Sunday, May 13, 2018

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE GIBEONITES

When Joshua and the Israelites first entered the land where God had led them, they quickly defeated the city of Jericho, and soon afterwards, the city of Ai. When the other kings of the land received this news, they knew that they were also in great danger. Some of these other tribes are identified for us as the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. All of these tribes, in order to defeat this threat at their borders, gathered their forces together to fight the Israelites. 

The Gibeonites

However, there is one specific tribe who lived in the land in those days that took on a different strategy. These were the Gibeonites. The inhabitants of the city of Gibeon had heard about the downfall of the cities of Jericho and of Ai. The Gibeonites knew that these were well-fortified cities, and when they learned the manner in which they were taken, they realized that it would only be a matter of time before Joshua and the Israelites came also to their city.

Thinking that they could not stand against this force, the people of Gibeon came up with a different plan.
They outfitted some donkeys with old and worn-out sacks, and filled the bags with stale and crumbly bread and other ag-ed looking supplies. Then they took some wineskins that were old and had burst but that had been mended, and put them also in the sacks.

Next a few of the men dressed themselves with old clothing, threadbare and patched as had been the wineskins. To complete the ensemble, the sandals of their feet were also worn-out and repaired. The entire outfit looked like these men had been on a long and arduous journey, which indeed was the impression that they wanted to give.

Joshua and the camp of the Israelites were at Gilgal at the time, a mere two or three days walk from Gibeon. The Gibeonite men took the donkeys, and looking as haggard as they could manage to make themselves appear, stumbled into the Israelite camp.

“We have traveled here from a far distant land,” they told the Israelites. “We have learned of your conquest and we have come to make a covenant with you.”

The men of Israel were initially suspicious. “Perhaps you live among us,” they replied to the Gibeonites. “How can we make a covenant with you?”

Now the weary-looking travelers spoke directly to Joshua, “We are your servants,” they told him.

“Who exactly are you?” Joshua asked them. “And where do you come from?”

“Oh!” They said to him. “We are from a very distant country. We have come this far because we have heard of the name of the Lord your God, and we have heard reports of him, and all that he did in Egypt.  We have also heard all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth.”

Notice that they mentioned to Joshua events of the more distant past, events that happened outside of the land of Canaan. They only mentioned battles that took place east of the Jordan River, and also as far back as forty years previous in Egypt.

I think this shows some wisdom on the part of the Gibeonites, and also some planning. They were trying to give the impression that they came from a far distant land, and if they would have mentioned such recent battles of Jericho and Ai, it would have been an indication that they perhaps did not come such a great distance after all.

The Gibeonites continued speaking with Joshua. “All of our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’

Then came the clincher. The men showed their provisions to Joshua.

“Look, here is our bread,” they said to him. “It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you. But now look at it—it is all dried out and crumbly. And look at these wineskins. They were new when we filled them just before we left, and now they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn-out from the very long journey.”

The men of Israel looked at what the Gibeonites were showing them. The bread was disgustingly stale, and as for the wine in those old wineskins, and it was a wonder that these men had been able to save any of it.

The Israelites were convinced.
 

An Injudicious Decision

Because of what the Gibeonites had said and because of the state of their provisions, Joshua made peace with them. He made a covenant with them and said that he would let them live. The other leaders of the Israelites also swore this oath to the Gibeonites.

However, the writer of the account is careful to point out in making this decision, Joshua and the Israelites “did not inquire of the Lord.” They made their decision based only upon the evidence, as false as it was.

Despite the fact that it was a foolish decision, there is one thing about it that is positive. It may have been an injudicious decision, but I nevertheless believe that it demonstrates that Joshua and the Israelites were not war-mongers. Theirs was not a mission of world domination, or even domination of the region. They were merely following what God had told their forefather Abraham some 450 years earlier, and what God had continued to confirm time and again. God intended this land west of the Jordan to be their land, at least for that specific time in history (Please see the previous post).
 

The Deception Discovered

So it was that after the delegation of Gibeonites left, as far as Joshua and the Israelites were concerned, it was the end of the matter. The Gibeonites started their “long journey” back to their land, and Joshua and the leaders began to plan the next stage of their conquest.

It was a mere three days later that the Israelites learned that they had been deceived. They arrived in the area of the next cities that they were to conquer. Among these cities was the city of Gibeon. When the Israelites learned this, they realized that they had been duped. However, despite the fact that they had been made fools, the Israelites nevertheless had sworn an oath not to harm these people, so they did nothing. They did not attack them.

Predictably, the people of Israel began to murmur against their leaders. “How foolish they had been!”

They had been foolish, but interestingly enough, they also honored the word of their oath. I am not so sure if many people would have been of the same integrity. I wonder if perhaps most people would not have said something to the effect that the oath was made based on false information that had been deceptively supplied, thus nullifying the oath.

But this was not how the Israelites viewed it. An oath is an oath. You gave your word—you keep it.

But it was not because of some sense of high honor about themselves that the Israelites kept their word, but because they had sworn to the oath in the name of the Lord. The leaders said, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them. This we will do to them: we will let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.”
 

Cutters of Wood and Drawers of Water

But the Gibeonites did not get away without a reprimand and a punishment. Joshua summoned them to come before him. He first put the question to them: “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us?”

Actually, I think that the answer to this question is self-evident: The Gibeonites knew that they were targeted for destruction. They wanted to live!

But now comes the punishment. Joshua said to them, “Now therefore you are cursed, and you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.”

 To the Gibeonites, this was a small punishment. They said to Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants with certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives. It was because of you that we did this thing. And now, we are in your hand. Do to us whatever seems good and right in your sight.”

Thus the Gibeonites became cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and also for the altar of the Lord.
 

The Redeeming Factor

I will not dispute the fact that the Gibeonites were doubtless the people of a society that was living in rebellion to God. They did not recognize their creator, as the Apostle Paul had put it in the first chapter of the book of Romans, and they did not honor him as God.

Nevertheless, there must have remained a spark of life within them, for when they heard the stories of what God had done for the Israelites, they knew that here was something with which they could not contend. This truly must be a mighty God!

“When we learned what the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you,” they had said to Joshua.

It was because similar sparks of life that God had waited so long before he condemned the people of Canaan to destruction. They lived in rebellion to God for hundreds of years—yes. There was wickedness in their societies—that is true. But God was patient. He was giving the people full opportunity to come to him.

This is still true today. It is true of nations and societies, and it is true even of individuals. God is patient and he is not willing for any to perish. He wants all to live (2 Peter 3:9).

But the patience of God is not futile. He is only patient while their still remains a spark of redemptive life. When the rebellion persists to the point where the spark is extinguished, there can only be one alternative. It was that alternative to which God had determined the great majority of the people of Canaan had arrived.

It is the example of the city of Sodom. God allowed them to be rescued by Abraham at one point, but when their wickedness continued, destruction came swiftly and decisively.

“What if there are even ten righteous people left in the city,” Abraham asked God. “Surely you will not destroy these ten along with the wicked. Shall not the Judge of the earth do what is just? Will you not spare the city for these ten?”

“I will spare it for the ten,” God replied.

But ten were not found, and fire from heaven fell upon the city in an instant. Only Lot and his two daughters escaped the destruction.

In the case of the Gibeonites, it is true that they resorted to trickery in order to be saved, but it is also true that they had recognized the supremacy of the Lord God. Righteousness and forthrightness would hardly be the way to describe the way in which they sought their salvation, but they realized they needed help. They had no model in their culture to explain to them how to make a first step toward salvation, but they did what they could.

In the same way, I will never belittle a person who is coming from a background in which they have experienced only the worst of society, but who begins to make a faltering first step toward God. Their step may not be respected by many in the Christian society, but God welcomes any and all who make any movement toward him. He will provide a way of salvation. He did for the Gibeonites, and he will for all who seek him.

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” the Apostle Paul has written (Romans 10:13).
 

A Battle Unlike Any Other

When the other nations of the area heard that the Gibeonites had made peace with the Israelites, they also feared. After all, Gibeon was described as a “great city,” greater than Ai, and all of their men were “mighty.” If these could not stand up to Joshua, they knew that none of them could either.

However, although the Gibeonites had retained a measure of fear or reverence for God, and the kind to allow them to be rescued, the other nations apparently did not.  Instead of taking their own steps toward peace, five kings combined their fighting forces in order to take their vengeance out on the Gibeonites. They decided to go after the Gibeonites themselves, rather than fighting the Israelites directly.

In the face of this impending threat, the people of Gibeon now recognized a power that they before did not possess. That power was that they were servants. We usually do not consider servanthood as being a position of power, but it is when you have a mighty master, and that master is willing to protect you.

Some men of Gibeon were sent to Joshua at the camp. I do not know if it was the original men who went to Joshua at the first with the stale bread and burst wineskins, but these men that went to Joshua on this second occasion said to him, “Do not relax your hand from your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us and help us, for all the kings of the Amorites who dwell in the hill country are gathered against us.”

Joshua responded. He took all his mighty men of valor and marched all night from where they were camped. They caught the five kings by surprise.

God said to Joshua, “Do not fear these armies, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you.”

The five armies panicked. The Israelites struck them hard, sending them fleeing. A great storm arose in the sky, and large hailstones began to fall. It was said that more Amorite soldiers died from the hailstones than had been killed by the Israelite swords.
 

And That is Not All…

But that is not the most astonishing aspect of this battle. The most astonishing aspect is found in the words of Joshua to God, which the Lord granted.

Joshua said, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

The Biblical account of the battle states that at these words, the sun actually came to stop in the sky and stood still. And the moon, which also was in the sky, also stopped its revolution around the earth.

The text continues, “The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:13-14).

Many people have tried to explain this away by saying that the sun did not actually stop, but simply that it seemed like an extraordinarily long day, like those days many when my wife and I have had to stand in lines all day, applying for a residency visa in some of the countries were we have lived. Those days seem to drag forward as the minute hand of the clock on the wall seems not to move at all.

Others say that the words are meant to be taken poetically, or that there was some sort of a refraction of light rays from the sun, which often seems to be a favorite explanation of strange occurrences. Maybe there was some swamp gas in the area as well. That’s another favorite.

Frankly however, the Bible does not seem to leave any of these options open to us. Concerning that particular day, the text tells us that there has been no day like it before or since.
 

On Miracles

This is perhaps the most difficult miracles described by the Bible to believe. At least it is so for me. For something to be truly a miracle, it has to be an occurrence that takes place outside what we see as the “normal” laws of nature and of science.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been entombed for three days—that was truly a miracle. When life has ceased for that long, anything that brings life back to that dead body is outside of what nature would allow. The raising of Lazarus also is an astounding miracle, but it involved only one man.

When Jesus fed more than five thousand people with five small loaves of bread and two fish—that also was truly a miracle.  All of those people ate to their fill, and the food that remained after all had finished amounted to more than what Jesus had to feed the people in the beginning. There remained twelve full baskets of food. This simply does not happen in nature. This time there were more people whom the miracle affected, but only a mere five thousand or so.

But with the miracle that we are talking about in this passage of the Bible, at the minimum, the entire earth and moon were affected, and perhaps even the entire solar system! We know that the appearance of the movement of the sun across the sky is because of the rotation of the earth. Thus, in order for the sun to “stop in the midst of the heaven” for an entire day, it means that the rotation of the earth must have stopped. At least that is the reasonable mechanism as it appears to us.

But wait a minute! The speed of rotation of the earth is about 1000 miles an hour, depending a little upon latitude. If the earth suddenly stopped spinning, the atmosphere would still be in motion and we all would experience a 1000 mile per hour wind storm!

According the AccuWeather.com, the highest gust of wind ever recorded on earth was a 253 mph during a typhoon over an island off the coast of Australia. Tornados can have stronger gusts, as much as 300 mph. But the highest sustained wind speed is about 190 mph, which has been measured in several typhoons and hurricanes, including hurricane Camille.

When you think of the damage even a short-term tornado can inflict, or a hurricane, imagine what would happen with a 1000 mph wind storm!

In addition to this, we have to consider the waters of our oceans. What would happen with this?

The water of every ocean, lake and mud puddle would slosh as if you were running with a cup of coffee and suddenly stopped! (I don’t recommend that you try this). Every body of water would violently rush out of its basin, creating great tidal waves such as could not be imagined.

And these are only a couple of the consequences. I will not even begin to go into all the laws of motion and physics that must be violated.

A counter argument to this objection is that, although an abrupt stop from a movement of 1000 miles per hour would cause these affects, it would not be so if there were a more gradual deceleration. If you are traveling 100 miles per hour in a car (too fast), you can comfortably slow down to a stop in a period of several seconds. One thousand miles per hour would perhaps take several minutes or could even be the larger portion of an hour.

If you do happen to be running with a cup of hot coffee, you could come to a gradual stop without spilling it on your wrist, but I still do not recommend that you do this. This slower deceleration would also mitigate the extreme weather effects.
 

The Book of Jashar

Another point about this passage is that it makes reference to the Book of Jashar, (or sometimes it is spelled Jasher). “Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?” the text asks.

The difficulty with this is that we do not know what the Book of Jashar is. There have been a few books called The Book of Jashar through the centuries, and if you look on Amazon, you can see the option to buy more than one book called by this name. However, despite any claims, none of these date back to the time of Joshua. In the end, we must conclude that the book referred to in the passage has been lost to us.
 

So, What Happened?

It is not my intention to go deeply into this discussion, but only to point out that there are enough questions surrounding this passage that can give us pause. That is why I am not going to insist that what happened was that God actually stopped the rotation of the earth at this time. There may be more to this particular passage than is immediately apparent.

Of course we must insert that God is not limited by the laws of physics. If he were, he could not have raised Lazarus from the dead and could not put on a feast for five thousand people out of a small boy’s lunch.

I myself remain an agnostic on the specific point about the particulars of stopping of the sun, although I am inclined to believe it is exactly as stated. I accept that the entire affair seems a little messy, since we cannot answer the many questions of the laws of physics that must have been usurped on that day, but God did something on that day that was truly miraculous. Exactly what he did and how he did it, I am not prepared to make a full statement, but “the sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”
 

What is Even More Truly Amazing

But what is almost more astounding to me is that after all the talk of the condemnation of the Canaanites, when one of the nations, the Gibeonites, made the first faltering overture to seeking terms of peace with the Lord God, God provided a way.

Like the sun stopping in the sky, there are several things about how this all happened that are a little messy. The Gibeonites reverted to using deception in their search with peace with God, Joshua failed to consult the Lord before entering into a covenant with them, the Gibeonites afterwards looked upon the Israelites as their protectors and guardians, and yet even with all of this, God provided a way of salvation for them.

Of course this does not mean that the experience of the Gibeonites is to be a pattern for how to come to terms of peace with God. It only demonstrates that, despite what a mess we may make of things, God will bless any effort on our part in coming to peace with him.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said this: 

At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; but if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it (Jeremiah 18:7-8). 

We see this with the Gibeonites. It remains true as well for individuals
 

The Blessings of God

Do we not see that God does not hate people? He does not want to destroy anyone! He loves each nation and each person, and is simply looking for any movement on our part to demonstrate that we are looking for peace with him.

God provided the way for us. He came in the person of Jesus Christ not only to teach us about peace with God, but also providing the means whereby we can achieve peace. Jesus was put to death, taking on our condemnation. This is the path to life for us.

The words are familiar to many of us. Perhaps they have become so familiar that we no longer hear them, but listen to what Jesus told us: 

God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 ESV)

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