Chapter Three: The Gibeonites and the Transjordanian Altar
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53 three The Gibeonites and the Transjordanian Altar The stories of the Gibeonite deception and the Transjordanian altar do not exhibit the natural connection inherent in Rahab’s and Achan’s ties to the conquest of Jericho, and thus are not commonly studied side by side as are Rahab and Achan. Yet they share a key feature : in both stories, Israel finds itself having to navigate a dilemma of faithfulness to YHWH without any immediate word of divine guidance . In the case of the Gibeonite covenant, Israel must come to terms with its own guilt without an accusation from above, then must struggle to take responsibility for its error rather than succumb to the temptation to violate its oath-confirmed covenant with the crafty Gibeonites. The Transjordanian altar incident, on the other hand, depicts an intraIsraelite puzzle of obedience, as Israel, at last given rest from its enemies in the land, must struggle with what it means to remain united around YHWH even as the tribes disperse to their own territories—a "Israel served the lord" 54 dilemma embodied by the massive and dubious altar constructed by the Transjordanians. These dilemmas of faithfulness are distinctively framed in that YHWH does not directly intervene in either situation, whether by word or deed.1 In neither story does Israel have an external indicator of­ YHWH’s displeasure, such as failure in battle or a divinely sent blight, to reveal its sin as it did in the case of Achan. Instead, both situations require Israel to draw upon its prior knowledge of YHWH and His Law, joined with an honest recognition of Israel’s own weaknesses gleaned from its history of error and repentance. Given this divine reti­ cence, these stories are perhaps most remarkable for the process of Israel ’s reaction and deliberation which they portray. In the first, a hasty initial judgment leads Israel into a binding action that it will come to regret, while in the second story, the initial judgment of the Cisjordanian tribes gives way to a more thorough investigation that forestalls a tragic outcome. Through the working out of these dilemmas, Israel learns to rely on YHWH’s past revelation of His character and His Law in the present experience of divine silence. Israel continues to grow into YHWH’s high calling of election as it grows in the knowledge of its own fallibility and of the mercy it has itself received, and in the process, learns to dispense mercy and justice with humility. The Gibeonite Deception: Erring, and Erring on the Side of Mercy Background to the Gibeonite Deception “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Josh 8:1): YHWH’s exhortation to Joshua as he prepares for the second Israelite attempt to conquer Ai, recalls similar words in Joshua’s commissioning at the outset of the book (Josh 1:9). Just as the Lord promised then that Joshua would achieve unmitigated victory (“No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life,” 1:5), He assures Joshua of the defeat of Ai in advance (“I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his city, his people, and his land,” 8:1). These similarities convey to the gibeonites and the transjordanian altar 55 Joshua and to the reader that the situation has returned to normal after Achan’s crime, and YHWH’s favor is with Israel once more. The removal of Achan’s household and his stolen goods from Israel’s midst has effectively lifted the ban from Israel, so that Israel’s next foray into Ai is as successful as the first was disastrous. A heap of stones marking the grave of the king of Ai, which exists “to this day” (8:29), recalls Achan’s mound, which also “remains to this day” (7:26).2 Both serve as reminders of obedience—signs that Israel has done as the Lord ­ commanded— and warnings to future generations about rebellion against YHWH. Now follows a cultic interlude in Joshua 8:30–35, akin to the much more lush and extravagant portrait provided of the Jordan River crossing in Joshua 4–5, offering a “miniature” portrait of obedience. At the close of chapter 8, a stone structure is raised just as the stones were heaped up at the Jordan; its construction in accord with the Lord’s commands given through Moses, recorded in the “book of the Law” (vv. 30–31), highlights that it is attentiveness to the Law...


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