The Curses

11 That day Moses charged the people, saying, 12 “When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel in a loud voice:

15 “‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’

16 “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

17 “‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor’s landmark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

18 “‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

19 “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

20 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

21 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with any kind of animal.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

22 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

23 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

24 “‘Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbor in secret.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

25 “‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

26 “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ Deuteronomy 27:11-26 ESV

In this passage are recorded the words of Moses instructing the Israelites to conduct a special ceremony in conjunction with the construction of the memorial and the altar to God. Moses had made it clear that these things were to be high priorities, having instructed the people to complete them “on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 27:2 ESV). The inscribing of the law onto the plastered stones, the building of the altar to God, and the offering of sacrifices to Him were all to be completed within the first 24 hours of their arrival in the land. And verses 11-26 contain one more important task the people were obligated to complete that very first day.

As soon as they crossed over the Jordan, Joshua was to divide the tribes into two separate groups. One group was to stand on Mount Ebal, while the other was to make their way to Mount Gerizim. The Levites would stand in the valley between the two mountains and shout out the blessings and curses that would come with their decision to keep or disobey the law of God.

The fulfillment of this order from Moses is recorded in the book of Joshua.

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. 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. 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. 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

But it is important to note that this event took place after the Israelites had won a victory against Jericho, an endeavor that took six days to complete. This was followed by an attempt by the Israelites to defeat the city of Ai. But because of sin in the camp, the Israelites were routed by the people of Ai. After several days of delay, during which Joshua ascertained the guilty party and had him executed, the Israelites finally defeated the city of Ai. But more than a week had passed since they had entered the land. It was after their destruction of Ai and its inhabitants that Joshua finally got around the carrying out the instructions given to them by Moses.

When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day. – Joshua 8:24-29 ESV

One of the things Moses had repeatedly warned the people about was the need for them to obey God completely. He had clearly warned them, “You shall therefore obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping his commandments and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deuteronomy 27:10 ESV).

And yet, just days after having entered the land and after having experienced a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho, God accused the entire nation of unfaithfulness.

“Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings.” – Joshua 7:11 ESV

While it turned out that one man was guilty of the crime, God held the entire nation accountable. And until Achan was exposed as the guilty party and dealt with accordingly, God’s judgment would hang over every single Israelite. God warned them that they must deal with the sin in their midst, or they would continue to fall before their enemies.

“Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” – Joshua 7:12 ESV

Once Achan and his family were eliminated, the curse was lifted and the people enjoyed a great victory over Ai.

So, when Joshua finally got around to carrying out Moses’ instructions regarding the memorial of stones, the building the altar to God, and the recitation of the blessings and the curses, he had the full attention of the people. They had just seen first-hand what happens when anyone disregards or disobeys God’s commands. Thirty-six Israelites had needlessly died in battle against Ai because Achan had chosen to disobey God.

The recitation of the blessings and curses was intended to remind the people of Israel of just how serious God was about obedience. The people would have walked anywhere from 20 to 25 miles to get from Ai to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, in spite of their weariness after two battles.

Their defeat against the city of Ai was a powerful reminder of just how dependent they were upon God and how vital the link was between their obedience to God and their future success in the land. If they chose to disregard God’s laws and do things their way, they would find themselves isolated and alone, fighting battles without the assistance and power of God.

There are 12 curses listed in this section, perhaps as a recognition of the 12 tribes of Israel. The list appears to be rather random, dealing with everything from idolatry to lack of love for one’s neighbor. The diversity of the offenses seems intended to represent the broad application of the law to every area of daily life. Any form of disobedience was going to bring the curse of God against them. It was not the significance or seeming magnitude of the transgression that mattered. It was the disobedience itself.

Dishonoring your mother and father, moving a neighbor’s boundary marker, taking advantage of a blind person, or failing to show justice would all result in a curse upon the nation. And with the reading of each successive curse, the people were to shout their affirmation by saying, “Amen!” This word in Hebrew simply means “So be it!” The people of Israel were affirming their understanding of the curse and acknowledging that God was just and righteous in His pronouncement of it. The punishment fit the crime.

Disobedience of God’s holy law was going to have consequences. He had given them free will to obey or disobey, but their choice would not be without ramifications. And as we will see in the next section of verses, the decision to obey God always delivers a far better outcome.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson