Making Choices in Covenant Life
Sunday School Lesson for February 10, 2002
Background Passage: Deuteronomy 27:1-28:68
Focal Teaching Passage: Deuteronomy 27:1-8; 28:1-2, 15
Commemoration of Godís Commandments (27:1-8)
As this chapter commences, Moses, along with "the elders of Israel," orders the people of the nation to pledge their allegiance to the Law of God by means of a service of commemoration and covenant renewal (v.1). This ceremony, designed to ensure the continuity of the covenant, would involve a formal ceremony of commitment that would begin once the people entered the land "the Lord your God is giving you" (v.2). As a critical component of this act of commemoration, Moses commanded the erection of several "large stones" covered with "plaster" upon which would be written "all the words of this law" (v.3). It is probable that Moses intended that the Decalogue, the "very core and foundation of the Law," should be preserved on the stones that would serve as a "rallying point around which the community could gather to more easily recall its commitment as a people" (Merrill, 342).
The location chosen as the place where the stones would be erected was the area near "Mount Ebal" and "Mount Gerizim," or Shechem. This site was highly significant in Israelite history. It was the location where Abraham received the covenant promise (Gen. 12:6), the site of Jacobís well (Gen. 33:19), and the place where the bones of Joseph were finally buried (Josh. 24:32).
In addition to writing the words of Godís Law upon the white, plaster covered stones, Moses commanded that an "altar" should be constructed upon which "burnt offerings" and "fellowship offerings" might be presented (vv.6-7). The "burnt offerings" were for Yahweh Himself and were fully consumed in the fire (Lev. 1:1-17). The "peace offerings," on the other hand, were eaten by the worshippers in Yahwehís presence (Lev. 3:1-17). In this way, both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of worship were stressed. Christopher Wright notes that both "love for God and love for neighbor permeate even the worship that celebrates the renewal of the covenant in the land" (276). This entire scene seems to be patterned after the instructions given in Exodus 20:24 and 24:4-8.
Note also that the "altar to the Lord your God" (v. 5) was to be constructed out of "fieldstones" without the use of any "iron tool" (vv.5-6). Such restrictions were doubtless mandated in order to "set Israelite altars apart from Canaanite ones that ordinarily were built of dressed stone" (Merrill, 343).
Verse 8 ends the section with another command regarding the preservation of the Law upon the plaster-covered stones. Moses instructs the Israelites to "write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones." The Hebrew word translated "clearly" is actually made of two separate terms. The first means to "dig" or "hew," while the second denotes the concept of "good" or "well." Thus, the Israelites were to take care to engrave the words of the Lord with expert precision so as to ensure their clarity and readability.
To summarize the contents of this section (27:1-8), we might focus upon three key words: permanence, clarity, and location. The ceremony commanded by Moses was intended to guarantee the permanence of Godís Law. Therefore, in keeping with ancient Near Eastern customs, Moses ordered the Israelites to write the words of the Decalogue upon stones that would endure throughout the generations as "a regular reminder of the obligations the people had undertaken" (Wright, 275). In addition, the stones would also preserve the clarity and availability of the Law of God. The stones would allow the Law to be seen and understood by all the people of the covenant nation. Finally, the stones and the worship surrounding them were to be located in the land that God had given to His treasured peopleóa land "flowing with milk and honey" (v. 3). In this way, the land itself would serve as "an even greater monument to Godís grace than the stones erected upon it. The stones will bear witness to Godís covenant law. The land they stand on will bear witness to Godís covenant faithfulness" (Wright, 276).
The Blessings of Obedience and the Consequences of Disobedience (28:1-2, 15)
In 27:11-13 Moses commands the people of the nation to divide themselves into two sections of six tribes each. The first section, consisting of the tribes of "Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin" was ordered to assemble upon "Mount Gerizim" in order to "bless the people," while "Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali" would locate themselves upon "Mount Ebal" in order to "pronounce curses." This dramatic action would rivet the attention of the people to the gravity of the covenant blessings as well as the reality of punishment for disobedience. With the Ark of the Covenant presumably in the valley separating the two mountains (Josh. 8:33), the members of the covenant nation would hear the Levites reciting Godís Word "to all the people of Israel in a loud voice" (27:14). The curses are describe at length in 27:15-26 and 28:15-68, while the covenant blessings are announced in 28:2-14. The disproportionate number of verses dedicated to the curses may indicate that "human nature, being what it is, the threat of a severe judgment on the covenant breaker seems to act as a stronger stimulus to correct behavior than any promise of blessing" (Thompson, 268).
The Lord declares through Moses that if the people of Israel "fully obey the Lord" and "follow all his commands" unprecedented "blessings will come upon you and accompany you." Note that the conditional nature of these particular blessings is stressed by the repetition of the word "if." The enjoyment of the blessings described in the following verses would depend upon the response of the people to the covenant obligations. That is, the blessings "arise out of one basic demand: full and unqualified obedience of the Lord" (Merrill, 353). However, this is not to be understood as an indication that the blessings of God may be earned. Christopher Wright explains:
The whole thrust of Deuteronomy would protest such an idea. Israel is bluntly warned to make no equations between military or material success and its own merits (8:17f; 9:4-6). Rather, Godís blessings on Godís people are already there in the very fact that they are Godís people at all. It is intrinsic to the promise to Abraham and to the covenant relationship. Blessing is the prior reality of Godís grace. It is there to be enjoyed, but can be enjoyed only by living in Godís way in the land God is giving them [italics his] (280).
Consequently, to disobey the commands of their Lord would put them in a position where the gracious blessings of the covenant could not be appropriated nor experienced. The only way, then, that covenant life could be enjoyed to its fullest was "in fellowship with Yahweh and in obedience to His commandments" (Thompson, 269).
Note that the specific covenant blessing mentioned here in 28:1-2 is the exaltation of Israel "high above all the nations on earth." In keeping with the language of the Abrahamic covenant, Israel was destined by God to be a blessing to the nations of the world. This would ultimately be accomplished by means of the One who would eventually come through the nation of Israel to be the Savior of the world.
The flip side to the covenant blessing, however, was the imposing list of covenant "curses" that would "come upon" and "overtake" the people if they failed to "obey the Lord" and "carefully follow all his commands and decrees." Eugene Merrill helpfully arranges the list of curses into six categories (see Deuteronomy, TNAC vol. 4, 357-72):
The point here is that as "Godís blessings will reach out to the whole range of the life of an obedient man in Israel, so the curses of the covenant will touch the whole life of the man who is disobedient and breaks the covenant" (Thompson, 271).
In assessing this list of curses, we must remember that it serves basically as a warning regarding the severe consequences of rebellion. If the people of the nation turn against the will of God and rebel against His gracious intentions, "they will then bring the curses on themselves" (Wright, 283).
Major Themes for Application and Discussion
One: The priority of the Word of God: From the account of the preservation of the Law upon stones (27:2-4, 8), what conclusions can you draw regarding the place of Godís Word among the covenant people? Is there a New Testament parallel to this practice? Hint: See Rom. 15:4; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 1 Pet. 2:2; Rev. 3:1.
Two: The purpose of Godís Law: As we have seen, obedience to the commands and precepts of the Lord ultimately results in great blessings (28:1-12). In light of this, how should Godís Law be viewed? What would you say is the ultimate purpose of the Law for the people of God? Hint: John 14:23; 15:14; James 1:22-25; 1 John 2:3; 3:24.
Three: The privilege of obedience: Israel had been saved from slavery and destruction and divinely chosen to become the people of Yahweh. With the privilege of having a relationship with the one true and living God came the responsibility of obeying Him. How, then, should New Testament believers feel about obedience? Is it merely our "duty," or is there a greater motivation at work? Hint: See John 15:10; 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:10; 1 Peter 1:2.
Four: The reality of divine discipline: The history of Israel reveals the fact that God does indeed bring discipline upon own His people. What does such discipline mean and what is its intent? Where does the New Testament address the issue of discipline in the life of a child of God? Can you think of any similar "warning passages" found in the New Testament? Hint: See Heb. 4:1-11; 12:7-11; Rev. 3:19.