In Deuteronomy 27, God commands the Israelites to set up stones on Mount Ebal. On the stones, they are to write the commands of Deuteronomy. They are also to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings on an altar, as they rejoice before the LORD. The Israelites are to make the altar of whole stones, and they must not use an iron tool in its construction. Then, some Israelite tribes are to stand on Mount Ebal to utter curses on those who disobey the law (often secretly). Others will stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the faithful.
So Mount Ebal is a place of both celebration and cursing. Why?
The evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer offered an explanation. In Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History, he tried to interpret Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 (where the Israelites carried out Deuteronomy 27) in light of the doctrines of the substitutionary atonement and justification by grace through faith alone. These doctrines state that all are sinners and deserve God’s wrath, but God sent Jesus Christ to experience that condemnation on our behalf. By accepting what Christ did, we become righteous in God’s eyes. We cannot trust our good works to impress God, however, since we are sinners.
Similarly, for Schaeffer, the Israelites relied on the altar on Mount Ebal for their survival. God’s law condemned them, since they were sinners. They deserved to die. But the burnt offerings, which atoned for their sins, allowed them to enjoy fellowship with God in spite of their violations. By sacrificing on Mount Ebal, Schaeffer argued, the Israelites acknowledged that they deserved the curses that were pronounced on that mountain. But they received blessings, not curses, on account of the slain animals that foreshadowed Christ’s work on the cross. And, in the same way that humans cannot earn God’s salvation through their human actions, the Israelites could not add anything of their own to the altar. They could not use a bronze tool.
Maybe this proposal has some merit. It certainly presents the Gospel that I trust for salvation. But is there another way to read Deuteronomy 27?
First, Evangelicals often assume that animal sacrifices always foreshadow the substitutionary atonement. They have a point, since Leviticus 1:4 says that the burnt offering makes atonement for the person bringing it. But there are other sacrifices that focus specifically on sin, such as the sin offering and the guilt offering. If Deuteronomy 27 wants to emphasize the substitutionary atonement, why not have those? Burnt offerings were ways to invoke God’s presence by presenting to him a sweet savour. Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 may be saying that the Israelites were to celebrate in God’s presence the fact that God had just brought them into the Promised Land. The Israelites were saying “thank you” to God by giving God something he liked, a burnt offering. And, through the peace offering, they shared a meal with God.
Second, in Schaeffer’s scenario, the atonement is the end of the story. The Israelites sinned, and so they needed atonement to satisfy the curses of the law. In essence, Schaeffer views the atonement as the goal and main point of Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8. But, in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8, the sacrifices occur before the blessings and curses. Why would the Israelites need to be told about curses once their sacrifices had already satisfied the penalty for sin? Plus, if the passages really wanted to make Schaeffer’s point, wouldn’t they have presented the curses before the sacrifices?
So here is an alternative way to see the passages: the Israelites celebrate what God has done for them, but, in the midst of their celebration, they remember that God has placed certain responsibilities on their shoulders. While they rejoice in God’s presence, they see the stones that have the Deuteronomic laws written on them. The laws are a testimony to them that God will punish transgression. Do the Israelites want to continue their enjoyment of God’s blessings? Well, they will have to observe the law to do so. Deuteronomy often stresses that the Israelites will live through their obedience to the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:1; 5:33, 8:1; 12:1, etc.). They will do so because God punishes disobedience with death (Deuteronomy 29:19).
Why does all of this occur on Mount Ebal, the mountain of cursing? Because God wants the Israelites to focus on the curses of the law. He wants them to remember the threats and be warned. Look at how much Deuteronomy 27-28 emphasizes the curses! Deuteronomy 27 only lists the curses for transgressors. In Deuteronomy 28, the curse section is longer than the blessing section, and it is enough to give people nightmares! The Israelites were to celebrate God while keeping the curses in mind.
So, in my opinion, Deuteronomy 27 offers a point of view that is not exactly evangelical, at least in the Francis Schaeffer sense. But it is not entirely consistent with Judaism, either. In rabbinic Judaism, the Torah is seen as a blessing. God gives the Torah to Israel so that she can know him, have wisdom, and improve herself morally. And, sure, Deuteronomy has some of these concepts (Deuteronomy 4:6). But, overall, Deuteronomy presents the Torah the same way that Paul does: as a ministration of condemnation (II Corinthians 3:9).
The Israelites still needed God’s forgiveness. In the Torah, they often received it through sacrifices, Moses’ intercession, and repentance. But I think that Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8 focus on other issues.