Our final lesson before breaking for the holidays covered the conquest of the Northern kingdom by the Israelites recorded in Joshua chapters 11 and 12. Before we launch into the study questions and responses, I’d like to begin with some of the commentary by Keil and Delitzsch on this period. The author of Joshua tells us that “Joshua took the whole land according to all that the Lord had said to Moses,” but once we read further into the Old Testament we find that there were still remnants of the Canaanites living in the land. How do we reconcile this?
“The taking of the whole land does not imply that all the towns and villages to the very last had been conquered, or that all the Canaanites were rooted out from every corner of the land, but simply that the conquest was of such a character that the power of the Canaanites was broken, their dominion overthrown, and their whole land so thoroughly given into the hands of the Israelites, that those who still remained here and there were crushed into powerless fugitives, who could neither offer any further opposition to the Israelites, nor dispute the possession of the land with them, if they would only strive to fulfil the commandments of their God and persevere in the gradual extermination of the scattered remnants. Moreover, Israel had received the strongest pledge, in the powerful help which it had received from the Lord in the conquests thus far obtained, that the faithful covenant God would continue His help in the conflicts which still remained, and secure for it a complete victory and the full possession of the promised land. Looking, therefore, at the existing state of things from this point of view, Joshua had taken possession of the whole land, and could now proceed to finish the work entrusted to him by the Lord, by dividing the land among the tribes of Israel.” [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]
Because we wish to be careful students of the Word we need to look for explanations when we come to portions such as this which appear to be inconsistent with other portions of Scripture. This one isn’t so hard to untangle, as we see in the commentary passage above, but it is one of the places where those who are reading through the lens of doubt find excuses to disbelieve the inerrancy of the Word. Reading through the lens of faith does not require us to “check our brains at the door,” as doubters would have us believe, but it requires us to really think about what we are reading.
And now, as we begin our study of chapter 11 we are called to remember that, when we read over and over again of the annihilation of “everything that breathes” during the conquest, the Judge of all the earth—Who alone judges rightly the hearts of men—will do what is just (Genesis 18:25). In Noah’s day, the entire race of mankind had become so wicked that God saved only eight people from destruction, and centuries later God destroyed all of Sodom and Gomorrah because he could not find there even ten righteous men. Archeological evidence uncovered in the excavations of the Canaanite cities conquered by Joshua has revealed them to be wickedly degenerate even in the worship of their own gods—which worship is itself abhorrent to the God of all the universe: a treasonous crime calling for the death penalty.
Our study further pointed out that the destruction of these cities is an example of a future, cosmic event, and we were sent to the final book of the Bible to find it foretold.
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15
There is coming a final day of judgement, from which no one is exempt. From those killed in the innumerable wars waged from the beginning of time, to those who have peacefully fallen to sleep and slipped quietly into death, all will stand before the great white throne and face judgement. This is not revealed to us without merciful intent. We are reminded of the wages of sin while we yet live so that we would not consider it lightly; that we would turn to the Lord for salvation while there is still time. Too many people today believe that God is an indulgent Father, winking at sin and sweeping it under the rug. Yet the Bible tells us differently.
God is Holy, sin is deadly, and we desperately need God to rescue us from our sin. Only in Christ can we find redemption and forgiveness. Flee to him.
In our lesson, we turned next to the battles themselves, beginning with a coalition of kings, summoned by Jabin, king of Hazor, when he heard of the Israelites’ defeat of Southern Canaan. The massed armies of this coalition are described as “a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots” (Joshua 11:4)
John Calvin points out that even if these kings had joined their armies to those of the Southern kings the Lord could have easily defeated them at a stroke, if that had been his plan. It would have been a much more difficult task for the Israelites, but not insurmountable with the Lord’s help.
“(God) was unwilling, however, to press beyond measure his own people, who were otherwise feeble, lest the excessive numbers of the enemy should strike them with terror, and drive them to despair. He therefore kept the many nations, whose interest it was to have rushed hastily to arms, in a state of lethargy and amazement, until the chosen people had been animated by signal victories, to carry on the wars which still remained…. When they had gathered courage, and were ready for a new war, suddenly a very large army appears, composed of different nations, who had hitherto, by remaining quiet, furnished opportunity for victory. Their coming thus forward at a later period, was the same as if they had entered into a truce. Thus God not only fought for his chosen people, but by dividing the enemy, increased their strength manifold.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]
We are asked in our lesson how God encourages Israel in the face of this great horde. The first answer is found in the text:
“And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will give over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.”” Joshua 11:6
Calvin looks deeper and finds encouragement in God’s timing of the battles as well.
“How formidable must the onset have been, had not the Israelites been gradually trained to confidence in battle, and at the same time experienced the manifest assistance of God? First, their numbers are compared to the sand of the sea, and then they have horses and chariots. As the Israelites were altogether destitute of cavalry, it is strange that they were not terrified at this array. Therefore they were gradually brought forward till they were able to bear it.” John Calvin
Further, Calvin sees another mercy in the repetition of victories which the Israelites could clearly attribute to God rather than a single sweeping victory over all their enemies at once.
“Had all their enemies been routed at once, they might, indeed, have magnificently celebrated the praises of God, but they might also have easily lost the remembrance of them. It was necessary, therefore, that repeated proofs distinct and apart from each other, should be held forth to their view, lest they might attribute one victory to a stroke of fortune.”
He then goes on to apply this to our own weakness:
“It is to be carefully observed, that as often as he reiterates his promises men are reminded of their forgetfulness, or their sloth, or their fickleness. For unless new nourishment is every now and then given to faith, they forthwith faint and fall away. And yet such is our perverse fastidiousness, that to hear the same thing twice is usually felt to be irksome. Wherefore let us learn, as often as we are called to engage in new contests, to recall the remembrance of the divine promises, which may correct our languor, or rouse us from our sloth.”
Joshua’s response to God’s promise is to obey. He leads the Israelites into battle, and “the LORD gave them into the hands of Israel…. And Joshua did to them just as the LORD said to him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire” (Joshua 11:8-9)
Which leads us directly to an issue that is particularly sensitive to me. As a horse-lover, I read this passage and wonder, why must the horses be crippled in this way? Because this is such a tender area for me, I will simply share what John Calvin says on the subject in its entirety.
“Moreover, the command given to Joshua and the people, to cut the legs or thighs of the horses, and to burn the chariots, was undoubtedly intended to prevent them from adopting those more studied modes of warfare which were in use among profane nations. It was indeed necessary that they should serve as soldiers, and fight strenuously with the enemy, but still they were to depend only on the Lord, to consider themselves strong only in his might, and to recline on him alone.
This could scarcely have been the case, if they had been provided with cavalry, and an array of chariots. For we know how such showy equipment dazzles the eye, and intoxicates the mind with overweening confidence. Moreover, a law had been enacted, (Deuteronomy 17:16) that their kings were not to provide themselves with horses and chariots, obviously because they would have been extremely apt to ascribe to their own military discipline that which God claimed for himself. Hence the common saying,
“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalms 20:7)
God wished to deprive them of all stimulants to audacity, in order that they might live quietly contented with their own limits, and not unjustly attack their neighbors. And experience showed, that when a bad ambition had impelled their kings to buy horses, they engaged in wars not less rashly than unsuccessfully. It was necessary, therefore, to render the horses useless for war, by cutting their sinews, and to destroy the chariots, in order that the Israelites might not become accustomed to the practices of the heathen.” John Calvin
How often are we tempted to use the devices and methods of the world? Let us be content with the means God has given us for the tasks he has appointed, particularly in worship and evangelism. No cleverly devised scheme can communicate the truth and beauty of the gospel as effectively as the Word of God and the testimony of our own belief when accompanied with the life-altering power of the Spirit.
We are then asked who it is who both initiates and wins the battle against the Canaanites. This question is a bit “leading,” as it assumes that there is only one actor in the initiating and the winning. But aren’t we told right from the beginning that Jabin, king of Hazor, summoned the other kings to battle, therefore initiating it? According to verse 20 of the same chapter, yes, and no. The verse reads, “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses.”
This brings the question of human free will front and center. If it was the Lord’s doing to harden the hearts of the Canaanites so that they would come against Israel in battle and thus be devoted to destruction, how can the Canaanites be held responsible for their actions? Reformed theology teaches that humans do have the freedom to choose what they want, but because of our fallen human nature our desires are not neutral or inclined to holiness. When unregenerate sinners choose to sin, they are not forced against their will to do so, it is a choice they are making freely. The Canaanites chose to attack the Israelites because it was their desire to defeat them in battle. God’s purpose for gathering the Canaanites in battle was entirely different. God ordained the battle to bring the Canaanites to their own destruction; the Canaanites cooperated freely out of their corrupted and darkened hearts. They chose what God had ordained even though their reasons were radically different from his. God is sovereign over our decisions, but he doesn’t force us to act against our own desires.
The theme of the book of Joshua is that God is a promise-keeper. As this chapter closes, we are reminded in verse 23 of God’s promise to Moses to give the entire land to the Israelites. This hearkens all the way back to Genesis 15, when God first made his covenant promise to Abraham (then still named Abram) after passing between the carcasses of the slain animals:
“On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (vs. 18, 19)
According to all the LORD had spoken to Moses, the land has now been given to the people of Israel.
To close our lesson this week we read through chapter 12, which is a summary of the first 11 chapters of the book of Joshua. Why do we find so many lists of people and places and historical detail in the Bible? I suspect that it’s because the Christian religion is not merely theoretical philosophy, but is based in real time, involving real places and people, because our God is not a figment of anyone’s imagination, and this was all his idea to begin with! The names may be hard to pronounce and the places far away (for those of us in America, anyway), but they recall actual people and genuine real estate.
Now that the battles for the Israelites have been won, Joshua is set to begin parceling out the territories to the tribes. We are asked to consider how he is a “type” (or picture) of Christ in this. For more insight, we are directed to the following texts of Scripture:
“For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” Psalm 37:9-11
“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14:2-3
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” Matthew 25:31-34
Reading these passages in light of what we are learning in the book of Joshua, we see a picture of our Lord in Joshua cutting off the evildoers and evicting the wicked from the land and giving it as an inheritance to God’s people. He is taking the Israelites into the land which God has prepared for them. How beautiful to see signposts planted firmly in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, pointing ahead to our Savior!
The destruction of the Canaanites also points forward to a future reality spoken of in Scripture, a final day when it will be too late for the nations to repent, when the peoples of the world will have “filled up the measure of their sins.” That day is not yet upon us. We live now in the Last Days, awaiting that future and final day.
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
“and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:47-49
These are the days for spreading the kingdom, calling on all to whom the Lord gives ears to hear and hearts to believe to repent and embrace the gospel! Now is the time to make disciples, because he to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given is with us and has clothed us with power on high to proclaim his name to all nations. Remembering that we too were once lost, having no hope and without God in the world, saved only by his great mercy and love, we must turn now to those still in darkness and shine the light of gospel truth and hope and lead them to the Savior.