Deuteronomy 27: Lessons from the Jews’ Ratification of God’s First Covenant

Give thanks that God is a God of second chances1

Introduction: After giving the Ten Commandments and the statutes that interpret these Commandments (Dt. 5-26), God required the Jews to ratify His covenant. His ratification requirements followed the format of the treaties used at that time between great powers and lesser nations under the control of the great power, called a “Suzerain / vassal treaty.” After setting out the terms and conditions of the covenant, it was common for a ceremony to exist to ratify the covenant. This ceremony involved witnesses, vows of compliance, and an agreement on the consequences that would follow in the event of a breach (Gen 15:9-11; Jer. 34:18-20).

Many Christians assume there is no point to partaking in the “Old Covenant” when Jesus offered the “New Covenant.” Yet, there are important differences between the two Covenants. While the New Covenant covers matters of eternal salvation, the Law of the Old Covenant did not. There are many Bible references to doctrinal fights between Paul and “Judaizers,” who told new believers that they had to become Jewish to be saved. Yet, it was a one-sided fight. There are no provisions in the Torah that speak to the requirements for eternal salvation. Within the three books of the Torah that contain the Law (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), the only reference to Sheol appears when the ground opened up and swallowed those in Korah’s rebellion (Nu. 16:30, 33). While this word can be translated as hell, no English translation uses the word hell in these verses. Within the three books that contain the Law, the word “salvation” only appears three times. These references describe who God is. They have nothing to do with following the Law (Ex. 14:13; 15:2; Dt. 32:15). Although the term “heaven” is found throughout the Torah, it also is never used in the context of salvation.

The absence of any discussion about an afterlife in the Torah is why the Sadducees never believed in one. It is also why they mocked Jesus for preaching that one existed (Mk. 12:18-27). Other Jews were ambivalent about an afterlife. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife. Some might have believed that compliance with the Law in the Torah brought salvation. Yet, there were no verses to support this view. Thus, it was not inconsistent with the Old Testament for Christians to state that compliance with the Law in the Old Testament was insufficient to guarantee a person’s salvation (Ro. 7:6; 8:3; Gal. 2:21). Today, many Messianic Jews assert that the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant focused on what happens while we are alive. If you sin while you are alive, you can repent and Jesus will forgive you (1 Jo. 1:9). Yet, there are still consequences in this life for your sins. One need only look around in the modern Church to find Christians who have lost the blessing of peace through carnal behavior. In Deuteronomy chapter 27, God reveals six steps to enjoy the blessings and protections of God’s First Covenant while you live. The final lesson is revealed in the New Covenant. There, God reveals how to find both spiritual blessings in your life on Earth and blessings in the life to come.

First, while you are alive, obedience to God’s Law allows you to stay within the protections of His First Covenant. Second, to stay within the protections of the First Covenant, take steps to remember and memorize God’s Law. Third, proper worship will also help you to obey the Law. Fourth, listening to the Holy Spirit will also help you to obey God’s will for you. Fifth, accountability to other believers will also help you to be obedient. Sixth, reverent fear of God and His curses for breaking the Law while you live will help motivate you to obey the Law. Finally, because the Law was never meant to provide a path to eternal salvation, you must turn to Jesus to find salvation and be freed from the eternal curses from breaking the Law.

1. Obedience – Obedience Keeps You Within the Protections of the First Covenant. Dt. 27:1.

  • God’s requirement that the people obey His Law. The first step in the ratification of the First Covenant was for the Jews to make a vow of obedience to God’s Law: “1 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying, ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you today.”’ (Dt. 27:1). In this book, this was the ninth time that Moses stressed the importance of obedience (Dt. 5:33; 4:1; 4:40; 5:29; 6:3; 10:12; 12:28; 26:13-15). As stated above, it is a settled fact amongst mainstream believers that obedience to the Law does not bring salvation (Ro. 7:6; 8:3; Gal. 2:21). Thus, many believers today see little reason to follow it. Yet, this view is mistaken. Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial laws as a one-time sacrifice (Heb. 10:14). He also made it unnecessary for gentiles to become Jews by being circumcised, growing their beards, eating Kosher foods, and wearing Jewish dress (Acts 15:29). Yet, Jesus never claimed to fulfill the laws regarding morality and the Ten Commandments. There are several reasons why a Christian should still follow these laws.

  • Seven reasons why a saved believer should voluntary comply with the Ten Commandments. Even though the Law does not provide a path to salvation, there were several reasons why a believer should voluntarily follow the laws regarding morality and the Ten Commandments. First, according to Jesus, obedience to His Commandments is a sign that you love Him: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jo. 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6; Matt. 19:17; 1 Jo. 2:3). He is the great “I AM” who gave these commandments to Moses (Jo. 8:58). Among other things, the early Church singled out sexual morality as a standard that had not been relaxed (Acts 15:29). Second, through the study of the Law and through Spirit-led obedience, your sins become known to you (Ro. 3:20; 7:7). If the Law were no longer relevant in any context, there would be no sin to reveal. Also, if you say that you are without sin, the truth is not within you (1 Jo. 1:8). Third, voluntary obedience to the Law and the Holy Spirit can set you free from bondage to sin (Ro. 6:16, 12; Jo. 8:34; Gen. 4:7). By contrast, if you freely embrace sin, God will eventually hand you over to the lusts of the flesh (Rom. 1:24-28; Eph. 4:19; Ps. 81:12). Fourth, you are sanctified or set apart for God and act as a light to others when you comply with these laws. “You shall be holy, For I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:16; 1 Thess. 4:4; Lev. 11:44). When you are holy through moral conduct and a loving heart, you become a light to others (Dt. 4:5-6; Matt. 5:14). Conversely, you dishonor God and repel others when you break His Law (Ro. 2:23-24). Fifth, when you follow the Law, God can hear your prayers (James 5:16). Conversely, when you openly violate these laws, your prayers may be “hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7; Jo. 9:31; Ps. 66:18; Prov. 28:9; Isa. 1:15). Sixth, obedience to the Law is one source (in addition to the Holy Spirit) of God’s wisdom and understanding (Dt. 4:5-6; Ps. 119:98-105; Prov. 1:7). Finally, voluntary compliance with these laws allows God to bless you (Ex. 15:26; Lev. 26:3-13; Dt. 28:2-14). Conversely, He warns of “curses” (not eternal damnation) for those who rebel against His Law (Lev. 26:14-37; Dt. 27:15-26; 28:15-68). Are you ignoring any laws regarding morality or the Ten Commandments?

Let your obedience be the fruit of your faith2

2. Remembrance – Remembering God’s Faithfulness Helps Bring Obedience. Dt. 27:2-5.

  • The stones of remembrance. The second step in the ratification process involved the creation of an altar made of plaster-covered stones with the words of the Law. This altar was meant to help instill obedience by reminding the people of God’s faithfulness to perform His part of the Covenant by, among other things, bringing the people to the Promised Land: “So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you. So it shall be when you cross the Jordan, you shall set up on Mount Ebal, these stones, as I am commanding you today, and you shall coat them with lime. Moreover, you shall build there an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones; you shall not wield an iron tool on them.” (Dt. 27:2-5). God had previously prohibited the use of tools in building altars of worship (Ex. 20:25; cf. 1 Kgs. 6:7). Many believe that God prohibited the use of tools because He knew that people would use those tools to create prohibited idols in the places of worship. On multiple occasions, the Jews created similar “stones of remembrance” to remind them of God’s faithfulness. For example, Jacob set up a stone pillar and poured oil on top of it (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) to remember what God had done when he came to what is now called “Bethal,” the house of God (Gen. 28:18-19). He later set up another pillar of stone and poured oil on it to remind him of a place where God spoke directly to him (Gen. 35:14). Joshua later took 12 stones from Jordan and brought them into the Promised Land for the Jews to remember that God had brought them into Israel that day (Josh. 4:20-22). Joshua then followed this Law just as he was commanded to do: “Just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings.” (Josh. 8:31, cf 1 Sam. 7:12). The stories of the Jews were meant for our instruction (1 Cor. 10:11). Thus, we can learn from these examples.

  • Create your own stones of remembrance. Like the Jews, God has delivered every believer. This includes being saved from eternal damnation, answered prayers, deliverance from an illness, an addiction, or restoration of a broken relationship. Remembering what God has done for you is important for your faith and your testimony. Are you creating journals or “stones of remembrance” to remember, celebrate, and share what God has done for you?

Take steps to ensure that you never forget God’s faithfulness3

3. Worship – Worshiping God will Help Motivate You to Obey the Law. Dt. 27:6-8.

  • God’s requirement that the people properly worship with joy. The third step in the ratification process involved proper worship: “You shall build the altar of the Lord your God of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God. You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very distinctly.” (Dt. 27:6-8). The ratification of the Covenant was a time to rejoice (Dt. 26:11). Christ fulfilled the need for actual sacrifices in worship (Heb. 10:14). Today, we are to instead make “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 13:15; Ps. 50:23). Is worship a part of your walk with God? Are you on time getting to church for worship?

4. Listen – Listening to the Holy Spirit will Help You to Obey God’s Will. Dt. 27:9-10.

  • God’s requirement that the people listen for and obey the Holy Spirit. The fourth step in the ratification process involved listening to God’s Word: “Then Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying, “Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the Lord your God. 10 You shall therefore obey the Lord your God, and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today.” (Dt. 27:9-10). The Covenant was not a relationship between equals. Thus, God’s people must be silent, listen, and obey without question when He speaks: “But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.” (Hab. 2:20). “Be silent before the Lord GOD! ” (Zeph. 1:7(a)). “ . . listen to Me in silence . . “ (Is. 41:1(a)). “Draw near, O nations, to hear; and listen, O peoples!” (Is. 341(a)). The beginning of all knowledge is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33; Ecc. 12:13; Job 28:28). In the modern Church, many people try to bring Jesus down to their level by calling Him their “home boy” “their brother” or “their friend.” He is definitely a friend to you. But He is not your equal. Are you trying to tell God what He should be doing? Or, are you listening with reverent obedience?

  • Listen for God’s direction through His Word and the Holy Spirit. God gives you two ways to listen for His direction. First, He gives you directions through His Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105). He has also given you His Holy Spirit to guide you and speak to you: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (Jo. 14:26, 16; 15:26; 16:7). “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (Jo. 16:13). Are you listening for God’s direction through the Word and through the Holy Spirit?

5. Accountability- Being Accountable to Other will Help You to be Obedient. Dt. 27:11-14.

  • God’s requirement that the tribes bear witness to each other’s vows. The fifth step in the ratification process involved accountability. Each of the 12 tribes stated their pledge of obedience in front of the other tribes. “11 Moses also charged the people on that day, saying, 11 ‘When you cross the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. 13 For the curse, these shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. 14 The Levites shall then answer and say to all the men of Israel with a loud voice,” (Dt. 27:11-14). By repeating their vows to each other, they confirmed their promises to be true. They also held themselves accountable to each other.

  • Don’t forsake the fellowship of other believers. To keep each other accountable, believers are warned against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25). Satan is a “roaring lion.” (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a predator in nature, he strikes those who have strayed from the protection of the herd. Are you in a small group of believers? Or, do you watch church on the internet and float in and out of large church gatherings?

6. Reverence: the 12 Curses for Those Who Disobey the Law. Dt. 27:15-26.

  • The Jews’ agreement to the consequences for breaching God’s Covenant. The sixth step in the ratification process involved reverence. The 12 tribes stated their agreement to 12 curses if they broke the Law. This symbolized the fact that all would all be cursed if they broke the Law. Today, an agreement between two parties to a contract to specified damages for a breach is called “liquidated damages.” A curse was simply a type of liquidated damage that the Jews had agreed to in advance. God, by contrast, did not state a form of His own liquidated damages because it is “impossible for God to lie.” (Heb. 6:18; Nu. 23:19). The next chapter stated the blessings that came from compliance with the Covenant. When Joshua later had the Jews follow this ceremony, he also pronounced God’s blessings (Josh. 8:34). The actual ceremony involved the Jews alternating between the blessings and the curses (Talmud Bab., 'Sotah,' p. 7; Targum Hieros., in loc.; Surcnhus., 'Mishna,' 3:262).

(1) The curse for secret idolatry. God’s Second Commandment prohibits idolatry (Ex. 20:4, 23; Dt. 5:8). This prohibition is also repeated throughout the Torah (Ex. 34:17; Lev. 19:9; 26:1; Dt. 4:16, 23). Anything that takes more importance in your life than God can become an idol. For the unsaved, the eternal penalty for idolatry is death (1 Cor. 6:9). Any person who engages in idolatry is also under a curse: “15 Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:14-15).

(2) The curse for disobedience to your parents. God’s Fifth Commandment requires that you honor your parents (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16). This Commandment is also repeated throughout the Bible (e.g., Lev. 19:3). The eternal penalty for the unsaved who violate this Law is death (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9). “The eye that mocks a father and scorns a mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it.” (Prov. 30:17). During your lifetime, if you dishonor your parents you can also be subject to a curse: “16 Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:16).

(3) The curse for secret theft from your neighbor. God’s Eighth Commandment prohibits theft (Ex. 20:15; Dt. 5:19). He repeatedly warned that it was against His Law to steal from a neighbor by secretly moving a neighbor’s land markers (Dt. 19:14; Job 24:2; Prov. 22:28; Hos. 5:10). For the unsaved, the eternal penalty for theft of any kind is death (1 Cor. 6:10). Anyone who breaks this law is also under a curse: “17 Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:17).

(4) The curse for secretly misleading the blind. It is also against God’s Law to mislead the blind: “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:14). Anyone who misleads the blind is cursed: “18 Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:18).

(5) The curse for distorting justice. It is also against God’s Law to distort justice for the foreigners, the orphans, and the widows (Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33; Dt. 10:18; 24:17; Mal. 3:5). Breaking this law exposed a person to a curse: “19 Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:19).

(6) The curse for incest with a father. Incest with a person’s father is also against God’s Law (Lev. 18:7-8). The daughters of Lot broke this law by getting their father drunk and sleeping with him (Gen. 19:30-38). The Moabites and the Amorites came from these unholy acts of incest. They were cursed and barred from God’s assembly (Dt. 23:2-6). The Ammonites and the Moabites later came together with others to wage war against King Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 20:1). The prophets later gave God’s prophecy of judgment against these nations (Jer. 48:1; 49:1; Ezek. 21:28; Zeph. 2:8; Is. 15:1). The eternal penalty for the unsaved who violate this law is death (Lev. 20:11). Anyone who voluntarily breaks this law (which excludes a child who is raped) is subject to a curse: “20 Cursed is he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:20).

(7) The curse for bestiality. Sex with animals is also against God’s Law (Lev. 18:23). The eternal penalty for the unsaved who violate this law is death (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16). A person who breaks this law also lives under a curse while alive: “21 Cursed is he who lies with any animal.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:21).

(8) The curse for incest with a sister. Incest was also prohibited under God’s Law: “The nakedness of your sister, either your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover.” (Lev. 18:9). This included half-sisters: “The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, born to your father, she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness.” (Lev. 18:11). Any person who committed incest was to be disgraced: “If there is a man who takes his sister, his father's daughter or his mother's daughter, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the sons of their people. He has uncovered his sister's nakedness; he bears his guilt.” (Lev. 20:17). Ammon (the son of King David and Ahinoam) later violated this Law and raped his half-sister Tamar (the daughter of David and Maachah), even after she warned him of the curse that would await him (2 Sam. 13:12-13). Even though Ammon was the heir-apparent, he lived under a curse for his actions. God removed His hedge of protection. His half-brother Absalom then avenged Tamar’s death by killing Amnon (2 Sam. 13:23-39). A person today who sleeps with his sibling is also under God’s curse: “22 Cursed is he who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:22).

(9) The curse for incest with a mother-in-law. God’s Seventh Commandment prohibits adultery (Ex. 20:14; Dt. 5:18). A person who has sex with his mother-in-law not only commits adultery, that person also breaks God’s Law for immoral relationships (Lev. 20:14). The Bible gives us an example of someone who broke the similar Law against sleeping with a step-mother (Lev. 20:11). Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22). Yet, instead of being put to death, God showed mercy and grace by causing him to lose his first-born status. (1 Chron. 5:1). He and his descendants were also put under a curse: “Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence, Because you went up to your father's bed; then you defiled it-- he went up to my couch.” (Gen. 49:4). As proof that the laws of sexual morality continue in the New Testament, Paul also preached against this pagan practice while in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:1). The eternal penalty for the unsaved who violate this law is death (Lev. 20:14). Today, a person who sleeps with his parent-in-law (and most likely a step-parent) is also under God’s curse: “23 Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:23).

(10) The curse for a secret battery. For the unsaved, battery causing only injury is not a capital offense. Yet, secretly hitting another person brings that person under a curse: “24 Cursed is he who strikes his neighbor in secret.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:24).

(11) The curse for hired murders of the innocent. God’s Eighth Commandment prohibits murder (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17). The penalty for murder is death (Gen. 9:5-6; Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Nu. 35:30-31). A person who accepted a bribe to commit murder was not only under a death sentence, that person is also cursed: “25 Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:25).

(12) The curse for failing to follow the Law. Finally, any person who broke any other Law of God within the First Covenant was subject to a curse: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Cursed is the man who does not heed the words of this Covenant.”’ (Jer. 11:3). “26 Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:26).

Keep your commitment to follow God’s Word4

7. Faith – Faith in Jesus is the Only Way to Remove the Curse under the Law.

  • We are all guilty under the Law. Paul later connected the New Testament to the last verse in Deuteronomy Chapter 27: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law.’” (Gal. 3:10). Although most Jews will deny it today, God looked down from heaven and found none who were eternally righteous by the Law: “And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no man living is righteous.” (Ps. 143:2). “[A]s it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one;”’ (Ro. 3:10). “[B]ecause by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Ro. 3:20; 4:15). “[N]evertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Gal. 2:16). For “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Gal. 2:21).

  • Only faith in Jesus can free you from the eternal consequences of breaking the Law. By faith in His atoning death, you are no longer judged under the Law as a condition for your salvation: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jo. 3:16; 10:9; 11:25; 14:6). “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’” (Gal. 3:11; 5:18; Ro. 7:6; 8:3). If you are grateful for your unearned salvation, what are you doing to show your gratitude? (Ro. 12:1-2).

  • What a curse means to a believer saved by faith in Christ. A believer is freed from the eternal consequences of their sins through faith in Christ. God will forget your sins (Heb. 8:12; 10:17). There is also no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Ro. 8:1). Yet, while you are alive, there are still consequences when you break God’s Law regarding morality and the Ten Commandments. These consequences can include a loss of peace, pain, broken relationships, addictions, sexual diseases, and jail. Accepting the protections of the First Covenant (yet not as a source of salvation) can help to prevent these types of pain.