Up until now, we have seen Israel cross the Jordan, destroy Jericho, get beaten at Ai, stone Achan and his family, then destroy Ai, and recommitting themselves to the commandments of the LORD; and all of that in eight chapters. If you simply look at it, in eight chapters they have crossed the Jordan and conquered two cities in the Promised Land. That’s all. In other words, they have a long way to go to be done conquering.
But God is good, and God has a plan, and Israel is conquering the Promised Land according to God’s plan, not theirs; according to His ways, not theirs. We have seen this so far as well, right? Crossing the Jordan on dry ground because the priests were standing in the midst of the Jordan, holding the Ark of the Covenant. Defeating Jericho by walking around the city for seven days and then giving a shout. Not really ways the Israelites would have chosen, right? And we see this when they try to defeat Ai in their own ways. What happens? They lose because of Achan. And after they purge the sin from their midst, and follow His ways, they win. So we see that God is good, and God has a plan for Israel to conquer the Promised Land. But although it is His plan, Israel does have to be involved, in their own imperfect and sometimes sinful way.
Joshua 9-10 is a beautiful picture of God’s grace, His goodness towards not only Israel, but also the Gibeonites, in the midst of sin.
THE GIBEONITE DECEPTION (Joshua 9:16)
The news of Israel’s conquering march has reached the southern parts of Canaan. By the way this is strange, because it seems that Israel was moving towards the north, not the south. But, like the people of Jericho before them, the southern kings were scared. And what we see is two totally different strategies of dealing with this threat, this opposition of Israel. The southern kings gather together against Israel and are planning a full frontal attack. They do not acknowledge that God is on Israel’s side fighting for them, and believe they can defeat the Israelites by sheer strength. But the Gibeonites, a city of the Hivites in the south, were choosing a different approach. They were going to lie and deceive Israel by claiming they were from a distant country and heard about Israel’s victories, and that they wanted to make a covenant with them. Yet we can read in the next chapter that “Gibeon was a great city, like one of the royal cities, […] because it was greater than Ai, and all its men were warriors” (Jos. 10:2). So why did they surrender? “… because of the name of the Lord your God” (Jos. 9:9). Because God fights for Israel, they know it would be useless to oppose Israel. They acknowledge God, but approach Him in the wrong way though, by lying and deceiving.
The Gibeonite deception was clever, and therefore powerful. Israel falls for it. Why? Things went well. They had defeated two huge cities. They were on a roll. Watch out when things go well! We tend to lower our guard and don’t notice potential dangers. Gibeon was a huge city, and yet Israel was not suspicious at all when they “just” surrendered. Israel had lowered their guard. Joshua and the leaders never sought the LORD, but thought they’d had this figured out by themselves. It was their strength that made Gibeon surrender. They trusted in their own senses… “Look at this bread. Feel and taste how stale it is. Surely, they must have come a long way.” In other words, they walked by sight, not by faith. How much trouble do we find ourselves in for this very reason? Not asking the LORD’s counsel. Our life is seems to be going well. We are comfortable with where things are at. On the surface it looks like we are in control. We set the course. And bit-by-bit we involve God less and less in our decision-making. Bit by bit we create for ourselves an environment in which we do not have to walk by faith, because walking by sight will do. We have it figured out by ourselves.
KEEPING THE OATH, NO MATTER WHAT (Joshua 9:16:20; 10:1-8)
Only a couple of days later the Israelites find out that they had been deceived. And even though all the congregation murmured against the leaders, the leaders still knew they had to do what was right and honorable before God: keep their oath, even if it was a bad oath. The rulers of Israel were wise in not allowing one sin (wiping out the Gibeonites) follow another sin (making the oath without seeking the Lord), especially in light of public pressure to do otherwise. And I think it is refreshing to see that going back on their word was not even really a possibility for the rulers of Israel. It was simply not even up for debate.
The enemies of Israel feared greatly, but they did not retreat when they were afraid, but launched a bold attack. Afraid to attack Israel directly, they attacked their former ally, the Gibeonites, who were now servants of Israel. We saw earlier that, Joshua, the leaders of Israel, and all the people of Israel knew they made a bad vow to the Gibeonites, yet they did not turn their backs on that vow. But here, we see Joshua and the leaders of Israel even going a step further. Allowing these Canaanite kings to wipe out the Gibeonites would have been a convenient way to get out of a vow that should not have been made, but they will have none of it. Though Joshua was only bound to not kill the Gibeonites himself (Joshua 9:15), he goes on to fulfill the spirit of the vow he made to the Gibeonites. And what does God do? He commands Joshua to not fear them. Though Joshua has reason to fear because Israel faces a confederation of five kings, God commands Joshua to not fear his enemies. But, the command is coupled with a promise that Israel will be victorious. Having the assurance of God’s promise, Joshua did not sit back to passively watch God work without his participation. He went to great effort to participate with the work and will of God. This took hard work and initiative on Joshua’s part. God does His work, but He draws us into working with Him. The result? God’s work, and the partnership of Joshua’s work with the Lord, accomplished something great. We read in the remainder of chapter ten that Israel not only defeats the five armies in this battle, with some amazing feats from God might I add, but it sets Israel up for defeating all these other cities in Canaan, thereby conquering all the southern Canaanite kingdoms. The victory was won one at a time. God knew what He was doing in selecting which particular battles to fight, and when they needed to be fought. Most importantly, the key to victory was that the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel.
Let’s look at the story again and at the amazing grace of God towards both the Israelites and the Gibeonites.
Israel messed up big time. They did not seek God’s counsel when the Gibeonites approached them, which resulted in making a covenant, a treaty with them. But even so they already knew what His answer would be, for by law Israel was forbidden to make peace with any of the tribes of Canaan (Ex. 23:23-24). And what does God do? He allows Israel to make their mistake, and does not punish them for it (God’s mercy). But look what it results in: through their mistake, God gives them the Gibeonites (thus enlarging the nation Israel) and He gives them the five other cities, and ultimately the whole southern region, as a result of their sin (God’s grace)
Gibeon messed up big time. They deceived Israel by misrepresenting themselves, providing false evidence for their deception, and simply lied. And this while they displayed a proper admiration and honor for the God of Israel, they approach Him in completely the wrong way. What does God do? He arranges that the Israelites do not kill the Gibeonites for the lying and deceiving (God’s mercy). But on top of that, the Gibeonites are taken up into Israel (you could say they are transferred from the kingdom of the enemy into the kingdom of God – Col 1:13-14) where they became servants for the tabernacle services (God’s grace)
This is so counter-intuitive, so mind-blowing and simply destroys our conditional world and thinking. Which is exactly what grace does. Grace is unconditional, which is why we struggle with it so much because we are conditional people. You see, we read this and think that God is not only condoning sin, He is actually blessing it, right? The Israelites sin, and God gives them the southern part of the Promised Land into their hands. The Gibeonites sin, and God makes them sons of God, just like the Israelites. And we think: that cannot be! How can God do that? That’s not fair; sin must be punished. And it makes us say, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). But here’s the thing: God is always fair, because He is good. And He has a plan, and it’s a good plan. And His plan always operates on the basis of grace. Pure, unconditional grace. And where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). This is a beautiful picture of what the grace of God does. He turns liars, deceivers, and lawbreakers into His victorious children. But although grace is unconditional, we are not without responsibility.
STONES TO OVERCOME OBSTACLES
Earlier on in Joshua 7 with the story of Achan, Israel had to deal with internal obstacles. How sin affects those around you. How if one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26). Here in this story we read how to deal with external obstacles. Although Israel as a whole is sinning by making a treaty with the Gibeonites, the story is really about how Israel responded to the Gibeonites after they acknowledged their mistake. So, here are three ways (three “stones”) on how to overcome external obstacles, and all three are based on how Israel responded after they found out they had been deceived by the Gibeonites.
After they found out, the people went out to Gibeon, but did not attack them because the leaders had sworn an oath. “Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders.” (Jos. 9:18), but the leaders did not come back on their oath. Here we see courage working in two directions. The leaders showed a lot of courage in keeping their oath, while the entire congregation murmured. But also the congregation shows a lot of courage by not attacking Gibeon and trusting their leaders’ decision although they did not agree with them. And courage is really the keyword of the whole book isn’t it? “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Jos. 1:9)
After they found out, the Israelites own up to their mistake. They did not deny it or blame-shifted, but they took full responsibility for it. They did not only feel bad about it, but they changed their hearts. We see that because later on when they were asked by the Gibeonites to help them out, they joyfully did so, and thereby went way beyond what they were bound to by the oath. In other words, they repented. Repentance is not only a turning from sin, but also a turning to God by pursuing righteousness out of obedience to Him and a love for Him. As Paul said, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)
After they found out, the Israelites did not come back on the oath they had made. They welcomed the Gibeonites into their midst, and when it became difficult when they were asked to help the Gibeonites, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get rid of the Gibeonites and thus the oath, but instead they sucked it up and suffered the consequences of their sin and helped them out. It is a mark of godliness to hold to an oath, even when it’s difficult. Their ‘yes’ was simply ‘yes’. And isn’t that what James says as well: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (Jam. 5:12)
And while I was dwelling on these themes in this text, my thoughts went to Jesus being in the Garden of Gethsemane, and how we really see all three of these aspects being perfectly fulfilled in Jesus, when He simply said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luk. 22:42). The courage He had in that moment to press on in the face of the most intense opposition. It says that He was in such agony that He prayed more earnestly and that His sweat became drops of blood. And although He did not have to repent of any sin, He did perfectly turned to God and pursued righteousness out of obedience to and love for His Father. And how beautifully is Jesus’ integrity on display when He said, “not my will, but yours, be done”. His ‘yes’ truly was ‘yes’. He completed what He said He would.
And while I was dwelling on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I thought: “I do not have the strength to show such courage, such repentance, and such integrity. It is too much for me.” And the beauty is that I don’t have to, we don’t have to, but He already did. Jesus already did for us what God is asking us to do. His death and resurrection is the only basis upon which we can do this. In Him, we already are victorious. As I said earlier, He turns sinners into victorious children. Such grace! God is good, and God has a plan, and it is a good plan. We see in this story that all things work together for good for those who love God (Rom. 8:28). All we have to do is dwell in what Jesus already has done, and we can overcome any obstacles, because He already has.