Deuteronomy 27:1-26 – Covenant Ratification


Deuteronomy 27:1-26


Moses gives instructions for a covenant ceremony of blessings and curses that Israel will use to accept its responsibility to live under the law that has been delivered in chapters 12-26.


Scholars have long noticed that the Deuteronomic Law Code (chapters 12-26) is framed by a pair of exhortations to obey that law, the constitutive parts of which are presented in reverse order:

A Blessing and curse in Moab (11:26-28)
B Ceremony on Mts. Gerizim and Ebal (11:29-31)
C Summons to obedience (11:32)
X The Deuteronomic Law Code (chapters 12-26)
C′ Summons to obedience (26:16-19)
B′ Ceremony on Mts. Ebal (chapter 27) and Gerizim (chapter 28)
A′ Blessing and curse in Moab (chapter 28:15-29:1). [Ancient and modern scholars disagree about whether 29:1 in Christian versification (and 28:69 in Jewish versification) is closing an inclusio, or opening another discourse in chapters 29 & 30.]  

Chapter 27 also relates to Deuteronomy 5:24-27, where, following the Ten Commandments, the elders commission Moses as covenant mediator, essentially God’s spokesperson. Here, they recognize that Moses has completed his task of delivering what he has heard on Mt. Horeb and prepare to accept their responsibilities in the covenantal relationship.

The location is important. Mounts Gerizim and Ebal overlook Shechem, an important site for each of the primary patriarchs, where Abraham erected his first altar and heard God’s promise of the land (Genesis 12:6-7), Jacob purchased land including a well (Genesis 33:19), and Joseph was buried (Joshua 24:32). As the people’s first stop, Shechem connected them with their past and helped them to identify with the promises God made to their ancestors.

The text, itself, falls into three unequal sections, each with an introductory formula:

  • “Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people” (v. 1)
  • “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel” (v. 9)
  • “Moses charged the people” (v. 11)

The first and third sections (vv. 1-8; 11-26) instruct the people about four ceremonies of covenantal confirmation to be observed at Shechem (Mts. Ebal and Gerizim) following the crossing of the Jordan River: the writing (painting?) of “this law” (improbably, all of Deuteronomy 12-26!) on stones erected on Mt. Ebal and covered with plaster, as was done in Egypt (vv. 2-4, 8); the erection of a stone altar and the offering of sacrifices on Mt. Ebal (vv. 5-7); a fragmentary account of the ratification of the covenant on Mts. Ebal and Gerizim (vv. 11-14); and 12 curses delivered by the Levites (vv. 15-26). By means of these curses, Israel pledges to keep the unenforceable aspects of the law, those sins committed in secret or in private.

Separating these two sections is a brief fragment of exhortation in which Moses dramatically states the purpose behind the liturgical ceremony (vv. 9-10): “This very day” Israel has “become the people of…God” (v. 9)! This accurate translation does not mean to say, however, that Israel has not been the people of God before (see, for example, 4:20; 7:6-7; 10:15; 21:8; etc.). Rather, there is a liturgical nuance to this bold statement. Moses means that Israel needs to claim their special relationship with God again and again in renewal ceremonies such as these, much as Lutherans affirm the need to remember the promise of one’s baptism on a daily basis.