RENEWING THE COVENANT
In Deuteronomy 27-28 Moses instructs the people to renew their commitment to the covenant once they cross over the Jordan River into Canaan. These chapters deal specifically with the ceremony that the Israelites are to conduct once they possess the Promised Land. What is so interesting about this is that the Israelites had already committed themselves to the covenant at Mt. Sinai. The question then becomes why they had to renew their commitment to the covenant after they entered Canaan. Renewing the covenant was not going to make them God's people since they were already God's people. Its purpose was to refresh the minds of the Israelites as to what ti mean to be the people of God.
Jesus carries this concept over in the NT when He commands His disciples to take up their cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Paul touches upon this same idea when he commands the Roman Christians "to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God" (Rom. 12:1). The Romans were already Christians; it's just that they needed to present themselves daily to the Lord as a living sacrifice. Such an act does not make us Christians. It's just that if we start off each day fresh dedicating ourselves to God, then we are more than likely going to live the life each day that Christ died to give us.
Before looking at the covenant renewal ceremony in these chapters, we need to point out the utterly negative character of these chapters. Whereas Moses is going to point out that God will bless the people if they remain true to the covenant, the amount of time he spends upon the curses attached to the covenant far outnumbers the amount of time he spends upon the blessings attached to the covenant. In fact, he spends approximately 3x more on the curses than he does on the blessings. Not only this but the curses towards the end of chapter 28 are so vile and horrific that they don't need exposition. Just reading the curse attached to the siege of the Promised Land is enough to make one shudder.
We need to realize that these curses are not idle threats. Towards the end of Deut. 28, Moses predicts first that God will bring upon His disobedient a siege so terrifying that the people will eat their own children. They very prediction was fulfilled during the days of Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 6:28). Second, Moses predicts that God will send the people away into exile if they violate His covenant repeatedly. This happened not just once but twice, first in 586 BC during the Babylonian invasion and in 70 AD after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Why is this passage so negative? Before answering that question, we need to remember that no matter how horrific the curses are, they are still attached to the covenant which is God's covenant. No matter how we may feel about what God says in these passages, the covenant was still God's Word to Israel and as such was glorious. When God delivered the covenant to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He came with thunder and lightning. When Moses was on the mountain, he saw God's back which alone was glorious. When Moses descended the mountain, his face was glowing with the glory of the Lord. The children of Israel were so unnerved by such a sight that they asked Moses to cover his face with a veil until the glory on his face had faded away (2 Cor. 3).
The reason this passage is so negative, though, is that man's nature is so depraved. If man were the wonderful creature modern psychologists and thinkers claim, then all Moses would have had to do was declare to the people all the blessings that came with keeping the covenant. Because of man's depraved nature though, only threats and warnings sometimes are all that will keep a person on the straight and narrow. The covenant is not negative because God is cruel but because man's nature is depraved. The harder God becomes in His dealings with His people does not indicate that God is cruel but that man is becoming so hardened that it takes something as bad as these curses to wake him up and draw him back to God.
Moreover, although the Mosaic covenant is God's Word, God did not give people the power to keep the covenant. Man had to keep the old covenant in his own strength and power. God attaches the Holy Spirit only to the covenant in the NT. When even a Christian who has the Holy Spirit living in him attempts to keep the old covenant, the Holy Spirit refuses to help him. Why? Because God gave Him to us so that we can focus on the new covenant, not the old (we study about this in Galatians). Trying to keep the old covenant will result in the same frustration the Israelites experienced when they attempted to keep the old covenant.
Although God does not attach curses to the new covenant, we do need to remember that God because of the covenant treats us as His children. Good parents sometimes have to discipline their children severely. One day aware that his son was really going down the wrong path of drugs, etc., the dad in conjunction with the law gave the son the choice of either 6 months in jail or time away from his home at a ski academy in Washington state so that he could dry out and get his life back in order. The son reluctantly and grudgingly chose the latter. It was so effective that the son not only dried out but also became an avid skier. He actually won the gold medal at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. His name? Bill Johnson. At that Olympics he praised his father for the strict discipline.
Although we are commanded to love all people, we are to focus primarily on our own children. There are things that other children down the street do and get away with that Nathan and Molly will never get away with. Why? Because those other kids are not my children, whereas Nathan and Molly are. Well, sometimes non-Christians get away with murder while Christians get away with so little. Why? Because our heavenly Father like any good father is dead-set on making sure His children conform to His standards so that they can enjoy the kind of life He wants them to have. The fact that God has to discipline us severely does not mean that God does not love but that we have fallen so far away from Him that he has to resort to such measures to draw us back to him (see Heb. 12:5-11).
Finally, we need to realize that Deut. 27:26 is one of the most important verses in the OT to help us understand the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant. This verse ultimately explains why we were destined to fail under the old covenant. Most people honestly think that if they live basically good lives then God is going to accept them into heaven. They may not keep all the laws; however, on the balance they keep more than they break. In their minds that alone should be enough to qualify them for heaven.
It's not that simple. According to Paul the Law is not like a buffet line from which you can choose which laws to keep and which to break. Both Paul and J4ames claim that if you violate one law, you've violated all the laws. We have the same idea. When a person gets a ticket for speeding, he does not say, "I broke a law." Rather he says, "I broke the law." As a result each and every person who breaks a law because a law-breaker, and unless something drastic takes place to take care of this situation (such as the cross), then that person is forever under the curses of the Law.
THE DETAILS OF THE COVENANT RENEWAL (Deut. 27)
Moses commands the people to commit themselves afresh to the covenant which God made with their fathers at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After they crossed the Jordan River and ha dispossessed the Promise Land, they were to approach Mt. Ebal located in the center of the country and set up a stone pillar covered with white plaster. On the plaster the Israelites were to write all the words of the covenant. (The white plaster would make the black letters stand out better—a practice they would have learned in Egypt.) Besides the plastered pillar, the Israelites were to erect an altar of stone. The stones making up the altar were not to have been chiseled; they were to use only uncut stones. The most likely reason for this was that the only iron tools available at that time were made by the Philistines who were as pagan as the Canaanites they were dispossessing. God did not want anything associated with a pagan culture to come into contact with His altar. Upon the altar the Israelite were to offer sacrifices of burnt offerings and also of peace offerings. (The burn offering entailed the sacrifice of the entire animal symbolizing the dedication of the complete person to God. The peace offering, on the other hand, entailed the partial sacrifice of the animal, thereby leaving a portion for the people to enjoy.)
At this point the 12 tribes (or representatives of the 12 tribes) were to be divided into 2 groups with one group of 6 tribes standing on Mt. Ebal to the north and the other group of 6 tribes standing on Mt. Gerizim to the south. The 6 tribes on the south descended from the 2 wives of Jacob (Leah and Rachel) while 4 of the 6 tribes on Mt. Ebal descended from the hands-maids of Leah and Rachel. The other 2 tribes standing on Mt. Ebal descended from Reuben the eldest son of Jacob who had disgraced himself by sleeping with one of this father's concubines and from Zebulon, the youngest son of Leah, Jacob’s least favorite wife. The priests from the tribe of Levi were to stand between the 2 mountains at the base of each and read out the 12 blessings and then the 12 curses. After the reading of the 12 blessings, the 6 tribes on Mt. Gerizim were to respond by saying "Amen." After the reading of the 12 curses, the 6 tribes on Mt. Ebal were to respond by saying "Amen."
As you look at the different elements making up the renewal ceremony and on which mountain they take place, you understand the significance of each element. The blessings were uttered on Mt. Gerizim (the southern mountain which would be on one's right hand if one faced east). The right-hand side of a person was considered more favored than the left. For this reason also the curses fell upon Mt. Ebal to the north which would be on one's left hand if one faces east (the spot of orientation in the ancient world since the sun rose in the east). Moreover, on the mountain of curses (Mt. Ebal) stood the pillar containing the Law and the altar. In other words, from the very beginning the covenant was more associated with the curses than with the blessings. The altar was placed on the mount of the covenant and curses because only sacrifice could ultimately remove the curses.
One interesting observation is that although Moses mentions the contents of the 12 curses, he does not mention the contents of the 12 blessings. It may be that the 12 blessings were simply the converse of the 12 blessings and as such did not need repeating. On the other hand, Moses may have used this device to show once more that the curses were going to be functioning more than the blessings because of the rebellious nature of the Israelites (and of all people actually).
At first glance the 12 curses seem a little strange because although they are related in one way or other to the 10 Commandments, they are nevertheless somewhat peculiar. They place curses upon the man who has intimate relations with his (step)-mother or with any sibling who is physically related to him through either the mother or father. The curses fall upon the man who leads astray the blind person.
A closer look at the curses, though, reveals that there seems to be a secrecy attached to the actions upon which the curses fall. For example, the person who moves the boundary marker of another person will do so at a time when nobody is watching. The immoral sexual acts will have normally occurred in secret, not out in the open. The blind man might not be able to identify the culprit who had led him astray. The point of all this is to inform the Israelites that although God expects the justice system of Israel and of any other nation to function smoothly in bringing justice upon wrongdoers, sometimes people do things that are so secretive that they go unpunished by the judicial system. That does not mean, though, that these violations of the Law will go unpunished. Whether others see these wrongs or not is not the point; ultimately God sees them and will punish them appropriately.
Notice one other aspect of these actions which relate specifically to the modern mindset. This present generation preaches that if 2 consenting adults engage in behaviors which don't affect anybody else, then it is nobody else's business what they do. Whereas such an attitude may hold sway among people today, God nevertheless has made it His business when people do such things and will hold them accountable for their actions even when society overlooks them.
EXPANSION ON THE CURSES (Deut. 28)
After listing the 12 blessings, Moses goes into greater lengths upon the curses which will befall Israel if she violates God's covenant. Both the blessings and curses are pervasive. They touch not only the individual life of the person (such as boils or material blessings), they also affect the land, international security, and exile. Not one facet of life is left untouched by either the blessings or the curses.
At this point it seems appropriate to mention a comment made by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robinson and Anne Graham Lotz. What is interesting is that whenever Falwell and Robinson made the remark, they were castigated by the media. On the other hand, because of great media respect for Billy Graham and his family, AGL did not receive any criticism when she made the same remark. All 3 attributed the 9/11 attack on the WTC as evidence that God had withdrawn His arm of protection from the U.S. AGL basically reiterating Falwell and Robinson claimed that because of the sins of the nation, we were beginning to experience God's wrath. What is so sad is that the Sunday after 9/11 the churches were filled. The numbers on that day rivaled the numbers on Easter Sunday. The next Sunday things were back to normal. If Deuteronomy 27 and 28 still hold relevance for nations today, the AGL, JF, and PR are totally right. In that case, this nation has received a serious wake-up call to which we need to respond to properly, not only military but also spiritually. Whether she accepts that wake-up call remains to be seen. (As of November 17, 2010 she has not accepted that call spiritually.)