The command in Deu 27:1 to keep the whole law (שָׁמֹר, inf. abs. for the imperative, as in Exo 13:3, etc.), with which the instructions that follow are introduced, indicates at the very outset the purpose for which the law written upon stones was to be set up in Canaan, namely, as a public testimony that the Israelites who were entering into Canaan possessed in the law their rule and source of life. The command itself is given by Moses, together with the elders, because the latter had to see to the execution of it after Moses' death; on the other hand, the priests are mentioned along with Moses in Deu 27:9, because it was their special duty to superintend the fulfilment of the commands of God.
Deu 27:2 and Deu 27:3 contain the general instructions; Deu 27:4-8, more minute details. In the appointment of the time, “on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan into the land,” etc., the word “day” must not be pressed, but is to be understood in a broader sense, as signifying the time when Israel should have entered the land and taken possession of it. The stones to be set up were to be covered with lime, or gypsum (whether sid signifies lime or gypsum cannot be determined), and all the words of the law were to be written upon them. The writing, therefore, was not to be cut into the stones and then covered with lime (as J. D. Mich., Ros.), but to be inscribed upon the plaistered stones, as was the custom in Egypt, where the walls of buildings, and even monumental stones, which they were about to paint with figures and hieroglyphics, were first of all covered with a coating of lime or gypsum, and then the figures painted upon this (see the testimonies of Minutoli, Heeren, Prokesch in Hengstenberg's Dissertations, i. 433, and Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 90). The object of this writing was not to hand down the law in this manner to posterity without alteration, but, as has already been stated, simply to set forth a public acknowledgement of the law on the part of the people, first of all for the sake of the generation which took possession of the land, and for posterity, only so far as this act was recorded in the book of Joshua and thus transmitted to future generations.
Upon the stones there were to be written “all the words of this law:” obviously, therefore, not only the blessings and curses in Deu 27:15-26 (as Josephus, Ant. iv. 8, 44, Masius, Clericus, and others maintain), nor only Deuteronomy (J. Gerhard, A. Osiander, Vater, etc.), since this contained no independent “second law,” but the whole of the Mosaic law; not, indeed, the entire Pentateuch, with its historical narratives, its geographical, ethnographical, and other notices, but simply the legal part of it - the commandments, statutes, and rights of the Thorah. But whether all the 613 commandments contained in the Pentateuch, according to the Jewish reckoning (vid., Bertheau, die 7 Gruppen Mos. Ges. p. 12), or only the quintessence of them, with the omission of the numerous repetitions of different commands, cannot be decided, and is of no importance to the matter in hand. The object aimed at would be attained by writing the essential kernel of the whole law; though the possibility of all the commandments being written, of course without the reasons and exhortations connected with them, cannot be denied, since it is not stated how many stones were set up, but simply that large stones were to be taken, which would therefore contain a great deal. In the clause, “that thou mayest come into the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee,” etc., the coming involves the permanent possession of the land. Not only the treading or conquest of Canaan, but the maintenance of the conquered land as a permanent hereditary possession, was promised to Israel; but it would only permanently rejoice in the fulfilment of this promise, if it set up the law of its God in the land, and observed it.
In the further expansion of this command, Moses first of all fixes the place where the stones were to be set up, namely, upon Mount Ebal (see at Deu 11:29), - not upon Gerizim, according to the reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch; for since the discussion of the question by Verschuir (dissertt. phil. exeg. diss. 3) and Gesenius (de Pent. Samar. p. 61), it may be regarded as an established fact, that this reading is an arbitrary alteration. The following clause, “thou shalt plaister,” etc., is a repetition in the earliest form of historical writing among the Hebrews. To this there are appended in Deu 27:5-7 the new and further instructions, that an altar was to be built upon Ebal, and burnt-offerings and slain-offerings to be sacrificed upon it. The notion that this altar was to be built of the stones with the law written upon them, or even with a portion of them, needs no refutation, as it has not the slightest support in the words of the text. For according to these the altar was to be built of unhewn stones (therefore not of the stones covered with cement), in obedience to the law in Exo 20:22 (see the exposition of this passage, where the reason for this is discussed). The spot selected for the setting up of the stones with the law written upon it, as well as for the altar and the offering of sacrifice, was Ebal, the mountain upon which the curses were to be proclaimed; not Gerizim, which was appointed for the publication of the blessings, for the very same reason for which only the curses to be proclaimed are given in Deu 27:14. and not the blessings, - not, as Schultz supposes, because the law in connection with the curse speaks more forcibly to sinful man than in connection with the blessing, or because the curse, which manifests itself on every hand in human life, sounds more credible than the promise; but, as the Berleburger Bible expresses it, “to show how the law and economy of the Old Testament would denounce the curse which rests upon the whole human race because of sin, to awaken a desire for the Messiah, who was to take away the curse and bring the true blessing instead.” For however remote the allusion to the Messiah may be here, the truth is unquestionably pointed out in these instructions, that the law primarily and chiefly brings a curse upon man because of the sinfulness of his nature, as Moses himself announces to the people in Deu 31:16-17. And for this very reason the book of the law was to be laid by the side of the ark of the covenant as a “testimony against Israel” (Deu 31:26). But the altar was built for the offering of sacrifices, to mould and consecrate the setting up of the law upon the stones into a renewal of the covenant. In the burnt-offerings Israel gave itself up to the Lord with all its life and labour, and in the sacrificial meal it entered into the enjoyment of the blessings of divine grace, to taste of the blessedness of vital communion with its God. By connecting the sacrificial ceremony with the setting up of the law, Israel gave a practical testimony to the fact that its life and blessedness were founded upon its observance of the law. The sacrifices and the sacrificial meal have the same signification here as at the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai (Exo 24:11). - In Deu 27:8 the writing of the law upon the stones is commanded once more, and the further injunction is added, “very plainly.” - The writing of the law is mentioned last, as being the most important, and not because it was to take place after the sacrificial ceremony. The different instructions are arranged according to their character, and not in chronological order.
The words of Moses which follow in Deu 27:9 and Deu 27:10, “Be silent, and hearken, O Israel; To-day thou hast become the people of the Lord thy God,” show the significance of the act enjoined; although primarily they simply summon the Israelites to listen attentively to the still further commands. When Israel renewed the covenant with the Lord, by solemnly setting up the law in Canaan, it became thereby the nation of God, and bound itself, at the same time, to hearken to the voice of the Lord and keep His commandments, as it had already done (cf. Deu 26:17-18).