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.”
9 Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 27:1-10 ESV
Moses finally concludes his recitation of the law to the people of Israel. And having completed this important task, he provides them with a final set of instructions. First, he adds one last command to the long list he has given them: That they obey every one of the laws. And to help them keep that commitment, Moses instructs them to build a memorial and an altar to God. The memorial would be made of stones covered in plaster, on which they were to inscribe every single one of the laws God had given them. We’re not told if this was simply a synopsis consisting of only the Ten Commandments or if it included the entire code found in the book of Deuteronomy. But the important point is that the law given to them by God was to be permanently recorded in stone and placed on Mount Ebal, where all could see it.
This site would become a symbol of Israel’s sacred covenant relationship with God. He had set them apart as His own and given them His law as their official code of conduct. Even the Canaanites living in the land would see this memorial and know that the Israelites were a different kind of people who lived according to a distinctively different set of rules. And they worshiped one God. That is why Moses also instructed the Israelites to build an altar to God right next to the memorial. And we know from the book of Joshua, that they followed Moses’ instructions to the letter.
At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 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. 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. – Joshua 8:30-32 ESV
As the book of Deuteronomy comes to a close, it mirrors the life and legacy of Moses. He has been denied the privilege of entering into the land of promise. And knowing that his days are numbered, Moses is beginning the handoff of his ministry and leadership to Joshua, God’s chosen successor for Moses. It was important to Moses that with their entrance into the land of promise, the people of Israel got off on the right foot. He knew that the key to their success would be their adherence to the law which would be dependent upon their reverence for God. The memorial, made from plaster-covered stones inscribed with the law, would remind them of God’s expectations of them. The altar of uncut stones would remind them that their God was holy and righteous.
One of the very first things they were to do after crossing over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, was to offer sacrifices to God. And the altar upon which those sacrifices were to be made was to be distinctively different from the altars of the pagan nations that filled the land. It was to be constructed with whole stones, untouched by iron tools. The focus of the altar was to be God, not the beauty of the well-crafted stones or the handiwork of the stone-carver. Moses didn’t want the people to be impressed with the structure. He wanted them to be attracted to the holiness of God.
God requires the obedience of His people. But obedience is only possible when God’s people love and worship Him for who He is. Without the motivation that reverence for God produces, obedience will become nothing more than a self-manufactured adherence to a set of religious rules and regulations. It turns heartfelt submission to God’s will into little more than legalistic, fear-based adherence to a list of dos and don’ts. And that kind of behavior has a short shelf-life.
It is important that we recognize Moses’ instructions for building a memorial and a place of worship. They were to keep God’s law in mind at all times, but they were also to maintain a healthy reverence and respect for God. Otherwise, they would find themselves forgetting who God was and why His law was worthy of being kept. God had told the people of Israel, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own” (Leviticus 20:26 NLT). Their holiness would be based on their obedience to God’s laws. But the motivation behind their keeping of the law was to be the holiness of God. Because He was holy, they were to be holy, and the law was a black-and-white description of what holy behavior was to look like.
A law to remember and a God to reverence. The two were to go hand in hand. They were inseparable and interdependent. And God provided a description of what obedience divorced from true worship looked like.
“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
Heartless obedience is ultimately nothing more than self-effort masquerading as worship of God. It is insincere and wrongly motivated. It is not based on an accurate view of God and so, it ends up creating a false form of worship that is based more on self-merit than the worthiness of God.
The law was to be a constant reminder of God’s expectations for mankind. But the altar was where men came to express their love for and dependence upon God. They were to bring their burnt offerings and peace offerings to God. A peace offering was also known as a fellowship offering, and was intended as a means for the people of Israel to offer praise to God for His goodness, mercy, and grace. It was not associated with sin but was tied to the generosity and compassion of God. It was a voluntary sacrifice and the book of Leviticus provides a description of what it entailed.
This is the law of the peace offering sacrifice which he is to present to the Lord. If he presents it on account of thanksgiving, along with the thank offering sacrifice he must present unleavened loaves mixed with olive oil, unleavened wafers smeared with olive oil, and well soaked ring-shaped loaves made of choice wheat flour mixed with olive oil. – Leviticus 7:11-12 ESV
The sacrifice was to be eaten by the one who gave it. So, it was offered as a form of thanksgiving to God, but the giver was allowed to enjoy in the blessing God had bestowed.
The burnt offering was typically tied to sin and man’s need for forgiveness. It involved the complete destruction of the animal, which served as a stand-in or substitute for the one making the offering. The smoke that ascended from the offering was to be “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9), propitiating or satisfying the righteous anger of a holy God for the sins committed by the one making the offering. It was intended to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man.
The altar was to be a place marked by confession, forgiveness, and rejoicing. And Moses reminds the people that, when they come to the altar, they were to rejoice before the Lord their God. They were to find joy in His provision for all their needs and His forgiveness of all their sins. He would provide them with food to assuage their hunger and a sin-substitute to satisfy His righteous judgment. God was going to give them plenty of reasons to rejoice, but it would begin with their adherence to His law, which would be based on their reverence for His holiness.
Which is why Moses cautions the people: “Keep silence and hear, O Israel: this day you have become the people of the Lord your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10 ESV). This statement is associated with the completion of the reciting of the law. God’s expectations have been clearly communicated. Their first responsibilities upon entering the land have been articulated. The covenant has been ratified and renewed, once again setting apart the people of Israel as God’s chosen possession. They belonged to Him and they were to live like it – from that day forward.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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.