Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Moses with the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, Keep all the commandments which I command you this day.XXVII.
THE LAW TO BE ESTABLISHED IN CANAAN AS THE LAW OF THE LAND.
(1) Moses with the elders.—Here joined in exhortation for the first time in this book.
Keep.—Literally, to keep. Possibly we are intended to connect the two verses. In order to keep them, ye shall write them.
(2) Set . . . up great stones, and plaister them with plaister.—The idea is to make a smooth surface, on which the Law could be inscribed. “Plaister” only here and in Isaiah 33:12; Amos 2:2. In both those places it is rendered “lime.”
(3) Thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over, that thou mayest go in.—Again it is evident that the “going in” to the land and the “passing over” Jordan are not identical. The “Law of God” was to be set up in the heart of the country, as soon as Israel had entered it, in order that they might complete the conquest of it. It is abundantly clear that Israel’s title to Canaan was dependent upon their maintaining the Law of Jehovah as the law of the land.
For the fulfilment of this precept, see Joshua 8:32-35. The words of this verse are an additional reason for the view taken in the Note on that passage, that the Law was set up on Ebal immediately after the capture of Ai, without waiting for the completion of the conquest (as some suppose).
And there shalt thou build an altar unto the LORD thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them.(5) An altar of stones.—Rashi propounds the theory that these stones were taken from Jordan. But there is nothing to countenance this theory in the words of the text.
Thou shalt build the altar of the LORD thy God of whole stones: and thou shalt offer burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD thy God:(6) Burnt offerings.—The idea of these is the dedication of man’s life to God.
And thou shalt offer peace offerings, and shalt eat there, and rejoice before the LORD thy God.(7) Peace offerings—i.e., offerings for health, salvation, or deliverance already granted. On this occasion, the passage of Jordan, and the arrival of Israel in the heart of the country, would be good ground for thanksgiving before God.
And shalt eat there, and rejoice.-The peace offerings were the only kind of which the worshipper and his family might partake. They were, therefore, the natural accompaniment of rejoicing and thanksgiving.
And thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly.(8) Thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law—i.e., the ten commandments. All else in the Law of Moses is but an application of the Decalogue to a particular people under particular circumstances. (See Notes on Joshua 3, Joshua 8:32, for more upon the relation of the ten commandments to the conquest of Canaan.)
Very plainly.—See on Deuteronomy 1:5. Rashi says, “In seventy (.e., in all) languages.” There is also an idea in the Talmud that when spoken from Sinai, the Law was spoken (or heard) in all languages at the same time. It is a strange refraction of the truth indicated at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given. Men spake in every tongue the wonderful works of God. The foundation of Jerusalem has effects exactly opposite to the foundation of Babylon (Genesis 11).
And Moses and the priests the Levites spake unto all Israel, saying, Take heed, and hearken, O Israel; this day thou art become the people of the LORD thy God.(9) Moses and the priests.—As in Deuteronomy 27:1, “Moses and the elders.”
Take heed.—A word used nowhere else in the Old Testament.
This day thou art become the people.—“Every day His commandments shall be before thine eyes, as though thou hadst that day entered into covenant with Him.” It would seem that the passage of Jordan, which is the thing in view here, pledged Israel more completely to God’s Law than even the covenant at Sinai did. He had gone farther with them, and given them a more distinct position. It became more necessary than ever that they should remember whose they were.
(12,13) These shall stand upon mount Gerizim to bless . . . and these . . . upon mount Ebal to curse.—The expressions “to bless” and “to curse” are misleading. It is not meant that six tribes were to bless, and six to curse their brethren. The phrase will be best understood by noticing the manner in which the ceremony was performed, according to Jewish tradition. According to the treatise Sotah, six, tribes went up to the top of Gerizim, and six ascended mount Ebal, and the priests and the Levites and the ark remained below, between the hills. The Levites turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim, and began with the blessing, “Blessed is the man,” &c., and both sides answered “Amen.” They then turned their faces towards Mount Ebal, and began the curse, saying, “Cursed is the man,” &c. The “Amen” again resounded; and the process was repeated until the last curse was reached. The question whether all the blessings preceded all the cursings is discussed; but the opinion preferred is, that each blessing had its corresponding curse, and were pronounced alternately.
If this account be correct, and it seems both intelligible and probable, we see that the tribes were divided equally to “receive” the blessing and the curse, implying that all were equally liable to either, according as they should obey or transgress. If the one side had answered amen to the blessings, and the other to the curses, the tribes would literally have blessed and cursed the people. But the rule is explicit that all the people shall say “Amen;” and therefore we seem to gather this meaning from the Hebrew: These shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people, i.e., to receive the blessing on behalf of the whole, and these on Mount Ebal for the curse (i.e., to receive it on behalf of the rest). It is noticeable that “the law” which inflicts the curse, and the altar which represents in its sacrifices Him who bare the curse, are both on the same hill, Ebal. If the tribes redeemed are on the hill of blessing, the tribes that receive the curse are on the same hill with the Redeemer.
(12,13) Simeon, and Levi . . . and Naphtali.—Strictly speaking, there would be seven tribes on Gerizim to receive the blessing, and six on Ebal for the curse; because, tribally, Joseph must include Ephraim and Manasseh. The general position is that of the audience in an amphitheatre, the speakers being in the centre beneath, and the people on either side above. The more honourable tribes of Judah, Joseph, Benjamin, and Levi are posted on the southern hill, Gerizim. The tribes on Ebal are the four sons of the handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, with Leah’s youngest son Zebulun; and the disinherited firstborn, Reuben, is placed at their head. These last tribes, upon the whole, may be said to have occupied the outer circle of Israel’s territory, to the east and to the north. The tribes on Gerizim are the more central tribes.
Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.(16) Cursed be he that setteth light.—The first curse points to the first two commandments of the first table, and the second to the first commandment in the second table. If we mark off the first offence specified, secret idolatry—the only one which distinctly recalls the first commandment of the Law, and also the last general curse which embraces all transgression whatever, the intervening offences seem more easily arranged. We have duty to parents enforced (Deuteronomy 27:16) and the rights of neighbours (Deuteronomy 5:17), the blind (Deuteronomy 27:18), and the unprotected (Deuteronomy 27:19) come next. The next four precepts are all concerned with purity, first in the nearer, afterwards in the more distant relations (Deuteronomy 27:20-23). The last two precepts concern slander and treachery (Deuteronomy 27:24-25). Evidently the offences specified are examples of whole classes of actions; and the twelve curses may have some reference to the number of the tribes.
Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way. And all the people shall say, Amen.(18) The blind.—“He that is in the dark upon any matter, when one deceives him with evil counsel” (Rashi).
Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly. And all the people shall say, Amen.(24) That smiteth his neighbour secretly.-”Spoken of a backbiting tongue” (Rashi).
Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.(26) Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.—“Here he sums up the whole Law, all of it, and they took it upon them with a curse and an oath” (Rashi). From this verse St. Paul also reasons that “as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse.” For no man can do all of them. And therefore it is impossible to secure the blessing of Gerizim except through Him who bare the curse of Ebal. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, as it is written, cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” In all these curses the verb is wanting. “Cursed is he,” would be a more correct translation in modern English. These curses are not imprecations so much as declarations of fact.