When you enter in
“Blessing and Curse Declarations”
by Mark Huey
As the annual reading of the Torah begins to wind down this week, and with the month of Elul waning as personal introspection increases in anticipation of the first of Tishri and the Ten Days of Awe which culminate with Yom Kippur—the text continues to emphasize the Almighty’s desire for intimate relationship with the children of Israel. In order to instill a semblance of communion, the instructions found in our parashah range from tithing the first fruits of the Promised Land to constant reminders about not only what the Holy One has done for Israel, but that they are to listen intently to His voice in order to seek and maintain dependence on Him for all things:
“Then it shall be, when you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, and you possess it and live in it, that you shall take some of the first of all the produce of the ground which you bring in from your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God chooses to establish His name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare this day to the LORD my God that I have entered the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. You shall answer and say before the LORD your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey’” (Deuteronomy 26:1-9).
In order to become that treasured possession among the nations of the world, promised to the Patriarchs with all of the attendant blessings—the Holy One reminded Israel of the imperative to follow His commands without reservation:
“You shall say before the LORD your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments. I have not eaten of it while mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor offered any of it to the dead. I have listened to the voice of the LORD my God; I have done according to all that You have commanded me. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.’ This day the LORD your God commands you to do these statutes and ordinances. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have today declared the LORD to be your God, and that you would walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and listen to His voice. The LORD has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the LORD your God, as He has spoken’” (Deuteronomy 26:13-19).
However, because there is a wide gulf between just thinking about and talking about keeping God’s commandments, versus actually doing them—the Lord commanded some physical actions upon entering the Promised Land, which would allow the people of Israel to intently contemplate the vast differences between choosing to be blessed or falling into situations that will warrant curses and penalties. So, upon entering into the Land, Joshua would be instructed to march the people up to the area around Shechem where Mount Ebal is located across the valley from Mount Gerizim, and actually set up large lime-coated stones with the words of the Law inscribed upon them. Then, on an altar constructed of uncut stones, the Ancient Israelites were to sacrifice peace offerings and listen to the reading of the Torah:
“Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying, ‘Keep all the commandments which I command you today. So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you. So it shall be when you cross the Jordan, you shall set up on Mount Ebal, these stones, as I am commanding you today, and you shall coat them with lime. Moreover, you shall build there an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones; you shall not wield an iron tool on them. You shall build the altar of the LORD your God of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God. You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very distinctly.’ Then Moses and the Levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying, ‘Be silent and listen, O Israel! This day you have become a people for the LORD your God. You shall therefore obey the LORD your God, and do His commandments and His statutes which I command you today’” (Deuteronomy 27:1-10).
Then, in a demonstration of what could be termed the first “Amen chorus,” the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into two six-tribe groups, with six standing on Mount Gerizim (mount of blessing) to the south, and six standing on Mount Ebal (mount of cursing). Once in place, the Levites shouted out a series of twelve curses that mirror many of the already-noted commands of the Lord, eliciting a resounding “Amen” from the people of Israel divided according to inconclusive groups of tribes. While theories abound about the different groupings, suffice it to say that the more important aspect is the universal affirmation from all of the Israelites with a collective “Amen” of agreement:
“Moses also charged the people on that day, saying, ‘When you cross the Jordan, these shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. For the curse, these shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. The Levites shall then answer and say to all the men of Israel with a loud voice, “Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.” And all the people shall answer and say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who dishonors his father or mother.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who misleads a blind person on the road.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who lies with any animal.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who lies with his sister, the daughter of his father or of his mother.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who strikes his neighbor in secret.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who accepts a bribe to strike down an innocent person.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.” “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” And all the people shall say, “Amen”’” (Deuteronomy 27:11-26).
By the end of this ceremony, the children of Israel would have not only physically participated in what must have been an incredible display of interaction in the natural amphitheater that the two mountains create overlooking Shechem—but the fact that they were in one accord with their unanimous “Amens,” essentially locked them into a verbal vow and oath regarding what was being declared. Of course, it is understood from the previous instructions given in last week’s parashah, that the God of Israel is absolutely concerned about what is uttered from the lips of His followers:
“When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised” (Deuteronomy 23:21-23).
Therefore, by declaring “Amen” after each of these curses are declared, the Ancient Israelites would be now responsible to avoid performing any of the transgressions that would usher in curses, penalties, and an exaction of punishments.
To counterbalance the listing and affirmations of the curses due to deviant behavior, the message immediately turns to describing the blessings of obedience to the Word of the Lord, which will ultimately place Israel high above the nations of the Earth. In reading the following passage, it is notable that the hand of the Almighty was intimately involved in making sure that Israel received His blessings—not only because of obedience to His commands—but also because of the promises extended to the Patriarchs years before the anticipated crossing of the Jordan into the Land of Promise:
“Now it shall be, if you diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the LORD your God: Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The LORD shall cause your enemies who rise up against you to be defeated before you; they will come out against you one way and will flee before you seven ways. The LORD will command the blessing upon you in your barns and in all that you put your hand to, and He will bless you in the land which the LORD your God gives you. The LORD will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in His ways. ‘So all the peoples of the earth will see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they will be afraid of you. The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the offspring of your body and in the offspring of your beast and in the produce of your ground, in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. The LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I charge you today, to observe them carefully, and do not turn aside from any of the words which I command you today, to the right or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them” (Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
Absolute obedience to the commands of the Holy One was required, especially when it came to the temptations of turning to the other gods that were present in and among the Cannanites who were to be displaced. Lamentably, the listing of blessing now returns to the consequences of disobedience, because despite all of the verbal declarations and actions taken to try and insure compliance with the Word of God, there continues to be the human propensity to wander away from His ways.
Readers see an additional, lengthy listing of curses, which further articulates the extent of curses relative to rebellious disobedience. Since the graphic details of these curses should be known and understood by all who read and study the Torah, the entire list is as follows:
“But it shall come about, if you do not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me. The LORD will make the pestilence cling to you until He has consumed you from the land where you are entering to possess it. The LORD will smite you with consumption and with fever and with inflammation and with fiery heat and with the sword and with blight and with mildew, and they will pursue you until you perish. The heaven which is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth which is under you, iron. The LORD will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed. The LORD shall cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth. Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. The LORD will smite you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors and with the scab and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed. The LORD will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart; and you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you. You shall betroth a wife, but another man will violate her; you shall build a house, but you will not live in it; you shall plant a vineyard, but you will not use its fruit. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will not eat of it; your donkey shall be torn away from you, and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you will have none to save you. Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and yearn for them continually; but there will be nothing you can do. A people whom you do not know shall eat up the produce of your ground and all your labors, and you will never be anything but oppressed and crushed continually. You shall be driven mad by the sight of what you see. The LORD will strike you on the knees and legs with sore boils, from which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. The LORD will bring you and your king, whom you set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a taunt among all the people where the LORD drives you. You shall bring out much seed to the field but you will gather in little, for the locust will consume it. You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them. You shall have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives will drop off. You shall have sons and daughters but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. The cricket shall possess all your trees and the produce of your ground. The alien who is among you shall rise above you higher and higher, but you will go down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, but you will not lend to him; he shall be the head, and you will be the tail. So all these curses shall come on you and pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the LORD your God by keeping His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. They shall become a sign and a wonder on you and your descendants forever. Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in the lack of all things; and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you. The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, a nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young. Moreover, it shall eat the offspring of your herd and the produce of your ground until you are destroyed, who also leaves you no grain, new wine, or oil, nor the increase of your herd or the young of your flock until they have caused you to perish. It shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land, and it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout your land which the LORD your God has given you. Then you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters whom the LORD your God has given you, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you. The man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward his brother and toward the wife he cherishes and toward the rest of his children who remain, so that he will not give even one of them any of the flesh of his children which he will eat, since he has nothing else left, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you in all your towns. The refined and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and refinement, shall be hostile toward the husband she cherishes and toward her son and daughter, and toward her afterbirth which issues from between her legs and toward her children whom she bears; for she will eat them secretly for lack of anything else, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you in your towns. If you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book, to fear this honored and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring extraordinary plagues on you and your descendants, even severe and lasting plagues, and miserable and chronic sicknesses. He will bring back on you all the diseases of Egypt of which you were afraid, and they will cling to you. Also every sickness and every plague which, not written in the book of this law, the LORD will bring on you until you are destroyed. Then you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as numerous as the stars of heaven, because you did not obey the LORD your God. It shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you will be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you will see. The LORD will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
It is difficult to read these curses with all of the explicit details, especially with the knowledge of the history of Israel—and not be overwhelmed with the fact that the Holy One allowed every curse to have its way throughout the years since these words were uttered. There is no need to go into the minutiae of what each of these curses entail. Simply reading about them and noting that they have each had an impact on Israel down through the ages—and that final resolution to the corporate disobedience will not come until the Second Coming of Yeshua—should be absolutely sobering to all who read them today. The simple fact that the judgments of God are just and sure, with not only the veracity of the exile of Israel into the nations as punishment for disobedience—but the gruesome reality that at some point in time, many had to literally eat their offspring—is almost beyond comprehension. And yet, the annals of Israel’s history record that these punishments did occur. Should we as modern-day followers of the Messiah of Israel be reminded of how God’s character is the same today, as He was yesterday, and that He will remain consistent to His Word? How much more should we humble ourselves and learn from these words the preference of receiving His blessings, and avoid the curses that are so gut-wrenching to even contemplate?
Our Torah portion closes with a simple summation of what has transpired. Once again, the repetition of what has taken place and the mercy extended to Israel, despite the disobedience, should remind all who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that His mercies are new every morning. No one should take anything for granted, given the challenge that all continue to look through a “mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) when it comes to understanding all of the ways of the Eternal One:
“These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb. And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandal has not worn out on your foot. You have not eaten bread, nor have you drunk wine or strong drink, in order that you might know that I am the LORD your God. When you reached this place, Sihon the king of Heshbon and Og the king of Bashan came out to meet us for battle, but we defeated them; and we took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of the Manassites’” (Deuteronomy 29:1-8).
May we each, therefore, cling to Him who is life eternal. May we be about constantly confessing our sins, turning away from them with reckless abandon, as we receive His longsuffering mercy and grace!
To Him be all glory, honor, and power, as we seek His face in this season of personal reflection and meditation about our own obedient walk with Him, while attempting to advance His Kingdom, until the restoration of all things…