Troublesome Topic: Witnesses of the Former Covenant

Lesson 11 of 12

The “witnesses” of God’s covenant were a bit different than those commonly named in covenants of that day. God did not need anyone to watch and make sure that everyone was following the stipulations of the covenant relationship, in fact no one else can do it but Him. While other covenant relationships tried to use witnesses as guarantors of covenant fidelity, God established witnesses to serve as reminders to the people of their need to follow what He had established. Here, then, are several of the witnesses named in the covenant between God and the people of Israel:

Standing stones

On numerous occasions God instructed His people to stand several large stone on end as a memorial to a special event. When a traveler or someone from a younger generation saw the stones he would ask, “What happened here?” to which someone could response, “Let me tell you what God did here.”

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A case in point would be when the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the land God had promised to give them. They were instructed to raise up twelve stones from the riverbed as a memorial to what God had done. In Deuteronomy chapter 27 we see where God took that concept of commemorative stones and used it as a reminder to His people of the type of relationship they were now in, and what that meant.

Deuteronomy 27:4


And it shall be, that when you cross over the JORDAN,

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you shall set up these stones which I command you today, on MOUNT EBAL,

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and you shall whitewash them with lime.


Now then, when you have crossed over the barrier called THE DESCENDER, you must set up stones according to what I am commanding you today; set them up on THE PLACE OF WEAKNESS RATHER THAN STRENGTH, and plaster them with lime.

Verses 5 through 7 tell how they were to build an altar on Mount Ebal and sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings to God there. We continue with verse 8.

Deuteronomy 27:8


And you shall write on the stones all

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the words of the law included here,

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engraving them clearly

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and well done.

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Then you must write all the


Words of  the Law included on these stones, engraving them clearly, with large, easy-to-read letters, and

in a way that will last a long time.

Deuteronomy 27:12


When you have crossed over JORDAN, these shall stand on MOUNT GERIZIM to bless the people:


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and LEVI,




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When you have crossed the barrier called THE DESCENDER, the leaders of the following tribes shall stand on THE PLACE OF EXTERMINATION to pronounce the covenant blessings on the people:







Deuteronomy 27:13


And these shall stand on Mount EBAL

to curse:



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And these tribal leaders shall stand on THE PLACE OF WEAKNESS RATHER THAN STRENGTH to pronounce the curses of the covenant on the people: MISERY HAS BEEN REPLACED WITH JOY AND RESPECT,






In the verses that follow we read how the Levites were to loudly proclaim various curses and blessings of the covenant to the leaders of tribes and leaders of clans of Israel, and these men would respond after each phrase with “Amen.”

In summary: God used witnesses of the covenant as visible and captivating reminders which would never let the children of Israel forget who they were and to whom they should be committed.

The next lesson in all three versions of the study of Covenants is: More Witnesses of the Former Covenant.



Ray Vanderlaan does an excellent job of explaining the use of standing stones in his video series, That the World May Know, Video # 1, Faith Lesson # 1.


The name Jordan means “to descend or go down, the one that descends, or the descender.” It was given this name because it descends from the Sea of Galilee, which is at 695 feet below sea level, to the Dead Sea, which is 1410 feet below sea level. The Jordan river travels 65 miles as the crow flies from the sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, but it takes 135 miles for the river to snake its way there.


The name Ebal means “bald or bare.”


It is obvious that all the words of the law would not fit on a few large stones, especially since they were to be written with large letters (see footnotes 5 & 6). I have separated the parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in our English Bibles that describe the covenant of God with Israel (including laws and the tabernacle) from those that narrate history and have come up with a total of 2216 verses that contain the Law. This reference to “all the words of this law” could refer to the summary of the covenant, the Ten Words (the Decalogue), which we call the Ten Commandments, or it could refer to the blessings and curses pronounced on the people immediately thereafter. The Levites read the blessings and curses one at a time in a loud voice and the leaders of the tribes and clans responded to each one by saying “Amen.”


“included here” can mean “here, this, this one, alone, such,” “included herein,” and several other things. “Included herein” is the idea that I think fits best for this context. We do not know for sure if the stones contained the summary of the law, or the blessings and curses of the covenant. I personally think it was a short word of admonition at the top and then the blessings or curse of the covenant, depending on which mountain it was on. Whatever was written on those stones, the ceremony was a powerful reminder that there were consequences for following and consequences for not following the covenant.

To us this terminology seems odd because it sounds like saying, “Write on the stones the words that are on the stones.” That makes no sense to us. But they had the Law in written form and by the words “herein included” they knew what parts God was referring to. Once it was done the stones themselves proved what God’s plan had included, but we only have the command; we have not found these stones intact. It sounds strange to us because we only have half of the puzzle pieces for this situation.


“engraving them clearly” means “to make plain or clear,” but it seems to come from a root word meaning “to dig,” or in relation to stone means “to engrave.” Their idea of making something “clear or plain” was that it should be written with letters large enough that someone could run by it and read it without stopping! That would be very large letters. Another reason engraving was equivalent to making something “plain or clear” was that it lasted a long time; it did not fade like other forms of writing did in ancient times. I have tried to tie together the two meanings of “clearly and engraving with large letters.”


“well done” means “good or pleasing.” Its use here seems a bit strange at first. It should be obvious that any craftsman would want to do his work well and make it look pleasing. So why was it necessary to say this? I think it had to do with an inherent weakness of plastering over stone, and engraving in the plaster. Plaster is naturally susceptible to damage from water, especially if the water sits on the plaster for long periods of time. Therefore I think this was a way of telling the craftsmen that the letters should be carved in such a way that the water would run out of them easily rather than pooling inside them. This would require the engraving tool to be held at a different angle than usual, but it would enable to stones to look nice and be clearly legible for a longer period of time.


You will notice that several of the names include portions of their meaning that are in brackets. This means that I have added something to what the word actually means. Such additions are justified because of the assumptions the Israelites were taught to make. God was involved in every aspect of their lives, so even when it is not stated, it can be assumed that the presence and activity of God are involved. Therefore most of the times the brackets include something about God.


Here the name Joseph is used to represent his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. This joining of two tribes into one was done in order to come up with a total of twelve rather than thirteen. Originally there were twelve sons of Jacob, but Joseph did not have a tribe named after him, rather his two sons became heads of tribes. Therefore the number of the tribes was not twelve but thirteen. However, they are always referred to as the twelve tribes of Israel because of the symbolism of the number twelve and because they preferred the symbolism over reality.


The meaning of the name Benjamin is “Son of my right hand,” which implies “son of strength, son of honor.”


The name Gad means “fortunate” and that fits the words that Leah pronounced at Gad’s birth– “And Leah said ‘How fortunate!’ so she called his name Gad”(Gen 30:11).  In fact the name given is only slightly different than the word “fortunate” used earlier in her statement.  The word “fortunate” comes from a root word meaning “troop,” and several Bibles and other resources list the name’s meaning as simply “troop.” However, to say the name means troop does not help the reader understand the intended meaning in its fullest sense. What Leah had in mind was this -there is good fortune (good results) in large numbers. Leah had borne Jacob four sons and then stopped bearing. Now she was able to have more sons through her surrogate – Zilpah. This was fortuitous for her in that she could continue to make Jacob happy with more sons. The point was that there is strength in numbers, not only in battles between military forces, but also in battles between sisters. I have chosen to portray the name Gad as THERE IS FORTUITOUS STRENGTH IN NUMBERS.


The meaning of the name Dan is simply “judge,” but the story of his birth gives us more details which would have been kept in mind by every Israelite. In Genesis chapter 30 we read that Rachel could not have children because she was barren. So she gave her maidservant Bilhah to her husband as an additional wife. When Bilhah bore Jacob a son Rachel named the child as if she herself had given him birth. At the time of his birth Rachel’s thought process was expressed by words which I paraphrase as follows: “God has administered justice and vindicated me, also He has heard my voice and given me a son.” In the process of deciding how to portray the meaning of this name, I have chosen one that includes the story of his birth not just the word “judge.” I have chosen VINDICATED BY THE JUDGE.


The meaning of the name Naphtali is simply “my struggle, or my wrestling.” However, the story of his birth gives us much more information. Rachel was relying on her maidservant, Bilhah, to produce children for her because she was barren. This tactic had produced one son so far, Dan, but her sister Leah had borne Jacob four sons already so Rachel was not satisfied with just one. When Bilhah gave birth to a second son Rachel expressed her emotions like this (and I paraphrase) “I have struggled in a great struggle with my sister, and I have prevailed.” The rendering of the name Naphtali reflects this history; I have expressed the name’s meaning as, I HAVE WRESTLED AND WON.