Mount Ebal to Mount Gerizim: From Cursed to Blessed
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 11:26-29 (text); Joshua 8:30-35; Galatians 3:10-14
May 9, 2010
Tomorrow is a historic day in the Philippines. It will be the first automated election ever, and the beginning of a change in leadership after nine years under a single administration. Among evangelicals, there is a movement to elect one of their own, believing that if an evangelical was elected, corruption will end and the nation will be blessed with peace and prosperity. Is this a realistic expectation? The answer is not hard to find in the history of the church.
In the early church, when Constantine, who converted to Christianity and declared Christianity as the state religion, became emperor of the Roman Empire, the empire experienced Pax Romana for some time, but within a century, Rome was sacked by a northern pagan warlord. In medieval Christendom, nations failed even when they were ruled by so-called Christians. In modern history, Netherlands even had a Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper, who was a Reformed pastor and theologian, for four years. But there was really not much change in the country during and after his term.
So how shall a Christian vote with wisdom? Michael Horton offers three principles and guidelines:
1. Clearly distinguish the different roles played by the church and the civil government. A Christian is a dual citizen, performing duties to both kingdoms. But the church must be concerned with spiritual things and the state with earthly things. The church should not meddle in the affairs of the government, and neither should the state meddle with the church. The church is not qualified to run the affairs of the country. Because of common grace and conscience, unbelieving lawyers, economists, scientists and professors are able govern more wisely than unqualified Christians.
2. Distinguish clear divine commands from issues that require wisdom. Implementation of civil law requires prudence, and even Christians differ in many complex matters of governing a nation.
3. No political party or political ideology can claim that their ideology and program of government are the only ones grounded on solid Biblical ground. Ideologies are not doctrines, and as such they arise from the necessities of a specific time, place and society.
Who should you vote for? Your conscience should dictate your vote. I, for one, would not vote for a Communist or a Muslim, because they advocate violent change of government. Those who support homosexual lifestyle and abortion on demand will not get my vote either. These issues are clearly defined in Scripture. But the Bible does not clearly address many other issues such as taxes, economics and health care. So in these matters, it should be up to your conscience.
Our text today is related to this issue of hope for the blessings of peace and prosperity on a nation if it is governed by a godly leader. Israel was such a nation. It was the only political nation in human history that God called his chosen people—no one before it, no one after it. As such, most of God’s civil and ceremonial laws were given exclusively to them. God’s covenant promises to Israel were clear: “Obey my commandments and you shall live and be blessed in the Promised Land. Disobey and you shall be cursed and driven away from the land.”
Our text takes us forty years after Israel escaped from their slavery in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness. They are now finally at the River Jordan, the gate to the Promised Land of Canaan. On the third month after they left Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai where God gave them the Book of the Covenant as the rule for their doctrine, worship and life. Now forty years later, Moses gathers them one last time and renews God’s covenant with them.
He reminds them of God’s commandments for their worship, their life as God’s people, and their life as a nation. Unlike us, they had single citizenship: their allegiance is only to God, the King of Israel. The laws of their nation are God’s laws.
He commands them that after they enter and conquer the land, they are to go to Shechem where there are two mountains: Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Before these two mountains, they are to renew their vows to God. At Mount Gerizim, they will hear God’s blessings for obedience, and at Mount Ebal, they will hear God’s curses for disobedience.
We will study the implications of these two mountains to Israel and to us today:
1. Ebal: The Mount of Cursing
2. Gerizim: The Mount of Blessing
Ebal: The Mount of Cursing
In Joshua 8:30-35, we read more details about how the covenant renewal at Shechem took place after they crossed the Jordan River and conquered that part of the Promised Land. The twelve tribes divided themselves into two groups, six tribes on the slopes Mount Ebal, and the other six on Mount Gerizim. The two groups straddled the narrow mountain pass between the two mountains, with the Ark of the Covenant surrounded by the Levites in their midst. The tribes on Mount Ebal listened to God’s curses for disobedience; the tribes before Mount Gerizim listened to God’s blessings for obedience. In the hearing of all the people, together with all sojourners, Joshua and the Levites read the whole Book of the Covenant “with a loud voice” (Deut 27:14), and the people responded with their vows.
In the history and drama of redemption, these places and the ceremony itself are significant in their symbolism. Shechem is the place where God first repeated his promises to Abraham when he arrived in Canaan (Gen 12:6-7). Under the leadership of Moses and Joshua, God again makes his promises of blessing to Israel, Abraham’s descendants.
Gerizim is also the site of the temple that the Samaritans built as their counterpart to the Jerusalem temple. They believed that Joshua built the altar on Gerizim and not on Ebal. When the Samaritan woman mentioned that her people worshiped on this mountain, she was probably including Abraham and Jacob who built altars in the same region. But Jesus countered by declaring that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father”¦ “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).
The higher portions of Mount Ebal are barren rock—the name means “bald stone”—where only thistles and shrubs grow. Gerizim’s lower slopes are abundant in fountains and are beautifully cultivated with much olive and fig trees. Perhaps the group to whom the curses where shouted were made to stand on Â the barren and fruitless slopes of Mount Ebal, while the group to whom blessings were read stood on the fertile and fruitful slopes of Mount Gerizim.
The list of tribes in Deuteronomy 27:12-13 composing the two groups is also striking. Those on Mount Ebal, the mount of cursing, are the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali, sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, slave women of Jacob’s two lawful wives. Those on Mount Gerizim are Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. Those on Gerizim, the mount of blessing, are children of Jacob’s lawful wives, Leah and Rachel (Gen 35:23-26). Reuben is the exception—though he was one of Leah’s legitimate sons, he was cursed because he had sexual relations with Bilhah, his father’s concubine
(Gen 35:22; 1 Chron 5:1).
After they arrive at Mount Ebal, Joshua was to build an altar for burnt and peace offerings to the Lord to atone for their sins and to thank God for his blessings. But God added a command about the building of the altar, “You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones” (Deut 27:5-6). Why uncut stones? God is saying that the Israelites should not think that they could make the worship of God better by making an elaborate altar. Even one mark of a cutting tool would corrupt the worship of God.
At Mount Ebal, the Levites shouted a list of twelve curses on the people for disobedience that included idolatry, dishonoring father and mother, dishonesty, stealing, lying, sexual immorality, and murder
(Deut 27:15-26). Â This is also what we find in the Decalogue. The last curse is a summary of all the other curses, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.“
The severity of curses is emphasized in Deuteronomy Chapter 28 where 54 verses (15-68) are devoted to curses, while only 14 verses list the blessings (1-14). All kinds of curses proceed from disobedience—pestilence, famine, disease, barrenness, sword—ending in destruction and exile by Assyria in 722 BC and Babylon in 586 BC. “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me“ (Deut 28:20). Even their Temple was destroyed. Finally, like sheep without a shepherd, they were scattered all throughout the earth:
Because they became profane and unclean, God spit them out of his holy land. Their numbers decreased so greatly that only a tiny remnant of 50,000 returned to Canaan after their exile to Babylon and Persia. Such was Israel’s misery and destruction for disobedience.
But the terror and misery of the curses on Israel as a result of God’s wrath for their disobedience was just a foretaste of the terror and anguish of hell that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his life and death on the cross. On Mount Ebal, Israel sacrificed burnt offerings for their sins, a foreshadow of the final sacrifice that God himself will offer for our sins: Christ’s death on the cross.
We are an accursed people because of our disobedience, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, â€˜Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them'” (Gal 3:10). Like the tribes on Mount Ebal, we are children of slaves, and we ourselves are slaves of sin. The altar of good works that we build is not a sacrifice that rises as a pleasing aroma to God, because without faith in God’s final sacrifice of his only-begotten Son, our good works are filthy rags, a bad taste, and a repulsive stench before God. But Christ’s sacrifice removes the curse from us, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13), “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).
Our own Mount Ebal is the hill of Calvary in Jerusalem where our sacrifice was offered once for all, hanged on the cross for our disobedience.
Today, we honor our mothers, especially Christian mothers who brought us up in the nurture and discipline of the Lord, mothers who had sincere faith that they passed on to their children, as Eunice and Lois did to Timothy (2 Tim 1:5). God’s law hasn’t changed and anyone who violates one of his commandments violates the whole law. If we violate the commandment to honor our parents, God’s curse is upon us.
But it is not only this commandment that we violate, it is the whole law, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jas 2:10). Not only do we violate the whole law, but when Jesus made the law stricter, we not only sin when we actually do evil things, but we sin even in our words and thoughts.
So how shall we escape from these curses and receive God’s blessings when we can never perfectly obey God’s law? We are to march from Ebal, the Mount of Cursing to Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing, through the perfect obedience of another Man.
Gerizim: The Mount of Blessing
At Mount Gerizim, the blessings are introduced in Deuteronomy 28:1-2:
While disobedience results in pestilence, famine, disease, barrenness, sword, destruction and exile, obedience results in a fertile land, abundance, prosperity, victory over enemies, a place of honor among nations, peace, and a great number of children. Not only that, God will be with them–they shall be his people, and he will be their God. Because of this, every aspect of their life in the Promised Land will be blessed by God who will dwell with them (Deut 28:1-6).
This is very readily seen all of Israel’s history. During the reign of the judges, Israel had peace and prosperity when they were governed by righteous judges such as Gideon, Barak and Jehthah. During the reign of David, Hezekiah and Solomon, when they were faithful to God, the kingdom was united, prosperous and victorious over their enemies.
This peace, rest and abundance were but a foretaste of life in the kingdom of God. In the new Mount Gerizim where Jesus preached a long sermon in Matthew 5-7, Jesus pronounced his blessings on kingdom citizens as long as they were poor in spirit, mourn over sins, meek, righteous, merciful, pure in heart, had peace with God, and persevere in persecution for righteousness’ sake. Our reward is not earthly, but heavenly (Matt 5:2-12).
These are commands that even the holiest of believers can only begin to obey. They are very difficult words. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges us with practical ethics to live by in our life in this imperfect world while we await the perfect world that he would give us when he returns.
God’s law is still with us as believers. They regulate our lives as Christians. They regulate our civil society so that earthly citizens can also have a semblance of peace, order and prosperity. We point our unbelieving family and friends to Christ our Savior by telling them about God’s holy character through the teaching of the Law. Without the Law, they will not comprehend their sin and misery and their absolute need for a Savior.
And without Christ being sacrificed on the Mount of Calvary to remove the curse from us, we can never receive any blessing from God. Because we can never obey God’s law perfectly and be righteous before God, our only hope for blessing is only through Christ who gives his perfect obedience to us—obedience all the way to an accursed death. Only by trusting Christ can we be redeemed from the curse of the Law and then receive blessings from God.
Like Old Covenant Israel, we the holy nation of the New Covenant only have a foretaste of God’s blessings. We enjoy these blessings now, spiritually and even materially. Unlike the Samaritans and the Jews, we do not have to go to Gerizim or Jerusalem to worship and receive blessings from God, because Christ has been sacrificed on his Mount Ebal, the altar of Calvary. This is why after his sacrifice for all the elect from the whole world, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and teach all nations because salvation has expanded from Jerusalem, to Judea and all Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Through Christ’s sacrifice, God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). But the perfect blessings of Mount Gerizim would only come when we finally dwell in the new heaven and new earth, where we will dwell with God forever.
Beloved in Christ, all of you still dwell between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. You look back to Mount Ebal when you remember Christs sacrifice to remove God’s curse on you when you were still lost sinners. But then you also remember Mount Gerizim as you enjoy your blessings in this life while you wait for the fullness of your blessings in the life to come.
To those of you who have not trusted Christ alone to deliver you from the curse of your sin, but rely on your own efforts to obey God’s law, you are still stranded on Mount Ebal. You can only hear God’s curses for your unbelief and disobedience. Because no matter how you try to obey God’s law or do good to your neighbor, your obedience is only a little speck in your world of rebellion against God. Until you put your trust in Christ whose sacrifice was the once for all fulfillment of the animal sacrifices on the altar of Mount Ebal, you will never be allowed to march upward to the heavenly Mount Zion, the mountain of God’s blessings.
 Information about Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim from Orr, James, Gen. Ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1915).