Saturday Jun 25, 2022

Deuteronomy 27:1-26 - Israel’s Recommitment to God - Cursings for Disobedience

Map of Israel - Ebal and Gerizim - Joshua's Altar

     In this address by Moses, he directs the twelve tribes of Israel to renew their commitment to God in a covenant ceremony. This was to happen at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim after they’d entered the land of Canaan. This chapter is divided into three parts. First, the people were to gather at Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim under the leadership of the elders and priests and prepare themselves for recommitment to the Lord (Deut 27:1-8). Second, Moses directed the people to listen to God and obey His commands (Deut 27:9-10). Third, Moses directed the twelve tribes of Israel to stand on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, with the priests between them, and pronounce cursing on those who violated certain ordinances (Deut 27:11-26).

Part I - Deuteronomy 27:1-8

  • "Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying, “Keep all the commandments which I command you today. 2 So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime 3 and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.” (Deut 27:1-3)

     After presenting the statutes and judgments, Moses gathered together with the elders of Israel to charge the whole nation (Deut 27:1a). The specific charge given to them was, “Keep all the commandments which I command you today” (Deut 27:1b). All the commandments refer to the whole corpus of the Law as given in Deuteronomy. Twice Moses mentions the day “when you cross” the Jordan, and twice describes it as “the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Deut 27:2-3). God was giving Israel the land of Canaan as a possession, but it was their responsibility to enter into it and to follow His directives once there. Canaan is described as a prosperous land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 27:3a). The land which God was giving to His people had been promised to the patriarchs and their descendants (Gen 17:7-8; 26:3-4; 28:13-14). What follows in the remainder of this chapter refers to a one-time event that Israel was to perform after they’d entered the land of Canaan. Eugene Merrill states:

  • "The nature of Deuteronomy as a covenant renewal document designed especially for life in the promised land is evident from this set of instructions given by Moses to the people. They had received the covenant in the here and now of the plains of Moab, but they had to wait until they arrived in Canaan to formalize its implementation by a mass ceremony of commitment. This would include the erection of a monument containing the fundamental principles of the Lord-Israel relationship, a covenant meal signifying the harmony of that relationship, and a catalog of curses and blessings appropriate to the maintenance and/or disruption of that relationship."[1]

Moses continued his address, saying:

  • "So it shall be when you cross the Jordan, you shall set up on Mount Ebal, these stones, as I am commanding you today, and you shall coat them with lime. 5 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. 6 You shall build the altar of the LORD your God of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God; 7 and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God. 8 You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very distinctly." (Deut 27:4-8)

     The recommitment Moses was prescribing was to happen after they’d crossed the Jordan River and entered the land of Canaan. Once there, they were to gather at Mount Ebal and select large stones and coat them with lime. In addition, they were to build an altar made of uncut stones, and there offer burnt offerings to the Lord. The uncut stones were likely to remove any human adornment, thus removing any human pride that might be involved. Daniel Block states, “Apparently, just as animals to be sacrificed were to be ‘without defect’ (Lev 1:3) and without ‘any serious flaw’ (Deut 15:21), so the stones of this altar were to be whole and complete. To improve on them with human effort and man-made tools was to defile them.”[2]And burnt offerings were completely consumed and pictured total dependence on the Lord. The purpose of whitewashing the stones at Mount Ebal was to write on them all the words of the law, which likely referred to what was given in the book of Deuteronomy. According to Victor Matthews, “Some archaeologists believe that the remains of this altar have been found. It is a structure on one of the peaks of Mount Ebal about twenty-five by thirty feet with walls about five feet thick and nine feet high made of fieldstones.”[3] Additionally, there are ashes and animal bones at the site.

Part II - Deuteronomy 27:9-10

     What follows is a directive by Moses and the Levitical priests for the nation as a whole to recommit themselves to the Lord as His obedient-to-the-Word people. The text reads, “Then Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying, ‘Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the LORD your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the LORD your God and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today’” (Deut 27:9-10). Israel was already God’s people; however, this one-time ceremony was to mark a renewed commitment to abide by all His statutes. According to Jack Deere, “The words you have now become the people of the Lord your God do not imply that Israel was not the people of God before that time. They meant that there on the plains of Moab, at that significant turning point in her history, Israel had freshly committed herself again to the Lord. Again, she was told to obey Him and to follow His commands and decrees.”[4]

Part III - Deuteronomy 27:11-26

     Moses now offers instructions about what was to follow after the people had gathered at Mount Ebal, erected and whitewashed stones, written God’s laws on them, and offered a burnt offering to the Lord. The instructions are as follows, “Moses also charged the people on that day, saying, 12 ‘When you cross the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 For the curse, these shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali’” (Deut 27:11-13). In addition to this, the book of Joshua reveals that the ark of the covenant, along with those Levites who carried it, would stand in the valley between the two mountains (Josh 8:33). The picture was that God and His law would be in plain site as the ceremony of recommitment was enacted. The text continues, “The Levites shall then answer and say to all the men of Israel with a loud voice” (Deut 27:14). The Levites mentioned here were likely those in the valley, who would shout out the following curses for those who violated certain commands.  

     The curses were statements of self-imprecation, in which the Israelites agreed with what was said by the Levites. Deuteronomy 27:15-26 consists of twelve curses, perhaps corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel present at the ceremony. Why twelve curses were stated is not known. What is clear is that God is the author of the laws, the people were His people and under His authority, and their response of amen meant they agreed to adhere to His divine directives, with a deserved curse-punishment if they disobeyed. According to Peter Craigie, “To each curse all the people respond ‘Amen.’ This word, which refers back to what has immediately preceded, indicates assent and agreement to what has been proclaimed. Thus, by saying ‘Amen,’ the people indicate understanding and agreement and thereby remove any possible excuse for their conduct, if at some subsequent time they were to disobey the law of the covenant.”[5] Additionally, the twelve curses seem to share a pattern of sins that could be committed by Israelites in secret. Though these violations might not be observable to others, God sees, and He will render judgment as He decides. The twelve curses are as follows.

  1. ‘“Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:15). This first curse comes to those who violate the command, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Deut 5:7). God’s authority was necessary if His directives were to be followed. Setting up an idol in secret meant setting it in one’s home so that no one else could see. Such household idols were worshipped later in Israel (Judg 17:3-4).
  2. “‘Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:16). This violates God’s command, “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you” (Deut 5:16). Here, the authority of the parent in the home is of concern. Victor Matthews states, “The home is seen as an important and necessary link for the covenant instruction of each successive generation. Honor is given to parents as representatives of God’s authority and is for the sake of covenant preservation. If parents are not heeded or their authority is repudiated, the covenant is in jeopardy.”[6]
  3. ‘“Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:17). This command was mentioned before and refers to the theft of a neighbor’s land (Deut 19:14). Such an act was not only a crime against one’s neighbor, but also against the Lord Himself, as He was the ultimate owner of the land (Lev 25:23). Like the other violations, this could be done in secret, when no one was watching.
  4. ‘“Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:18). This verse addresses the exploitation of the vulnerable, namely the blind. However, this could easily extend to others who suffered a handicap and could be abused (Lev 19:14). Earl Radmacher comments, “The underlying assumption is that only a person of great cruelty and no love for God would take advantage of a disabled person.”[7]
  5. ‘“Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:19). In addition to the blind, there were others within the community who were marginalized and vulnerable to mistreatment. God’s people were to protect and defend the vulnerable (Ex 22:21-22; 23:9; Deut 24:17), as He Himself does (Deut 10:17-19).
  6. ‘“Cursed is he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:20). This curse fell on the one who had sexual intercourse with his stepmother (Lev 18:8), which would have been an attack on his father as well.
  7. ‘“Cursed is he who lies with any animal.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen” (Deut 27:21). Bestiality was practiced in the ancient world and represented a sexual perversion that warranted the death penalty (Lev 20:15-16). Daniel Block writes, “Apparently bestiality was deemed such a heinous offense because it blurs the boundaries between the creaturely world and humankind created as image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26–28). The roots of this disposition go back to Eden, where God created woman because none of the animals was an appropriate counterpart for the man (Gen 2:18–25).”[8]
  8. ‘“Cursed is he who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:22). This curse fell on the one who engaged in sexual intercourse with a sister or half-sister. Such practices were permissible in ancient Egypt as well as Phoenicia.
  9. ‘“Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:23). This act had been declared wicked in Leviticus and warranted the death penalty (Lev 20:14). Jacob’s son, Reuben, forfeited his rights as the firstborn son because of this act (Gen 35:22; 49:3-4).
  10. ‘“Cursed is he who strikes his neighbor in secret.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:24). Violence against a neighbor was bad enough, but to injure him/her in secret meant no other person knew about it, and it could not be tried in a court of law, which required two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).
  11. ‘“Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:25). A bribe to kill an innocent person could be done in private. The one who accepted such payment and carried it out would be guilty of murder, which was punishable by death (Lev 24:17).
  12. “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:26). Rather than recite all the laws he’d previously presented, Moses concludes this section by pronouncing a curse on the one who “does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut 27:26a). God expected total submission to all His laws and would curse anyone who did not abide by them. Paul cited this verse in Galatians 3:10 to make the point that the Law demanded absolute perfection, and failure to keep any part of it brought a curse from God. The law does not save.

     These curses were given as a warning not to disobey the Lord. It was intended for Israel’s good, to help them avoid the dangers and consequences of sin. According to Jack Deere, “This last curse demonstrates that the preceding list was representative. Perhaps the 11 examples were chosen, as stated earlier, because most of them could be done in secret and therefore the offender might not be as easily detected as he would when violating other laws. The summary nature of the 12th curse, however, indicates that God desired a wholehearted obedience to the Law both in public and in private.”[9] After crossing the Jordan River into the land of Canaan (Josh 3:1-17), Joshua led the people to carry out this command (Josh 8:30-35).

Present Application

God gives directives to His people, and this for good, never harm (Deut 6:24; 10:12-13). But God’s law, though holy, just, and good, reveals humanity’s sinful flaws, both in the unsaved and saved. The biblical record of human sinfulness is as follows:

  • Moses wrote, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5), and “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21).
  • A psalmist wrote, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psa 130:3), and “do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Psa 143:2).
  • Solomon asked, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin?’” (Prov 20:9). He later said, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
  • Isaiah wrote, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa 64:6).
  • Jeremiah said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).
  • The apostle Paul said, “as it is written, ‘there is none righteous, not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10, 23). Elsewhere he said, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Rom 7:18), and “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (Rom 7:21).
  • The apostle John said, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10).

     Everyone deserves God’s judgment. No one deserves His mercy or grace. But it is exactly God’s mercy and grace that keep us from being judged quickly or harshly by Him. It is written, “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Psa 86:15), and “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Psa 103:8; cf., Ex 34:6; Psa 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2). God has not judged us as our sin deserves, nor treated us according to our failures. David knew this very well and said of God, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:10-12). Ezra wrote something similar, saying, “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have allowed us to survive” (Ezra 9:13).

     As Christians, we are God’s people because we have trusted in Christ as our Savior (John 3:16). We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Eph 2:8-9). As a result, we are forgiven our sins (Eph 1:7), given eternal life (John 10:28), God’s gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9), and will never be condemned along with unbelievers (John 3:18; Rom 8:1). But as God’s people, He expects us to live holy lives (1 Pet 1:14-16), to walk with Him daily (Eph 4:1), live by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6), and advance to spiritual maturity (Eph 4:11-16; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Pet 2:2). And this we do when we humble ourselves daily, study His Word, seek His will, and prioritize His glory above our own ambitions and interests.

     As God’s children, our Father will judge and discipline us if we live sinfully (Heb 12:5-11; Rev 3:19), and His judgment can even result in our death (Acts 5:1-10; 1 Cor 11:27-30; 1 John 5:16-17). Though it’s impossible for us to lose our salvation (John 10:27-29), a sinful lifestyle can cause us to suffer unnecessarily in this life (1 Pet 4:15) and forfeit future rewards in heaven (1 Cor 3:15; 2 John 1:8). But our God who judges is also gracious and quick to forgive when we humble ourselves and confess our sins to Him (1 John 1:9; cf. Luke 18:9-14).[10] And God’s judgments, whether harsh or mild, are often determined by the attitude of the offender, for “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5). Therefore, let us always be humble before our God, appealing to His mercy and grace when we fail. For we serve “the God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10), who sits upon a “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4) and ready to forgive when we call out to Him.


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 341.

[2] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 627.

[3] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Dt 27:4.

[4] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 310.

[5] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 331.

[6] Victor Harold Matthews, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament Deut 27:16.

[7] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 262.

[8] Daniel I. Block, The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy, 635.

[9] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 311.

[10] Our salvation comes to us “by grace” through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9; cf. Acts 15:11; Rom 3:24). Jesus is said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29).

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