Saturday, December 31, 2011

Caution is Better Than Cure (Josh 9)


I have been exercising and swimming in a pool for 30 minutes a day since 2003 due to my weak knees from too much basketball. The hardest thing to avoid in swimming is swimmers themselves. In the States swimmers in a lane are required to swim to one side one way and return the other side to avoid bumping into one another.

Even so, four types of swimmers are difficult, almost impossible, to avoid: the splashers, swimmers who closed their eyes, butterfly stroke swimmers (the butterfly lovers) who literally “own” the swimming pool with their wings spread, backstroke swimmers who cannot see with the back of their eyes, and the elderly who swim where they please.

I discovered another type of pool hog in Hong Kong that I did not see in the States. In the States, pools are divided by ropes into three lanes and are longer in length, whereas in Hong Kong pools are shorter and rounder, so a few swimmers take unorthodox approaches: they swim around the pool and often get in and cut into the path of others, and other swimmers swim diagonally or crossways. In short, look out when you swim and swim with your eyes open. I have no problem because I can only dog paddle.

The story of the Gibeonites is important because it was the last hurdle the Israelites faced before entering Canaan. The success of Joshua’s army grinded to a halt upon meeting their tricky neighbors. After this incident the rest of the way was plain sailing. Before and after this incident, no individual, tribe or nation could withstand the Israelites’ onslaught. This time is the only time the new generation failed to rely on God and Joshua stumbled in his leadership.

Why do people lose their guard? What keeps people alert? How do we keep focused?

1 Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things — those in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)— 2 they came together to make war against Joshua and Israel. 3 However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, 4 they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. 5 The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. 6 Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, "We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us." 7 The men of Israel said to the Hivites, "But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?" 8 "We are your servants," they said to Joshua. But Joshua asked, "Who are you and where do you come from?" 9 They answered: "Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the Lord your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan-Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. 11 And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, 'Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, "We are your servants; make a treaty with us." ' 12 This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. 13 And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey."

A prospering business consultant was approached by a downsized executive. “Can you teach me how to make big money in consulting?” asked the executive.

“Absolutely,” said the consultant.

“How much will it cost me?”

“That’s my trade secret,” said the consultant, “I charge by the question.”

“How much do you charge?”

“One hundred dollars per question.”

“Can you prove to me that charging by the question works?”

“Sure, but you realize that will be your fifth question” (Bits and Pieces 4/24/97)

Joshua 9 begins with a transition to the west, more specifically to the kings in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites). “Hill” and “coasts” made their debut in the book.

The Gibeonites knew they had to do something. The fact that all these kings banded together 同心合意 (v 2) could only mean the rest were desperate, demoralized and devastated. They came up with an unlikely plan that worked. The whole thing was unscripted and unexpected. First, a “delegation假充使者” (v 4) made a strong impression on Joshua, unsurprisingly that the word occurs for its only time in the Bible. It was a formal, impressive affair. The word “ruse假充” means trickery, not outright deception. The odd repetition in the passage is the unlikely word “old舊,” which occurs five times in the Bible, but four of which are listed in the chapter as old sacks 舊口袋and wine bottles 舊皮酒袋(v 4), old shoes舊鞋 and garments舊衣服 (v 5, KJV). The problem was not that of the Gibeonites, but the Israelites who never checked. They accepted the strangers’ words and gave them the benefit of the doubt. It was not that they never asked, which they did, but they never bothered to double check.

The Gibeonites/Hivites never told them who they were, which was what Joshua asked (v 8) but never examined or followed up. They sidestepped the question but answered the next one, nevertheless: where they were from (v 7). It didn’t occur to Joshua that their answer grew more extreme and more ridiculous by the minute - from “distant遠方” (v 6) to “very distant甚遠.” (v 9, 22). Unsurprisingly, Joshua dropped his guard and repeated “very distant” (v 22) but not “distant” (v 6). As they say, People hear what they want to hear.

My guess is that they were duped by the offer of servants in the new land. The Israelites were more than eager to make a treaty with the Hivites, who they were at war with (v 1) when they heard this phrase repetition: “your servants,” as many as four times (vv 8, 9, 11, 24). It was terse enough: We are your servants我們是你的僕人(v 8). Isn’t that ironical? The Israelites were servants in Egypt (Deut 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 22), in the house of bondage (Deut 5:6, 6:12, 7:8, 8:14, 13:5, 10). A fellow countryman or Israelite, as a servant, has its limits. They can be servants or slaves only up to six years; then they had to be freed and compensated liberally (Deut 15:12-14), but there is nothing against foreign slaves and free labor. They seemed to have forgotten their dark history and were tempted by greed. The strangers also used the word “very” to maximum effect: very distant country (v 9) and very long journey (v 13). Much severe than the Hivites intent to deceive them was the Israelites self-inflicted deception. The Israelites’s decision was hurried and hastened by the Gibeonites three usage of the word “now” (vv 6, 11, 12).

14 The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. 15 Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath. 16 Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. (Josh 9:14-16)

In February 2011 I received a letter from the US government telling me that my brother and sister that I had petitioned for to come to the States over ten years ago can now enter the States, but I must return to the States and find local employment in order for the government to complete the immigration reunion. The only legal way I could return to Hong Kong was to be a missionary of an American organization.

I resigned from teaching in a Hong Kong seminary but a church in Hong Kong was willing to find a sponsor for me in the States on the condition that I return to the pastoral ministry in Hong Kong. Well, it did not work out after months of negotiation because my heart was set on teaching, not the pastorate.

Three months later an organization I had earlier lost contact with and dropped negotiating altogether came into the picture again. This time it was plain sailing, especially when they told me they have recruited 200 new Master’s students alone in Asia in one year. It is a missions organization that teaches intensive courses worldwide. I could do the minimum and travel four times a year, each trip lasting two to three weeks. The pay is fair for the work, and I am free to raise support or work for others part-time. Better still, they allow me to live in Hong Kong to be with my wife when there are no trips.

It is not easy to find out the will of God, but it’s impossible when you do not ask.

How long did they have to wait? Three days (v 16). Three outstanding people in the Bible – Joseph, Daniel, and Joshua, but Joshua had his human weaknesses too. Only in this chapter do we see the great difference between Joshua and Moses. In the past I have often appreciated Joshua more than Moses, but now I see things differently, thanks to my dear wife, who I once asked: “Would you prefer to be Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land or to be Moses to lead them out of Egypt? Without a doubt or pause, she said, “Moses.” I followed up, “why?” She replied, “Because he had wonderful walk and communion with God. He saw God face to face. The second time I asked her, she said, he preferred to take poeple out of pain.

Joshua’s fellowship with God was unlike his mentor Moses’ relationship with God, nothing near its quality. Moses spoke to God for simple and small matters (Ex 19:23, 17:4, 33:12, Num 11:2, 12:13, 16:15, 27:5, 15); it was a lifestyle to Him. In Joshua’s case, it was mostly the Lord who initiated speaking to Joshua (Josh 3:7, 4:15, 5:2, 5:9, 5:15, 6:2, 27, 7:10, 8:1, 18, 10:8, 11:6), with the only exception when Joshua complained to God after Achan sinned and when Joshua summoned the sun to stand still (Josh 7:7, 10:12). This time, when it mattered most, when things seemed unruffled and not urgent, Joshua and company failed to seek God or inquire Him (v 14).

The only knock against Joshua is that he was too bureaucratic, action-oriented, pragmatic, professional. The seriousness of the oath, made prominent by the text in the repetition of the word “swear” four times (vv 15, 18, 19, 20), but it was lost on Joshua. However, there was no backing out, no going against one’s word, especially when human lives were at stake. Anther foolish thing was the involvement of the princes, who showed up for the first time in the book, in decision-making. The nation was fast moving from God-appointed leadership to princes (vv 15, 18, 19, 21) and royalty, who made their presence and pressure felt, and the majority. It is not a matter of whether they asked or what questions he asked, but who he asked; in this case, God.

16 Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. 17 So the Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. 18 But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, 19 but all the leaders answered, "We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. 20 This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them." 21 They continued, "Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community." So the leaders' promise to them was kept. 22 Then Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, "Why did you deceive us by saying, 'We live a long way from you,' while actually you live near us? 23 You are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." 24 They answered Joshua, "Your servants were clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. 25 We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you." 26 So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. 27 That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose. And that is what they are to this day. (Josh 9:16-27)

Do you know the difference between a boss and a leader? It’s been said:
1. The boss drives people; the leader coaches them.
2. The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.
3. The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
4. The boss says ‘I’; the leader says ‘we.’
5. The boss says ‘Get here on time’; the leader gets there ahead of time.
6. The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
7. The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
8. The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes work a game.
9. The boss says ‘Go’; the leader says ‘Let’s go.’”
10. The boss justifies or lays blame - the leader takes responsibility.

Joshua established himself as a great leader when he intervened and interceded on behalf the Gibeonites, even when he failed in his role previously with his impatience, inattention and ignorance. Formerly he was part of the problem previously, later he was part of the solution. The Gibeonites distinguished themselves in their service to the Lord (v 27) before the exile and to the people after the exile.

The word “live” is more prominent in chapter 9 (vv 15, 20, 21) than other chapters of the book, mostly because the book is also a celebration of life Ex 15:24

Why were the Gibeonites allowed to live? Because they were never enemies to begin with. The Amorites, who will show up in the next chapter, were the true enemies (Josh 7:8, 10:13). The Gibeonites were never called that. Give them credit, they were the first non-Israelites to fear Israel, not only fear but “so fearful” (v 24) in Hebrew, the positive kind exhibited by foreigners such as Abimelech and his men in the days of Abraham that God honored (Gen 20:8).

The place and the people of Gibeon will hold a special place in Israel’s history in the future. Kings in their prime such as David (1 Chron 16:39-40) and Solomon (1 Kings 3:4) worshipped there because it was the most important high place (1 Kings 3:4).. The tabernacle of the Lord was at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39-40). After the exile, the men of Gibeon returned with Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 3:7). Of the 50,000 strong returnees (Neh 7:66) from exile, more than 800 (Neh 7:25, 29) were from Gibeon and her three sister cities (Josh 9:17)

Not all was lost to the Israelites. The Israelites learned a lesson the hard way, but merely at a fraction of the cost. In a weird way, they passed the test in a unique and unusual way. Tue, they grumbled (v 18), just like their fathers did (Ex 15:24, 16:2, 3, 7, 17:3, Num 14:2, 14:27, 29, 36, 16:11, 41, 17:5), but it was not constant grumbling, unlike their forefathers (Num 17:5). They grumbled but never repeatedly, recklessly, or resentfully. Unlike the past with Moses, the Israelites did not raise their voices to Moses and wept at night (Num 14:1), did not threaten to go back to Egypt (Num 14:4) or threaten to stone the leaders (Num 14:10).Also they were dissatisfied with the leaders (v 18), not Joshua.

Conclusion: A leader is not one who is free of mistakes, but one who learns from his mistakes. Do you trust in your own judgment? Are you a mediator? Do people trust in you? Can you handle failures, setbacks and obstacles? Be a good listener and a gracious learner too.


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