Read the passage here.
Last time, we left off in chapter 8 with the second battle of Ai. Strictly speaking, chapters 6 (or the end of chapter 5) to chapter 8 give us a narrative sequence which encompasses the battle of Jericho, the first battle of Ai and Achan’s sin, and then the second battle of Ai. We won’t review these chapters here, but hopefully you will recall that narrative arc and the various themes we discussed there.
Chapters 9 to 11, in summary, outline the Southern campaign and Northern campaign of Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan. I want to outline them quickly, just to situate ourselves in our on-going review of the book of Joshua. However, just to give you a heads up, I’m going to talk about something quite disconnected from these chapters (at least in any explicit kind of way).
Firstly, in chapter 9, we get the report of Israel’s interaction with the city of Gibeon – what is called in the NIV the Gibeonite deception. In short, the Gibeonites, hearing of Israel’s military successes (that is, destruction) of Jericho and Ai, and also being aware of Israel’s victory over Egypt and other nations on the other side of the Jordan, make plans to keep Israel from destroying them also. Essentially, they lie to Israel about their origins, claiming to be from outside of Canaan. Israel agrees to make a treaty with them and allow them to stay in the land.
What’s notable about this passage is vv. 14-15 which indicate that they did not consult God about this situation. This seems to suggest that they essentially disobeyed the divine edict to destroy all of the inhabitants of Canaan.
9:14 The Israelites 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.Joshua 9:14-15
Compare this with the directive regarding the Canaanites found in chapter 7:
7:1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.Joshua 7:1-2
In spite of this, it’s worth noting that there doesn’t seem to be anything negative about Israel’s relationship with Gibeon (Gibeon is mentioned a few other times in scripture). So this may be a passage which explains why the Gibeonites – who are Canaanites – exist in the kingdom of Israel. (And it may indicate something about the values of the Kingdom – that is, keeping one’s oath, or something about relationships with others. It’s worth noting that the Gibeonites, like Rahab, seem to demonstrate a “fear of the Lord.” Hence their desire to seek peace.)
In chapter 10, we see the reports of Israel’s southern campaign. The kings of the Southern region make an agreement to join forces against Israel. This passage is notable because it tells us how God made the sun stand still while the Israelites were fighting.
Chapter 11 tells us of the northern campaign. Like the previous passage, we see that the kings of the north band together against Israel. Here, we see that the northern armies used chariots against Israel, but the Israelites were still victorious. This is noteworthy because chariots would have been considered a significant military advantage. In other words, we are seeing a further escalation (so to speak) of the accomplishments of the Israelites in Canaan.
This entire section (and by that, I mean basically the first half of Joshua) closes with a report of the extent of Israel’s victories (and those, given by God):
11:16 So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, 17 from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings and put them to death. 18 Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. 19 Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. 20 For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
21 At that time Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites from the hill country: from Hebron, Debir and Anab, from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua totally destroyed them and their towns. 22 No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive.
23 So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.Joshua 11:16-23
Now I want to bring your attention to this last verse, verse 23. After this, we get several chapters reporting how the land is divided among the Israelites – and all of this should be understood as demonstrating God’s faithfulness to the Israelites, through Moses and all the way back to Abraham – this is very important to grasp as we read Joshua. God fulfills His promise to make Israel a nation, a holy people, a people belonging to God, a nation blessed to be a blessing to the whole world. Verse 23 tells us that after all of this fighting, the land had rest from war.
Now if one didn’t know any better, that is if someone were unaware of world history and the history of Israel or the history of the Christian church, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the end of the story.
One might think, and perhaps the Israelites did, that after all of this fighting, the Israelites having finally conquered the promised land of Canaan, they would be finished. God had done exactly what He had promised – He had led them out of Egypt into the promised land to make them a people.
But we know that this is not what happened. We know that this was not the end of the story. (This becomes really apparent when we look, for example, at the book of Judges). And there’s several ways of understanding this – the most important being that the true fulfillment of God’s promises are to be found in the life, death, resurrection, and rule of Jesus Christ.
And we know – or we hope and believe – that when Christ comes again to bring the fullness of His kingdom, all of the hurt, brokenness, angst and anguish of this world will be over for those who believe and call Him “Lord.” But we live in the in-between time, as the New Testament writers well knew. And in the in-between time, we still see and live in the midst of all of the hurt, brokenness, angst and anguish of this world. But in the in-between time, we seek to live out the reality of the future Kingdom today, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, having said that, I want to touch on a theme that we find in Joshua and that pervades the history of Israel – that is, the notion of blessings and curses. Among many examples, we find in the closing verses of last week’s passage, the following (this is after the second battle of Ai):
8:34 Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them.Joshua 8:34-35
Now by way of reference, I want to take a look at that Book of the Law, specifically what we find in the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 28, we read (abridged for brevity):
28 If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:
9 The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. 10 Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. 11 The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.
… 14 Do not turn aside from any of the commands I give you today, to the right or to the left, following other gods and serving them.
15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
17 Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.
18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
20 The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him. 21 The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. 24 The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.
25 The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. 26 Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. 28 The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. 29 At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.Deuteronomy 28:1-29 (Emphasis added)
Now I want to note again that the notion of blessings and curses is found throughout scripture. We saw a version of this concept in our study of Matthew. In Matthew 5, and the sermon on the Mount more generally, we read the Beatitudes, and what live in the kingdom (a blessed life) should look like. In contrast, in Matthew 23 we read Jesus’ pronouncement of woes upon the Pharisees and religious leaders for their hypocrisy and abandonment of what they do versus what they were supposed to do – that is, they are presumably (as spiritual leaders of Israel) supposed to lead people into closer relationship with God, to lead people in the way of Kingdom or Godly living. Instead, they look out only for their own interests, caring more about the letter of the law instead of its spirit, and effectively leading people further away from God. So in Matthew, blessings and curses are very much related to whether or not one lives according to genuine kingdom principles.
But back to Joshua (and Israel’s story), the point that I want to make is that the Israelites’ life in Canaan, their life as chosen people, seems to an extent conditional. The history of Israel is very much this vacillation between blessings and curses. That is, the experience of life as the chosen, blessed people of God depends on their willingness and ability to keep covenant. And that is fundamentally what blessings and curses have to do with – covenant.
We talked about covenant back when we did our survey of the Pentateuch, primarily Exodus through Deuteronomy. And when we think about covenant, we need to think less in terms of contract and more in terms of relationship.
When we think of covenant in terms of contract, we tend to think (or at least can think) transactionally. That is, we tend to think that we try to “live rightly” so that we can get good things from God. Living righteously, avoiding sin, is thought of as spiritual credits which we earn so that we can purchase blessings from God. And in like manner, we think that when we do things wrong, when we live “un-righteously,” we earn punishment.
But when we understand the story of the bible, we know that human beings have fallen into sin. God’s work in human history is about redeeming and restoring us to what we were meant to be, restoring us to how we were meant to live. Instead of a fallen, sinful humanity where each person seeks to live as if we are gods unto ourselves, God wants to restore us to a world, and a life, where God is God, and we are God’s (we belong to God).
Now there’s some more theology there, which I hope we by now have a reasonably good grasp of, but the point I want to make is that the covenant relationship is about putting us back into that right framework – a right relationship with God, our creator and sustainer of the world.
To over-simplify (and passing by some of what covenant means and how it works in the ancient near east), when we live in right relationship with God, we are blessed. To put it another way, to be blessed is to live in right relationship with God (and all that entails). It means (something like) living according to how things were meant to be, living according to our eschatological reality, rather than living according to the fallen nature of the world. To be cursed is to live in not-right relationship with God.
Again, what I’m suggesting is that blessings and curses are not transactions. Blessings and Curses are about relationship.
And I think that is what we see in the history of Israel. The Israelites’ life in Canaan, their life as chosen people, and their experience of blessings or curses, is indeed conditional. But it’s not contractual – it’s covenantal.
At the end (or the middle) of Joshua, Israel has finally possessed the promised land. They have taken hold of (more or less) the promises of God to make them into a great nation. But that’s not the end of the story. Now they have to live. How then will they live?
And, if it’s not obvious, this is the same question that we have to face each day. We live in the in-between time. On the other side of Jesus, with a righteousness that is by grace through faith. But we are in-between. We are still in a world full of sin, fallenness, and woundedness. And, it should be noted that to be blessed, to live a blessed life, does not mean the same thing as living an easy life. It doesn’t mean that we will get everything that we think we want, or that life will go exactly how we think it should go. Because we are in-between we are still faced every day with the fallenness of the world and in ourselves. But each moment we choose God and choose God’s kingdom, and as we rest upon the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can know and be confident of the blessings that Jesus talked about.
Mt. 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit… 4 Blessed are those who mourn… 5 Blessed are the meek…6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,…7 Blessed are the merciful…8 Blessed are the pure in heart…
9 Blessed are the peacemakers…10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
So, as people of the kingdom, we seek first the kingdom. We cling to the promise that God’s work will be completed. The story is not over – we still have to work, we still have to pray, we may still have to fight, and we certainly still have to be faithful. But no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, if we cling to Christ, we can be sure that we will know His blessings.