Covenant History blessed in God’s presence, cursed by exile from it
To understand the Covenant ceremony, we need to go back to Genesis 1-3. God creates a good world and also plants a beautiful and secure garden for the first humans, Adam and Eve, to live in. Adam is commissioned to tend to the garden and guard or protect it. He is given a choice between death and life, between blessing and curse represented by two trees at the centre of the garden. Sadly, Adam and Even chose death and the curse. The curse was seen in the pain, suffering and toil that came upon childbirth and farming. Our responsibility for filling and subduing the earth was now subject to frustration. Curse and death was also seen in exile as Adam and eve are driven out of Eden.
Hold onto those points. We are made to fill and subdue the earth. However death and curse mean that our ability to do this is restricted and that we experience exile from the place where we are meant to live in God’s presence.
In Genesis 6-9 curse and death in response to sin reaches a high (or perhaps low) point as evil fills the whole earth. God sends a flood so that the work of ordering and subduing the earth is undone, the planet is depopulated reversing the work of filling it and Noah and his family are saved but only through exile in a boat away from the land.
Then we come to Genesis 12 and God speaks to a man called Abram, he promises him a land where he will be blessed and be a blessing to others. However those who sought to curse Abram would be cursed.
Here in Deuteronomy, God gives a new covenant to his people. Once again, he shows them a land and promises blessing in it. However covenant breaking will bring curse.
Breaking the Law will bring curse
In Deuteronomy 27:15-26 we then have the detailed instructions for the Covenant Ceremony. It is in fact the Levites who speak the curses and the people then respond with a loud “Amen” to demonstrate their agreement with it. What follows are are series of declarations reiterating the laws we have seen already in Deuteronomy. Disobedience against the law will lead to the curse of exile and death.
Idols and Dishonour v 15-16
To start with, we are taking to the first part of the Ten Commandments. God’s people were called to love him whole heartedly. This meant that they were to follow him faithfully and turn from false gods. It meant that in order to know God and his ways that parents and grandparents had to pass God’s Word on and the next generation had to pay heed and remember. Therefore, worship false gods or dishonouring your parents so that you neglect to hear God’s Word from them will lead to curse.
Notice two things about idolatry here. First of all, there is secrecy. Covert behaviour, the fear of detection, the lies and misdirections are usually a good sign that all is not well. Over the years, I’ve been particularly concerned when people have reluctantly and quite late in the day shared what objectively should have been good news. Why was there any need for secrecy? Secondly, notice the use of the word abomination. That’s the point about idolatry, it is the rejection and attempted murder of God, it is the honour of something created in the place of the one who created it. We should be horrified by this and have a zero tolerance policy towards idolatry. It is therefore helpful to remember, whenever you see something described as an “abomination” in the Torah that this is shorthand for idolatry. Why are certain sexual acts an abomination for example? The answer is not because they are icky so much as that they demonstrate a rejection of God and turning away from his ways.
Loving your neighbour v17-19
We are to love God with all that we are and our neighbours as ourselves. These are regarded as the greatest 2 commandments and as offering a summary of the Law. So after curses for failing to love God, the ceremony moves on to failure to love your neighbour. This includes the moving of boundary markers, misleading a blind person of the path and perverting the course of justice.
Notice first of all that the concern here is for the vulnerable reminding us that Jesus came with good news, healing and release for the same people and in the Beatitudes promised blessing to the same. Moving the boundary is an act of theft rooted in covertness as is perverting justice for gain. At the same time this aggression and/or neglect of others seen also in leading the blind astray can be seen as arising from murderous intent. We will also be alert here to Jesus’ condemnation of blind leaders who lead blind followers astray.
Sexual impurity and unfaithfulness v20-24
The ten commandments forbid sexual immorality through adultery but the detailed law shows that this represents all forms of sexual unfaithfulness and impurity. Here some of those other examples are reprised including incest and bestiality. The Biblical concept of incest goes wider that immediate physical relationships to those within the household so that adultery with your mother in law or your father’s second wife is included in this abomination.
It is such a case that causes Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 to insist on discipline and expulsion for a church member. Far from this behaviour being a sign of freedom and grace in the church, it is something so shameful that even pagans would recoil from it. It is an act which “uncovers his Father’s nakedness” in other words it exposes, shames and leaves him vulnerable.
These laws matter not just because of the potential for conflict within families and not only because the coveting and taking of another’s wife reflects an idolatrous lack of trust in God to provide but also because it presents a distorted, idolatrous view of how God relates to us. Remember that the Bible uses the image of husband and wife to point to God’s relationship to his people.
In Genesis 6, the marker to the coming flood was the crossing of boundaries leading to unnatural relationships between Sons of God and Daughters of Man. In Romans 1:18ff, it is the crossing of boundaries in terms of sexual relations which is tied explicitly to God’s wrath and judgement.
Violence v 25-26
The last section takes us to the command “You must not murder.” Unlawful violence against others whether to settle scores or for gain through payment, whether in public or in secret will lead to the curse coming upon the guilty party. People are made in God’s image and so we are not to take life lightly.
The Whole Law (v27)
The people of Israel are bound by all of the law. They cannot pick and choose the commandments that they would like to keep. To break one of the commandments was to break all of them and thus to bring the curse down on them. Now, if individual Israelites sinned, then they were to face judgement and that might be death or exile individually. However, if sin was tolerated and became acceptable as characteristic of all the people, then the curses had been accepted together and so the judgement of exile would come to all and the nation would experience a form of death.
Through New Testament Eyes
I want to highlight three places to turn to if you want to see the Covenant ceremony through New Testament eyes and apply it through Christ. First of all, in Paul’s letters, we saw in the last session that Christ is the one who became a curse for us. In Galatians he writes:
10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”d 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirite through faith.
Jesus was the one who had not sinned, who had kept the law. He deserved life, he deserved blessing and yet the curse of the law was proclaimed over him so that “in my place condemned he stood.” This is what the doctrine of Penal Substitution is all about. Jesus takes your place and mine and bears the penalty, the curse we deserve.
Secondly, I want to take you to the Sermon on the Mount. At the start, we hear about blessings for those who are poor, weak, vulnerable. This counters the curses for those who attack the poor, weak and vulnerable in Deuteronomy. However, Jesus also expressed “woes” for those who refused to follow God’s ways and we find them in Matthew 23.
Finally, I’ve already alluded to 1 Corinthians 5. There we find a New Testament example of someone disregarding the incest laws. Note, that Paul’s concern is that this infectious spiritual disease will infect the whole church. So, the man is isolated and excluded. He is exiled from the community of God’s people to teach him repentance. Sin is dangerous. It brings curse.
So, what does it mean to be under curse today? I want to suggest that it means that you are no longer regarded as in Christ, that you are not within the Father’s care. Now, the Gospel means that we should be in that place through Christ’s atonement meaning that believers are safe and under God’s blessing.
However, the evidence of this should be in our day to day lives. So, as per 1 Corinthians 5, evidence that we are in Christ is seen in our faithfulness, our love for God and our love for neighbour. This shows why discipline is so important. It highlights that all the appearances suggest one is outside of Christ. Therefore symbolically, physically, in terms of outward appearances, discipline is used to show where someone stands in relation to Christ. This is for the purpose of uniting them back to Christ and his body.
Are you in Christ and free from the curse? What is the evidence?
 Galatians 3:10-14
 Matthew 5:2-12.