Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
III. Third Discourse, or Renewal of the Covenant - Deuteronomy 27-30
The conclusion of the covenant in the land of Moab, as the last address in this section (ch. 29 and 30) is called in the heading (Deu 29:1) and in the introduction (Deu 29:9.), i.e., the renewal of the covenant concluded at Horeb, commences with instructions to set up the law in a solemn manner in the land of Canaan after crossing over the Jordan (ch. 27). After this there follows an elaborate exposition of the blessings and curses which would come upon the people according to their attitude towards the law (ch. 28). And lastly, Moses places the whole nation with a solemn address before the face of the Lord, and sets before it once more the blessing and the curse in powerful and alarming words, with the exhortation to choose the blessing and life (ch. 29 and 30).
The command in Deu 27:1 to keep the whole law (שׁמר, inf. abs. for the imperative, as in Exo 13:3, etc.), with which the instructions that follow are introduced, indicates at the very outset the purpose for which the law written upon stones was to be set up in Canaan, namely, as a public testimony that the Israelites who were entering into Canaan possessed in the law their rule and source of life. The command itself is given by Moses, together with the elders, because the latter had to see to the execution of it after Moses' death; on the other hand, the priests are mentioned along with Moses in Deu 27:9, because it was their special duty to superintend the fulfilment of the commands of God.
Deu 27:2 and Deu 27:3 contain the general instructions; Deu 27:4-8, more minute details. In the appointment of the time, "on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan into the land," etc., the word "day" must not be pressed, but is to be understood in a broader sense, as signifying the time when Israel should have entered the land and taken possession of it. The stones to be set up were to be covered with lime, or gypsum (whether sid signifies lime or gypsum cannot be determined), and all the words of the law were to be written upon them. The writing, therefore, was not to be cut into the stones and then covered with lime (as J. D. Mich., Ros.), but to be inscribed upon the plaistered stones, as was the custom in Egypt, where the walls of buildings, and even monumental stones, which they were about to paint with figures and hieroglyphics, were first of all covered with a coating of lime or gypsum, and then the figures painted upon this (see the testimonies of Minutoli, Heeren, Prokesch in Hengstenberg's Dissertations, i. 433, and Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 90). The object of this writing was not to hand down the law in this manner to posterity without alteration, but, as has already been stated, simply to set forth a public acknowledgement of the law on the part of the people, first of all for the sake of the generation which took possession of the land, and for posterity, only so far as this act was recorded in the book of Joshua and thus transmitted to future generations.
Upon the stones there were to be written "all the words of this law:" obviously, therefore, not only the blessings and curses in Deu 27:15-26 (as Josephus, Ant. iv. 8, 44, Masius, Clericus, and others maintain), nor only Deuteronomy (J. Gerhard, A. Osiander, Vater, etc.), since this contained no independent "second law," but the whole of the Mosaic law; not, indeed, the entire Pentateuch, with its historical narratives, its geographical, ethnographical, and other notices, but simply the legal part of it - the commandments, statutes, and rights of the Thorah. But whether all the 613 commandments contained in the Pentateuch, according to the Jewish reckoning (vid., Bertheau, die 7 Gruppen Mos. Ges. p. 12), or only the quintessence of them, with the omission of the numerous repetitions of different commands, cannot be decided, and is of no importance to the matter in hand. The object aimed at would be attained by writing the essential kernel of the whole law; though the possibility of all the commandments being written, of course without the reasons and exhortations connected with them, cannot be denied, since it is not stated how many stones were set up, but simply that large stones were to be taken, which would therefore contain a great deal. In the clause, "that thou mayest come into the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee," etc., the coming involves the permanent possession of the land. Not only the treading or conquest of Canaan, but the maintenance of the conquered land as a permanent hereditary possession, was promised to Israel; but it would only permanently rejoice in the fulfilment of this promise, if it set up the law of its God in the land, and observed it.
In the further expansion of this command, Moses first of all fixes the place where the stones were to be set up, namely, upon Mount Ebal (see at Deu 11:29), - not upon Gerizim, according to the reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch; for since the discussion of the question by Verschuir (dissertt. phil. exeg. diss. 3) and Gesenius (de Pent. Samar. p. 61), it may be regarded as an established fact, that this reading is an arbitrary alteration. The following clause, "thou shalt plaister," etc., is a repetition in the earliest form of historical writing among the Hebrews. To this there are appended in Deu 27:5-7 the new and further instructions, that an altar was to be built upon Ebal, and burnt-offerings and slain-offerings to be sacrificed upon it. The notion that this altar was to be built of the stones with the law written upon them, or even with a portion of them, needs no refutation, as it has not the slightest support in the words of the text. For according to these the altar was to be built of unhewn stones (therefore not of the stones covered with cement), in obedience to the law in Exo 20:22 (see the exposition of this passage, where the reason for this is discussed). The spot selected for the setting up of the stones with the law written upon it, as well as for the altar and the offering of sacrifice, was Ebal, the mountain upon which the curses were to be proclaimed; not Gerizim, which was appointed for the publication of the blessings, for the very same reason for which only the curses to be proclaimed are given in Deu 27:14. and not the blessings, - not, as Schultz supposes, because the law in connection with the curse speaks more forcibly to sinful man than in connection with the blessing, or because the curse, which manifests itself on every hand in human life, sounds more credible than the promise; but, as the Berleburger Bible expresses it, "to show how the law and economy of the Old Testament would denounce the curse which rests upon the whole human race because of sin, to awaken a desire for the Messiah, who was to take away the curse and bring the true blessing instead." For however remote the allusion to the Messiah may be here, the truth is unquestionably pointed out in these instructions, that the law primarily and chiefly brings a curse upon man because of the sinfulness of his nature, as Moses himself announces to the people in Deu 31:16-17. And for this very reason the book of the law was to be laid by the side of the ark of the covenant as a "testimony against Israel" (Deu 31:26). But the altar was built for the offering of sacrifices, to mould and consecrate the setting up of the law upon the stones into a renewal of the covenant. In the burnt-offerings Israel gave itself up to the Lord with all its life and labour, and in the sacrificial meal it entered into the enjoyment of the blessings of divine grace, to taste of the blessedness of vital communion with its God. By connecting the sacrificial ceremony with the setting up of the law, Israel gave a practical testimony to the fact that its life and blessedness were founded upon its observance of the law. The sacrifices and the sacrificial meal have the same signification here as at the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai (Exo 24:11). - In Deu 27:8 the writing of the law upon the stones is commanded once more, and the further injunction is added, "very plainly." - The writing of the law is mentioned last, as being the most important, and not because it was to take place after the sacrificial ceremony. The different instructions are arranged according to their character, and not in chronological order.
The words of Moses which follow in Deu 27:9 and Deu 27:10, "Be silent, and hearken, O Israel; To-day thou hast become the people of the Lord thy God," show the significance of the act enjoined; although primarily they simply summon the Israelites to listen attentively to the still further commands. When Israel renewed the covenant with the Lord, by solemnly setting up the law in Canaan, it became thereby the nation of God, and bound itself, at the same time, to hearken to the voice of the Lord and keep His commandments, as it had already done (cf. Deu 26:17-18).
With the solemn erection of the stones with the law written upon them, Israel was to transfer to the land the blessing and curse of the law, as was already commanded in Deu 11:29; that is to say, according to the more minute explanation of the command which is given here, the people themselves were solemnly to give expression to the blessing and the curse: to the former upon Mount Gerizim, and to the latter upon Ebal. On the situation of these mountains, see at Deu 11:29. To this end six tribes were to station themselves upon the top or side of Gerizim, and six upon the top or side of Ebal. The blessing was to be uttered by the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin, who sprang from the two wives of Jacob; and the curse by Reuben, with the two sons of Leah's maid Zilpah, and by Zebulun, with Dan and Naphtali, the sons of Rachel's maid Bilhah. It was natural that the utterance of the blessing should be assigned to the tribes which sprang from Jacob's proper wives, since the sons of the wives occupied a higher position than the sons of the maids - just as the blessing had pre-eminence over the curse. But in order to secure the division into two sixes, it was necessary that two of the eight sons of the wives should be associated with those who pronounced the curses. The choice fell upon Reuben, because he had forfeited his right of primogeniture by his incest (Gen 49:4), and upon Zebulun, as the youngest son of Leah. "They shall stand there upon the curse:" i.e., to pronounce the curse.
"And the Levites shall lift up and speak to all the men of Israel with a high (loud) voice:" i.e., they shall pronounce the different formularies of blessing and cursing, turning towards the tribes to whom these utterances apply; and all the men of Israel shall answer "Amen," to take to themselves the blessing and the curse, as uttered by them; just as in the case of the priestly blessing in Num 5:22, and in connection with every oath, in which the person swearing took upon himself the oath that was pronounced, by replying "Amen." "The Levites" are not all the members of the tribe of Levi, but those "in whom the spiritual character of Levi was most decidedly manifested" (Baumgarten), i.e., the levitical priests, as the guardians and teachers of the law, and those who carried the ark of the covenant (Jos 8:33). From the passage in Joshua, where the fulfilment of the Mosaic injunctions is recorded, we learn that the Levitical priests stationed themselves in the centre between the two mountains, with the ark of the covenant, and that the people took up their position, on both sides, opposite to the ark, viz., six tribes on Gerizim, and six on Ebal. The priests, who stood in the midst, by the ark of the covenant, then pronounced the different formularies of blessing and cursing, to which the six tribes answered "Amen." From the expression "all the men of Israel," it is perfectly evident that in this particular ceremony the people were not represented by their elders or heads, but were present in the persons of all their adult men who were over twenty years of age; and with this Jos 8:33, when rightly interpreted, fully harmonizes.
In Deu 27:15-26 there follow twelve curses, answering to the number of the tribes of Israel. The first is directed against those who make graven or molten images of Jehovah, and set them up in secret, that is to say, against secret breaches of the second commandment (Exo 20:4); the second against contempt of, or want of reverence towards, parents (Exo 21:17); the third against those who remove boundaries (Deu 19:14); the fourth against the man who leads the blind astray (Lev 19:14); the fifth against those who pervert the right of orphans and widows (Deu 24:17); the sixth against incest with a mother (Deu 23:1; Deu 18:8); the seventh against unnatural vices (Lev 18:23); the eighth and ninth against incest with a sister or a mother-in-law (Lev 18:9 and Lev 18:17); the tenth against secret murder (Exo 20:13; Num 35:16.); the eleventh against judicial murder ("he that taketh reward to slay a soul, namely, innocent blood:" Exo 23:7-8); the twelfth against the man who does not set up the words of this law to do them, who does not make the laws the model and standard of his life and conduct. From this last curse, which applied to every breach of the law, it evidently follows, that the different sins and transgressions already mentioned were only selected by way of example, and for the most part were such as could easily be concealed from the judicial authorities. At the same time, "the office of the law is shown in this last utterance, the summing up of all the rest, to have been pre-eminently to proclaim condemnation. Every conscious act of transgression subjects the sinner to the curse of God, from which none but He who has become a curse for us can possibly deliver us" (Gal 3:10, Gal 3:13. O. v. Gerlach). - On the reason why the blessings are not given, see the remarks on Deu 27:4. As the curses against particular transgressions of the law simply mention some peculiarly grievous sins by way of example, it would be easy to single out corresponding blessings from the general contents of the law: e.g., "Blessed be he who faithfully follows the Lord his God, or loves Him with the heart, who honours his father and his mother," etc.; and lastly, all the blessings of the law could be summed up in the words, "Blessed be he who setteth up the words of this law, to do them."