What can we learn about God's mercy and grace even when he hardens the hearts of his enemies and allows peace with a nation devoted to destruction?
As you read the Bible you sometimes find God hardening the heart of a person, as he does with the heart of Pharaoh in Exodus. It again raises some serious questions about God's fairness. As we discussed this last weekend, we wonder if we can trust Joshua's God when we read passages like this one in Joshua 11.
Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:18-20)
This last weekend I talked about how God's heart for humanity, which is well documented in the Bible, helps me trust him in spite of everything that bothers me about the conquest narrative. And we see God's heart at work in the case Gibeon.
The Gibeonites, who were Hivites (and devoted to destruction), were spared. You read about this in Joshua 9, one of this week's DailyLife passages. The Gibeonites trick the Israelites into a peace treaty. The Israelite leaders, having sworn an oath before God, abide by the treaty. So another surprising exception to total annihilation is made and, apparently, it's approved by God.
In fact, you can see God's providential hand of mercy and grace at work in sparing the Gibeonites. For one, it seems that God had chosen not to harden their hearts (Joshua 11:18-19). They actually demonstrate a rudimentary faith in the God of Israel when they seek the treaty. Unlike the other kings, they do not obstinately choose to attack Israel.
So here we have again the God who makes no exception in Deuteronomy 20 making exceptions in Joshua.
So what about those whose hearts that are hardened by God precisely so that they will attack and be destroyed? Ronald Hubbard summarizes a longer discussion on this subject that I find helpful:
Canaan’s kings show the same stupidity as Egypt’s Pharaoh— despite the obvious knowledge of Yahweh, his evident power, and his will for Canaan that Rahab and the Gibeonites voice (see 2: 10– 11; 9: 24). Rather than manipulate or override each leader’s will, God simply gives them good reasons to follow their own inclinations, (The NIV Application Commentary on Joshua, Kindle Locations 6722-6724)
All this is tied to God's much larger purposes. God never hardens a heart that is not already hardened toward him. The hardening simply ensures that God's larger purposes will not be thwarted by someone prematurely succumbing to fear when faced with God's overwhelming might. In the case of Pharaoh, for example, God's plan certainly included getting to the last plague, the first Passover. Hardening Pharaoh's heart ensured that.
The evidence for the idea that God hardens an already hard heart is very strong in the case of Pharaoh. What about the Canaanites? Gibeon is the answer.
Why doesn't God harden the hearts of the Gibeonites? Again, Hubbard,
The comment also implies that God did not harden the heart of the Hivites of Gibeon, leaving them free to seek peace rather than rally for war. Theologically, the comment suggests divine awareness of the Hivites’ inclination in that direction, an inclination that God permits to run its course. Indeed, it seems tantamount to an act of divine grace toward an otherwise condemned people. (Kindle Locations 6595-6598)
As I said on the weekend, there are no ultimate answers we can come up with on these issues. We have to read between the lines to understand them and make peace with them. Doubts arising from God's conquest policy are normal. And my words are not meant to erase all doubt, or to be the final word.
But I want to testify that I don't think losing faith is inevitable when facing this head on. I for one can admit the horror and still trust God because of what I do know and can know about him. His heart for Canaanites is demonstrated in sparing Rahab and the Gibeonites. I think he loved Canaanites, but love can't exist without wrath.
If you missed last weekend's sermon on "Can We Trust Joshua's God?" you can watch it here.