Faith cometh by hearing – salvation is come to the Gentiles

In Genesis 15:12-17 Abraham is told that his seed, after suffering harsh treatment in a strange land, would emerge from that country to inherit the land that God had promised to him. But in order for this to happen, four generations would have to pass and the land’s inhabitants, the iniquitous Amorites, were to reach a pinnacle of evil which would require their extermination. When the time arrived and God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, his instructions were clearly relayed to Israel by Moses (Deut 7:1-2):

“When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”

This commandment would have left no doubt in the minds of the children of Israel about how much mercy should be shown to the men of Canaan—it was to be a case of zero tolerance!

Into the land

Joshua, Moses’ successor, led the Israelites into Canaan to commence the work of conquest. First, Jericho was destroyed and after the eventual victory over Ai (following the hiatus over Achan’s sin) the whole nation went to Shechem to fulfil the instructions specified in Deuteronomy 27:11-13 regarding reading the law. Joshua 8:30-35 records how this task was faithfully accomplished and, after Israel’s return to their camp at Gilgal, Joshua’s army could then re-mobilise to continue the southern campaign for the conquest of Canaan.

Rahab’s faith

Just days earlier, Jericho had fallen and Rahab, along with her household, had been saved from the summary judgment upon the city. To the spies whom she shielded in her house, she confessed her faith in Yahweh and revealed the anxious state of all the surrounding cities (Josh 2:9-11):

“I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.”

Rahab’s plight was identical to that faced by the Gibeonites. God knew in advance of her faith and so she was given an opportunity to escape the judgment on Jericho by adhering to the instructions given to her by the spies (Josh 2:17-21). Rahab’s faith, combined with her works, honoured God (Heb 11:30-31; James 2:25).

The Gibeonites’ faith

For the inhabitants of four key cities, there was no such opportunity available to be spared. The instruction given to Joshua, quoted above, was unambiguous but the divine record reveals that whilst the rest of the inhabitants of Canaan were largely destroyed, the cities of Gibeon, Beeroth, Chephirah and Kirjath-jearim escaped unscathed. Their salvation was also on the basis of faith under trial and in this event, God’s will was performed and their part played in Israel’s later history became very significant.

This study is an attempt to show the Gibeonites as men of faith and to stress the typical aspects of their actions as representative of the Gentiles coming into the bonds of the gospel.

Faith cometh by hearing

“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). It is this principle that can be seen in the minds of the men of Gibeon. Like Rahab, they believed what they had heard. They were aware of the purpose of God and recognised their own very precarious and naturally hopeless situation. What could be done about this?

The comment in Joshua 9:1-2 shows how all the inhabitants of Canaan had also heard about the recent victories of Israel. Their response was to band together to fight “with one accord” (margin: Heb mouth). There was one notable exception: the confederate cities of Gibeon, Beeroth, Chephirah and Kirjath-jearim. It is interesting that although all heard, the vast majority responded in one direction, and the minority reacted differently. But how much did the Gibeonites really know and understand in order for them to act in a completely separate way?

Imagine the real dilemma of the Gibeonites living a few miles from Ai and in the path of this approaching invincible army. What could be done? Information was required relating to the Israelite strategy. What was Israel’s plan? Why were they in Canaan? Maybe spies could be sent to gather intelligence? Maybe their spies went to Shechem where they overheard a law being read out to the nation. How alarming to hear the commandment to exterminate the seven nations of Canaan without compromise! But also, to those who lived “very far off” (Deut 20:15-16) they were allowed to make a peace treaty! This would be possible if there was a desire to ally with Israel and be subservient to them and their God. Providentially, the Israelite journey to Shechem most likely provided an opportunity for the men of Gibeon to develop a strategy based on what they had “heard” (Josh 9:9).

No choice

Being so far removed from the events of those times, we sometimes find it difficult to grasp all of the details and criteria affecting actions. It is easy to be too critical of the Gibeonites’ ruse and fail to fully appreciate the impossible situation they were in. With the clear threat of extinction at the hands of the covenant people, they knew something had to be done if their lives were to be saved. And so a delegation of Hivites was sent to Joshua purporting to have come from afar and seeking to secure peace with Israel. When explaining their false position to Joshua, the men from Gibeon were quite content to relate what they had heard of Israel’s exodus from Egypt 40 years earlier, and more recently, the defeat of Sihon and Og east of the Jordan. It is almost certain that they also knew about the events in Jericho and Ai but chose not to advertise this fact to Joshua as such a comment could have jeopardised their overall plan.

What options did the Gibeonites have? How much room was there to manoeuvre? These options are considered below and leave us in little doubt that the only real, sensible course of action was the very strategy that they chose to employ.

Option 1: Try to fight against Joshua – The city of Gibeon was on a hill and it had a commanding view over the surrounding area. This gave them a distinct advantage. Additionally, the record states (Josh 10:2): “Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and … it was greater than Ai, and all the men thereof were mighty.”

From this we learn that of all the cities of Canaan, this one stood out as being one of the more easily defendable. The sheer size of the city walls and the stature of the inhabitants viewed by the spies 40 years earlier had caused all the children of Israel to consider returning to Egypt. Maybe Gibeon was defendable, judging by human reasoning, and they would be safe remaining in their city?

Option 2: Consolidate the Canaanite army – Later events in Joshua 10 show that there was an alliance of several cities who chose to place their trust in the arm of the flesh. By joining with them they would be stronger and more able to possibly succeed in resisting the Israelites. It was the treaty that the Gibeonites made with Joshua that motivated Adoni-zedek and the rest of the kings to attack Gibeon. So it is clear that they were regarded as traitors to the Canaanite cause! In not joining with Adoni-zedek, they made a deliberate choice not to conform with the Canaanitish world into which they were born and naturally belonged.

Option 3: Leave Canaan – This has to be listed as an option, but it is full of difficulties. There was very little time to prepare to leave—and where would they go? And what if they happened to bump into the children of Israel or they were deliberately pursued by them? It also ignores the evident desire of the men of Gibeon to become associated with Israel and their all-powerful God.

Option 4: Tell the truth – This sounds like the favoured and honourable option, but it would not have worked. For if they went to the camp of Israel and explained that they would like to make peace with them and own up to living in the midst of Canaan, they knew that Joshua’s instruction had been crystal clear: “thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy them”. There would be no chance at all that such a strategy would work.

Option 5: Plan a subtle strategy – With their lives in the balance and nowhere else to turn, they adopted a ruse of coming from a far country. They carefully prepared the convincing evidence of having embarked on a long and arduous journey. And with the intelligence they had gained (probably from spying on Israel at Shechem when the law was read) they knew that Israel had the flexibility to make peace with cities far away.

More importantly, they discovered that the powerful God of Israel had commanded the destruction of the entire population of Canaan! Of course, they also knew that the true facts would emerge very soon and that their deception would be discovered. In this sense the ‘lie’ was not a conventional lie. It was a means of becoming allied to the covenant people through their belief in the power of God. They demonstrated the fear of the Lord, which, says the proverb, “is the beginning of knowledge”. The opening verses of Proverbs are quite relevant here as there is an important original word link between “subtilty” and “wilily”. One reason for the book of Proverbs is to give “subtilty to the simple” (Prov 1:4), and the men of Gibeon “did work wilily” (Josh 9:4).

It was of the Lord

Some might consider that if there was ever an additional reason for their extermination, this ruse might be it, but this was not the outcome! Rather the very opposite was true. Did they deserve to be spared? Joshua 11:18-20 seems to answer the question—whilst “it was of the Lord to harden their hearts” (ie: of all the other cities) it must not have been true of the Gibeonites who had hearts receptive to the Word of God. The record explicitly shows (v19) that they were an exception. When confronted by Joshua and the elders they explained their firm and unwavering belief in the things they had “heard”. Knowing that they had misled Joshua, they did no more than trust in the mercy of the God of heaven, and whilst there were some amongst the elders of Israel who wanted to slay the men of Gibeon, Joshua did not allow it.

Hewers of wood and drawers of water

Joshua’s verdict was to make the men of Gibeon “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (Josh 9:23). To be associated with the service of the Tabernacle, however minor their role might be, was a privilege and a great blessing. So when Joshua allocated this task to the Gibeonites, it must be measured against the fact that they would have been annihilated had they not acted. As we shall see in the third and final article, the part played by the Gibeonites in caring for both the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant was indispensable.

Joshua described them as “cursed” (v23) and this probably relates to the events of Genesis 9:25 when Noah passed judgment on Canaan from whom they descended. Another possibility is simply that they were part of the seven nations whom God said Israel should destroy.

Typical aspects

The history of Israel is replete with incidents that communicate through the medium of similitudes (Hos 12:10). It is this method of instruction that is a main indicator of the divine origin of Scripture. Both Joshua 9 and 10 contain incidents which point forward to later events beyond the days of the conquest of the land. The battle with Adoni-zedek projects forward to the coming of the Lord, but the events of chapter 9 seem to relate to the extension of salvation to the Gentiles. Paul, in Romans 11:11-12, discussing bringing the Gentiles into covenant relationship, cites the reason as Israel’s fall:

“I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?”

There is a sense in which Israel, having been given the commandment to root out all the inhabitants of Canaan, fell at this hurdle. And the result was the bringing in of the inhabitants of the Gibeonite cities. Prior to our baptisms we had no hope, being outside the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise. This was the position of the Gibeonites. They were under the sentence of death and their plight was urgent. Although Joshua was unaware of the location of their cities, the pre-requisite to their association with Israel was that they demonstrated the fear of Yahweh. As Paul explains in Ephesians 3, the extension of the Hope of Israel to the Gentiles is a mystery. It was always possible, on the basis of faith, to bring individual Gentiles in the path of salvation but in the purpose of the Almighty, “the times of the Gentiles” only began with the apostles’ preaching (Eph 3:3-6):

“… he made known unto me the mystery … Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.”

Following the revelation to Peter concerning Cornelius, the apostles commenced their preaching to the Gentiles in earnest. This reference explains that it was the prophets, too, that played a major part in this preaching. These were not the Old Testament prophets but the first century prophets; those who had received the spirit gift of prophecy and as a result enjoyed a high position in the hierarchical structure in the first century ecclesia: “first apostles, secondarily prophets” (1 Cor 12:28).

Similar teaching can be found in Romans 16:25-26:

“Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.”

In our second article, God willing, the focus will be on the battle with the kings of the Amorites, Joshua’s famous victory and the typical aspects relating to the final conflicts prior to the setting up of righteous rule in the land of promise by the Lord Jesus.