Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: redemption

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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The challenge of Islam

[This post is my translation of a portion of Robert Dubarry’s commentary on the book of Revelation. I bought this book many years ago from a Montréal bookstore. It is undated, but I believe it was written about sixty years ago. M. Dubarry was a French Baptist pastor; I can find next to nothing about him on the internet, but I did come across one mention of an article on the history of the Baptists in France that he wrote in 1912. The following passage is part of his commentary on Revelation 9:1-12.]

The monstrous union of secular power with fallen Christianity since the time of Constantine had assured the domination of paganism disguised as the gospel. Savage doctrinal battles, the domineering and dissolute spirit of the clergy, absurd notions and idolatrous practices, all these things had transformed the holy and blessed piety brought by Jesus into a scandalous religion. Mohammed, faced with such a spectacle and priding himself on never having wanted to learn to read and write, was incapable of making contact with the revelation of true Christianity. Many who have studied his life are persuaded that if he had first known Jesus Christ by other means than these degenerate representatives, he would not have gone further in seeking an ideal alternative to the lamentable state of his epoch and his milieu.

He was born in 571 at Mecca in the desert of Arabia and experienced the harshness of life, yet was endowed with remarkable intelligence despite a mental imbalance probably due to epilepsy. Having an iron will and aware that there must exist a moral ideal superior to that of his time, yet devoid of scruples, he developed the ambition to reform the thinking of his people, which was at that time half pagan, half Christian.

He offered more than paganism by getting rid of the notion of many gods, he brought more than degenerate Christianity by reviving certain elementary principles of order, wisdom, morality, righteousness and piety, sadly lost from the view of the false disciples of Jesus Christ.

But he gave infinitely less than apostolic Christianity, by denying the Trinity, in ignoring redemption, in putting aside true spirituality and opening new avenues for the carnal nature of man through earthly advantages and by heavenly promises entirely contrary to the spirit of the gospel.

Mohamed has sometimes been considered as being in many ways an extremist of oriental Christianity. However that may be, over an immense territory and for more than a thousand years, Islam has become the most insurmountable obstacle ever encountered by the gospel. The simplicity of its doctrine and practices has gained the allegiance of many hearts. Instinctively moulded to man’s natural tendencies, it requires an insignificant minimum of sacrifice for a maximum of privileges. As a substitute for evangelical Christianity, the Enemy could not have done better. The religion of the least effort, Islam has immobilised the thinking, morality and spiritual aspirations of its followers to such an extent that those that it has gained from paganism are too satisfied by this easy gain to imagine that greater spiritual progress might be possible, or even desirable.

It would be inconceivable that in a prophecy of “things which must soon come to pass” there would be no mention of such a great upheaval, involving not only the province of the seven churches of Asia but the whole Orient and even our own nation. For we must not forget that in the eighth century all the south of France was ruled by the Crescent of Mohamed, as was all of Spain until the eleventh century. The charred stones at Nîmes remind us that after seventeen years of Saracen occupation this improvised fortress was liberated by Charles Martel in 737. Islam remains in our day the most difficult missionary problem of all, and for civilized nations the most troubling foreign problem in the political, social, cultural and moral areas.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

There are two ways of reading the Bible. One way is to see it as a repository of morally edifying stories. One can label that the pietistic approach or the moralistic, therapeutic deism approach.

The other approach is to see the Bible as a history of how God revealed, step by step, the redemption story. This was the approach taken by the Anabaptists of years ago. We, who claim to be their spiritual descendants, have been heavily influenced by Bible story books and other influences coming from modern evangelical Christianity and have come close to swallowing the pietistic interpretation. We have lost something important in the process.

Take for example the story of Joseph as it unfolds from Genesis chapter 37 on. Joseph is a perfect fit for the modern idea of a hero — poor mistreated boy makes good beyond his dreams and then is gracious to those who mistreated him. Most people see nothing more than that in these chapters.

There is, however, another story woven into those chapters in such a way that we almost miss it. In fact, most often we do miss it. That is the story of Judah.

Reuben was Jacob’s firstborn son, the one who should have been the head of all the tribes of Israel. Well, he tried — sort of. When his brothers wanted to kill Joseph, he suggested they put him in a pit instead. It seems that he intended to rescue him later, but didn’t really have a plan. Later when Joseph demanded that Benjamin be brought to him in Egypt, Reuben offered his two sons to his father as surety for Benjamin. Jacob did not appear to be impressed.

Judah was the fourth son of Jacob, certainly not predestined to have the preeminence, and there is not much in his earlier life to suggest that he might one day become the leader. It was Judah’s suggestion to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Perhaps he was trying to save Joseph’s life, but he certainly never expected to see him again.

It isn’t until chapter 43 that we see a different Judah. Obtaining grain from Egypt was now a matter of life and death, and Jacob had rejected Reuben’s offer of his sons as surety for Benjamin. Then Judah steps up before his father and says: “ Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones. I will be surety for him; of my hand shalt thou require him: if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame for ever.”

Evidently Jacob saw in Judah a depth of sincerity and commitment that convinced him that he could trust him to keep his word. In the following chapter, Judah stands before the man who was the lord of Egypt and recounts the commitment he made to his father: “ For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I see the evil that shall come on my father.”

By this willingness of Judah to sacrifice himself for the welfare, not only of Benjamin but of the whole family, the heart of Joseph was broken and he revealed himself to his brothers. And by this act of self-sacrifice Judah became the leader of the children of Israel.

Years later, when Jacob blessed his sons, his blessing of Judah foretold his role in the whole future history of the children of Israel. “Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.”

Note that in Egypt the brothers bowed down to Joseph, but Jacob foretold that in the future they would bow down to Judah. The kings of Israel, after Saul, were of the tribe of Judah. Our Saviour came from the lineage of Judah as reckoned according to the flesh.

There are important lessons in the life of Joseph. But the truest image of the story of redemption is not found in the man who lived in palaces, dressed in costly array and whose authority was felt in every corner of Egypt. It is found in the man who, when it became a matter of life and death for his brethren, offered himself as a ransom.

Wicked women of the Bible

One was a Canaanite woman who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law. Another Canaanite woman was a prostitute. A Moabite woman crawled under the covers with a man while he was sleeping to hint that she wanted to marry him. The fourth was an Israelite woman who bathed on the roof of her house in full view of her neighbour.

What do these four women have in common? They are all named in the genealogy of Jesus. In fact, they are the only women mentioned in His genealogy.

Tamar, the first, was the widow of both of Judah’s two oldest sons. Judah promised her that she would marry his youngest son when he came of age, but did not keep his promise. Tamar then took matters into her own hands, playing the prostitute to Judah himself. When Judah was informed that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, he decreed that such a sin must be punished by death. However, when she informed him who was the father of the expected child, Judah was humbled and responded “She hath been more righteous than I.”

Rahab was the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies who had come to search out the defences of Jericho. Because of this, she and her household were the only survivors of the destruction of Jericho. She married an Israelite – possibly one of the spies?

Ruth the Moabitess may have taken unusual measures to make her wishes known to Boaz, but he appeared to take her intentions kindly. He told her: “Blessed be thou of the LORD, my daughter: for thou hast shewed more kindness in the latter end than at the beginning, inasmuch as thou followedst not young men, whether poor or rich.”

The Bible tells us nothing of Bathsheba’s thoughts when she bathed on the roof. Some commentators think that she was actually performing the ritual cleansing after the end of her menstrual period. If that be so, it could have appeared as an invitation to King David. He certainly seems to have taken it that way.

None of these women had the Bible we have today. The law had not been given at the time of Tamar, even later no one had access to a personal copy of the Scriptures. There was no weekly worship and instructional service during Old Testament times. None of this excuses their conduct. Yet God had mercy on them and they became known as godly women. When the elders blessed the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, they said “Let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah.”

Three of these women appear in the genealogy of David and the fourth, Bathsheba, was his wife and the mother of Solomon, the son whom God loved best of all the sons of David. Proverbs 31 begins: “The words of king Lemuel, the prophecy that his mother taught him.” No king by this name appears in any ancient record. The name signifies “for God” and the rabbinical commentators considered it another name for Solomon. We cannot be positive, but the only alternative is that Lemuel is a complete mystery. If Lemuel was indeed Solomon, then Proverbs 31 was written by Bathsheba.

Jesus, during His ministry, had a compassion for scorned and mistreated women that was unheard of in that day. The Pharisees were the true believers of Jesus’ day, in that they believed all the Scriptures taught and scrupulously observed all the commandments of the law. They often scorned Jesus for His friendship with sinners. His response? He told the Pharisees “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”

Do we have the same compassion toward the fallen and downtrodden that Jesus and the early church had? One of the primary reasons for the rapid growth of the early church was that the gospel offered hope and dignity to the outcasts of society. Have we forgotten this in our day?

It has been a great temptation for us as North American Christians to sit in our comfortable, middle-class pews and rejoice in God’s goodness, all the while averting our eyes from the misery around us. If we do see it, we console ourselves that all these people are going against better knowledge. Really? I am convinced that most people in North America today have no more understanding of God’s mercy and righteousness than Tamar and Rahab had at the beginning.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

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.

The translators of the Authorized (King James) Version were men of remarkable humility. When a Bible passage could legitimately be understood in two different ways, they did not believe they had a right to choose between them. They placed one in the text and the alternate rendering they placed in a note beside the verse. I’m afraid that all North American editions of the Bible have eliminated these alternate readings, and subsequent translators have not had the same hesitancy about choosing one over the other.

In Judges 11:31 Jephthah’s vow is that whatsoever came out of his house “shall surely be the Lord’s and/or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” The Hebrew text contains no conjunction, yet the context seems to demand one. The translators inserted and in the verse and or in the note for that verse. Then we are told in verse 40 that “the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament/talk with the daughter of Jephthah.” Lament is in the verse, talk with is in the note. These alternate readings, which the translators deemed to be credible renderings of the Hebrew, seem to be the more likely meaning in light of God’s hatred of human sacrifice and His blessing on Jephthah

The stories of Jephthah and Samson seem to be almost universally misunderstood. If Jephthah was as foolish and wicked as he is often portrayed today, why did the Lord bless his vow and give him victory over the Ammonites? And why is he listed in Hebrews 11:32 as a man of faith? The message that we should take from the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 is that he sacrificed himself to save his people from their oppressors.

It is nowhere said that he offered his daughter as a burnt offering. His daughter did not go up and down on the mountains to lament her impending death, she was lamenting the fact that she would never have children, and thus her father would have no posterity. This was a tremendous sacrifice for a man in Israel and links the story of Jephthah with the account of Abraham offering his son. Both are part of the redemption story, foretelling the time when God would offer His only Son for our redemption.

Samson was for twenty years a judge in Israel. If we read the account, we find that most of the things which modern preachers and writers find so disreputable were done by Samson at the prompting of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord did not leave Samson until he forgot that his great strength came from the Lord. He told Delilah the secret of his strength, but it appears that by this time he hardly believed anymore that his strength was the result of his vow as a Nazarite. The Spirit of the Lord left him, with painful consequences. Then, while a captive and slave of the Philistines, he renewed his vow and gave his life to set his people free from the domination of the Philistines. This is the message of the story of Samson that is entirely missed by those trying to draw a moral lesson from his supposed misdeeds. Samson is also mentioned as a man of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

To the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said: “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). A little further in the same chapter, he says: “All things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (verses 44-45). Today we have both the Old and New Testaments, why are so many still slow of heart to believe the evidences of the redemption story that are found in Old Testament history?

Jephthah and his daughter

“And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31).

Did Jephthah offer his daughter to God as a burnt offering?  Josephus and many commentators and writers of children’s Bible story books assume that he did, and offer deprecatory editorial comments on his foolishness and wickedness.  But is that really what happened?

Let’s look at the whole story.  Jephthah was the son of Gilead, born of a prostitute.  He appears to have been raised by Gilead and his wife until he reached manhood, then Gilead’s wife demanded that he be sent away because he was the son of a foreigner and should have no right to share the inheritance with her children.

Jephthah went to the land of Tob, and was followed by other propertyless men.  The land of Tob is not clearly identified, but appears to have been an unsettled area east of Gilead.  Jephthah and his men settled down, established families and gained renown for the vigorous defence of their territory.

When the Ammonites made war with Israel, the elders of Gilead went to Jephthah and asked him to be their captain to defend them against the Ammonites.  Circumstances had made them desperate enough to accept the leadership of the man they had once driven out.

Jephthah went back to Mizpeh and was made head and captain of the Gileadites.  His first act was to pray to God at Mizpeh.  Then he sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites to inquire why they were troubling Israel.  When the king replied that Israel had stolen his land, Jephthah recounted the history of how during the Exodus the children of Israel had not set foot on the land of the Ammonites and Moabites, but had taken the land of the Amorites.

Jephthah then made the vow reprinted at the beginning of this article and went out and utterly routed the Ammonites.  Upon his return, his daughter came out to meet him and became subject to her father’s vow.

Jephthah lived six years after this and judged Israel until his death.  He is named in 1 Samuel 12:11 as one of the judges that God raised up to deliver the Israelites from their enemies.  He is named once more among the men of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

How can we reconcile Jephthah, the man of God and hero of the faith with the Jephthah who offered his daughter as a burnt offering?  Are we perhaps missing something in the story?

Here are some reasons to doubt that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering:

1.  This was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew scriptures.  Deuteronomy 12:31 says: “Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.”  This is repeated In Deuteronomy 18:10: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire . . .”

2.  Numbers 18:15-16 states that the firstborn of men and beasts belonged to God, “nevertheless, the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem.”  Leviticus 27:2-8 speaks of vows and the amount to be paid for redemption.  Verse 4: “And if it be a female [from twenty years old to sixty years old, according to the previous verse], then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.”  The following verses give the amount to pay to redeem those who were younger.  Thus all that was required for Jephthah to fulfil his vow was to pay the amount to redeem his daughter.

3.  Many writers seem to assume that Jephthah’s vow was secret.  This is not evident from the text.  If he spoke the words publicly, then we must believe that his daughter willingly offered herself.

4.  Judges 11:31: “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.  Cambridge reference Bibles give an alternative reading in the margin: “or I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.

5.  In fact, the whole passage, “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”, consists of three words in Hebrew: YHVH (the name of God: Jehovah or Yahveh) ‘âlâh (ascend, lift up, offer) ‘ôlâh (step, ascent, burnt offering).  The remaining words are supplied by linguistic experts according to their understanding of the context.  ‘âlâh and ‘ôlâh are different forms of the same word and have a great range of meanings.

6.  The great sorrow of both Jephthah and his daughter is that she will forever remain a virgin.  She was Jephthah’s only child, thus he will be left with no posterity to carry on the family.

7.  The conclusion of Judges 11 states: “And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”  The margin gives the alternate reading of “to talk with the daughter of Jephthah”.

8.  The conclusion of commentator Adam Clark is that the daughter of Jephthah was dedicated to the service of God in the sanctuary that was at Mizpeh and remained unmarried all her life.

This conclusion makes more sense to me than to assume Jephthah committed the gross sin of human sacrifice.  It grieved Jephthah that he would have no posterity, yet he and his daughter were united in devotion to God and did not hesitate to fulfil the father’s vow.

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