Christianity Oasis Ministry
The Hound of Heaven
(A Narrative Commentary)
by Morris A. Inch
According to Murphy's Law, "If anything can go wrong, it will." It would not be surprising if Jacob surmised as much, given the problems he encountered. When Laban heard that his sister's son had arrived, he rushed to great him. Whereupon, he assured his nephew: "You are my own flesh and blood" (Gen. 29:14). It was an auspicious beginning that failed to anticipate the tensions that would develop.
After a month had passed, his uncle reflected: "Just because you are relative of mine, should you work for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be."
Now Laban had two daughters. Leah, the older of the siblings, was less desirable. Conversely, Rachel was quite attractive, and Jacob was understandably enamored of her. Consequently, he offered to work for seven years in return for her hand in marriage. "It's better that I give her to you than to some other man," Laban agreed. "Stay here with me." So Jacob labored for seven years, which "seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her."
When the interim had passed, Jacob asked for his wife. Since he failed to mention her by name, this fitted into Laban's deceitful purpose. He made provision for a feast, and on that occasion presented Leah to his nephew. "The bride would be veiled during these public festivities, and it may be assumed that the high spirits would have led to drunkenness, both factors in Jacob's inability to recognize the substitution of Leah for Rachel at the feast."23
When the morning came, "There (with a touch of Hebrew humor) was Leah." Jacob was understandably taken back. "What is this that you have done to me?" he protested. "I served you for Rachel, didn't I? Why have you deceived me?"
Laban dutifully replied, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter to marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter's bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work." The custom was calculated to save face for the elder sibling, and assured the family that they would not be required to continue her support. Of course, this should have been pointed out previously.
It was no doubt with misgivings that Jacob agreed. Nonetheless, Leah gave birth to four sons, while Rachel remained barren. The latter was jealous of her sister, and demanded of her husband: "Give me children, or I'll die!"
This angered Jacob, who caustically responded: "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?"
At this, Rachel urged him to bear her a child by way of her maidservant. It was not an uncommon practice under these circumstances. The maidservant subsequently gave birth, inciting her mistress to gloat: "God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son." Then, when her surrogate had again given birth, she gleefully announced: "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won." However, as a matter of record, the struggle continued.
Now Jacob petitioned his uncle to let him returned to his parental home. Laban protested, saying: "If I have found favor in your eyes, please stay. I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you." Jacob agreed on the condition that he be allowed to cultivate his own flock. Even under adverse circumstances, he prospered.
This caused Laban's sons to complain, "Jacob has taken everything our father owned and has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father." Jacob also "noticed that Laban's attitude toward him was not what it had been." Whereupon, the Lord prompted him, "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you."
So Jacob gathered his family and livestock, and secretively stole away. On the third day after his departure, Laban was informed and set out in pursuit. However, God appeared to him in a dream–cautioning him not to take hostile action.
Upon his arrival, they covenanted together, and heaped up a pile of stones as a witness. "Laban confirmed the purpose of these stones with an oath in the name of the God of Terah's two sons, the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor. His recognition of more than one god gives evidence of his polytheistic orientation; Jacob took his own oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac."24 In proverbial terms, "Man's adversity proved to be God's opportunity."
* * *
The Favored One
Now while parents may be equally devoted to their children, one may be favored. Joseph qualified "because he was born to him (Jacob) in his old age, and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him" (Gen. 37:3-4). Then, too, he was Rachel's firstborn.
"God likewise favored Joseph, giving him two dreams. Joseph recounted these dreams to his family, (likely impervious to) the negative effect this had on his brothers."25 Initially, he saw the members of his family binding sheaves of grain in the field. His sheaf rose and stood upright, while the other sheaves gathered around and bowed before it. Angered by his apparent arrogance, his brothers asked if he was going to rule over them.
In spite of his brothers' growing animosity toward him, Joseph shared a second dream. This time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down before him. Whereupon, his father rebuked him–although he kept the dreams in mind, pondering what significance they might have.
Sometime later his brothers had gone to graze their father's flocks near Shechem. So his father spoke with Joseph, "Go and see if all is well with your brothers and the flocks, and bring word back to me."
Arriving at his destination, Joseph found that his siblings had move on to Dothan. Accordingly, he set out to follow them. While still at a distance, his brothers recognized him. "Here comes the dreamer!" they mocked him. "Come, let's kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams."
"Let's not take his life," Rueben protested. "Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don't lay a hand on him" He meant to rescue Joseph and return him to their father when the opportunity presented itself.
So when Joseph drew near, they stripped him of his richly ornamented robe, and cast him into a dry cistern. Then, as they sat down to eat their meal, they observed a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead– bound for Egypt with their goods for sale. "What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?" Judah rhetorically inquired. "Come, let's sell him to the Ischmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood." His siblings concurred.
When Reuben found the cistern empty, he was at a loss to explain this to his father. They took Joseph's robe and dipped it in goat's blood, as evidence that he had been killed by some ferocious beats. Thus convinced, he would not be comforted but declared that "in mourning will I go down to the grave."
Meanwhile, Joseph was sold to Potiphar–the captain of Pharaoh's guard. Even so, the "Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master" (39:1). Thus are we informed of "God's quiet control and the man of faith's quiet victory. The good seed is buried deeper, still to push upward; the servant, faithful in a little trans for authority in much."26
"When his master saw that the Lord was with him and the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphor put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned."
In analogical terms, Joseph was not yet out of the woods. Potiphar's wife was attracted to him, and suggested that they have sexual relations. Joseph refused, citing the trust her husband had placed in him. "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" he protested.
One day when they were alone, she caught him by his cloak, insisting: "Come to bed with me!" Leaving the cloak in her grasp, he fled from the house. At this, she called her household servants. "He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed," she informed them. "When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house."
When her husband returned, she recited the fabricated story for him. He, in turn, had Joseph cast into prison. While Joseph's success seemed short-lived, appearances can be misleading. Whether sooner or late, Joseph's dreams would be realized.
* * *
"But while Joseph was there in prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there" (Gen. 39:21-22). This would seem in keeping with the proverbial saying, "The cream rises to the top."
Some time later, Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker were incarcerated for offending their master. Both were entrusted to Joseph's care, and both alike had dreams. "Do not interpretations belong to God? Joseph inquired of them. "Tell me your dreams."
Upon hearing from the cupbearer, Joseph concluded: "Within three days Pharaoh will life up your head and restore you to your position. But when all goes will with you, mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this prison." As for the baker, "Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree."
Now Pharaoh also had successive dreams. When he shared them with the magicians and wise men, they were unable to interpret them. Whereupon, the cupbearer was reminded of Joseph languishing in prison, and he was summoned. When called upon to interpret the dreams, he observed: "The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt."
The ruler did not think it necessary to look any further than Joseph to fill this critical post. While this appointment is usually thought to be that of a chief administrative officer, it was perhaps something less. In particular, along the line of Overseer of the Granaries and Supervisor of the Royal Lands. In any case, it was a promotion from prison to prestige.
Now Joseph made good use of the years of plenty to lay aside ample provisions to see them through the lean years. In this connection, Jacob observed: "I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not dies." Upon doing so, Joseph revealed himself to them.
Moreover, Pharaoh assured him: "Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in Goshen. And if you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock." In this regard, "The northeastern section of the Delta region was known to be inhabited by Semites and it is the center of Hyksos activity during the eighteenth to sixteenth centuries B.C. It will also be equated tithe the Tanis district, where the storehouses of Pithom and Rameses were said to be constructed (cf. Exod. 1:11)."17
"I am about to be gathered to my people," Jacob subsequently observed. "Bury me with my fathers in the cave (purchased by Abraham) as a burial place." He would thus be interned along with the remains of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. His request was subsequently honored.
When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they pondered: "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?" So they sent him word, saying that their father had asked that they be forgiven.
"You intended to harm me," Joseph acknowledged, "but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So, then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children."
Throughout the ordeal God had led him and protected him, elevating him to leadership in the Egyptian government at a crucial time, thereby enabling him to save their lives and those of numerous peoples throughout the region. This view of divine providence accords with the teaching of wisdom literature.18
As an example, "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails" (Prov. 19:21).
Joseph remained in Egypt, along with his extended family. "I am about to die," he allowed. "But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Then he had them promise to remove his remains, and bury them in the promised land. In this regard, his confidence remained firm to the end.
* * *
Turn of Events
Genesis concludes with the Israelites having found sanctuary in Egypt, while Exodus finds them suffering oppression. Such are the uncertainties of life that plague the righteous and wicked alike. By this time, the patriarchal narratives served as a cherished legacy, and as an encouragement in the face of relentless opposition.
A new ruler, who was unfamiliar with Joseph, ascended the throne. "Look," he addressed the people, "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country" (Exod. 1:9-10).
So they appointed slave masters to oppress them, and coerce them into building store cities. "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly."
Not content, Pharaoh instructed certain of the Hebrew midwives to do away with any males they delivered. "The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do." When confronted with their duplicity, they attributed it to the fact that the mothers gave birth before their arrival.
Now a certain Levite couple gave birth to a son, and his mother hid him away so he would not come to the attention of the officials. However, when she could no longer do so, she placed him in a papyrus basket, and put it among reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance, to observe what would transpire.
When Pharaoh's' daughter came to bathe, the basket was brought to her attention. Upon opening it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. At this, his sister asked inquired: "Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?" Upon receiving an affirmative reply, she secured the services of its mother. "When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became her son." She called him Moses, since she drew him out of the water.
One day, after Moses had matured, he went out to where his own people were engaged in hard labor. There he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. When this became known, Moses fled to Midian so as to escape the wrath of Pharaoh.
"Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God" (3:1). "The mountain of God is here designated Horeb and elsewhere Sinai, though either one of these names could refer to the general area, a particular range or a single peak. Moses most likely calls it the mountain of God in recognition of the status it is going to achieve rather than any prior occurrences."29 Although one option does not necessarily preclude the other.
There he observed a burning bush that was not consumed. "Was it a supernatural vision or was it an actual physical phenomenon? If the latter, did he see a bramble bush literally blazing in the desert, or the shrub called 'burning bush', in brilliant flower; or the sunset light falling full on a thorn bush and producing the effect of flames?"30 In any case, it served to catch Moses' attention.
As he approached the bush, to observe it more closely, a voice called out. "Do not come any closer," God enjoined him. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." After that, the voice confided: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, for he was fearful of confronting the Almighty.
"I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt," the Lord confided. "I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering." This was calculated to alleviate any questions Moses might have entertained along that line.
"So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt." Moses' protests were to no avail, since God was adamant. In this context, he reveled himself as I AM WHO I AM. While this is most likely a reference to The Living Lord, it implied that he would meet their subsequent needs. As cogently expressed by the psalmist, "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer" (18:2).
* * *
Let My People Go
Subsequently, Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh–informing him: "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says; 'Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert'" (Exod. 5:1). This, in turn, recalls the observation that there is no freedom from that does not embrace freedom for some worthwhile enterprise. Otherwise, it constitutes license.
"Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go?" the ruler replied. "I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go." He was perhaps struck by the audacity of some desert deity to his consummate rule, guaranteed by the Egyptian pantheon. Instead of granting the mandate, he intensified oppression of the Israelites–as a rebuke to the divine intruder.
"O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people?" Moses took recourse to satire. "Is this why you sent me?"
The Lord replied, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh. Because of my mighty hand, he will let them go." It would not be accomplished through extended negotiation, but by way of decisive action. After this, the plagues follow in succession, as if to verify the Lord God's intent.
Two examples will suffice. Initially, "With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood." "The blood-red coloring has been attributed to an excess of both red earth and the bright red algae and its bacteria, both of which accompany a heavier than usual flooding."31 Even were this the case, it would not account for the excessive nature of the flooding, nor its providential timing. As such, it was calculated to strike Pharaoh as something quite out of the ordinary.
Additionally, the Lord informed Moses: "Every firstborn son of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and the firstborn of the cattle as well." This seems meant to impress of Pharaoh the divine anguish associated with the oppression of the Israelites, as his beloved firstborn. Furthermore, the various efforts to explain this event in naturalistic terms have been less than convincing.
During the night, the ruler summoned Moses and Aaron. "Up!" he urged them. "Leave my people, you and the Israelites. Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me." This was in the form of a farewell benediction, rather than a lingering curse.
In this regard, The holiday of Pesach (Passover) commemorates the seminal event in Jewish history–the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Most notable among those propositions (associated with the deliverance) was the notion that God is present in human lives, that he hears the cries of the suffering and tormented, and that he intervenes in history to deliver man from affliction and to redeem him from oppression.32
In Jewish tradition, it is said that no one is actually free so long as anyone remains in bondage.
When their departure was reported, Pharaoh and his officials had a change of mind. "What is this that we have done?" they inquired among themselves. "We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!" Consequently, the Egyptians set out in pursuit, and overtook them as they were encamped by the sea.
"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?" the people protested to Moses. "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"
"Do not be afraid," Moses resolutely replies. "Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today." As instructed, he then "stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground."
The Lord then prompted Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen." So it came to pass. Incidentally, some have speculated that this resulted from intensive volcanic activity documented in the Aegean at that time.
In any case, the Israelites were jubilant. "I will sing to the Lord, for his is highly exalted," they enthused. "The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my sun; he has become my salvation" (15:1-2). Then, in conclusion, "The Lord will reign for ever and ever."
* * *
A Vassal Treaty
The traditional cite for Mount Sinai is a granite ridge, "the peaks of which reach about 8,000 feet above sea level. The most conspicuous peak, Jebel Musa (Mountain of Moses) looks out toward a wide plain approximately four miles in length and up to a mile in width–providing a plausible place for the people of Israel to have encamped."33 It was here, if tradition is accurate, that the Israelites gathered–having been dramatically delivered from bondage.
Then the Lord informed Moses to relay to the people, "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:5-6). Worthy of note, a priest intercedes not only on his own behalf, but that of others–in this instance, the Gentiles.
The covenant was in the form of a vassal treaty, whereby the Lord pledges his benevolent oversight on condition of the people's faithful observance. The treaty appears to consist of five parts. Initially, there is a preamble–which accents the sovereign character of the Almighty. This is followed by a prelude, recalling the providential events leading up to the treaty. Moreover, it gives way to the stipulations–which constitute the bulk of the treaty. There follows the blessing and cursing associated with keeping the covenant, and concludes with a provision for renewal in the light of subsequent developments.
The significance of the decalogue can hardly be overstated. The rabbis "speculated that it was prepared on the eve of creation in anticipation of subsequent use; they asserted that as each commandment was sounded . . . it filled the world with a pleasing aroma; they concluded that all nature hushed to hear every word as it was spoken."34 The so-called ten words are apodictic rather than casuistic, pertaining to general principles instead of particular applications.
The decalogue deals successively with the covenant people's relationship with the Almighty, and with one another. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, and out of the land of slavery," the text begins. "You shall have no other gods before me." This takes aim "at atheism (we must have a God), idolatry (we must have Yahweh as our God), polytheism (we must have the Lord God alone), and formalism (we must live, fear, and serve the Lord with all our heart, strength, and mind."35 Herein lies the key to genuine piety.
The second prohibition expressly expands on idolatry. "For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand of generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." This is by way of emphasizing the social implications of our religious beliefs, along with God's inclination to temper the results in a constructive manner.
"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." Accordingly, one is not to used God's name casually, hypocritically, or for magical purposes. Conversely, it should be employed reverently, lovingly, and earnestly.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God." This was meant to put life in proper perspective, and be renewed in spirit. Incidently, the rabbis reasoned that one must be diligent in his or work through the intervening days in order to properly observe the Sabbath celebration.
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you." This requires respect, obedience, and loving devotion. It also extends to taking care of one's parents in their declining years, and remembering them with appreciation following their demise.
"You shall not murder." In comprehensive terms, we are charged with the safety of all. This, in addition, requires an affirmation of the sanctity of life.
"You shall not commit adultery." While expressly insisting on marital fidelity, the principle was cited as a prohibition against a variety of unacceptable sexual behavior. The rabbis also advocated that one take precaution against falling into temptation, expressed in terms of building a fence.
"You shall not steal." This pertained not only to taking that which belonged to another, but the shirking of one's responsibilities, defaming someone's character, and similar infractions.
"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." In general terms, truth (like life) constitutes a sacred trust. As such, it honors the Almighty. Moreover, it provides a needed catalyst for society's well-being.
"You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor." This final interdict makes explicit what was implicit up to this point, that our predatory desires are at the root of our perverse practices. All things condidered, God's ways are preferred.
* * *
The Spies' Report
Now it came to pass that the Israelites took their leave from Sinai, and set out the promised land. Having negotiated the distance between, the Lord instructed Moses: "Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send on of its leaders" (Num. 13:2). In keeping with this injunction, Moses addressed those selected:
Go through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people ho live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in. Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor. Are there trees on it or not?
He also urged them to bring back sample produce.
The spies journeyed north, surveying the land as they went–before returning. It took them forty days in all. In greater detail, they made their way through the Negev, a region south of the Judean hill country. It is shaped like a butterfly, its wings extended from Beersheba. While it enjoys rich alluvial soil, the "sparse rainfall in the Negev makes water conservation a very important aspect of the areas's economy. Droughts are frequent. Settlements have usually existed along the wadis (seasonal streams), where water could be collected during the rainy season to store for later use."36
They continued on into the Judean hill country, which rises above the Shephelah (rolling hills) to the west, and dips down toward the Jordan rift to the east. It provides an ample region for grazing, and sustains olive groves. Hebron is expressly mentioned in the text. Jerusalem lies still further north, inciting the psalmist to observe: "As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore" (125:2).
"We went to the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey (ideal from a pastoral perspective)!" the spies allowed. "Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large." "All the people we saw there are of great size," they added. "We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."
As a matter of record, most of the inhabitants lived in valleys along the coastal plain. There were only a few important settlements in the hill country, such as Hebron. These were strongly fortified and ably defended. The Canaanite culture at that time was relatively advanced. There were skilled craftsmen, experienced merchants, and productive farmers.
Although Caleb urged the people to go up and possess the land, they were intimidated by the spies' report. That night they wept aloud, and vented their concerns on Moses and Aaron. "If only we had died in Egypt!" they complained. "Or in this desert. Why is the Lord bringing us to the land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken in plunder" (14:2-3). "We should chose a leader and go back to Egypt," they concluded.
"How long will the people treat me with contempt?" the Lord rhetorically inquired. He "was understandably angry with His covenant people because the nation was still rejecting Him after all He had already done and was promising to do for them in the future. The Israelites seem to have gained the impression that the Sinai covenant was one of privilege without any responsibility."37
Whereupon, Moses mused: "The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished." Accordingly, he petitioned: "In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now."
"Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb and Joshua," the Lord resolutely replied. "As for your children, I will bring them into the land you have rejected. (They) will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert." Forty years were to unfold, one year for each of the days the spies spent in surveying the land.
When Moses reported this to the people, they mourned bitterly. Early the text morning they went up into the hill country, only to suffer defeat at the hands of its inhabitant. The ark of the covenant remained in camp, as if to signify that they were strictly on their own.
The precise location of the engagement is uncertain. However, "The scenario plays out time and again in the course of salvation history. Persons squander their gracious opportunities. Too late, they realize their error. A belated effort proves disastrous. One must either learn from history or be destined to repeat its tragedies."38
* * *
The Jordan River "is the largest perennial course in Palestine, and its distance of some 120 kilometers from Lake Huleh to the Dead Sea is more than doubled by its meaner. No other river has more biblical allusions and significance."39 "Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land" (Deut. 34:1). He was thus assured that the Israelites would cross over the land once he had passed away.
"Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew fact to face. For no one has ever shown his mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of Israel." Not only had he been instrumental in the deliverance of his people from bondage, but in their journey to the promised land.
After Moses' demise, the Lord directed Joshua: "Now then, you and all these people get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give them. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses" (Josh. 1:2-3).
"Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them," the Lord continued. "Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn to the right or the left, that you may be successful wherever you go." The exhortation be strong and courageous is expressed four times, by way of documenting its critical importance. This, in turn, recalls the admonition: "Expect great things from God, and undertake great things in his name."
It would be to no avail should they disregard their covenant obligations. This would require continuing diligence, and faithful application. Neither to the right or to the left may be a subtle reminder that we tend to err in keeping with opposite extremes, so that when we attempt to escape one fault we fall prey to the converse.
So it was that Joshua ordered his officers to instruct the people: "Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is given you for your own."
"Whatever you have commanded us, will do," the people assured Joshua, "And wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you as he was with Moses." We are thus assured: "God encourages leaders when they feel insecure and weak. (He also unites) divided forces for the task at hand. When leaders faithfully prepare to do God's will they discover that (he) has prepared the way for success. Courage and unity also are divine gifts for believers."40
Meanwhile, Joshua sent out two persons to reconnoiter the land, and Jericho in particular. They subsequently found lodging in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. She confided in them, "I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us" (2:9). In retrospect, "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient" (Heb. 11:31).
After three days had passed, the people were instructed: "When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God and the priest, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it" (3:3). "And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord–the Lord of all the earth–set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing down stream will be cut off and stand up in a heap."
So it came to pass. Then the "priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground."
This was during the time when the river is in its flood stage and therefore wider than its normal width of 90-100 feet and deeper than its average 5-10 feet. The southern flow of the Jordan is turbulent. Form a geological perspective, the Jordan River Valley lies at the juncture of tectonic plates that create an unstable region. Earthquakes can occur and have been know to block the flow of the river.41
Whatever secondary means may have been employed, the account is calculated to express its religious implications.
Whereas a previous generation had failed, this time there would be no turning back. For better and worse, the conquest had begun.
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Joshua's central campaign began with Jericho, the oldest known fortified city in antiquity. Its capture was strategically important because it provided access to the valleys ascending into the hill country. It also appears to have been an important commercial center at the time.
"Now Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in" (Josh. 6:1). A prolonged siege seemed imminent. However, the Lord said to Joshua:
See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in.
The extended march around the city was calculated to diminish its resolve to resist. This, in turn, would serve a similar purpose as the word spread to surrounding areas. It would be coupled with reports of how the Lord had delivered the Israelites from bondage, and in anticipation of possessing the promised land.
Given its geological setting, as noted above, one could readily imagine an earthquake of sufficient proportion to collapse the walls of the city. Whether in this manner or some other, it would have been a terrifying experience for its inhabitants. Resistance would have seemed useless.
While the loss of life, whether in this connection or some other, "is to be regretted, we must recognize that there are times when only radical surgery will save the life of the cancer-stricken body. The whole population of the antediluvian civilization had become hopelessly infected with the cancer of moral depravity (cf. Gen. 6:5)."42 In addition, this was meant to bring about a redemptive recovery in the course of salvation history.
Had this devastation not come at the hands of Joshua, then presumably by some other means. Since their corporate guilt was compounded by previous generations (cf. Exod. 20:5). Then, too, the Israelites were not to benefit from their involvement.
Rahab and those associated with her were spared. This had broader implications for any showing deference to the Lord's righteous ways. In this regard, it would appear that the Almighty is much more prone to forgive than persons are to repent.
"Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city," Joshua cautioned. "At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates." This is likely a reference to the practice of child sacrifice in connection with foundation ceremonies, meant to point out the fruitlessness of the enterprise.
Now Achan of the tribe of Judah took forbidden spoils from the conflict, inciting the Lord to anger. Unaware of this complication, Joshua sent persons to appraise the situation at Ai. Upon returning, they advised: "Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary all the people, for only a few men are there. So about three thousand went up" to engage the adversary (7:3-4).
Initially, thirty-six Israelites were killed in the encounter, and the remainder fled from the onslaught. "At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water." Not only was this a disaster in and of itself, but word of what had happened would reverberate throughout the region.
Then Joshua tore his clothes, and prostrated himself before the ark of the Lord. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. "Ah, Sovereign Lord," Joshua plaintively inquired, "why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us?"
"Israel has sinned," the Almighty responded. We are thus reminded that God plays no favorites. "Go," the Lord commanded, "consecrate the people."
Early the next morning, Joshua set out to discover the guilty person. "Tribe by tribe, clan by clan, and households file by to be judged. Guiltiness may have determined by casting lots or some test. In any case, Achan was found guilty."43 Whereupon, he was summarily executed.
After than, the Lord encouraged Joshua to go up a second time against Ai. This time the Israelites were successful, having rid themselves of the contagion. In the process, it was meant that they would learn a valuable lesson.
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The Unfinished Task
Joshua's task was far from finished, since critical engagements lay ahead. After that, it would be necessary to institute land reform. All this was anticipated by covenant renewal at Mount Ebal, where its binding provisions were acknowledged in an alternative setting (Josh. 8:30-35).
A new phase begins with the hill country as "the next challenge for possessing the land. The narrator tells of independent ethnic enclaves who plot war against the tribal threat (9:1). These live in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the coast of the Mediterranean, as for north as Lebanon."44
Conversely, the Gibeonites resorted to deception–fearing that they were no match for the invaders. They sent a delegation pretending to have come from some distance, intent on making a treaty with the Israelites. In this regard, "The men of Israel sample their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath."
Three days later, it was learned that they lived nearby. This incited the whole assembly to grumble against their leaders. Nevertheless, the latter replied: "We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now." Instead, "Let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community." Even so, those who were allowed to remain proved to be hindrance in the Israelites' attempt to realize their covenant calling.
When it became known that the Gibeonites had defected to the enemy, Adoni-Zedek–king of Jerusalem formed a coalition of Amorite city states to retaliate. Whereupon, the Gibeonites sent word to Joshua: "Do not abandon your servants. Come up to us quickly and save us!" (10:6).
Joshua set out from Gilgal to relieve the besieged Gibeonites. After an all-night march, the Israelites took them by surprise.
The Lord threw them into confusion before Israel, who defeated them in a great victory at Gibeon. As they fled before Israel on the road down from Beth Horon to Azekah, the Lord hurled large hailstones down on them from the sky, and more of them died from the hailstones than were killed by the swords of the Israelites.
"In second-millennium B.C. Hittite and first-millennium B.C Assyrian sources, 'stones from heaven' are used by deities in similar contexts of battling with the enemy. As here, it is often an explanation of how the enemy was thrown into confusion."45 The resulting loss of life was thereby greatly increased.
Joshua subsequently interceded: "O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, near the Valley of Avalon." Then the "sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord was fighting for Israel."
The event has been variously explained. Some take it to mean that these celestial bodies actually remained fixed or appeared to do so, there being similar parallels in classical Greek literature. Incidentally, there may be metaphorical implications of which we are unaware.
Others think it a reference to a solar eclipse, along with the notion that Joshua's request was for relief from the heat of the sun beating down from overhead. It would be calculated to send fear through the ranks of the enemy, and thereby diminish their resolve.
A third alternative alludes to Neo-Assyrian astrology. In this instance, the unexpected appearance of the sun and moon is thought to be either a favorable omen for the Israelites and/or an unfavorable omen for their adversary. Worthy of note, this issue concerns not what God can do, but did do on that occasion.
There follows a brief account of Joshua's military accomplishments, before an impressive list of defeated foes. "You are very old," the Lord acknowledged, "and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over" (13:1). Then, too, land reform would play a critical role. Previously, Sociological studies indicate that the aristocracy, temple, and governmental officials, making up about 2 percent of the population of Canaan has control over 50 percent of the land as patrimonial holdings. These holdings were worked by slave or sharecropping peasants who paid over half of their produce to the landlords. The rest of the land was tilled by villagers who paid heavy taxes to support the urban elite.46
However, from a Jewish perspective, the land ultimately belonged to the Almighty, who meant it to be available to his people. This implied that none should be given special privileges while others were discriminated against. Impartiality was initially achieved by casting lots, and its periodic restoration as a clan and family inheritance.
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