The Altar Stones
The eighth speech of Moses is more than a speech. It was also confirmed by the elders of Israel in some manner, as we see in Deut. 27:1,
1 Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying…
Fenton tells us that this introduction is a rare editorial note by Eliezar, the high priest who by this time had succeeded his father Aaron as the high priest. He had been the scribe of Moses compiling these speeches into the single book that we know as Deuteronomy.
We are not told the format of this speech, whether the elders stood on the platform with Moses as he spoke, or if they each issued a personal statement. Nonetheless, this was a show of unity to emphasize a joint message that ratified the blessings of obedience and the curses for disobedience as Israel entered the Promised Land.
1 … “Keep all the commandments which I command you today.”
It is obvious that God was giving them the land of Canaan on the condition that Israel would follow the laws of God. Apart from their agreement, God would not have allowed Israel to enter the Promised Land in the first place.
The same requirement is true today as we prepare for the great antitype of history. Even as Israel crushed the Canaanite kings, so also the “Stone” will crush the image of Babylon on its feet (Dan. 2:34). Even as Israel gradually conquered and populated the whole land of Canaan, so also the Stone Kingdom will grow until it fills the whole earth (Dan. 2:35).
The main difference is that our conquest will be accomplished by the Sword of the Spirit that will bring the knowledge of Christ to the rest of the world. The kingdoms of this world, prophesied in Daniel 2 and 7, were called temporarily and given divine authority on account of the lawlessness of Israel and Judah during their sojourn in Canaan. But these “beast” nations have all run their course today, and it is again time for a new beginning with the rise of the Stone Kingdom.
Those who wish to be part of that Stone Kingdom must know why Israel and Judah failed in biblical times and why God cast them out of the land. The single reason was their violation of the law, thinking that God did not have the right to dictate the terms by which He would establish the Kingdom in their midst.
The Stone Witnesses
God told the Israelites to do something on the day that they crossed the Jordan—an act of participation which would make it clear to everyone the nature of God’s requirement. Moses speaks of this in Deut. 27:2 and 3,
2 So it shall be on the day when you shall 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 3 and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, in order 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.
To write something on stone was to signify a permanent witness. Of course, under the New Covenant, the stones have been changed from rocks to the hearts of men. We are now the “living stones” of the heavenly Temple, and the law is being written on our hearts. Even Moses’ witness upon the physical stones turned out to be inadequate, but when the law is written upon our hearts, it is truly permanent, for by this our nature is changed.
4 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.
This command was fulfilled in Joshua 8:30-35 after Israel had defeated Jericho and Ai. After these battles, the people then went to Mount Ebal to fulfill Moses’ command.
In addition to Moses’ command to build an altar on Mount Ebal, Joshua built two altars on the day Israel crossed the Jordan River. At the time of their Jordan crossing, they took twelve stones from the dry river bed and had used them to build an altar, not at Mount Ebal and Gerazim, but in Gilgal (Joshua 4:20). At the same time, they took twelve stones from Canaan and built an altar in the midst of the Jordan River at the place where they had crossed on dry ground (Joshua 4:9).
This seems to have been Joshua’s revelation, for it was additional to Moses’ command in Deuteronomy 27. Likewise, this act was for a different reason, which is given in Joshua 4:21 and 22, saying,
21 And he said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ 22 then you shall inform your children, saying, “Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground’.”
In other words, it was to bear witness to the miraculous act of God in drying up the river to allow the Israelites to enter the Promised Land with no hindrance.
This was an important statement bearing witness to the fact that an act of God brought them into the promised inheritance of the Kingdom. But this was not prophesied by Moses in Deuteronomy 27, for he spoke of the altar between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim. This altar was concerned with Israel’s acceptance and conformity to the laws and ways of God.
The Law of Building Altars
Speaking of the altars that Israel was to build on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim, Moses continues in Deut. 27:5-7,
5 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. 6 You shall build an altar of uncut stones; and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God; 7 and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.
The law of altars is the first law given to Moses after the Ten Commandments. Recall from Exodus 20:2-17 that God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel, which was the summary of the entire law. But when God prepared to give them the rest of the law, the people refused to draw near, for they were already thoroughly frightened by the voice of God which had revealed the Ten Commandments.
Their fear caused the people to send Moses up the Mount to receive the rest of the law, while the people remained at the base to hear what Moses said later. Israel set the precedent for generations to come, for even in the Pentecostal Age, many have been able to hear the Ten Commandments, but their ears have been closed to the rest of the law.
When Moses went up the Mount to receive the rest of the law, God began to speak to him, as it says in Exodus 20:22-25,
22 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. 23 You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves. 24 You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. 25 And if you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it’.”
God began by repeating the First and Second Commandments about having no other gods or graven images. But the first new law was about building altars. Since this law was the first after the Ten Commandment summary, it is obviously a very important law. We may also view it as an extension and explanation of the first two commandments. In other words, this is a requirement necessary to fulfill the first two commandments.
Of course, under the Old Covenant, they were concerned mainly with the way to construct altars made of earth or stone. Under the New Covenant, our hearts are the true altars of God. Hence, although the law speaks in physical terms, it is really a parable revealing the principle by which our hearts may be acceptable altars to God.
Shaping the Heart-Altar
In this divine parable we see that the stones of an altar were to be uncut and unshaped by human hands. Human tools “profane” the stones. Why? What does this tell us? First, it tells us that we cannot change the condition of our hearts by our own efforts or by our own good works. Man’s efforts are “tools” by which we attempt to become good in the eyes of men. We alter our behavior and our habits and thereby think that this makes us acceptable before God.
But the law tells us that the stones must be shaped naturally—that is, by the hand of God alone—in order to be an acceptable altar to Him. To put it in Paul’s terms, it is not by works but by grace through faith, which is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8, 9). The stones that the Israelites found were slowly shaped by the hand of God alone, and He gave them to the Israelites as a gift.
So also is it with our own hearts. While it is not wrong to change bad behavior, we must recognize that such alterations can do nothing to change the shape of the heart. Our discipline can only restrict human nature and prevent the flesh from carrying out its tendencies toward evil or selfish deeds. If we use such disciplinary “tools” upon our flesh and then claim that our hearts have been changed by those tools, we “profane” our altar, and disqualify it for sacrifice and worship.
The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to lead us through various circumstances in life that reveal truth, convict us of sin, and cause us to repent (change). The Spirit’s work within us will shape our hearts by the hand of God alone, often imperceptibly, so that we may recognize in the end that our hearts were not cut by human hands nor shaped by our own fleshly tools and self-help books.
Writing the Law Distinctly on the Heart
The altar that Moses said to build upon Mount Ebal was built in conformity to the law in Exodus 20:25. It was also engraved with the Ten Commandments, for we read in Deut. 27:8,
8 And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very distinctly.
Moses could not have prophesied of the New Covenant more clearly, for the New Covenant says, “I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). The altar represents the hearts of men, and the stones of this altar were to receive the law written upon them.
More than that, the law was to be written “very distinctly.” In other words, when the law is truly written upon our hearts, it is distinct, or clear. It is understood. It is not merely a command that is imposed upon a slave, for a slave needs no understanding. A slave is called to be obedient. A son is one who needs to understand, so that he may be in agreement with the command and function with the authority of the Father. A slave obeys. A son wants to obey, because he is in agreement. A slave must be told continually what to do, and he must do it even when his flesh prefers not to do so. A son has learned why and knows the heart of the Father and agrees that it is good.
The Hebrew word translated “distinctly” is ba’ar. It is used only three times in the Old Testament, and it is translated “plain, plainly, declare.” According to Gesenius Lexicon, the word means literally “to dig, especially a well or a pit.” It also means to engrave letters on a stone, since an engraving is the result of digging into the stone. Hence, it also means “to explain, to declare, to dig out the sense, and to set it forth when dug out.”
So when Moses said that the law on the stones should be written “very distinctly,” it means the law was to be engraved on the stones, rather than just painted on them. The writing was also to be clear, so that it could be easily read without misunderstanding.
In addition, I find it interesting that the numeric value of the word ba’ar (???) is 203. The beth (?) is the Hebrew number 2. The alef (?) is the Hebrew number 1. The resh (?) is the Hebrew number 200. It totals 203. This is the number of stone layers on the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt, which is the “altar to the Lord” prophesied in Isaiah 19:19, 20. In fact, the numeric value of these two verses is 5449; the height of the structure is 5449 Pyramid Inches (its internal unit of measure).
The 204th layer would have been the capstone, except that the builders rejected it (Psalm 118:22). So the main body of the Pyramid (203 layers) represents the Body of Christ, while the capstone (204) represents Christ, the Head of the Body.
The Pyramid is built upon 203 layers of stone, and the Hebrew word ba’ar, which has to do with engraving the law of God on stones, has a numeric value of 203. In other words, the body of Christ is to receive the law written on their hearts. This is represented by Moses’ command for Israel to engrave the law on the stones of the altar at Mount Ebal.
When the “living stones” are shaped by the hand of God and then receive the law of God, then they are an acceptable altar to the Lord for praise and worship. Collectively, when attached to Christ the Head, they are the stone cut out of the mountain without hands, which is destined to grow until it fills the whole earth.