Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: God

Confusion about the Gibeonites

Four years ago I published a post entitled Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. The first two paragraphs read as follows:

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, a term first used by Christian Smith, seems a fitting description of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. The followers of this religion believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants them to feel good about themselves, doesn’t need to be consulted except in case of emergencies, and who will accept all good people into heaven.

One unfortunate result is that such people read the Old Testament as a series of morality tales, leading to conclusions that play up the foolishness and waywardness of Old Testament characters. Such a reading altogether misses the redemption story that is an essential ingredient of these histories. The New Testament points to these histories as God’s way of revealing little by little his plan of redemption.

Today I want to write about how the story of the Gibeonites, beginning in the ninth chapter of Joshua, is commonly misinterpreted. Bible story books and Sunday School lessons tend to make a big thing of how the Gibeonites tricked the elders of Israel. In doing so, they altogether miss how this account fits into the redemption story.

If God had been displeased with the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites, would he not have told Joshua to just stand back and let the armies of the south destroy Gibeon? Instead he told Joshua to go up to battle and that he would deliver the attacking armies into Joshua’s hand. Then God performed one of the great miracles of the Old Testament, making the sun stand still for another whole day. At the same time, God poured out hail on the attacking armies.

Up to this point, the children of Israel were occupying a small enclave in the plains of Jericho. The mountainous country was before them; the population in those mountains far outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. Yet the pact with the Gibeonites provided the opening to utterly destroy those armies during the battle of the long day and subsequent battles in the days following. Now the Israelites were masters of all the southern half of the Promised Land.

This stirred the nations in the north to gather together to battle, but once again the Lord assured Joshua that He would deliver them to him. Joshua and the Israelites won another great victory and were now in possession of all the land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.

As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”

The Gibeonites became hewers of wood and drawers of water for the service of the tabernacle. There was an element of mercy in this, they were not made slaves to individual Israelites, which could well have led to oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are the same people as those later called Nethinims.

The Gibeonites were Hivites, descendants of Canaaan. Others of the Hivites remained and later troubled the Israelites. There is no hint in the Bible that the Gibeonites were in any way associated with them. They had made their choice to take their place among the people of God.

Nevertheless, there came a time when King Saul thought he would be doing God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. This may look like revenge, but perhaps a better explanation is that this was a means to make it publicly known to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God.

Are we perhaps thinking like Saul if we condemn the Gibeonites for their deception? The real story here, as I see it, is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but all the accounts that mention them demonstrate the purity and sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.

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God’s way is best

I watched bemused as Michelle pedalled her tricycle back in forth on the sidewalk in front of our house. Then she saw a bus coming and pedalled to the bus stop at the end of the block. After a passenger or two had dismounted or mounted the bus, she lined up beside it. When the bus began to move she did too, pedalling for all she was worth to beat the bus to the other end of the block. She never quite beat it, but she could keep up.

“She’s just a little girl trying to amuse herself,” I thought. “She knows to keep out of the way of pedestrians and she never leaves our block. But I’ve got to get my family to a place where she has something better to do than drag race with a city bus.”

January 18 of 1978 was my mother’s 70th birthday. That was also the day my Dad suffered a stroke. He lived for two more days and passed away early in the morning of the 20th. Dad had been fading away for some time; after the stroke we had known the end was near. But that knowledge didn’t insulate me from the shock of him actually being gone. That shock triggered an allergy attack.

Mom’s life had centred around visiting Dad in the nursing home, but she was a resilient person adn soon settled into the new reality in her life. Circumstances made it necessary for Dennis to stop farming. I helped him for a few weeks that spring, cleaning up around the yard and getting machinery ready for the auction sale. After the sale it seemed that we were now free to leave for a congregation where we could make our home. Mom was quite capable of looking after herself and said nothing to discourage us from leaving.

But where would we go? Congregations in Western Canada were rural and there didn’t seem to be work available anywhere near them. At least not for someone with my allergy problems. When a new congregation began to form that spring at Swanson, my hopes were aroused. Some families from Linden were moving there, as well as all the members from Hague. We looked around there in May. Swanson was west of the South Saskatchewan River. There was an irrigation district on the east side with the main crop being potatoes. My hopes began to rise.

On our way home I stopped at a potato storage plant and asked the lady in the front office if they were hiring. She said yes and handed me an application form. I took it out to the car and was going to fill it out. The first question stopped me: Do you have any allergies?

A dark cloud filled the car as we began the drive home. Then an idea popped into my mind : “Why don’t you go to St Marys, Ontario?” It was ridiculous, so far away and we didn’t know anyone there. But it seemed to bring a little glimmer of light.

We talked it over in the following days. It was such a little glimmer of light, but it was all we had. We decided I would drive out there first, find work and a place to live, then Chris and Michelle would follow.

We packed everything we could into our little Toyota and June 1, 1978 I started the long eastward drive. There is a song in the Christian Hymnal entitled “God’s Way is Best.” The first line of the chorus goes “God’s way is best, I will not murmur, although the end I do not see.” That was my situation; I certainly did not have any idea what I would find or how things would turn out when I got where I was going. Yet it seemed that this was what God wanted me to do, and I went. As I travelled I sang that hymn off and on and found that I could remember all four verses.

I got to the St Marys area Sunday afternoon and drove down the road where the church was located and where some of the families lived.  I didn’t have the courage to stop but drove on into Stratford and found a motel for the night. As I sat in that room the question uppermost on my mind was “What on earth am I doing here?” A prayer before I went to bed settled my mind again that I was where God wanted me to be.

The next morning I drove down the road by the church and saw a farmer adjusting a piece of equipment in a field. It was Howard Nickel and he directed me to a place down the road where a house was being renovated to be the home of minister Robert Toews. I stopped there and that broke the ice. I spent the next couple days looking for work and found a job at an auto parts plant in Mitchell, on the northern edge of the congregation.

There was Bible Study Wednesday evening and I sat in the St Marys church for the first time. I wanted to ask for the hymn I had been singing on the trip to Ontario, but I couldn’t remeber the number. As I paged frantically through the book, someone else called out a number. My heart sank, but when I found the place in the hymnal it was the one I had been looking for. As we sang “God’s Way is Best,” a feeling washed over me that I had arrived where I was supposed to be.

Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.

Menno obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

Writing and witnessing

There are two kinds of writers. First is the novice who has a burning desire to tell a story or to announce some truth. Feeling insecure in his ability, he adopts a formal tone, uses the most impressive words he can find, adds adjectives – lots of bold, beautiful, glorious, exuberant adjectives. He leaves nothing out, not even the most minute peripheral detail; yet forgets important information because everybody knows it anyway. His family and friends say the writing is wonderful; he ought to publish it. Other people don’t say much. They just stop reading after the second paragraph.

The second kind is the one who thinks of the reader from start to finish of her writing. She considers what a reader might not be aware of and weaves that into the writing. She prunes out irrelevant information, tries to eliminate all adjectives, and never uses a big word when a small one will do. There’s a good chance a publisher might be interested in this writing.

Most of us start out like the novice, but eventually learn the painful truth that no one is interested in our pomposities. In fact, they are really not all that interested in us. Little by little, we learn to fade into the background and put the story, the article, the Sunday School lesson, into the foreground. We ask ourselves: How can I tell this in a way that others will want to read it?

The same approach applies when we want to share our faith. If we spend a lot of time expounding on our qualifications to share the Christian message people are turned off. They quit listening.

Sometimes a person feels compelled to describe his abject humility. It’s the same thing. He is boasting of his qualification as a man of God to let us know that we should listen to his message. All such boasting is vain.

If our family has been Christian for several generations, we are tempted to credit our salvation to the example and teaching of our parents and grandparents. That is confusing our genealogy with our spiritual heritage, and it gives others the impression that if they do not fit into that kind of genealogy they won’t fit in Christian circles.

God has no grandchildren. How often have we heard that? Has it sunk into our heart?

If we are Christians today, it means that at some point the Holy Spirit has pointed out to us that we were lost. We were sinners, having no hope in anything of this world. The righteousness of our parents could not save us. There was no saving virtue in our genealogy. We were alone before the absolute righteousness and holiness of Almighty God with nothing of this earth to cling to. At that point we pled for mercy and forgiveness and through the blood of Jesus Christ mercy and forgiveness were granted. We became children of God and could say like David: “For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name” (Psalm 61:5).

There is no boasting here, it is God who is glorified, not ourselves. This tells others that there is a way by which they too can become partakers of this heritage.

Just as in effective writing, in order to be effective witnesses of the saving grace of God, we have to put ourselves in the background and the message in the forefront. God is the message, not us.

Happy birthday to my wife

There was once a young lady growing up in an unstable home, who was attracted to a man somewhat older, but not much more stable. They got married and soon a daughter joined the family. Time went on, they moved hither and yon. The daughter grew up and left home to work hither and yon.

After many years the couple returned to a place not far from where they had started out. A young man from that place took note of the daughter and asked her to marry him. Time went on and now there are four grandchildren in the family.

Yesterday the young lady turned 65. The whole family got together to celebrate by haveing supper in a nice restaurant, paid for by the son-in-law.

How did a home begun on such a shaky foundation come to enjoy such happiness? The only answer that makes sense is that they learned to pray and every time they came to a fork in the road they asked God which way to go.

To God be the glory.

WHY?

Sunday evening, shortly before sunset, a freight train came shuddering to a stop on the tracks that run about 200 metres west of our house. At first, we didn’t know the reason for the sudden stop. The trees on the west side of our yard hid the mangled pickup from our view.

Slowly, slowly we learned what had happened. A young man driving west facing the blazing sunset. On the open prairie the sun lingers just above the horizon making one lower the visor and try to shield one’s eyes from the glare. Three locomotives pulling about 80 hopper cars loaded with grain coming from the south. They met at the railroad crossing.

It took until the next day to find out that the young man who died, instantly, was the fiancé of a friend of ours. They were filled with love, hope and joy, planning for a happy ever after. Now the dream is ended.

WHY ?

The question is natural, we can’t help wondering why when things like this happen. But there really is no answer, except that we live in a world ruined by the fall.

We dare not look for someone to blame. Who would we blame? The locomotive engineer? He sounded the horn time and again, but he couldn’t steer away. The young man? God? Such thoughts would only lead to bitterness.

Yes, the young man should have seen, should have heard. But he didn’t and it does no good to blame him. Certainly God could have intervened. But He is not the cosmic puppetmaster. He wants our voluntary service, but only in rare instances does He overrule in the events of our lives. “Time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

God is the refuge, the source of comfort and strength for one who has suffered such a tragic loss.  Friends and family can help soften the pain. Their words may be inadequate, but their presence and availability speak loudly.

Life takes some unexpected turns

Alcohol had once enabled me to admit my interest in some day becoming a Mennonite, but the three other people who heard that statement didn’t take it seriously and never again mentioned it. My two trips into Regina to attend a Mennonite church had gone completely unnoticed by those who knew me. I was quite content to leave it that way as I still at a stage where I had no desire to be identified as someone with any interest in Christianity.

Nevertheless, I wanted to have a Bible when I left for Manitoba. There was no way I was going to openly show that desire by going out and buying one. There was another way. My parents had a stack of worn out Bibles in a cupboard; they never threw one out. They would have gladly given me one if I had asked, but that would have been too embarrassing. Before I left, I went to that cupboard, found one that hadn’t quite fallen apart yet, and stashed it in my luggage.

The elevator at Sperling was much bigger and much busier than the one at Belle Plaine. The office was much bigger too. To start with I was provided with a roll away bed in the office for night and got my meals in the home of the former manager.

I settled into a routine, started to get to know the farmers and the people in town. The people in the community were of English, French, Danish, German and other backgrounds. Among the farmers there were members of four different Mennonite denominations. One was a group I had never heard of before, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. The men of this group wore beards.

I made monthly trips back to Saskatchewan to see my parents and Chris. Chris and I would often visit until midnight Sunday and then I would drive the 400 miles back to Sperling, open the elevator at eight o’clock in the morning. In the summer of 1969 Chris’s Uncle moved to Kelliher, Saskatchewan to run his sister’s café and Chris went with him. Her aunt stayed in Belle Plaine to run the café there. My once a month trips became more complicated.

After several months the former manager retired for health reasons. I was given the job and UGG rented a house in town and paid to move my belongings. The former manager and his family were given time to find a new home and then the UGG carpenter crew went to work on the house.

I had left all my drinking buddies behind in Saskatchewan and didn’t make any new ones in Manitoba. I often had beer in the refrigerator but no incentive for serious drinking by myself.

There was lots of time to read the Bible and I started randomly reading here and there. I began with the belief that the Bible was a man-made book that might contain parts that were inspired by a God that I didn’t know and hardly knew if I believed in. But I was convinced that most of the book was not to be believed or trusted. As I read, a different picture began to impress itself on me. This appeared to be one book, with every part of it connected to every other part. Many things that I didn’t want to believe were quoted by Jesus. It began to sink in to me that I could not choose to believe some parts and reject the rest; it was either all true, or all false.

Now that I was officially the elevator manager, I began looking through the records and found that a number of farmers had bills outstanding for farm supplies, so I sent out reminders. I soon had irate farmers showing up in my office with receipts showing that they had paid those bills. I accepted that, but UGG had never seen those payments. Those farmers seemed to suspect me of trying to pull a fast one and get paid twice, but the people in town understood the situation. The former manage had always seemed to be in need of more money for his family and different episodes were told me of how he had gotten into a bind and money had disappeared. No doubt he had intentions of making it all right, perhaps the stress of it all led to his heart attack.

Some of my farming customers were members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, from the congregation at Rosenort, about 15 minutes away. They were friendly and often stayed to visit. One day, one of them came into my office to apologize for something he had said a few days earlier. He was afraid I might have misunderstood his remarks and taken offence at them. I was completely caught off guard. There had been no misunderstanding, no offence taken, but now I was almost offended at him for making a special effort to come and clear up such an insignificant thing. They way I looked at my life, I was leading as decent and upright a life as was possible under the circumstances and this guy had come along and kicked that support out from under me.

Early in 1970 Chris told me that she was getting cold feet and wasn’t sure that she wanted to get married. Life looked bleak, many of the farmers were looking at me with suspicion, I hadn’t made any close friends in this community and now my fiancée wanted to back out of our marriage plans.

By the spring of 1970 I had moved into the renovated house. The wall between the kitchen and dining room had been replaced by a counter and new cabinets installed. Flooding was happening around Carman to the west of us, with the threat of it coming our way. One Saturday I took a drive around to look at the situation, but my mind was churning with troubled thoughts. I wanted to just give up and disappear, but I had tried that once and it hadn’t turned out well.

I returned home and opened my Bible at random. My eyes fell on Revelation 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” The picture was vivid and shocking – could it be that my life was so distasteful to God that He just had to get that taste out of His mouth? I had never thought of myself as a sinner, but now the weight of sin bore down on me.

I knelt down and admitted to God: “All this trouble I’m in, I did it all by myself, nobody helped me get into this mess.” I asked Him to forgive me and promised that if He would help me now I would serve Him the rest of my life. When I got up from that prayer I had a determination to do whatever I could to work my way through my problems.

The Gate of the Year

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I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known Way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
So heart be still, what need our little life, our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife of things both high and low,
God hideth his intention.
God Knows. His will Is best.
The stretch of years which wind ahead, so dim to our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God, our fears are premature;
In Him all time hath full provision.
Then rest; until God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes, when, as the sweeter features
Of life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise God’s thought around His creatures
Our minds shall fill.

-Minnie Louise Haskins

Preface

Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

Living stones of Zion

Only living stones can strengthen the walls of Zion.
Other stones do not bond and will be pushed out of place.
A block of wood, a bale of hay or straw, will fill a gap in the wall,
They do not bond, they offer a route for vermin to enter Zion.
When the fiery darts of the enemy strike them they go up in flames.

Sunlight shows flashes of gold, silver and jewels in some living stones.
Others are plain granite, all help bear the loads of brothers and sisters
And form bonds that make the walls a sure defence against the enemy.
There is safety within for little ones, not yet spiritually living stones,
And a place where the weak and wounded heal and renew their strength.

Spiritual sacrifices are daily offered within these walls,
Sacrifices of selfish will and pride, of personal desires and ambition.
Sacrifices that arise as sweet incense to the courts of heaven.
Peace, joy and love here are tested, are strengthened and endure ,
Pleasing God and making glad the hearts of the citizens of Zion.

A pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day is seen upon these walls,
The Shekinah glory of God, invisible to unbelieving eyes,
Yet seen and feared by demonic beings that love darkness.
Weary seekers of the city of God catch glimpses of light from afar
Angels of light watch over them, help them find their way home.

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