Summary: Joshua built an altar to the LORD near Mount Ebal in Canaan. This happened after Israel had defeated Ai. Something unique to this altar was that Joshua wrote parts of the available Word of God on it.
Introduction: Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, defeated the people of Ai. After that, Joshua built an altar to the LORD, God of Israel, placing it in about the middle of the country. Israel had built two other memorials as recorded in Joshua chapters 3-4, but the altar Joshua built here had a much different purpose.
1 The altar’s construction
Text, Joshua 8:30-32, KJV: 30 Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal, 31 As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.
Some background would be in order to help “set the stage” for this message. The nation of Israel had gone against the city of Ai. This was Israel’s second target or objective and, according to the report of the spies, Ai should have been a very easy target. The recommendation was to only send a small group of people and you shouldn’t have any problems.
But they did.
Joshua 7 records the whole story, beginning with Achan’s theft, basically, of some gold and silver, plus a “goodly garment of Babylon (Joshua 7:21).” God saw this as a sin, for the whole nation, and Israel was punished for it. Achan was eventually discovered (Galatians 6:7) and punished, with death, for his sins. Once Israel had made things right with God, they were ready to advance on Ai.
The first section of Joshua 8 describes the strategy God delivered to Joshua and it’s possibly the first time this strategy was used or mentioned in the Bible. Later, some nations simply laid siege to an enemy city, meaning they camped around that city until the people inside surrendered or starved to death. The Syrians did this to Samaria on at least one occasion (2 Kings 6) and later the Babylonians did the same thing to Jerusalem before the city fell. Jeremiah was an eyewitness to the last days of the kingdom, was taken captive, but was later released (compare 2 Kings 25 with Jeremiah 39:1-40:5).
Now, returning to Joshua’s day, the LORD’s strategy absolutely worked and Ai was completely destroyed. Only a few cities were razed like this one. The reason why Ai was destroyed is not specified in the text. The narrative about the conquest of Ai concludes with the description of the execution of Ai’s king, his burial, and the large heap of stones placed over his body. This was all done to serve as a memorial, perhaps to God providing victory in this battle (Josh. 8:24-29).
Soon after everything was finished or completed at Ai, Joshua went to Mount Ebal and built an altar to the LORD there. This was something Israel had been commanded to do when Moses was still alive and before Israel had crossed the Jordan River. Moses and the elders of Israel gave instructions to the people as to what to use for building the altar, where to place it, and what to write on it (see Deuteronomy 27:1-8).
Joshua built the altar, following the instructions completely, exactly where he was told.
But this was only the first part. Once the altar was constructed, there was more to do.
2 The altar’s inscription
Text, Joshua 8:32, KJV: 32 And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.
Not only did Joshua build the altar at Mount Ebal, he did a few other things as well. This verse doesn’t include these instructions from Deuteronomy 27:1-3, KJV: “1 And Moses with the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, Keep all the commandments which I command you this day. 2 And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaister them with plaister: 3 And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over, that thou mayest go in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, a land that floweth with milk and honey; as the LORD God of thy fathers hath promised thee.” Whatever Joshua may have used as “plaister” is not known to us but it seems to be a substance which covered the stones and gave a surface suitable for writing (painting?) on it.
How much of the Law Joshua wrote on these stones is not clear. Someone once observed, perhaps humorously, that had Joshua written all of Genesis through Deuteronomy, he might never have had time to lead Israel in battle! There is a word called “synecdoche” which indicates a part of something is used to represent the whole thing. An example might be that Pitcher Jones defeated the opposing baseball team—with the implication that the eight other defensive players also had their own functions or roles to play. Joshua may have written only the Ten Commandments or even the “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6 but the text does not specify. At the very least, whatever Joshua wrote on the altar was brief enough, or short enough, so that everyone could see it legibly.