God’s Tactics

The men of Gibeon sent word to Joshua camped at Gilgal, “Don’t let us down now! Come up here quickly! Save us! Help us! All the Amorite kings who live up in the hills have ganged up on us.”

So Joshua set out from Gilgal, his whole army with him—all those tough soldiers! God told him, “Don’t give them a second thought. I’ve put them under your thumb—not one of them will stand up to you.”

Joshua marched all night from Gilgal and took them by total surprise. God threw them into total confusion before Israel, a major victory at Gibeon. Israel chased them along the ridge to Beth Horon and fought them all the way down to Azekah and Makkedah. As they ran from the People of Israel, down from the Beth Horon ridge and all the way to Azekah, God pitched huge stones on them out of the sky and many died. More died from the hailstones than the People of Israel killed with the sword.

The day God gave the Amorites up to Israel, Joshua spoke to God, with all Israel listening:

“Stop, Sun, over Gibeon;
Halt, Moon, over Aijalon Valley.”
And Sun stopped,
Moon stood stock still
Until he defeated his enemies. (Joshua 10:1-12)

God takes care of those on his side even if they aren’t exactly nice people. The people of Gibeon had tricked the Israelites into forming an alliance with them. When the other Canaanites in the land learned that Gibeon had gone over to the Israelite invaders, they were furious and attacked them. Because of the treaty the Israelites had with the Gibeonites, Israel had no choice but to come to their aid.

God told Joshua not to worry. God promised that he would take care of things for them. God threw rocks from out of the sky, slaughtering the Canaanite armies arrayed against Gibea and the Israelites. Then God spoke, stopping the moon and sun in the sky. Since it was not possible to fight in the dark, it gave the Israelites extra time to wage war against their enemies. Joshua achieved a great victory.

Just as God had spoken to create the sun and moon, so his power over the universe was undiminished. Joshua—and Israel’s—confidence in God’s power grew enormously after this, a miracle that trumped the parting of the Red Sea in Moses’ day.

Just because we don’t see how to fix a problem doesn’t mean that God is similarly blind.

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Burning Down a City

Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua. (Joshua 8:18-23)

Victory is sweet. The first battle against Ai had been a disaster because one man had stolen some plunder at Jericho from God. The second battle, with God’s instructions, went much better. Joshua’s early career repeated incidents similar to those faced by Moses, in order that the Israelites could recognize that God was with him just as he had been with Moses. Thus, just as Moses, with the help of Aaron and Hur, had held his staff symbolically up while Joshua had led Israel to battle against the Amalekites, so God told Joshua to raise his sword over the city of Ai. Joshua’s troops that had been in hiding in ambush entered the city and set it afire. The enemy troops of Ai that had been pursuing Jacob and the soldiers with him saw their city in flames and lost heart, making it easy then for the Israelites to finally conquer them. When the king of Ai came before Joshua, Joshua himself executed him by impaling him on a pole. Afterward, he had the king’s body thrown down at the entrance of the city. They raised a large pile of stones over the body, as a memorial to Israel’s victory.

God will grant us victory over our troubles, whether they be external foes or internal ones.

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Pay Back Time

What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border. But now I will rouse them to leave the places to which you have sold them, and I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away; for the LORD has spoken.

Proclaim this among the nations:

Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Come quickly,
all you nations all around,
gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O LORD.
Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighboring nations. (Joel 3:4-12)

The call to arms preceded the call to peace. When Isaiah spoke of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, he was taking a common phrase and twisting it in a new way. Ordinarily in an agricultural society, when enemies came, the farmers had to take their tools of life and turn them into instruments of death.

God told Israel’s neighbors that had profited from the destruction and captivity of his people, that they would be paid back in kind. Just as the Jewish people had been sold northwest to the Greeks, so the people of Tyre and Sidon would be sold to the Sabeans living in the southeast, on the edge of the Arabian peninsula—as far from their homeland as they had sent the Israelites.

Jehoshaphat was a king of Judah who had faced an overwhelming Assyrian army. God had destroyed that army without Jehoshaphat having to fight. Tyre and Sidon’s fate would be the same as that of the Assyrians of Jehoshaphat’s day. Those assembled against them would not have to raise arms against them. They’d only have to bend over to pick up the spoils.

God has ways of solving problems that are beyond us. The exciting thing about an insurmountable problem, if we only turn our eyes to God, is seeing what God will do about it.

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So What?

“‘Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.’

“This is what the Lord says: ‘You say about this place, “It is a desolate waste, without men or animals.” Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither men nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying,

“Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever.” For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 33:6-11)

The giver matters more than the gift. The prophet Jeremiah hoped his people could understand the heart of God, so they could understand what he was doing to them. Jeremiah warned Israel of the impending Babylonian invasion and captivity, the inevitable punishment for their disobedience. But God also gave them comfort: his punishment was designed to correct, not destroy. And the correction would achieve its goal of changing the hearts of God’s people, so that they could one day be restored to their place. The torn-down cities of Israel would be rebuilt, the land and people would once again prosper. No discipline seemed fun at the time it happened. Only afterwards could anyone recognize its purpose. Only afterwards could they see that the punishment was actually a gift. The Israelites would mourn until the suffering inflicted by Babylon ended.

When God restored the Israelites to their land, their joy came from the fact that they could finally see that God still loved them and that they were, indeed, still his people. Afterwards, they could recognize the value of what God had given them by taking so much away. Some gifts won’t be recognizable as gifts we first receive them—but over time, we at last discern their worth.

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People of Israel,
you come from Jacob’s family
and the tribe of Judah.
You claim to worship me,
the LORD God of Israel,
but you are lying.
You call Jerusalem your home
and say you depend on me,
the LORD All-Powerful,
the God of Israel.
Long ago I announced
what was going to be,
then without warning,
I made it happen.
I knew you were stubborn
and hardheaded.
And I told you these things,
so that when they happened
you would not say,
“The idols we worship did this.” (Isaiah 48:1-5)

God adds a thousand words to every picture he paints. If God did not speak, there would be no certainty regarding God’s actions. When God performed his great miracles, rescuing Israel from Egypt, bringing them manna, conquering the Promised Land, or finally, bringing judgment on his people and taking them away to captivity in Mesopotamia, the events alone were not enough to explain what was going on. If God had remained silent, if he had not given his words to his prophets, then his people would have been able to explain away everything that happened.

God’s prophets were like the gift card on a bunch of roses received by an unfaithful wife. She wanted to believe it was her lover who had been so thoughtful. But when she opened the card, it told her they had come from her husband.

Because God spoke, the people were not able to argue that it was some other gods that were responsible. When their crops came in and they had plenty, they had to turn away from God’s words if they wanted to ascribe their blessings to their idols.

God is not silent. He has not left us without a witness. He has explained what he is doing.

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The Deep End

Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be taken away before the king of Assyria.”
The LORD also spoke to me again, saying:
“Inasmuch as these people refused
The waters of Shiloah that flow softly,
And rejoice in Rezin and in Remaliah’s son;
Now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up over them
The waters of the River, strong and mighty—
The king of Assyria and all his glory;
He will go up over all his channels
And go over all his banks.
He will pass through Judah,
He will overflow and pass over,
He will reach up to the neck;
And the stretching out of his wings
Will fill the breadth of Your land, O Immanuel. (Isaiah 8:5-10)

Israel was up the creek without a paddle. Rezin was the king of Damascus who had been paying tribute to the king of Assyria for years. Tired of paying the annual fees, he finally organized a rebellion against Assyria. But the Assyrians crushed it and executed him. Remaliah was the father of Pekah, an official of Pekahiah, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Remaliah’s son Pekah assassinated Pekahiah and became king in his place. Then he joined Rezin’s ill-fated rebellion against Assyria. Later, Hoshea murdered Pekah and became king in his place, only to rebel in turn a few years later. Assyria then destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel just as it had destroyed Rezin’s Damascus. Shiloah, also called Siloam was a reservoir within Jerusalem that fed from the spring of Gihon. The water of this reservoir was the city’s principal source of water. King Hezekiah of Judah had built a tunnel connecting the spring with that reservoir.

God criticized the people of Israel for putting their faith in those rulers—Rezin and Remaliah’s son—rather than putting their faith in God. God used Shiloah’s waters metaphorically. The northern tribes had rejected Jerusalem. They had rejected Jerusalem’s king, a descendent of David, and they had rejected Jerusalem’s God, worshiping instead the calf idols that Jeroboam, Israel’s first king, had established. In rejecting the peace that God could have brought them, the people of Israel instead embraced the destruction from Assyria.

We too easily cast away God’s truth in exchange for the world’s lies. Only in the end, do we realize how empty those lies inevitably are.

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Forget the Vacation

The LORD is our God,
and we are his people,
the sheep he takes care of
in his own pasture.
Listen to God’s voice today!
Don’t be stubborn and rebel
as your ancestors did
at Meribah and Massah
out in the desert.
For forty years
they tested God and saw
the things he did.
Then God got tired of them
and said,
“You never show good sense,
and you don’t understand
what I want you to do.”
In his anger, God told them,
“You people will never enter
my place of rest.” (Psalm 95:7-11)

God is eternal, but his patience is not. God ultimately disciplined his people. Time after time he had been there for them. He had taken them out of Egypt, he had seen to their every need, satisfied their every complaint and nothing was enough. Finally, when he brought them to the promised land, laid it at their feet, they turned up their noses and told him no, that they didn’t believe they would be able to take the land, that instead God would see to their destruction.

Their ingratitude, leading them to refuse God’s gift, led God to postpone the gift. Instead of giving it to the people he had rescued from slavery, he would wait one generation. He would give it to their children instead. They repeatedly wished they could be back in Egypt, as if being a slave was such a good thing. Since they didn’t really want to be rescued, since they didn’t want the relief that could be theirs, he gave them what they kept saying they wanted.

Rather than rejoicing in the gift God had given them, they only found fault. Rather than trusting that God was good, they always suspected he had something bad in mind for them. Of course, we never think this way, do we? How often do we doubt God’s goodness in the midst of hard times? How often do we take his many gifts for granted, seeing only the cloud that surrounds his silver lining.

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God Will Take Care of You

He established it as a statute for Joseph
when he went out against Egypt,
where we heard a language we did not understand.
He says, “I removed the burden from their shoulders;
their hands were set free from the basket.
In your distress you called and I rescued you,
I answered you out of a thundercloud;
I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah
“Hear, O my people, and I will warn you—
if you would but listen to me, O Israel!
You shall have no foreign god among you;
you shall not bow down to an alien god.
I am the LORD your God,
who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. (Psalm 81:5-10)

It’s hard not to become cynical. Shortly after the Israelites had received manna from God, they were running short of water. Moses struck the rock of Horeb and water came out to supply the needs of the people of Israel. The place was ever after called Massah and Meribah; Massah meant “testing” and Meribah meant “quarreling.” The names signified the complaining and doubt of the Israelites.

God reminded them how he had taken care of them in the past. He reminded them how there was nothing in their behavior that would motivate someone to take care of them. But when they had asked for his help, he had given it to them. In response, all he expected was ordinary gratitude. He asked only that they would listen to him and that they wouldn’t worship any other gods.

It should have been natural for the Israelites to respond positively to God. He had cared for them over and over. There should have been no doubts. And he promised them that he was ready to keep on taking care of them. All they had to do was open their mouths, to thank him, to remain faithful to him, and all would be well. God didn’t ask for a lot. God’s burden is light. His yoke is easy. Being thankful for God’s goodness, and for his help, isn’t much for God to expect from us.

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God Doesn’t Need Help

“O my people, listen as I speak.
Here are my charges against you, O Israel:
I am God, your God!
I have no complaint about your sacrifices
or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains,
and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for all the world is mine and everything in it.
Do I eat the meat of bulls?
Do I drink the blood of goats?
Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God,
and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
Then call on me when you are in trouble,
and I will rescue you,
and you will give me glory.” (Psalm 50:7-15)

God doesn’t need us to take care of him. He is not a king dependent upon his subjects to pay their taxes. He is not like the gods of the other nations. In the Babylonian telling of the Great Flood, the lone survivor finally built an alter and sacrificed some animals on it. The narrator of the Babylonian story tells us that the gods swarmed the sacrifice “like flies.” Why? Because they were starving from the lack of sacrifices caused by their foolish choice to send the flood.

But the God of Israel, Yahweh, was not like those gods—the gods that the Israelites kept worshiping. God didn’t need them or their sacrifices. They had missed the whole point of worshiping God. Sacrifice was intended to reflect the relationship between God and the worshipper. Sacrifice was a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. What was important for the Israelites was not to perform rituals, but instead to live an upright life: to love God and to love their brothers and sisters. True worship was not in the spilled blood of slaughtered animals, but in helping the poor and downtrodden—and in giving thanks to God. God helps us because he loves us, not because we said the magic words or performed the magic rituals.

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Giving God the Best

The LORD told Moses to tell Aaron and his sons and everyone else the rules for offering sacrifices. He said:

The animals that are to be completely burned on the altar must have nothing wrong with them, or else I won’t accept them. Bulls or rams or goats are the animals to be used for these sacrifices.

When you offer a sacrifice to ask my blessing, there must be nothing wrong with the animal. This is true, whether the sacrifice is part of a promise or something you do voluntarily. Don’t offer an animal that is blind or injured or that has an infection or a skin disease. If one of your cattle or lambs has a leg that is longer or shorter than the others, you may offer it voluntarily, but not as part of a promise. As long as you live in this land, don’t offer an animal with injured testicles. And don’t bring me animals you bought from a foreigner. I won’t accept them, because they are no better than one that has something wrong with it. (Leviticus 22:17-25)

God does not run a thrift store. Those who give castoff clothing and other used items to the church do so because though they no longer wish to use the discarded items themselves, they believe that they could still be used by someone. However, God wanted his people to give up prized possessions when they gave him their stuff. In ancient Israel practically everyone was a farmer. Their animals were their wealth. Imagine setting your money aflame on an alter and you’ll have a good sense of what the animal sacrifices meant to the Israelites. Giving God the broken or damaged animals, the items that were otherwise unusable, would have been a natural temptation. After all, God was not obviously visible, not obviously there. Perhaps he was a long ways off. What would it matter what sort of thing was burned on the altar? Wasn’t it all symbolic anyhow? But that was precisely it: what mattered to God was the intent of the individual, the depth of his sacrifice, the meaning behind the offering.

Giving the best animals, the perfect animals, the most valuable animals, demonstrated a commitment to God. Why male animals? Because a single male could impregnate many females; the male represented future wealth. Farmers normally had many female animals, but only a handful of males: one bull, many cows, one ram, many sheep, one rooster, many hens.

God expects the best from us. Our sacrifices should cost us something.

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