hammurabi, for example). The use of plastered stones as a writing surface was common in Egypt. Because of the dry climate there, such inscriptions were practicable, but in Palestine the dampness would soon cause the plaster and the writing to crumble away. It is not clear how much of the Deuteronomic law the writer regards as to be inscribed. "All the words of this law" (vss. 3, 8) elsewhere seems to mean the content of chapters 5-26. It is possible, however, that only chapters 12-26 are meant. The publication of the Law in this way would tend to fix its authority on the minds and hearts of the people.

The second element of the ceremony has to do with the erection of an altar of uncut stone, the offering of sacrifice upon it, and a festal celebration. The reason for the prohibition of cut stone (see also Exodus 20:24-26) may have been the belief that only things in their natural condition—things not interfered with by man—should be used for the service of God (see Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3-4; 1 Samuel 6:7). The sacrifices and the customary feasting following would indicate the people’s glad acceptance of the Law and the unity of the community with God and with one another. As covenants between men were sealed by their eating together (Genesis 26:28-31; Genesis 31:44-54), so the bond between worshipers and their God was sealed by his acceptance of a portion of the victim on the altar and by the worshipers’ eating some of the meat in his presence. Thus Paul writes, "Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?" (1 Corinthians 10:18).

The third element has to do with the ratification of the Covenant in a symbolical ceremony conducted between and on the slopes of the twin mountains Ebal and Gerizim near Shechem. The details of the ceremony cannot be fully reconstructed, even with the further data supplied by Joshua 8:30-35; Joshua 24:1-28 (the latter apparently a record of the same ceremony). It is clear that the whole body of people was to be divided into two parts: six tribes (the sons of Jacob’s wives) were to stand on the slope of Mount Gerizim to invoke blessing as the reward for obedience to the Covenant law; and six tribes (mostly the sons of Jacob’s concubines) were to take a position on the slope of Mount Ebal to invoke curses as the punishment of disobedience. According to Joshua 8:33, Levitical priests and the Ark of the Covenant stood between the two sections. In the hearing of all, Joshua read the whole law and exhorted Israel to obey it (compare Joshua 24:1-28). The people responded with ringing words of acceptance (Joshua 24:16-18; Joshua 24:21; Joshua 24:24). Some kind of formal act of entering into covenant with God (probably a formal oath, accompanied by the slaughter of an animal) was performed (Joshua 24:25-28). Blessings and curses were read aloud by Joshua and selected Levites (Joshua 8:34; Deuteronomy 27:14-26) and probably were also chanted antiphonally by the two great six-tribe choirs. The people responded with "Amen" (meaning "assuredly," "verily"). Such seem to be the major elements of this great Covenant ceremony at Shechem, whatever the exact order in which they fell.

It is probable that the curses and the blessings contained in Deuteronomy 27:15-26; Deuteronomy 28:3-6; Deuteronomy 28:16-19 belong to the liturgy of this ceremony. Ancient suzerainty covenants regularly ended with curses and blessings in which the gods were called on to mete out calamities and rewards to the vassal state in accordance with its disobedience or obedience to the terms of the covenant (see comment on 4:1-14). In Hebrew curses and blessings the agent of the curse or blessing is regularly undesignated and the form is simply "Cursed [or blessed] be . . . !" The Hebrews and ancient peoples in general regarded the spoken word as having supernatural power to effect the results contemplated in the utterance.

The twelve curses contained in 27:15-26 offer but a sample of the many that must have been uttered at this great ceremony. Most of the curses here fall upon those who sin secretly. The implication is that God knows, even if men do not, that an evil deed has been committed, and he will punish it. Secret sins will pollute the land and destroy Israel’s future. Three of the twelve offenses listed here appear in the Ten Commandments (vss. 15, 16, 24). Most of the others are forbidden in some law code of the Pentateuch (there is, however, no parallel to those in vss. 25-26). The offenses named here comprise sins against God, sins against parents and neighbors, and flagrant types of sexual sins. The list is to be regarded as typical; there seems to be no logic behind the selection of these particular sins for condemnation.

The blessings and curses of chapter 28 revolve around the contrasting parallel lists of verses 3-6 and 16-19. As indicated above, these lists are probably part of the liturgy of the Covenant renewal ceremony. The rest of the material of chapter 28 seems to be a free composition by the Deuteronomic writer or writers on the theme of the rewards and punishments contingent on obedience or disobedience. After the interruption of chapter 27, Moses is represented as again speaking directly to Israel.

It is unnecessary to comment in detail on these rewards and punishments. A thoughtful reading of them is a sobering experience. The effects of them on King Josiah were dramatic and played a part in his sweeping reformation (2 Kings 22-23; see Introduction). The stark imagery of the chapter is calculated to shock the will awake and to lead to vigorous action.

It should be noted that the blessings and curses are conceived of as primarily national, not individual, though the individual participates fully in the destiny of the nation. The basic question is, What kind of future does the Covenant people have? The nation stands between promise and fulfillment: God has called it into being; he has revealed his will to it; he plans for it a glorious future; he wants it to be the head and not the tail among the nations of the world (vs. 13; see vs. 44); he longs to establish Israel "as a people holy to himself" (vs. 9). But the fulfillment of the promise is conditioned upon full obedience to God’s will. The divine election does not automatically convey the divine blessing. With God’s purpose must be linked human cooperation if the possibilities inherent in the Covenant relationship are to be realized. The point of view here is identical with that in Isaiah 1:19:

"If you are willing and obedient,

you shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel,

you shall be devoured by the sword;

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The prophets of the Old Testament as a whole would second this utterance with a resounding "Amen!"

But does God reward nations for full obedience and punish them for disobedience? Does he bring pestilence, drought, famine, and the scorching, blinding sirocco? (The sirocco winds of the desert carried dust as fine as powder; see verse 24.) Does he send enemies against a disobedient nation to gobble up the produce of the land, to lay merciless siege to its cities, and to carry away its inhabitants into foreign lands where they will languish in bitter despair? Contrariwise, does he reward the obedient with full breadbaskets, abundant and healthy posterity, security from attacks of enemies, and pre-eminence among the nations? Throughout much of the Old Testament—in the Prophets, the Psalms, the Book of Proverbs—as well as in the Deuteronomic writings, the formula is to be found: obedience to the Law of God will bring individual and national prosperity, security, health, and religious and political leadership of the world.

That this emphasis is not the whole truth is evident in those questions and suggestions in the Old Testament that intimate that suffering may have causes other than man’s sin. Job, knowing that he is innocent of wrongdoing, resigns himself to the wisdom of God and leaves the matter there. Others believe that God will finally vindicate the righteous and punish their evil oppressors (Psalms 37; Psalms 73; Habakkuk 1-2). Still others look on suffering as a divine education through which the sufferers will be led away from their sins to a new and higher relationship with God (Jeremiah; Second Isaiah). Jesus regarded suffering as his divinely given vocation (Mark 8:31; Mark 10:35-45; Luke 12:49-50). New Testament writers find in the suffering of Jesus the means of man’s reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11; Hebrews 9:11-14; 1 Peter 3:18). Christians are called upon to accept suffering as normative Christian experience (Acts 14:22; 1 Thessalonians 3:3; 1 Peter 4:12-19). They are to rejoice in their sufferings (Acts 5:41; Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24), knowing that suffering brings cessation from sin

(1 Peter 4:1) and the ability to comfort others who are suffering

(2 Corinthians 1:3-7). In the New Testament the suffering of the Christian is attributed to the hostility of evil men, inspired by the Devil (1 Peter 5:8-9; Revelation 12:7-17; Ephesians 6:12). It is rarely viewed as God’s direct punishment of the sinner for his sin (but see 1 Corinthians 11:29-30).

It is evident that Deuteronomy draws a straight line between sin and suffering. Its causes and its meaning, according to the Bible as a whole, are more complex than this. But it must be evident to all who stop to think that some suffering is the direct result of sin. The individual or the nation that flouts the laws of God governing personal, social, and international life will bring down on individual and corporate heads the "Furies" that seem so eager to rush in at the slightest infraction of moral and spiritual law. And who can know the wonders that might follow on the obedience of an entire nation to the Law of God? God is still looking for a nation that will test him out!

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 27". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-27.html.
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