Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Then Moses and the priests, who are Levites, said to all Israel, “Be silent, O Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the Lord your God. Obey the Lord your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today.”
On the same day Moses commanded the people:
When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerezim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Ruben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali (Deuteronomy 27:9-13).
As times grow tough, economies fall, world leaders change, and natural disasters increase, people are left with many many questions. Namely, “What is going on?” Christians around the world are turning their Bibles to the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation wondering if God is vengeful or caring out the apocalypse. Non-Christians are scoffing and using the signs of the times to demean the “supposed” goodness of our Lord. God wants to ask you today, “Where do you stand?” To understand this, we need to look into the Word of God and find out what the Lord is trying to tell us through his scriptures.
The above passage is one of the stranger sets of verses in the Bible. Moses basically commands that when the Israelites reach the promised land, half are supposed to climb one mountain, the other half some other mountain and then yell at each other, the group on Mount Gerizim yells good things, the group on Mount Ebal yells bad things. Why? Well, we’ll talk about what the Blessing and Cursing mean to us later. Right now though, let’s establish the mountains themselves. Mount Gerizim represents for us blessings from the Lord, and Mount Ebal represents being under God’s wrath. In the end, all people will end up in one of these two camps. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10,
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
For an Israelite, the act of having to pronounce curses is a stark reminder that it is pretty much impossible to actually belong on Mount Gerizim. In fact, when presenting blessings and curses to Israel, Moses spends most of his time on curses. By splitting the tribes on the mountain, God is also showing us that not everyone will be saved. But, as six tribes belong to the cursed mountain, six tribes also stand in blessing. So we can be confident that while not everyone will be saved, we have at least a 50% chance. Theoretically, your odds are even better because you can actually choose which mountain to reside on, but we’ll get to that later.
There is something that is also peculiar in the main scripture for this chapter; Moses announces that the Israelites have become the people of God. If they’ve become the people of God, how can they be cursed? Surely God wouldn’t curse is own people, right? Well, the curses don’t come from Mount Ebal, Moses is just using it as a reminder, The Curse is a problem that extends back to the time of the first two people, Adam and Eve. At the time of creation there was no sin and no death. In fact, the Bible records the state of everything right after creation, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning –the sixth day (Genesis 1:31).” However, very quickly, the first couple broke the only rule given to them,
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Having eaten from said tree, death entered into the world. But the Lord did not just punish Adam and Eve, but all of creation,
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
Through painful toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).
By this curse, death, sickness, and disaster came into the world. How can “the people of God” be cursed? They can be because the curse of death is in everything, even the very ground that we walk on. This creates a problem, even from birth we are separate from God because of our (original) sin (and subsequent other sins).
In order to overcome the sin burden, the Lord instituted sacrifices for atonement. Since by sin we deserve death, death must occur, and so the Israelites began to sacrifice animals in order to find forgiveness for their sins. The rules for this are written in Leviticus 4:27-31,
If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. Then the priest is to take some of the blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and our out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all the fat, just as the fat is removed from the fellowship offering, and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.
So every sin requires and animal, also you read references to a burnt offering and a fellowship offering. When you add all of these together you get a lot of animals –all the time. Equally troublesome with this system is that you may be forgiven today and guilty again tomorrow. So an Israelite never knows where they stand, in God’s grace or in his judgment. What most Israelites did not realize though, was that this was an intentionally flawed system in order not to force us to atone for our sins, but to seek God because atonement is too difficult for us. The Lord doesn’t want to curse us, he loves us. We know this for Jesus says of the Israelites,
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts
And turn, and I would heal them (Matthew 13:15).
God never intended for the Israelites to atone for sins themselves, the law and sacrifice came in order to overpower us and cause us to not rely on ourselves, but on the Lord. This, however, did not happen, and so God allowed us to continue living with the flawed sacrifice system and the overbearing law. As it says in Isaiah,
So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
Rule on rule, rule on rule;
A little here, a little there-
So that they will go and fall backward,
Be injured and snared and captured (Isaiah 28:13)
The Lord allowed the Israelites to fall into the trap they set for themselves so that they might learn to trust only in God. Our God doesn’t want to punish anyone, but for everyone to come to repentance. He tries many times to explain this to the Israel, but they never fully understand. For example, in Ezekiel 18:30-32 he says,
Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
Notice, nowhere in the passage does it mention sacrifice. No, the focus is on repenting and getting a new heart from the Lord. The people however, would not listen or understand and so they brought the curse on themselves.
Not all of the Israelites were without understanding though, here and there the Bible records leaders who understood the real purpose of the Law. One of these leaders was King Hezekiah. Hezekiah came to power during a dark time, when people had left the Lord. However, the king understood the importance of relying on God and started a nation-wide revival. The pinnacle of Hezekiah’s revival was celebrating the Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays. There were some problems though: it was one month too late, there were hardly any trained priests, and quite a large number of people were totally unprepared. Even so, Hezekiah was seeking God, so he didn’t care that the Law wasn’t being followed exactly. People came from all over the country to celebrate this “off the books” Passover. The Bible records what happened,
Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Isachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God –the Lord, the God of his fathers –even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people (2 Chronicles 30:18-20).
Hezekiah was able to move very many people from the curses on Mount Ebal to the land of blessing not by following the Law, but by following God. Hezekiah realized that the Lord seeks worshippers and only wants to bless us. The Law and sacrifice was never meant to be used as tools to reach God, no, they were established to show the separation between God and us more clearly, that we might reach out to the Lord to repair the broken relationship that began when man sinned against his creator.
We are automatically separated from God at birth, and often we continue that separation. However, the Lord waits for us to come home. Jesus tells a fairly popular parable about our relationship with god. The story focuses on two sons and their loving father,
The younger one said to father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living (Luke 15:12-13).
Although most recognize this story to be that of sinners (the younger son) and the unforgiving faithful (the older son) the younger son also relates the story of the fall of man. Much like the father divides his estate in the story, in the beginning, the Lord gave Adam a share of creation. Genesis 1:28-29 states,
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”
So, similar to the father and the younger son, God gave us part of what he had made. But instead of being thankful, Adam and Eve decided to do what they wanted and ate from the forbidden tree. Likewise, the younger son, rather than stay with his father left the farm to do what he wanted. Jesus continues the story by explaining,
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything (Luke 15:14-16).
A famine comes upon the land and the son, who had separated himself from his father, now finds himself in need. In the same way, when Adam rebelled against the Lord, the very ground itself became cursed. Now, instead of living a life of ease and fellowship with the Lord, man is constantly at odds with his surroundings and his life is filled with toil. Our lives are not easy, there is pain and hardship, and without God, the burdens of life can often be too great to bear. Luckily, like many people, the son realized that he has another option than depending on himself and others (which has been fruitless in his life),
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men’ (Luke 15:17-19).
We do not need to live a life of toil alone. In fact, the overbearing Law, and even the curse upon the earth itself is designed to awaken us from our sinful state and lead us back to the Lord. Without the famine, the son may have never gone back home. Likewise, without the curse, man and God may have never been reunited. So, what happens when we’re ready to repent of our ways and return to God? Jesus tells us,
So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).
You don’t need to make yourself perfect for God; just coming to him as you are is all he seeks. The Lord will come running to you with joy. The father in the story explains the Lord’s happiness in Luke 15:24, which reads: “‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” By repenting of our sins and turning to Christ, we lose our status of being spiritually dead and once again are restored to our place as sons of God. Paul explains,
But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
You are all sons of god through faith in Christ Jesus for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:22-27).
So, Paul explains that while we were separated from the Lord, God gave the law in order that we may leave Mount Ebal and seek God on Mount Gerizim (so to speak). Notice, Paul mentions baptism, we must remember though that this is not a baptism by water, but of the spirit. We know this, because on the topic of baptism, John the Baptist explained Jesus like this, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). So by coming to Jesus we are baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is through this process that we return to our heavenly father as sons. Paul explains in Romans 8:13-16,
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
So, by accepting Jesus, you are given the Holy Spirit, which testifies that you have once again become a son or daughter of the Lord, no longer a slave to the world, but a dearly loved child of the creator. Paul writes in Galatians 4:7, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.” An heir to what? All of the blessings God made for man (so the sort of things proclaimed from Mount Gerizim) and an even greater gift, eternal life.
When God established the law and the sacrifice system, it was never the intent that we would be able to reach God through them. Rather, frustrated by being dissatisfied with our inability to live up to God’s standards (thus never leaving Mount Ebal), we were to seek the Lord with our hearts. This is explained in the book of Hebrews,
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming –not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:1-4).
So, over a thousand years after revealing the law to the people, now the Lord finally explained that the blood of animals has no power. However, in order to fulfill his own law and at the same time give the people a clear way in which to bridge the gap between us and the Lord, God sent the only true atoning sacrifice, himself, in the form of his son, a sinless body holding a sinless God to die for our sins. This was the will of Christ Jesus. In speaking of this, it is said of Jesus,
First his said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:8-10).
So while animal sacrifices were meant to lead us to God, Jesus’ sacrifice actually completely eliminated the sin issue for those who trust and believe in him. Is everyone automatically saved then? No, only those who trust in Christ and believe on him are able to truly cross into God’s presence. This is noted in one of the most popular Bible verses, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This belief in Jesus is paramount in salvation. Why? The Word of God explains,
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
Notice then that one must believe in Jesus in order to be saved. However, as God loves us like the father in the parable, he rewards those who seek the Lord Jesus Christ.
Getting back to the comparisons of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, if you don’t know where you stand, then you are on very dangerous ground. The Lord presents these two mountains not only as a representation but also as a choice. To remain on Mount Ebal is to remain separated from God, suffering not only the effects of the curse, but also the final and key punishment associated with it, death and eternal strife. As a father is grieved by the death of his children, so the Lord grieves every soul that suffers apart from him. This is illustrated by King David, who had a heart for the Lord. His son Absalom rose up against him, drove him out of the Kingdom, slept with the king’s wives, and tried to kill his own father, and yet after all of this, David mourned the death of his wayward son. 2 Samuel 18:31-33 records,
Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has delivered you today from all who rose up against you.”
The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you –O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Likewise, the Lord mourns every lost soul, no matter how hostile or wicked, by name when they fail to return to him. For God’s love doesn’t change, even when we reject him. In Hebrews 13:8, the writer explains about the Lord Jesus (who is God), “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” God’s love never changes. It is also such a complete love that he allows us to have the free will to choose if we will be with him or not.
Let us then choose to become people of god, as Moses states at the beginning of the chapter. Believe that Jesus came from god, as God and man, and died as an atoning sacrifice for you, then in his greatest proof of this covenant, he conquered death, breaking the curse for believers and opening the way for not only the material blessings of Mount Gerizim, and the spiritual blessings that accompany the Holy Spirit, but also the blessing of eternal life in heaven. Trusting in Jesus is the only way to overcome our sins and reach our heavenly father. Hebrews states,
Because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them
After that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
And I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:14-17).
Where there is no sin, there is no separation from God. By choosing Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, the broken bridge to blessing is restored and as a reborn child of God, you are entitled to all of the blessings that come with it, including life everlasting. We know this to be true as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” So as people of Christ, death is not the end, but the beginning of a new eternal life with Christ. Paul is so sure of this that he uses the term “fallen asleep” instead of death, since we shall awaken and live on after our death in the body.
If Jesus eliminated sin for believers, why then does the law still exist? Why don’t we just read the New Testament and forget all that old stuff? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, Jesus endorsed the Law and frequently quoted it. One example of Jesus noting the importance of the Old Testament during his ministry is in John 5:46, he says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” As you can see, Jesus believed the study of the Law was key because as mentioned earlier, the Law points to Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Secondly when we accept Jesus, we’re allowing the law to be written on our hearts, that is to say, we naturally want to go with God in all ways and so the law provides itself as a wonderful resource to understand God’s ways and his guidelines so as to live happy lives. And finally, the Law can increase the blessings in our lives. Of course as believers in the risen Lord Jesus we are already opening up the blessings that come along with being children of God, but what father doesn’t reward his children when they obey him? Moses talks about some of these in Deuteronomy 28:2-8,
All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.
The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock –the calves of you herds and the lambs of your flocks.
Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.
You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.
The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.
The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your god will bless you in the land he is giving you.
These are just a few of the many blessings that come from obedience to the Lord! Surely for a believer, the Law can be of great use; in understanding God, in having standards of living, and in cashing in on the many blessings promised all over the Bible.
Now, at the beginning of the chapter, we read Moses’ command regarding Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, but that is only half the story. The conclusion is found in Joshua 8:33-35 after the Israelites reach the Promised Land,
All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the Lord, facing those who carried it –the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.
Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law –the blessings and the curses –just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them.
These verses share with us a very important message, when we come to Christ, we need to turn around and present the Gospel to others. The verses say that the people were commanded to bless. Why? Because when you spread the Gospel, you are blessing those who speak to. You’re offering eternal life to an otherwise doomed person! It is the greatest blessing you can give somebody.
On whose shoulders is the job of spreading the message of salvation? Well, according to this passage, everybody. The text notes citizens, this represents the “long-time” Christian, those who know the Bible or grew up in church. Use your knowledge of God in order to present the word clearly to those who don’t know about it and may have many questions. New believers are not off the hook either. In ancient Israel, an alien constituted an outsider who had converted to belief in God. So what can you, who have less knowledge in the Bible do? Share your story! What brought you to God? That is all you need to share and if the receiver’s heart is willing, your story will be enough to help in the saving of people. Elders are mentioned too, the Gospel knows no age and neither should Christians. Older folks, your lives should be shining examples of Christian living. Don’t let age make you lazy, spread the Word! The passage also calls to attention officials and judges. We’ll assume that officials match up with professionals. If you’re a person with a day job, use it as a place from which to share the glory of Christ. There is no excuse not to, for Jesus himself commands in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Now this doesn’t mean that you should get on your soapbox at work and spend all day preaching. No, for that will only infuriate your boss and cause you to be seen as a poor worker. Instead you are called to shine, that is, you are to set such a good example that others are amazed and take an interest in what drives your life. The final group of people is the judges. Now in ancient Israel, the judges stood as government officials –that’s right, people who are in power need to shine as Christians too. Of course, anybody who is a Christian and is unashamed of it will fall under scrutiny. That is why we need to keep our noses clean. Peter tells us,
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse of you doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).
Notice that it doesn’t say, “Talk endlessly about God,” no, we Christians need to live such blessed lives that others may seek God. So professionals and people in power, don’t force the gospel down people’s throats, but live a life that glorifies God. This is how Daniel conducted himself in heathen Babylon, and although he faced opposition, his blameless life kept his enemies baffled. Daniel 6:3-4 records,
Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by this exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.
So, workers, you are called to do such a great job that no fault will be found in you, and the Lord will use that to lead people to him. In the passage, there is a group of people in the middle, the Levites. Why are they in the middle? The Levites are in the middle because the clergy has responsibilities other than winning souls. Aside from that, pastors are responsible for the interpretation of scripture, being shepherds to their congregations, and many other things. This is why the book of Joshua describes them as carrying the ark, as they are responsible for the duties of the church as well, just like our pastors are today.
Now, in the very center of everything is the ark. The ark represents the human heart. When we spread the Word, our goal is the hearts in the middle, between the mountains, for as we read earlier, the heart is where the Holy Spirit puts the law when you are sealed as a child of God. So the Israelites are all preaching to reach the heart, as should we. For a heart stuck between heaven and hell is just as lost as the damned.
Finally, Joshua reads the whole law. Why? He does this because the whole Bible is useful. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So always keep the Bible nearby. It is a guide to life and will be of great assistance in winning over unbelievers, so always keep the Word handy.
So, to be sure that you are ready, let us review what the Gospel message actually is:
1. We live in a fallen world, separate from God, facing eternal punishment.
2. Our Creator sent Jesus in order to save us.
3. By his death, Jesus became the eternal sacrifice, atoning for our sins.
4. By his resurrection we have the hope that we too will live even after death.
So how is one to be saved? Paul explains very clearly in Romans 10:9-10,
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
It is that easy. After that, one should probably get into God’s Word and find a Bible-based church to attend. Where do you stand? Hopefully you stand with Christ.
Now that we have a clearer understand of salvation and the blessings that follow those who are in Christ, let’s take a moment to pray. If you’re ready, just read these words out loud and surely God will hear you.
In my life I have bounced between Gerizim and Ebal,
Not knowing my fate, and not understanding your love.
Forgive me if I’ve ignored your call before,
Today I hear you calling to me.
I thank you Lord for bringing me to you
And for dying for my sins.
Lord, lead me up Mount Gerizim
And show me your glory.
I will trust in you Jesus,
My savior and my God.
In your name I pray,