The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham
The roots of the events in Joshua 8 go right back to the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy 27. Moses commanded the people to stand on the two mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, to build an altar on Ebal, the mountain of curses, and to declare all those things that would bring the curses down on them.
Deuteronomy 27:12-15, 19, and all the way down to verse 26.
When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. 13 And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice:
“Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol — a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands — and sets it up in secret.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [onto verse 19]
“Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [then right down to verse 26]
“Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
This is exactly what happened in Joshua 8. The entire ancient church, made up of natural Jewish people as well as those who had joined the church from the surrounding nations, all gathered at the chosen mountains.
Joshua 8:30-33 – “Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses — an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the LORD burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. 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.”
Notice first that the altar was built on the mountain of curses, Mount Ebal.
Breaking the covenant of the LORD God brings a curse. If we do not love our Glorious LORD with all we have and love everyone else as we should then we show that we have rejected His life and love. When Adam and Eve originally refused to obey God's voice there were deep consequences. A curse fell upon them – cursing the land, their relationships, their bodies and their destiny. There is no life or health, no love or joy if we do not trust Jesus. Rejected by the earth and rejected by heaven, the cursed sinner hangs in the air with nowhere to go but the corruption of death.
The altar was built on Mount Ebal because this holistic curse can only be broken through the blood and fire of atoning sacrifice. Under the curse the only hope is the sacrificial altar, the blood poured out for atonement. No other remedy had any place on Mount Ebal.
Notice second that the altar had to be built with “uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used.” Iron tools are all about human ability and human arrogance. The Philistines were the masters of iron tools [1 Samuel 13] and it was symbolic of human power. This altar could not be built with human power or pride. It needed to be as free of human input as possible, because there is nothing that any of us can do to remove the curse against our sin. Yes, an altar is needed, but this has nothing to do with human religion or human offerings. We can do nothing to escape the curse of death and emptiness that lies upon us.
We need an altar, but we need a sacrifice that we cannot provide.
Now, all this is set alight by the events in the first part of Joshua chapter 8. The city of Ai was under the curse of the Living God. Their constant and worsening rejection of His ways had grown worse every generation until the time for judgement had arrived. Under the curse they faced the fiery day of judgement under Joshua.
Joshua 8:28-29 – “Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”
That curse to be proclaimed on Mount Ebal was first vividly and frighteningly displayed in the judgement on Ai. Deuteronomy 21:22 declared, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”. The crucified man is rejected by the earth and rejected by the heavens, the curse of sin obviously displayed in his dead body. So, Joshua crucified the king of Ai and then rolled the stones over his body outside the city gates, and there was no rolling away of the stones on the third day. Those stones remain there to this day.
The curse of sin has a terrible power and once it has dragged us into death, there is no escape. The God-forsaken death is death at full strength. There were no second chances for the king of Ai. His cursed death represented the death of everyone in the city of Ai: cursed, rejected and condemned.
If the altar on Mount Ebal, made without human tools, shows the way that even such a terrible curse can be broken, then it is preaching to us of the cursed and crucified Man, the Divine Messiah, who took the full force of that curse in His own God-forsaken death and then having exhausted its full measure rolled away the stones over His crucified body and walk out to a curse-free resurrection life of righteousness and joy.