Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Sword for the Lord and for Gibeon (Joshua 9-11)

The army of Israel continues to storm into the land, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. No army can stand against them. No quarter is given to their victims. They refuse to intermarry, to worship the local gods, or to adopt the customs of the land. The terror of their God goes before them, and none can stand when he appears. What is a Canaanite to do?

The people of Gibeon decide to try and make an alliance, for their own survival. The tricky thing is that Israel will make no alliances with those in the promised land. They are all under the ban. So the Gibeonites need to be cunning. They dress up their ambassadors in worn-out clothing and pretend to be from somewhere far off. Joshua doesn’t consult the Lord, and falls for it. He makes a treaty with Gibeon, sealing it with an oath to the God of Israel.

When the Isrealites find out that their leaders have been hoodwinked, they are positively mutinous. But there is nothing to be done about it. They must absolutely not take the name of the Lord in vain. Joshua is furious, and (with amazing obtuseness) demands an explanation:
Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a 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 because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them.
When the other kings in the area hear about the treachery of Gibeon, all five of them assemble armies to destroy the city. The Gibeonites cry out to their new friends for help, and Joshua comes riding to the rescue.

What follows is a battle of five armies, a battle of cosmic proportions. The Israelites kill them by the thousands, but that pales in comparison to the artillery of hail God sends from his heavens. The sun and moon – the crown of the host of heaven – are the work of his hands. In a display of his absolute sovereignty, the Lord stops the sun and moon in the sky for an entire day, until all five armies are completely destroyed.

The five kings are captured and brought before Joshua:
And when they brought those kings out to Joshua, Joshua summoned all the men of Israel and said to the chiefs of the men of war who had gone with him, “Come near; put your feet on the necks of these kings.” Then they came near and put their feet on their necks. And Joshua said to them, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the Lord will do to all your enemies against whom you fight.” And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day.
The heavenly hosts are subject to the Lord’s command. How much more the earthly powers? These five mighty kings lay with Israel’s heels on their necks, brought low before the sons of Jacob the nomad. It is God who exalts, and God who humbles.
There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.
Here again, we see God hardening the hearts of these kings – strengthening their resolve against Israel so that they will be destroyed. And yet Gibeon is spared.

What is hard for me to grasp is how the original authors saw this. Clearly, had Joshua consulted the Lord, he would have found out the Gibeonites were local and then they would be hosed. But there seems to be a sense in which their shrewdness is commendable – not unlike Jacob himself. They will stop at nothing to gain the blessing of the Lord. Better to be a woodcutter in the house of God than a king in the cities of the wicked. This much is clear.

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