First we prepare to hear the covenant blessings and curses. The blessings are the promises of God if they keep the stipulations. The curses are what will happen if they fail to obey.
God would have them set up an altar in the Promised Land on Mount Ebal. They were to build an altar to YHWH of stones. “You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to YHWH your God of uncut [literally “whole”] stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to YHWH your God, and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God. And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.”
This calls to mind the law about altars “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered” (Exodus 20:24). These altars were to be for burnt offerings and peace offerings, they were to be made of uncut stones. Thus the new law about an altar in the place where God would choose is not yet in effect at this point because He had not yet chosen that place.
On Mt Gerazim the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin were to bless the people. On Mt Ebal the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali were to stand for the curse. This is 12 tribes. It is no accident that Judah and Joseph get to do the blessings and Reuben and the maidservants sons get to do the curses. What is interesting is that Simeon and Levi get to do the blessings.
There are 12, “Cursed be…” statements to mirror the number of tribes. These reflect back on the stipulations. For example, the example given in Deuteronomy 22 for a prohibited relationship is: “A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness” (footnote says, the Hebrew is “his father’s skirt”) (22:30). “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness” (Deut 27:20).
Here other prohibited relationships are also mentioned (unlike in Deuteronomy 22 because they had all been spelled out in Leviticus): “Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother” (Deut 27:22). Deut 27:23 then adds the mother-in-law. This is not to mention bestiality (Deut 27:21). These four related to sexual sin are all together in the list.
The first statement deals with idolatry, the second with dishonoring father or mother. The third sounds familiar as well: “Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor’s landmark” (Deut 27:17). Deut 19:14 had said, “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark…” The point being that we are not seeing more laws but that the people are cursed if they do not keep the ones written herein.
The next two show Deuteronomy’s care for the poor and disabled: “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road” (Deut 27:18) and “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19).
After the four related to sexual sin there is a pair of two dealing with the commandment regarding murder: “Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbor in secret” and “Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood” (Deut 27:24-25).
Each statement follows the same pattern: “Cursed be (the man/anyone) who…And all the people shall (answer and) say, ‘Amen.’” The final sums it all up: “’Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deut 27:26).
In Deuteronomy 28 we see the blessings for obedience to the Torah. Many of these are pairs:
in the city / in the field (Deut 28:3)
Fruit of your womb / fruit of your ground / fruit of your cattle
Increase of herds / the young of your flock (28:4)
Your basket / Your kneading bowl (28:5)
When you come in / when you go out (Deut 28:6)
In other words, all of the time, in every way.
Many of the things said here sound familiar: “YHWH will open to you His good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow” (Deut 28:12). “He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain” (Deut 11:14) and “You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow” (Deut 15:6)
The text then goes back to the curses again. “Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out” (Deut 28:16-19).
It is the reverse of the blessings, “YHWH will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways” (Deut 28:7) becomes “YHWH will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them” (Deut 28:25).
One emphasized point is worth noting especially. Deut 28:25 says, “And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” and verse 37, “And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where YHWH will lead you away.” This is in contrast to the blessing, “YHWH your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (28:1).
The emphasis in Deuteronomy is on the curses for not keeping the Torah because Israel will not keep it.
Unlike the heading in my Bible Deut 29 is not a covenant renewal in Moab but rather Moses is telling us about a new covenant “besides the covenant that He had made with them at Horeb” (Deut 29:1). And so now we will begin to see the hope of what will come from the new covenant.
Moses says, “You have seen all that YHWH did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day YHWH has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut 29:2-4). They still need a heart circumcision, which will come with the new covenant. We mentioned before that this generation did not see these things (physically they were not there) but that Deuteronomy treats all of Israel as a unified whole such that future generations will be said to have seen these things.
The prophets and Jesus will pick up on this language of having a heart to understand, eyes to see and ears to hear. This is the fundamental point of the book – need heart circumcision.
After the curses fall on Israel the nations will say to the next generation, “Why has YHWH done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?” And Israel will say, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of YHWH, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom He had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of YHWH was kindled against this land…” (Deut 29:24ff).
The chapter ends, “The secret things belong to YHWH our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law [Torah]” (Deut 29:29).
And then chapter 30 is also set in the time of the new covenant. “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you…” (Deut 30:1). There will be repentance and forgiveness for the people of God.
“And YHWH your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). The curses will be on their enemies and they will “again obey the voice of YHWH and keep all His commandments” (Deut 30:8).
Speaking of the new covenant, the question, “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’” (Deut 30:12) refers to the way the covenant at Horeb was given. Moses went up the mountain, into heaven (Deut 4:36), to receive the written law on tablets of stone and brought them down to Israel and read them to Israel.
Also the idea of crossing the sea refers to the way Moses had to go to get the law. “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” (Deut 30:13). Moses had to cross the Sea of Reeds in order to go get the law and bring it to Israel.
Instead, this new covenant will not be too hard for you to do. “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:14).
Heart circumcision will write the word of God upon the heart so that you can do it. This in contrast to writing the law on stone tablets like the covenant at Horeb.
The end of the chapter then goes back to the scene of Moses’ day. This is marked by the word “today.”
He tells them that he has set before them life and good, death and evil. If they obey, then they will live. If their heart turns away, and they will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods then they will perish and not live long in the land.
The witnesses are heaven and earth (rather than false gods as in the treaties of the surrounding nations). He calls upon Israel to “choose life” (Deut 30:19). These verses are full of allusions to Adam and Eve in the beginning. The idea is that Israel is in a similar place to the first couple. For example, compare Deut 30:16 with Gen 1:28.
This chapter provides for the succession of Moses to Joshua, the reading of the Torah, the commissioning of Joshua to lead Israel, and instructions for a witness song. We will look at the witness song next time. These are all common elements in such a treaty.
Given all of these connections between ANE treaties and the covenant God made with His people, it is no suprise that the prophet Isaiah would be so critical of Israel making treaties with other nations. Israel was tempted to replace its suzerain king (God) with another nation more powerful (in the world’s eyes) than their own nation.
But in any case, this section of Deuteronomy points us beyond the then-present covenantal order to the covenant that Jesus would bring. This new covenant would be one where the curses all fell on Jesus in our place and the Spiritual blessings in the heavenly places belong to us who believe.