Summary: God warns of teh dangers and blessings that come with the law of God and provides the means by which sin can be dealt with
It’s interesting how some places take on a greater significance than others. For Australian sports fans the MCG is the sporting arena. For Elvis fans it’s Graceland in Memphis Tennessee. For car racing fans this weekend it’s Mt Panorama in Bathurst. Di & I have just been to some of the significant places of the New Testament: places like Laodicea, Philippi, Pisidian Antioch, Corinth and especially Ephesus. It was great to walk on streets where Paul and Silas, Timothy and Luke would have walked; to walk on the Roman Road that’s still lying there by the side of the modern highway; to think about the fact that these were places where the most significant growth of the early church took place. Well, today in the book of Joshua we come to just such a place.
Joshua and the people of Israel have destroyed Jericho and Ai, so they now control the main entry into Canaan and the northern end of the highway that passes through the mountains south to Jerusalem and Hebron. But they don’t go south; they move north, to a place where they can carry out one of the instructions that Moses left for Joshua before he died.
They march north and eventually come to a place where the road turns west and passes between two mountains, Mt Ebal on the right and Mt Gerizim on the left. This is one of those places. Here between the two mountains is the city of Shechem.
It was here that God appeared to Abraham when he first entered the land and built his first altar to the Lord. It was here that Jacob settled after escaping from Laban with Leah and Rachel. Jacob built a well near here, a well where one day Jesus would meet a Samaritan woman. And it was here that Joseph’s bones were buried when the conquest of the land was complete (Josh 24:32)
So you can see, this was a place of great significance for God’s people.
For our story the significance of this place is that before he died Moses told Joshua that when he got to this place he was to do a number of things. Let me read you what he said: (Deu 27:4-14) “When you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster. 5And you shall build an altar there to the LORD your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. 6You must build the altar of the LORD your God of unhewn stones. Then offer up burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God, 7make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the LORD your God. 8You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly. ... 12When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14Then the Levites shall declare [the curses and blessings] in a loud voice to all the Israelites”
At the base of these two mountains there’s a natural amphitheatre that means that people standing on the side of either mountain can hear clearly what’s said on the other mountain.
So Joshua brings them there and sets up the entire nation of Israel on either side of the valley. What’s about to happen is for everyone to witness, just as they’d all witnessed the judgement of Achan a few days before.
There are two mountains, one the mountain of blessing, the other the mountain of curses. The people are divided evenly between the two so they can experience this huge object lesson. What will happen to them as they enter the land will depend on whether their life resides on Mt Gerizim or Mt Ebal. If they keep God’s law, God will bless them: they will become the greatest of the nations, their land will be fertile, all the other nations will look at them in envy; but if they disobey God’s law they’ll suffer God’s judgement.
But before the blessings and curses are read Joshua needs to do something else. First he builds an altar on Mt Ebal. Notice that the altar is built on the mountain of curses. The people need to be reminded from the start that God knows they can’t keep the commandments perfectly. They will always need to return to God in repentance. They need to be reminded that God has made it possible for them to come back to him and receive his forgiveness. The altar here is just like the altar God told them to build after the law was given on Mt Sinai. The altar was to be of undressed stones. God was telling them that there was nothing a human being can do to add to his grace.