The site of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim had deep roots in Israelite history. When God first called him out of Ur, Abraham built an altar there, at “the great tree of Moreh at Shechem” (Gen. 12:6). The city of Shechem was still there, more or less in between the two mountains, when Joshua and the people returned centuries later during the conquest of Canaan. They eventually buried Joseph’s bones there (Josh. 24:32). And before he died, Joshua led the nation in renewing the covenant there (24:1–28).
Even before the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land in their sojourn from Egypt, God had set aside Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim for an important purpose. The blessings associated with obedience would be read aloud from Mount Gerizim, and the curses associated with disobedience would be read aloud from Mount Ebal (see Deut. 11:26–29). Half the people were to stand in front of each mountain, and this was to be a formal occasion for renewing the covenant as a nation (v. 33). (A full statement of both blessings and curses is found in Deuteronomy 27–28.)
Today’s reading marks the first time this was actually done. The event included not only reading aloud from the Law but also offering burnt and fellowship sacrifices on an altar Joshua had built on Mount Ebal (v. 30). In addition, using plaster, the Law was copied onto large stones for all to see (v. 32).
Israel had only defeated Jericho and Ai at this point, so obedience was an act of faith that God would help them conquer the rest of the land. It was also an act of remembering all that the Lord had done for them already and of taking seriously their covenant responsibilities.
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