Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Two tabernacles

When Moses was up in the mountain communing with God during the Exodus, God gave him detailed directions for the structure that should be the centre of the people’s worship. He was to build a long tent, or tabernacle. The inside was of gold and beautiful tapestry, the outside was a drab, waterproof covering.

At one end, separated from the rest by a thick woven curtain, was the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat above it. To an onlooker, the tent would not have been particularly noteworthy, except for the Shekinah, the glory of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that always stood above the mercy seat.

This tabernacle was of central importance to the people during their time in the wilderness, during the conquest of Canaan and throughout the time of the judges.

Then came the time when the ark was removed from the tabernacle and taken into battle against the Philistines. The Philistines were victorious in the battle, to the point of capturing the ark. Eli, the high priest and spiritual leader of the Israelites, died upon hearing this news. At this point the worship of the Israelite people took a turn for which no recorded instruction had ever been given.

Eli’s place as spiritual leader was taken by Samuel, who was not of the priestly lineage. The ark was returned to Israel, but never put back in place in the tabernacle. Samuel went from place to place throughout the land to offer sacrifices and teach the people.

Samuel was a true prophet and spiritual leader, but as he grew old and had no obvious successor, the people began to call for a king. God granted their wish and Saul became king. Things soon went bad with Saul and God sent Samuel to anoint David to be king.

When David became king over all Israel and had conquered mount Zion, he decided to build a new tabernacle. He brought the ark and placed it in the tabernacle he had built, with no curtain to separate it from the people. The first time David tried to bring the ark to his new tabernacle, God smote Uzzah for trying to steady the ark, showing that the ark still denoted the presence of God. The second time was successful. David put on priestly garments of linen and an ephod and offered sacrifices to sanctify the tabernacle.

This is the only time that sacrifices were offered at the tabernacle of David. Thereafter it was a place of worship, where prayers were made, psalms sung and possibly the Word of God was read. Jehoshaphat is called the recorder, a word whose meaning might also mean one who causes to remember.

Here we see David acting as prophet, priest and king. Many of the Psalms are prophetic, he is called a prophet in Acts 2:30. We read in 1 Chronicles 16:39-40 that the tabernacle of Moses still stood at this time, located at Gibeon, and Zadok the high priest was still offering the sacrifices called for in the law. But since the mercy seat was no longer in the tabernacle of Moses, they were just going through the motions. The mercy seat was in the tabernacle of David.

This strange anomaly in the Israelite worship came to an end when Solomon built the temple and installed the ark in the holy of holies in the temple.

In later years prophets reminded the people of the tabernacle of David. Isaiah 16:5 says: “And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness.” Chapter 32:20 says: “ Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.” Amos 9:11-12 says: “ In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this.”

We can interpret the references to Zion as referring to Jerusalem and the temple mount, and the references to the tabernacle of David as prophesying the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in Christ. Many people do.

But the parallels are too striking. David as prophet, priest and king sanctified the tabernacle with a one time sacrifice. A new form of worship, completely separate from the tabernacle of Moses. Access to the mercy seat without a veil between it and the worshippers.

Isn’t this what the leaders of the early church recognized at the meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15? James quoted the passage from Amos and recognized it as a prophecy of what was then happening. The tabernacle of David had been restored, a place where all people, including the Gentiles, could freely worship God without having to approach Him by means of the Jewish form. Just as the tabernacle of Moses was empty in the time of David, the worship in the Jerusalem temple was now empty after the one time sacrifice made by Jesus, the true son of David and our eternal prophet, priest and king.

Mixed up about the Gibeonites

God had miraculously led the children of Israel through Jordan and to victory over Jericho and Ai. Before them now were the mountains; the nations in those mountains greatly outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. These were the people who had so frightened their fathers forty years earlier; the challenge before them was formidable.

Up in their mountain stronghold, the people of Gibeon had gotten the message that God planned to give this land to the Israelites and they believed that He could and would do it. They also knew that God had forbade the Israelites to make any covenant with the people of the land. So they hit upon a ruse, sending a delegation pretending to come from a far country and wanting to make a league of peace between their people and the people of God.

Of course it was deception, and yes, Joshua and the elders of Israel were tricked into doing what God had told them not to do. And yet, what was the result? Bible story lessons make this a great issue. But what evidence can they point to of God’s displeasure?

The kings of the Amorites called out their armies to attack Gibeon in order to prevent the Israelites from gaining a foothold in the mountains. God told Joshua to go to the defence of the Gibeonites and promised to deliver the attacking armies into his hands. He rained hailstones that killed more of the Amorites than Joshua’s army, He made the sun stand still in the sky until the victory was complete. Over the next few days Joshua and the Israelites attacked and vanquished all the Amorite cities. Far from punishing the Gibeonites, God had used them as the key to the conquest of the whole southern half of the promised land.

Now the kings of the north, Hittites, Perezites, Jebusites and the rest of the Amorites and Hivites, gathered together to prepare an attack on the Israelites. Joshua and the army marched north to attack the gathered armies and once again God gave them a decisive history. Now they were masters of the whole 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.”

We can natter on if we wish about the wickedness of the Gibeonite deceit and the wickedness of the people of God in falling for their treachery. But we won’t find anything in the Word of God to back us up.

It is true that God did instruct the people in Deuteronomy 20:17 : “But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.” Are we blaming God for not sticking to His word even when one group of those people willingly submitted to Him? God later told Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).

The story of the Gibeonites is a vivid portrayal of the redemption that God offers to all mankind when we accept His judgement on our sins. It is a story of God’s providential care of His people in leading them to victory and of his mercy to the heathen in drawing them to find salvation with His people.

The Gibeonites did not become slaves to the Israelites. Read the story carefully, they became slaves of the Levites for the service of the tabernacle. There was mercy even in this. Their work was menial, but it was for the service of God and it protected them from oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are included among the people later called Nethinims.

There came a time when King Saul thought he would do 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. I don’t read this as revenge. This was the most effective means of getting the message out to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God. Nowadays Twitter may be quicker, but often not much kinder.

Let’s not be like Saul and condemn the Gibeonites for their deception. The real story here is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but the Bible account leads us to believe the sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty 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.

The glory of the Lord

God’s presence with the children of Israel during the Exodus was shown by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. There were instances when there must have been a more glorious manifestation of God’s presence in the cloud. The glory of the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai and God’s voice spoke out of the cloud, calling Moses to come up the mountain.

The glory of the Lord appeared on occasions when Moses’ authority was questioned and when the tabernacle was dedicated. The pillar of cloud rested upon the tabernacle from that point on. Many years later, when Solomon dedicated the temple the glory of the Lord descended upon it and the cloud filled the temple. The cloud, or Shekinah, a Hebrew term not found in the Bible but used by rabbis to describe the cloud, remained above the temple until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The Shekinah was one of the five things said to be missing from the second temple. Ezekiel had visions of the glory of the Lord during the Babylonian captivity.

It does not appear that the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, was seen again until the birth of Jesus. The second chapter of Luke tells of the shepherds on the hillside during that night and then verse says: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” No doubt the angels were also glorious in appearance, but the phrase “the glory of the Lord” refers to a glory much greater than that of the angels.

Could this also explain the star seen by the Magi? I am going beyond anything that can be established by the Bible, but there is really no physical explanation for a star that led the Magi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and then to one specific house in Bethlehem.

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost could also be considered an appearance of the shekinah, or the glory of the Lord: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:2-4).

From this time forward the glory of the Lord has been with God’s new covenant people, the church. It is known today not by outward signs but by the life changing power of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.

The tabernacle of David

There was only a river between the Israelites and the Promised Land.  But that river was in full flood mode, filling the whole valley and spreading beyond the banks.  Joshua told the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant to march straight into the water and told the people to follow.  It wasn’t until the priest’s feet touched the water that a path opened through the flood and that great mass of people crossed over on dry land.  It was clear to all that God was leading, His Shekinah presence visible as a cloudy pillar above the mercy seat on the Ark.

A few days later, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were again on the march, walking around the fortified and walled city of Jericho, the people following silently behind.  We know the story, once around the city for six days, seven times the seventh day, and the walls collapsed inwards.  Once again it was evident that God was leading.

On both of these occasions, the people sanctified themselves before God led them in such miraculous fashion.  Several generations later, the people were manifestly unsanctified, yet thought that if they took the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines God would surely give them the victory.  This was a lapse into pagan thinking, that somehow they could manipulate their God into doing what they wanted.

It didn’t work.  The Israelites were defeated and the Ark captured by the Philistines.  Now the presence of God above the mercy seat was manifested: the statue representing the god of the Philistines toppled, breaking in pieces and wherever the Ark went the Philistine people suffered plagues.  The Ark was returned to Israel in a manner clearly showing God was in control.  His power was shown again in the deaths of the Israelites who presumed to open the Ark and look inside.

The Ark was removed from the tabernacle of Moses to be taken into battle against the Philistines and it never returned.  Eli, the high priest died upon hearing of the capture of the Ark and his place as spiritual leader was taken by Samuel, who was not of Levitical or priestly lineage.  All the time of Samuel’s ministry and through the reign of David, the Ark remained separated from the tabernacle of Moses.

When David captured Mount Zion and made it his home, he installed the Ark in a new tabernacle he built on Mount Zion.  King David put on priestly robes and offered sacrifices to sanctify the new tabernacle.  No other sacrifices were ever offered at the tabernacle of David.  In their place, a form of worship was established that included songs, prayers and preaching (this is the true meaning of the word rendered “record” in the AV).  Meanwhile, the high priest continued offering the daily sacrifices before the tabernacle of Moses located at Gibeah, a tabernacle that did not contain the Ark and the mercy seat.

Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah, brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies and established the priests in their functions.  It is notable in Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple that he included all mankind in the promise of salvation: “For they shall hear of thy great name, and of thy strong hand, and of thy stretched out arm” (1 Kings 8:42).

It is also notable that when the walls of Jerusalem were built, Mount Zion was outside those walls.  Yet the memory of David’s tabernacle upon Mount Zion, where God dwelt above the mercy seat among His people without the sacrifices and rituals of the law, thrilled the heart of the prophets.  “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken” (Isaiah 33:20).  “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name, saith the LORD that doeth this” (Amos 9:11-12).

Many years later, the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the temple, to consider whether Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and follow all the laws given to Israel.  James, the brother of our Lord, recalled those prophecies and saw their fulfilment in the salvation of the Gentiles and came to this conclusion: “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.  And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, after this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.  Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.  Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God” (Acts 15: 14-19).

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