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All the Israelites, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the Lord, facing the Levitical priests who carried it. Both the foreigners living among them and the native-born were there. 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. --Joshua 8:33
I don’t think anyone, in their heart of hearts, likes to move. First, you have to pack up all of your stuff, schedule the time utilities will be turned off, get a forwarding address to the post office, and resolve a myriad of little logistical nightmares. Then, when you get to the new location, you reverse the process. But more significantly, there is that sense of disorientation that sweeps over you when you take a moment to catch your breath. Where do I go to purchase what I need? What is there to do in this place? What are the people like around me? And, most worrisome, will I have any friends here?
Likewise, moving out of Egypt was no picnic for the children of Israel. They left in a hurry with what they could carry and what the Egyptians had given them, either out of generosity or fear. They wandered around in the wilderness way longer than they needed to because of their unwillingness to trust God when He had invited them to enter the land He had promised them—something about the indigenous population looking like giants, remember? Now, after forty years, the Jews finally had the courage to obey, to try that entrance again. When they crossed over the Jordan River into their new, divinely-delivered homeland, the people did what Moses had commanded them to do a while back when he had taught them about this moment.
Moses’ instructions are found at the end of Deuteronomy, chapter 11. They are repeated in the 27th chapter of the same book. Moses told the Israelites to obey the commands of the Lord in the new land they were entering. Specifically, “to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all of your heart and with all your soul” (11:13) as well as “to walk in obedience to Him and hold fast to Him.” (11:22) He described this land as different from Egypt, the land they had left behind. Here, in this new place, God would provide for their needs; they would no longer be forced to carve out their own existence as slaves. Moses cautioned the Israelites that their children had not seen any of the miracles that produced the exodus from captivity long ago. So they would have to tell their children what God had done and then live like they believed it. Finally, Moses warned them not to be seduced by the culture and the pagan gods worshiped by the people they were about to meet. Nothing good would come of that. All of this sounds like sage advice for us today as well.
The Lord knew that the people would need a powerful reminder of the importance of obeying His commands. So, through Moses, He told the people, soon after they crossed the Jordan, to gather at the foot of two mountains to the west—Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Half of the people were to stand in front of one mountain and the other half in front of the other. The Levitical priests, facing the Ark of the Covenant (where God’s presence appeared during the wilderness journey), recited in a loud voice the commands of the Lord. Blessings were declared for obeying the Lord from Mount Gerizim; curses were promised as a consequence for disobedience from Mount Ebal. And the people shouted “Amen” in response to each pronouncement. If you look at the picture above, you can see the natural amphitheater created geographically allowing this renewal of the covenant to be heard by all. It must have been a powerfully holy moment, as described in Joshua 8:33 above.
Whenever we enter a new time or a new place in our lives, that disorientation I referenced above can produce, at the very least, a distraction, or, more seriously, a real disruption in our walk with the Lord. In those circumstances, we need a sacred, solid token of remembrance of what is at stake every day of our lives. The commands of the Lord are boundaries, curbs that keep us moving safely along the road God has mapped out for us. It is sinful human nature that resents and resists those boundaries—we want what we think will be “our freedom.” But the truth of the matter is that we will thrive only when we respect the limitations the Lord has put in place. Studies have shown that school children play most enthusiastically and joyfully on playgrounds enclosed by a fence line.
It is a lie of the enemy of our souls that those curses echoing down from Mount Ebal come from a God who, without hesitation and maybe even with some delight, squashes us like a beetle bug if we step out of line. That’s not the God I read about in Scripture. The Bible describes that God as One who, without hesitation and, no doubt, with deep sorrow, sent His Son Jesus to earth to die ignominiously on a cross that should have been ours. Sounds to me like a God determined to bless, not to curse!
The truth is that the lives God has graciously given to each of us are lived within the context of a world bounded with moral dimensions of right and wrong. As surely as gravity on earth causes an object to fall, disobedience to God’s commands, whether you actually believe He exists or not, will ultimately, at some point, reap an appropriate outcome for that act. Paul explained it this way to the Galatian Christians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” (6:7) A thief trying to escape from a second story window will fall to the ground even if he sincerely, but mistakenly, believes that this is the window where he left his ladder. Similarly, the curses come, not from a malevolent God, but from a violation of the moral fabric of the world He created—whether we believe in what the Lord says is “right” and “wrong,” or not.
One of the greatest gifts God has given us is our will, that part of us where we can choose to love Him or to reject Him. We can also choose to obey Him or not. If the latter, why do we blame the Lord for not excusing us, as if we are innocent victims, or expecting Him, in the name of some sort of sentimental, empty concept of “love,” to allow us to sidestep the consequences? As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” It really is the case that God doesn’t so much send people to hell as they choose it, here now on earth and beyond.
Heavenly Father, we may be moving to a new time and a new place in our lives—or maybe we are staying put. Regardless, help us to recommit ourselves to Your will and Your ways each day. The world seems to be out of control around us and not much deference or devotion is being directed to You or to Your commands. We want to be lighthouses, warning those about to crash on the rocks that there is a safer, better way to navigate life. Shine through us as we say “yes” to You in front of our own Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal each day. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.