Complications in Conflict
Defeats and Victories in the Book of Joshua
Taken at face value, the conquest of Canaan described in the book of Joshua should have been straightforward. God had made extremely far reaching promises:
- He Himself was going to be with them (Josh. 1:5, 9);
- He would give them victory over their enemies (1:5);
- the extent of their victory was to be the entire land (every place on which they set their foot (1:3));
- He would drive out all enemies before them (Ex. 3:8, 17; 23:23, 28; 33:2; 34:11).
So God had put His power at the disposal of His people. Why, then, does the book of Joshua report defeats as well as victories? Why were there complicated battles as well as easy ones? Why were not all enemies driven out, and why was it that not all Israel ended up dwelling in the land?
These questions not only concern the conquest of Canaan by Israel over 3,000 years ago but our Christian lives as well. We also have God’s power at our disposal. Satan is a conquered enemy. The heavenly blessings are ours (Eph. 1:3). And yet we know from experience that our lives and conflicts are sometimes riddled with complications.
The book of Joshua is the ‘handbook’ of Christian conflict. It is not only a historical but also a typical book. It shows the conquest of the land of Canaan as a type of the battle the Christian faces because Satan and his agents want to rob believers of their enjoyment of spiritual blessings (Eph. 6:10ff).
In this context it is interesting that the book of Joshua not only shows the power of God that is able to defeat every enemy but also the complications that arise when believers make mistakes. In looking at this second aspect it is good to bear in mind that the Old Testament tends to show us the practical side of our Christian lives rather than the position. As far as our position is concerned we are in the land, we possess every spiritual blessing, we are in Christ. The practical question is to what extent we enjoy these things.
Prerequisites for victory
When God spoke to Joshua to encourage him before entering the land He made it clear that there were prerequisites for victory: ‘Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law …: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest’ (1:7). God required obedience which, in turn, required great courage. Further, the people of God had to undergo several preparatory experiences, including: (1) crossing the Jordan (ch. 3); (2) circumcision in Gilgal (ch. 5); and (3) meeting the captain of the Lord’s host (5:13–14).
This three-fold preparation symbolises three important steps for the Christian: having died and risen with Christ (crossing Jordan); the flesh being judged (Gilgal); and the Lord being in charge as the leader of the battle. These steps having been taken, the high-walled city of Jericho, the stronghold of the enemy, fell before Israel (ch. 6). How? By Israel being obedient and by the power of God! All seemed so easy, so straightforward. All the people of Israel needed to do was to continue on this path of victory! If only they had …
Reading on, we find that things were all but straightforward. They could have been, but there were a number of hindrances and complications. All of these had their origin on the people’s side, none of them on God’s side. In one sense this makes sad reading but on the other hand these chapters (Josh. 7 onwards) are very valuable for us as they are written for our instruction. They show (1) dangerous tendencies on our side that may deprive us of otherwise certain victory if we do not judge them, (2) the governmental consequences of such failure, but also (3) the mercy of God with His people even when they fail.
Complication 1: Hidden sin
Achan had taken a ‘a beautiful mantle of Shinar’, silver and gold from Jericho — against God’s express commandment. Sadly, Achan had got himself entangled in the old and well-known mechanism: he saw, he coveted, he took (7:21; compare Gen. 3:6). None of the items he had taken were bad in themselves, yet they were fatal because they represented flagrant disobedience, the result of which was that God could not be with His people. This was the reason for Israel’s first defeat in Canaan and, unless the matter was resolved, it would only lead to further defeat: ‘the children of Israel shall not be able to stand before their enemies’ (7:12).
Israel suffered a humiliating defeat in their battle against Ai, a small town near Jericho, as reported in the same chapter. Jericho seemed invincible yet it was taken in triumph, but Ai, insignificant as it appeared, had the victory over Israel.
Nevertheless, God also showed a way of escape. In the same verse (7:12) He goes on to say, ‘neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you.’ The outcome of Israel’s battles depended on whether God could be with them, and this could only be the case if they removed from among themselves what was cursed. Hidden and unjudged sin is the death knell to spiritual victory.
Complication 2: Self-confidence
But Achan’s sin was not the only reason for Israel’s defeat. There was another element that weakened Israel’s position: reliance on, and confidence in, their own strength. The scouts, having investigated, recommended that only 2,000–3,000 men should go up and take the city (7:3). This advice was followed and Israel’s troops were defeated.
The danger of self-confidence is always present but it is particularly acute following a victory. When God has helped us it is tempting to imagine that the success is down to us. This is why the exhortation of Ephesians 6:13 is so important: not only ‘to withstand in the evil day’ but also ‘having done all, to stand’.
In the end, God gave Israel the victory over Ai (ch. 8) but it was not plain sailing, or triumphant, as in the case of Jericho. Joshua had to take ‘all the people of war’ up to Ai, then Israel had to pretend to flee before the men of Ai, and then, with the help of an ambush, the city was taken. This shows that God was gracious to His people once they had judged the evil, but also that their failure gave rise to unnecessary and unwanted complexity in conflict.
Complication 3: Lack of self-judgment
To discover the third element that had contributed to defeat we need to read between the lines and work out what did not happen. Before the conquest of Jericho Israel had encamped in Gilgal, the place of the judgment of the flesh (5:9–10). On later occasions we find that Israel returns to Gilgal and goes up to battle from there (e.g. 10:7) to victory. In the case of Ai the starting point was Jericho, the place of victory, as opposed to Gilgal. As a result, the chapter ends in the valley of Achor (‘trouble’).
This teaches us that that self-judgment is necessary for victory and preserves us from painful consequences (particularly God’s discipline — see 1 Cor. 11:31).
Complication 4: Lack of dependence
Moving on to chapter 9 we come to the incident where the men of nearby Gibeon pretended to be ‘from a very far country’ (v. 9) and, in this way, tricked Joshua and the elders into making a covenant of peace with them. Their story sounded plausible, their attitude seemed to demonstrate admiration for the God of Israel, and the evidence (worn shoes, etc.) appeared to substantiate their story. On the face of it, no-one can be blamed for being fooled by so cunning and insidious a plot.
However, this analysis omits God from the equation. Joshua and the elders failed to ask God. Here it is not only an omission but one that is pointed out in the text: they ‘asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord’ (v. 14). The fatal result was that ‘Joshua made peace with them’ (v. 15) and in this way — albeit unwittingly — acted against God’s clear commandment not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of Canaan (Ex. 34:12–15). The first direct result was that Israel was unable to deal with the Gibeonites as they should have done. One might say, ‘Oh, but it worked out well — the Gibeonites became their servants and hewers of wood’ (v. 21), but this fell short of God’s plan and, as we will see, further complications ensued.
Complication 5: Governmental consequences
In chapter 10 we find Israel in an extremely difficult situation. As a direct result of their failure in chapter 9 the king of Jerusalem gets wind of Gibeon’s peace deal with Israel, forms an alliance with four other kings of the Amorites and attacks the Gibeonites who, in turn, send messengers to Joshua saying, ‘come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us’ (v. 6). What should Joshua do? Break his peace deal with the Gibeonites? Or argue that it was void due to their deceit?
Joshua seems to have understood that the difficult situation that he was in was a result of their failure. Adding more failure (by breaking his word) was not the right way to go. Again we see God’s mercy after failure when there is an upright heart. He says to Joshua, ‘Fear them not: for I have delivered them into thine hand; there shall not a man of them stand before thee’ (v. 8). Joshua responds in faith and, it is worth noting, goes up ‘from Gilgal’ (see earlier comments on this). God is with him and works a remarkable deliverance, in three ways:
- He ‘discomfited them before Israel’ (v. 10);
- He ‘cast down great stones from heaven upon them’ (v. 11);
- when Joshua asked for more time to complete the victory, ‘the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies’ (v. 13).
God did not abandon His people. He responded to humiliation and self-judgment and graciously intervened by granting a signal victory — and in such a way that the glory was all His: ‘they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword’ (v. 11).
Complication 6: Materialism — and a lack of interest in divine things
Following the victories of chapters 10–12 and the distribution of the land in chapters 13–21, another complication raises its ugly head: the threat of war amongst brethren (ch. 22)! How did this come about?
This time it is a later consequence of an earlier problem which occurred even before Israel crossed the Jordan. Two and a half tribes had presented a strange request to Moses: ‘if we have found grace in thy sight … bring us not over Jordan’ (Num. 32:5). How could they possibly refuse the very land that God had promised to Abraham? Moses would have loved to enter the land but was not allowed to due to his earlier failure, yet these two and a half tribes regard it as a sign of having found grace if they do not need to go in. Their reasoning was as clear as it was sobering: the land they were in ‘is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle’ (32:4). Their thoughts did not rise above cattle, that is their material possessions. It is easy to be preoccupied with the visible and material. Happy are they who have learned to say, with Paul: ‘we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Cor. 4:18).
Their choice of convenience had a number of serious drawbacks:
- it would discourage their brethren who were to fight in Canaan (Num. 32:7);
- they would be separated by a river from the rest of God’s people and, importantly, from the place which God had chosen to place His name there (Deut. 12);
- they erected an altar on their side of Jordan and, in doing so, risked a war among brethren (which we will come to in a moment);
- they were the first to be led into captivity (1 Chr. 5:26).
When Israel saw that Rueben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had built an altar on the other side of Jordan they were so outraged that ‘the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them’ (Josh. 22:12). Thankfully, however, they first sent Phinehas to make enquiries. The two and a half tribes explained that they had no intention of offering sacrifices on this altar, that it was meant to show future generations that they served the God of Israel, etc. So a war between brethren was averted at the last moment. Having said this, their position on the wrong side of Jordan was the source of a whole range of complications that were not only dangerous but also a hindrance to the enjoyment of the land.
Complication 7: Unfinished business
At the end of his life Joshua called the people together and spoke to them about how he had divided the inheritance for them. In this context he mentioned ‘these nations that remain’ (23:4) and commanded that they be driven out. He assured the Israelites that God would drive them out before them. Israel only had to obey all that God had said. The book of Judges shows us that, despite their best intentions and their promises to Joshua, Israel failed in their own responsibility to drive out the Canaanites (see Jdg. 1:27–36). The result was that God had to withdraw His promise to drive them out; the angel of the Lord came to Bochim and solemnly declared: ‘I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you’ (Jdg. 2:3).
God’s ways of escape
We have seen that Israel could have had certain victory over their enemies and unhindered enjoyment of the land of Canaan but their mistakes resulted in a string of unnecessary complications. We recognise in this how our own failure often results in situations and difficulties that could have been avoided. So these instances from the book of Joshua should encourage us to obey the Lord and to trust that He will give blessing and deliverance.
At the same time we see that even in the midst of these unnecessary complications God acts in mercy: He grants victory over Ai, He enables Joshua to be victorious despite the league with Gibeon, He averts war between brethren when the position of the two and a half tribes causes confusion, and He gives judges to work deliverances when Israel fails. How good is our God!