In the last essay we took up the first 29 verses of chapter eight, which tell the story of Israel’s second attack on Ai. In this essay we move to the balance of chapter eight, which is a brief, but very important passage. In it we see Israel renewing the covenant with the Lord in the valley of Shechem that lies between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim.
After the capture of Ai, Israel’s foothold in Canaan was secure enough that Joshua felt he could now carry out some instructions that Moses had given before his death. Those instructions are recorded in Deuteronomy 27:2 and following. The passage reads in part:
On 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. You shall write on them all the words of this law . . . So when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones . . . on Mount Ebal . . . And you shall build an altar there to the Lord your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool . . . Then offer up burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. [to verse 11.] The same day Moses charged the people as follows: When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mt. Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And these shall stand on Mt. Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. Then the Levites shall declare in a loud voice to all the Israelites (Deut. 27:2-14):
Then comes a long list of sins for which the people will be cursed, if they commit them (vv. 15-26). Then chapter 28, verses 1-2 read: “If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.” Then comes a long list of blessings for those who are obedient (vv. 3-14).
Coming back to Joshua eight, we see that Joshua simply was following through with what he had committed himself to do; namely, to continue the leadership of Moses. And that included putting into practice what Moses had ordered prior to his death.
As we have just read, Moses had given detailed instructions for this renewal of the covenant. And he had ordered it to be done as soon as they were secure in the land. Now this meant that the people had to march about 30 miles from Ai to Shechem in order to get to the place Moses stipulated. They could have done that comfortably in two days.
Although I have been to Israel, I have not seen that particular valley. It is my understanding from reading that Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim stand facing each other with the two-mile wide valley of Shechem lying between. Ebal is rugged, barren and rocky. Gerizim by contrast is wooded and beautiful. I also read that the valley forms a natural amphitheater with terrific acoustics, which makes what we read here possible. Indeed Alan Redpath claims that one can stand on top of Ebal and speak to someone on top of Gerizim without raising one’s voice very much, and be heard clearly. That seems astounding; but the natural acoustics had to be outstanding for this ceremony to be accomplished.
After building an altar and making sacrifices on it (vv. 30-31), Joshua made the pillar that was plastered over; and he wrote the law on it, as Moses had commanded (v. 32). Then Joshua divided the people into two groups, half to stand on the Ebal side, and half to stand on the Gerizim side, with the Ark of the Covenant and the Levites in the valley between. The fact that the aliens, the non-Israelites among the people, took part makes it clear that everyone was involved (v. 33).
After all the people were in place, Joshua read the entire law to the assembly (v. 34). Although it is not recorded here in Joshua chapter eight, I assume that Joshua, as part of the ceremony, also had the Levites pronounce the curses and blessings of Deut. 27-28, since Moses commanded that it be done.
Imagine the scene! Six tribes assembled on Ebal, and six on Gerizim, with the Levites and the ark in the middle. Think of the drama of reading the law, but even more so of pronouncing the curses and blessings! The curses on the disobedient, and then the blessings for the obedient rang throughout that wonderful amphitheater.
Of course there would have been some sort of response by the people, perhaps an “amen,” or its equivalent. And by that response the people would have been saying, in effect, if we disobey, we shall die; if we obey we shall live. If we turn from the law, we shall perish; if we follow after the One who gave us the law, we shall be blessed.
Now then, there are a couple of significant points of application to be seen in this passage. First, did you notice that the altar on which the sacrifices were made was built on Mt. Ebal, rather than on Mt. Gerizim, or in the middle? That is significant. Ebal was the mount of the curses. It symbolized the sins of the people, and the dangers of disobedience. It was the mount of judgment. In our Christian context, that is precisely where the sacrifice of Christ is applied—to our sins, to our disobedience and judgment.
Second, not only was the altar at the point of judgment, so was the law. It was written on the pillar that was plastered over, which according to Deut. 27:4, also so was built on Mt. Ebal. As we all know, the law brings condemnation on people, because no one can fulfill it completely.
Even we Christians (though under no condemnation because of forgiveness in Christ) nevertheless are required to keep the moral law; and we occasionally transgress the law. But glory to God, in our scene at the valley of Shechem the law was near the altar. And at the altar the blood was shed. It was the place of communion, restoration, and worship. Therefore as John in the New Testament declares, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:9).
Third, and this is most important of all, the ark, which represented the presence of God among the people, was right in the middle. On the one side was the mountain of judgment, and on the other side the mountain of blessing. But God himself was right in the middle
And we Christians have the wonderful privilege of answering the challenge of God even as we walk with him. May we all do that successfully by the power of the Holy Spirit.