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Occasional Letters: Blessings out of Blunders

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the attributes of the God of the Bible is His unique ability to bring good out of evil. No one else can do this. The classic example (and the most incisive statement of the principle) is found in Genesis 50.20, where Joseph reassures his still guilt-stricken brethren that their conspiracy against him of many years past had been incorporated into the divine plan for the preservation of the chosen family. Without in the least mitigating their criminal intent ("evil") he emphasises God's overruling grace ("good") to achieve His end ("to save"): "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive". Now, this is a particularly breath-taking instance because it deals with an extreme situation. Joseph's brothers, with the partial exception of Reuben, were culpable of deep-rooted envy, malicious hatred, murderous purpose, deceitful ingenuity, and heartless indifference to their father's grief. Listen to the candid language of Scripture:

And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him…And his brethren envied him…And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams…And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood…and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no (Gen 37.4,11,18-21,31-32).

There is no soft-pedalling of sin here. If God is able to take such a blatant exhibition of human wickedness and overrule for the accomplishment of His sovereign purposes, how much more can He transform into good the smaller gaffes and blunders with which His people's pathways are littered!

One such blunder is found in the story of the Gibeonites, narrated in Joshua 9. It is recorded shortly after the stern judgment meted out on Achan for wilful rebellion. Although the story teaches the reality of deception from outside, we ought to remember that our greatest source of deception lies within, for "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer 17.9). According to Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, the word "deceitful" comes from "a root, 'supplanting', 'tripping up insidiously by the heel', from which Jacob took his name". Satan attacks God's people as a lion in his ferocity (1 Pet 5.8) but like a serpent in his duplicity (2 Cor 11.3) – and, as someone remarks, it is easier to recognise the lion's roar than the snake's slither. We may mistake our habitual vices for virtues once they assume a spiritual guise and appear wearing dark suits and carrying large Bibles. As A W Pink says, "It is easy for a Christian to persuade himself that his natural self-will is now a holy zeal for God, or that his impatience is really spiritual earnestness". How carefully we must examine our own hearts!

The reason for deception in this case was clear. The Gibeonites were remarkably well-informed about Israel's rules of combat engagement in Canaan. They knew that all local Canaanites were to be exterminated without mercy, whereas townships lying outside the land could be spared. Here's the instruction: "When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites…thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them" (Deut 7.1-2). But with other nations the procedure was more flexible: "When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee" (Deut 20.10-11). Trouble was, the Gibeonite cities lay only about 7 miles south of Bethel. They therefore hatched a plot which required all their theatrical talents. Disguised as ambassadors from a far country, they came complete with the tell-tale evidences of worn-out clothes and dried up provisions. They thus fooled Israel. A W Pink points out that they were Hivites (Josh 9.7), related to the victims of Jacob's sons' cruel treachery in Genesis 34. Was this story of a sneaky Israelite atrocity handed down in Hivite history lessons? One wonders. It's certainly true in Scripture that deceivers tend in turn to be deceived. Jacob, trained by his mother in the arts of disguise, was in turn tricked by his uncle, his favourite wife, and his sons!

The ruse of the Hivites's deception was to display an attractive diffidence ("we are thy servants"), produce carefully fabricated properties, and pass themselves off as genuine spiritual seekers ("because of the name of the Lord thy God"). They had rehearsed their story so that they avoided mentioning any recent events which could not yet have reached outlying regions. Joshua's blunder – and as the nation's leader, he has to bear prime share of the blame – was to take these visitors on trust and not follow Moses's instructions to "stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the Lord" (Num 27.21). In general matters the law laid down Israel's behaviour, but in matters of specific detail Joshua could consult the Lord directly through the high priest. He had of course no intention of disobeying the law, but was tripped up by his haste to accept information without investigation. "And the men took of their victuals, and asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord" (Josh 9.14).

But where, you ask, is the blessing? Well, notice the result of deception. First, once the truth was out Israel imposed permanent servitude upon the Gibeonites. They who piously announced, "we are thy servants", became servants in reality. Israel thereby gained a useful and perpetual source of menial labour. But, secondly, the Gibeonites also gained by being brought into a realm of godly influence. How so? Joshua specifically – and amazingly – located their sphere of service in relation to the things of God: they were to become "hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God" (Josh 9.23), "and for the altar of the Lord" (Josh 9.27). The fact that the nethimin ("given ones"), helpers of the Levites in sanctuary service (1 Chr 9.2; Ezra 2.58), are usually identified with the Gibeonites, and that they appear to have remained faithful even after the return from exile, strongly suggests that they benefited from Israel's mercy. The law offered no escape for the Hivites, but God overruled so that people who stooped to deception to avoid annihilation – can we blame them? – were brought into unlooked-for blessing. Their final words to Joshua ring true: "it was certainly told thy servants, how that the Lord thy God commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you, therefore we were sore afraid of our lives because of you, and have done this thing. And now, behold, we are in thine hand: as it seemeth good and right unto thee to do unto us, do" (Josh 9.24-25). All this of course does not excuse Joshua's failure to consult the Lord, but it does show how blunders can become blessings. If you, like me, have ever made mistakes in your Christian life, you can take heart from this story. God is greater than our sins – and our stupidity!

To be continued.

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