Joshua 8:30-35: The Law Read at Schechem
As soon as possible after entering the land Joshua called the tribes to Shechem, to read to them there the blessings and curses of the law, and to write them on great stones set up and plastered over. We must picture the solemn event as vividly as we can. Remember that it was near Shechem that Abram first camped on coming into the land and Jacob also when he came back from Haran. These earlier incidents, as well as our present story, associate Shechem with early instruction in the truths of heaven. Here also the Lord taught the Samaritans at Jacob's well. Every visitor to Shechem notices two amphitheaters, one on each side of the narrow valley in which Shechem lies; one in the side of Mount Ebal on the north side of the valley, and one directly opposite in the side of Mount Gerizim on the south side of the valley. It was a perfect place for the tribes to gather, half on one side and half on the other. And every traveler notices with what wonderful plainness sounds from the valley below are heard on the mountain sides above. Now to our story, getting particulars from Joshua 8:30-35 and from Deut. 27. See also Deut. 11:26-32.
As soon as he could, Joshua brought the people of Israel to this place between the mountains, half of them standing on the side of Mount Ebal and half on the side of Mount Gerizim. Moses had told Joshua and the people to come to this place, to build here an altar; also to set up great stones and plaster them with plaster, and on the plastered stones to write words of the law.
Now something very interesting: standing by the altar, Joshua or the Levites read the law with a loud voice, and the people answered from the mountain sides. "Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of his way," and from the people on Mount Ebal came, "Amen." And so with other curses. And after each blessing, came "Amen" from the people on Mount Gerizim. It was very solemn and sacred, for the people were promising the Lord that they would keep His laws in the land that He was giving them.
While Moses was still with the people, before they crossed the Jordan, it had been commanded that they should meet at Ebal and Gerizim when they came into the land. (Deut. 11:29-32) It had also been commanded by Moses (Deut. 27) how great stones should be set up in Mount Ebal and plastered with plaster and on them should be written all the words of the law - the Ten Commandments (R. 662) -very plainly. These very stones or others set up near by should form an altar on which sacrifices should be offered. Six tribes had been named which should stand on either mountain, and curses had been given which the Levites should recite to the people with a loud voice. To each curse the tribes on Mount Ebal should answer, Amen; and as blessings were recited, the tribes on Mount Gerizim should say, Amen.
The place appointed for this meeting is most remarkable. Ebal on the north and Gerizim on the south stand facing each other. Shechem lies in the valley between as it slopes westward. At the highest point in the pass, east of Shechem, there is a hollow like an amphitheater in the face of each mountain. They seem made by nature for the tribes, six on either side. Joshua, with the elders, officers, and judges, stood by the ark, probably in the valley between. There he read the law, and the tribes from one side of the valley and the other responded to the blessings and the curses.
You may wonder that the thousands of people could hear Joshua as he read and the Levites as they recited the blessings and the curses. But when you go to the place you find that it is indeed so. The shape of the hills is such that little sounds from the valley are carried up in a wonderful way, and voices are distinctly heard. Compare Judges 9:7. Read the story.
1. Where did the people gather to hear the law?
2. When the Levites recited the curses which should come upon wrong doers, who answered, Amen?
3. When they recited the blessings of the obedient, who answered?
In connection with this gathering of the tribes at Shechem to pledge themselves to the Lord's laws, remember that Abram's first camp was near Shechem when he came into the land and Jacob's when he came back from Haran. "And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the oak of Moreh." (Gen. 12:6, Revised Version) This suggests that Shechem stands spiritually for an introductory state of heavenly life; and our present story suggests that it has to do with first instruction in the laws of heaven and a definite acceptance of those laws. The Arcana explaining Abram's sojourn at Shechem says that "by Shechem is signified the first appearing of celestial things," and that the oak or oak grove of Moreh represents first perceptions of a simple childlike kind. (A. 1439-1443) Note in the charge in Deut. 11:30 the mention of the oaks of Moreh with Shechem. It brings still closer the spiritual meaning of Abram's sojourn and this gathering of the tribes. It is beautiful also to remember in connection with Shechem our Lord's teaching at Jacob's well, and the ready acceptance of His teaching by the simple-hearted people.
The building of an altar represents a state of conjunction with the Lord, both in love and service of the Lord (burnt offerings), and in love and service of one another (peace offerings). (A. 8680) Altars might be built either of earth or of stone, picturing approach to the Lord in a more tender celestial way, or in a more intellectual spiritual way. Either was acceptable; but if built of stones the altar must be of whole stones, not cut by any tool of iron. (Exod. 20:25) The truths by which we may approach the Lord must be genuine truths as the Lord gives them to us, and not fashioned to suit ourselves. You will see a similar lesson in the building of the temple "of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building." (1 Kings 6:7; R. 457; A. 10406)
The dividing of the tribes upon the two mountains to answer to the blessings and the curses has the same reason as the recital of blessings and curses in Deut. 27 and 28. We need the commandments in their negative form forbidding evil, as well as in the positive form of blessings. The response to the curses was from the northern mountain, and the north is associated with obscure perception, and the response to the blessings was from the southern mountain, the quarter associated with interior perception. (H. 148-150; A. 1458)
It would be interesting to make some study of the spiritual meaning of the tribes which stood on the mountains north and south, and answered "Amen" to the curses and the blessings. A careful reading of the names as given in Deut. 27:12, 13, is enough to show in general that the tribes of more external meaning stood on Mount Ebal, responding to the curses, and that the tribes of more internal and heavenly meaning stood on Mount Gerizim, responding to the blessings. On which side do you find the tribes descended from Joseph and Benjamin? We shall make further study of the tribes when we learn of the dividing of the land among them. Again remembering the Lord at Jacob's well, it is interesting to note that Gerizim became and still is the sacred mountain of the Samaritans. Looking up to Gerizim just above them the woman said, "Our fathers worshiped in this mountain." Tradition surrounded Gerizim with greater sacredness than Ebal.