At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.
It’s agreed by most Old Testament scholars that the heart of the Old Testament law is the book of Deuteronomy, and that the heart of Deuteronomy is the list of blessings and curses that are found in chapters 27 through 30 of that important book. Deuteronomy presupposes an eternal covenant established by God with His people. But it goes on from that fixed point to discuss the principle of blessing and lack of blessing which is based on either the obedience or disobedience of the people to the revealed law of God, which is where this list of blessings and curses comes in. Chapter 27 contains a long list of the curses, while chapter 28 contains the blessings. Then there are two chapters that talk about a renewal of the covenant. At the very end, Moses, who is speaking, restates the principle, calling them to choose obedience: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him.”
It’s really a sermon, preached by Moses to the people prior to their entrance into the Promised Land. And once they reached Canaan, it was then enacted by Joshua, who at that time was the leader of the people after their entrance into the Promised Land. And, moreover, the ceremony that Joshua established, after the beginning of the conquest, was in direct obedience to what God had told the people to do through Moses and recorded in the book of Deuteronomy some time before. It makes fascinating reading to take this section of Deuteronomy and compare it with the fulfillment that we find at the end of Joshua 8.
Now, Moses had never been in the Promised Land; but he knew something about it, either by report—perhaps the report of the spies—or else by direct revelation. At any rate, when he got to this section of his writing, he said, “When you enter the Promised Land, there’s an area there that you’re to visit and at which you’re to camp. It’s a place where there are two mountains. One mountain is called Mount Ebal, and the other mountain is called Mount Gerizim. That’s the place to which you are to go. When you arrive there, you’re to divide up your party. Half of the twelve tribes are to be on one mountain, and half of the twelve tribes are to be on the other mountain. And then with that setting, these curses and blessings that I give you this day are to be read.” Of course, that’s precisely what Joshua did.