This next chapter is quite noticeably different in style from what we’ve seen so far in Deuteronomy. The first big difference greets us right in the first verse, where Moses is referred to in the third person (Deut. 27:1).
Through most of Deuteronomy, the rhetorical set up has been to give the whole as a speech from Moses (his final big speech before he dies and the Israelites move into the Promised Land without him). So breaking with that is a pretty big deal. Not only that, but what parts are speech in this chapter are put into the mouths of “Moses and the elders of Israel” (Deut. 27:1), and then “Moses and the Levitical priests” (Deut. 27:9).
Moses and the elders instruct the people to, when they reach the Promised Land, make an altar on Mount Ebal. They are to use natural stones only, without using iron tools during the construction (because apparently God is a fairy).
The altar should then be covered with plaster, and then “write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly” (Deut. 27:8) – referring perhaps to the book of Deuteronomy, or to the various and varied ordinances we’ve been receiving.
All that done, a peace offering should be made, and the people should eat and rejoice. The meal is part of the peace offering described in Leviticus 3. My study Bible says that it was “a covenant meal in which the worshipper was sacramentally related to the Lord and to fellow-Israelites” (p.124).
Given that the prohibition on worship anywhere other than Jerusalem has been a running theme through our Deuteronomy reading, having half a chapter be an instruction manual for building a non-Jerusalem based altar is a pretty huge deal.
This is clearly a different, perhaps older, narrative scrap that has somehow found its way into the middle of Deuteronomy.
A blessing and a curse
The people are to be divided into two groups. One group – composed of the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin – are to stand on Mount Gerizim to receive blessings. The blessings themselves are absent. According to my study Bible, these may have originally been part of the narrative, but were “not preserved in this fragmentary record” (p.249).
It’s also significant, says my study bible, that the tribe of Joseph is listed instead of being separated into Ephraim and Manasseh (thus leaving Levi to make up the total of twelve tribes). This is, apparently, evidence of this narratives antiquity.
Meanwhile, over on Mount Ebal, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali are gathered to hear the curses. After each curse is said, the people are to say “amen” to show their agreement.
The following people are cursed:
- Those who make a graven or molten image, then sets it up in secret.
- Those who dishonour their father or mother.
- Those who remove their neighbour’s landmark.
- Those who mislead a blind man on the road.
- Those who perfect the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
- Those who lie with their father’s wife (because doing so would be to uncover “her who is his father’s” – Deut. 27:20)
- Those who would lie with any kind of beast.
- Those who lie with their sister, whether she be the daughter of his father or of his mother (or, presumably, both).
- Those who lie with their mother-in-law.
- Those who slay their neighbour in secret (doing it openly okay, apparently).
- Those who accept payment to kill an innocent person.
- Those who do not confirm the words of this law by doing them.
I find the inclusion of the “sojourner, fatherless, and widow” triad here to be interesting. If we accept my study Bible’s assertion that this chapter is from a much older, it seems odd that this specific phrase would be used, given that I can’t recall us ever seeing it prior to Deuteronomy.
Likewise, the prohibition against moving one’s neighbour’s landmark seems to be a Deuteronomy-exclusive ordinance. Yet here they are. I think something really neat is going on, but I’m not entirely sure what that might be.
I’d also be interested in knowing why each tribe was chosen for either the blessings or the curses.
All in all, though, it seems to me that there are actually two separate narratives in this chapter: The first is a sort of origin story for the altar on Mount Ebal, while the second is a story of the people receiving the blessing and the curse (a continuation from the little snippet we got in Deut. 11:29).