30 At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. – Joshua 8:30-35 ESV
Joshua and his forces have just defeated and captured the city of Ai. The men of the neighboring city of Bethel, who had joined forces and fought alongside Ai, were also defeated. So, in essence, the Israelites now had three cities they had conquered in their relatively short tenure in the land of promise. And now, Joshua leads the people to a place called Mount Ebal, where he builds an altar to the Lord. What is going on here? What prompted Joshua to do this? Was it simply because they had enjoyed two rousing victories over their enemies and he wanted to express thanks to God? And why would he choose to travel all the way north to Mount Ebal in order to build his altar there? This would have entailed a 30-mile journey on the part of the people, so Joshua must have had a good reason for making this arduous trip immediately after a major military engagement against the city of Ai.
To understand what is going on in this passage, we must recall the instructions that Moses had given to the people of Israel concerning their entrance into the land of promise. He had been very specific, providing them with detailed instructions as to what they were to do as soon as they crossed over the Jordan. But it would appear that the people of Israel were behind schedule, having taken time to capture Jericho and Ai before they actually obeyed what Moses had told them to do.
1 Now Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. 2 And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. 3 And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. 4 And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. 5 And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; 6 you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, 7 and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God. 8 And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” – Deuteronomy 27:1-7 ESV
Mount Ebal was located near a place called Shechem, a site with historical and religious significance for the people of Israel. It was at Shechem that Abraham had built an altar to the Lord after having arrived in the land of Canaan for the very first time.
6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. – Genesis 12:6-7 ESV
So, Joshua’s selection of Shechem and Mount Ebal were not arbitrary. He was following the commands of Moses and replicating the actions of Abraham, the great patriarch of the people of Israel. On this site, Joshua and the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God, recommitting themselves to keep His law and live as His people in the land He had provided for them. They built an altar to the Lord God, the God of Israel. This monument built of stones would be a tangible representation of Israel’s presence in the land and their dedication to worship their God as opposed to the many false gods of the inhabitants of Canaan.
The people erected an altar to God and offered sacrifices on it. But, in addition, Joshua “wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written” (Joshua 8:32 ESV). This seems to indicate that Joshua wrote the law on the stones of the altar, not two tablets of stone as Moses had done. And while it is not clear what the text means by “the law of Moses,” it is possible that Joshua wrote the entire contents of the Book of Deuteronomy. The text states that, once Joshua had written the law on the stone, “he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law” (Joshua 8:34 ESV). The blessing and the curse is a reference to the content found in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. In that chapter is spelled out all that God will do for the people of Israel if they remain obedient to His law and all that He will do to them if they choose to disobey. They had already learned a painful, yet invaluable lesson about obedience in their initial defeat at the hands of the people of Ai. They had failed to keep God’s command regarding the plunder from Jericho and had suffered because of it. Now, with the building of the altar and the recitation of the law of Moses, the people were receiving a powerful reminder that their hope of receiving blessings from God while in the land was directly tied to their willingness to live in obedience to His law. And God had made it very clear what would happen to them if they chose to disobey.
15 “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.” – Deuteronomy 28:15-19 ESV
Their ability to conquer the land was dependent upon their willingness to obey God. He would bless them beyond measure, if only they would obey Him without question. This ceremony was more than just a religious ritual. It was a solemn and sobering reminder that their God was serious about obedience. He was a holy God who demanded that His chosen people live lives that would be set apart and distinctively different than those of the people living in the land. He had given them His law in order that they might live in keeping with His divine will. The law was to regulate all their behavior and all their relationships, including their relationship with God Himself. God had not left it up to their imagination. Right and wrong was not going to be a subjective issue for the people of Israel, because God had established an objective, black-and-white criteria for life and godliness.
With the reading of the law, the people of Israel received a much-needed reminder of their covenant commitment to God. Nothing had changed since God had given the law at Mount Sinai all those years before. The original tablets of stone, on which were written the commandments of God, were still in the ark of the covenant. His law had led them across the wilderness and over the Jordan. It had gone before them as they marched around the walls of Jericho. Now, they saw it written on the stones of the altar at Mount Ebal. And it would remain there, a permanent memorial, visible to Israelites and Canaanites alike, declaring the holiness of God and His unwavering demand that His chosen people live according to His will.
“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:2 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.