Mt Ebal & Mt Gerizim audio (9MB)
It’s interesting how some places take on a greater significance than others. For Australian sports fans the MCG is the sporting arena. For Elvis fans it’s Graceland in Memphis Tennessee. For car racing fans this weekend it’s Mt Panorama in Bathurst. Di & I have just been to some of the significant places of the New Testament: places like Laodicea, Philippi, Pisidian Antioch, Corinth and especially Ephesus. It was great to walk on streets where Paul and Silas, Timothy and Luke would have walked; to walk on the Roman Road that’s still lying there by the side of the modern highway; to think about the fact that these were places where the most significant growth of the early church took place. Well, today in the book of Joshua we come to just such a place.
Joshua and the people of Israel have destroyed Jericho and Ai, so they now control the main entry into Canaan and the northern end of the highway that passes through the mountains south to Jerusalem and Hebron. But they don’t go south; they move north, to a place where they can carry out one of the instructions that Moses left for Joshua before he died.
They march north and eventually come to a place where the road turns west and passes between two mountains, Mt Ebal on the right and Mt Gerizim on the left. This is one of those places. Here between the two mountains is the city of Shechem.
It was here that God appeared to Abraham when he first entered the land and built his first altar to the Lord. It was here that Jacob settled after escaping from Laban with Leah and Rachel. Jacob built a well near here, a well where one day Jesus would meet a Samaritan woman. And it was here that Joseph’s bones were buried when the conquest of the land was complete (Josh 24:32)
So you can see, this was a place of great significance for God’s people.
For our story the significance of this place is that before he died Moses told Joshua that when he got to this place he was to do a number of things. Let me read you what he said: (Deu 27:4-14) “When you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I am commanding you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall cover them with plaster. 5And you shall build an altar there to the LORD your God, an altar of stones on which you have not used an iron tool. 6You must build the altar of the LORD your God of unhewn stones. Then offer up burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God, 7make sacrifices of well-being, and eat them there, rejoicing before the LORD your God. 8You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly. ... 12When you have crossed over the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing of the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13And these shall stand on Mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14Then the Levites shall declare [the curses and blessings] in a loud voice to all the Israelites”
At the base of these two mountains there’s a natural amphitheatre that means that people standing on the side of either mountain can hear clearly what’s said on the other mountain.
So Joshua brings them there and sets up the entire nation of Israel on either side of the valley. What’s about to happen is for everyone to witness, just as they’d all witnessed the judgement of Achan a few days before.
There are two mountains, one the mountain of blessing, the other the mountain of curses. The people are divided evenly between the two so they can experience this huge object lesson. What will happen to them as they enter the land will depend on whether their life resides on Mt Gerizim or Mt Ebal. If they keep God’s law, God will bless them: they will become the greatest of the nations, their land will be fertile, all the other nations will look at them in envy; but if they disobey God’s law they’ll suffer God’s judgement.
But before the blessings and curses are read Joshua needs to do something else. First he builds an altar on Mt Ebal. Notice that the altar is built on the mountain of curses. The people need to be reminded from the start that God knows they can’t keep the commandments perfectly. They will always need to return to God in repentance. They need to be reminded that God has made it possible for them to come back to him and receive his forgiveness. The altar here is just like the altar God told them to build after the law was given on Mt Sinai. The altar was to be of undressed stones. God was telling them that there was nothing a human being can do to add to his grace.
I’m not sure that’s a lesson we’ve learnt particularly well. I think we still tend to work on the basis that if we organise our worship in a particular way, if we come with a particular approach, if we do or say the right things, it’ll be more acceptable to God. But God is saying “Nothing you can do can add to what I’m doing for you in accepting your offering.” In fact if you try to add to it you’ll actually demean it.
There’s a tradition that Persian carpets always have a flaw built into them, because to seek to make a perfect carpet would be blasphemy, since only God is perfect.
Well that’s the idea here. As soon as someone seeks to shape the altar to be fitting as somewhere to offer sacrifices to God they spoil it, because they can never make it perfect enough to reflect the nature of God and because there’s nothing they can offer that will help to overcome God’s judgement on their sin.
Now this is nothing new. Abraham built just such an altar, right here - after God had promised to bless him. Notice that the altar wasn’t meant to bring him righteousness. That was God’s gift. “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3) So too here. Before the curses and blessings are read out Joshua offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the grace of God in calling them out to be his people. And he does it on the mountain of curses. Can you see the significance of this. He gives thanks for God’s choice of them on the mountain that reminds them of their own unworthiness. As I said, this is a great object lesson. Your unworthiness is the reason that God chooses to save you. If you didn’t need saving God wouldn’t bother. Jesus said only the sick need a physician.
You know, when the Assyrians captured Samaria and took the northern kingdom into exile they replaced them with people from other nations. These people became the Samaritans. And when they arrived they decided they should worship the god of the land they’d come to. So they found out about Israelite history and the way God was to be worshipped, and because they couldn’t go to Jerusalem they needed their own temple. Well where do you think they built it? Certainly not on the mountain of curses. No, they built their temple on the mountain of blessing, Mt Gerizim. You see they didn’t understand the nature of God’s grace. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people. They thought if they sacrificed in the place that represented their obedience to God they’d be OK. But in fact they needed to acknowledge their sinfulness and ask for God’s grace.
This explains some of the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain (Mt Gerizim), but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’ (John 4:19-21)”. Jesus’ point was that no human system of being right with God would suffice. Neither Mt Gerizim, nor even Mt Zion would be the place where the effective sacrifice was carried out. In fact that place would be the hill of Calvary. And once his sacrifice was complete there would no longer be the need for any earthly place of worship because the reality of God’s nature would become clear. He goes on to say “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24 NRSV) Jesus’ death and resurrection led to the giving of his Holy Spirit to all believers so we can now connect with God directly.
But we’ve moved well beyond Joshua haven’t we? All this raises the perennial question if there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God why does he make such a fuss of the blessings and curses? Why all this theatre?
Well let me ask you, what do the commandments teach us? Some of you will immediately think “They teach us how to do the right thing.” Or “They teach us what we should avoid doing.” And that’s true. But that’s not all there is to it. You see, what the commandments really teach us is the nature of God. God’s commandments are his propositional statements about his character. These are the family characteristics. They won’t help you join the family but if you happen to be adopted into the family you’d better start learning how to behave as one of them.
God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional. His descendants would be come a great nation. All the world would be blessed through him. Yet as the blessings and curses are read out the people discover that the blessings of God are conditional. They’ll prosper as long as they live according to the family values. If they choose to ignore God he’ll abandon them until they work out how foolish they’ve been.
The past couple of months has seen the destruction of Jericho, the debacle with Ai, the judgement of Achan and their subsequent victory over Ai, with all the plunder that came with it, so they know first hand how serious God is about these promises. The conditional part of God’s promises aren’t the sorts of things you can just forget, when your whole life depends on his blessing and protection. So they’d better get it right. [Well sadly, as their history shows, they didn’t get it right and in the end they were thrown out of the land altogether. But they remained God’s chosen people. God brought them back and we now live under that same promise of God. Paul says we too are children of Abraham if we have faith in God (Gal 3:6-7).]
So what about the curses and blessings for us? Well Jesus has in fact replaced those blessings and curses with some others. Listen while I read Matt 6:1-21: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ... 3when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ... 14if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Finally Jesus words in the sermon on the mount carry an echo of what God said to Joshua when he was appointed to lead his people. Do you remember what he was told? “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” (Josh 1:8)
Here’s what Jesus said: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!” (Mat 7:24-27)
God’s word, his propositional revelation of himself, needs to be studied and acted on if we’re to receive all of his blessings in this life.
Let’s pray that we might be people who live always under God’s blessing because we hear his words and act on them.