A radical change in God’s nature?

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Joshua 10:1 When King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (before the city belonged to Israel) heard how Joshua (leader of the Israelites) had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he became greatly frightened, because Gibeon was a large city, like one of the royal cities, and was larger than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem sent a message to King Hoham of Hebron, to King Piram of Jarmuth, to King Japhia of Lachish, and to King Debir of Eglon, saying, “Come up and help me, and let us attack Gibeon; for it has made peace with Joshua and with the Israelites.” Then the five kings of the Amorites—the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon—gathered their forces, and went up with all their armies and camped against Gibeon, and made war against it. And the Gibeonites sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites who live in the hill country are gathered against us.”

In the preceding chapter the leaders of the city of Gibeon (located within the land of Canaan) had tricked Joshua. The Lord had told Joshua to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan… and to put to death all of the inhabitants – man, woman, and child. Why? Because Israel would be tempted to adopt the spiritual practices of the native peoples which God calls “idolatry”. Only after Joshua agreed to a covenant with Gibeon did he find out the Gibeonites were not from a distant land after all, but were native to Canaan. Yet Joshua had made a promise and was bound to keep it. Therefore, Joshua did NOT put the Gibeonites to death as God had commanded but helped them overcome the attack from the kings of the Amorites.

When I read this section of Joshua I find myself glad the people of Gibeon were not wiped out. I mean, call it what you will, but God’s directive to put the native peoples to death can be rightly described as “genocide”. Aaron’s act of mercy for Gibeon may have been a mistake, but it’s one I tend to support as a 21st century Christian reader. And yet – the act of mercy would ultimately be Israel’s downfall. The Israelites did adopt the pagan ways of the Canaanites, leading to the withdrawal of God’s protection from Israel and their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.

So how do we square the God of the Old Testament who commands “genocide” with the God of the New Testament who is most fully revealed in the “Prince of Peace” we know as our Lord Jesus Christ? Why the radical change in nature? It’s one of the enduring questions I expect to take to the grave. Lord, have mercy on me. Amen.

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