by John McLarty  |  16 November 2021  |

Sometimes, doing the right thing means countermanding the very words of God. This sounds blasphemous, but it is plainly taught in the Bible.

Example No. 1: Jesus in Matthew 5

Jesus declares:

“It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32, NKJV). 

Here Jesus supersedes the words of God in Deuteronomy 24:1 with his own dictum.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all … . But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:33-34, 37, NKJV). 

Again Jesus contradicts the explicit language of Numbers, warning people that if they follow literally what God said in Numbers regarding oaths, their words will be “from the evil one.”

Finally, Jesus proclaims:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (verses 38-39, NKJV). 

Here Jesus contradicts God’s prescription for justice, a prescription that is stated three times in the Pentateuch. Instead, he calls for radical mercy.

You might counter that Jesus was God. As God, he had the authority to contradict or supersede words God had previously spoken. But if we mere mortals dared to challenge God, that would be blasphemy.

My response: Not always. Consider the story of Abraham.

Example No. 2: Abraham and Sodom

God tells Abraham that he is going to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that judgment (doom) is at hand. God does not ask Abraham for his opinion. God simply announces his intentions. Instead of bowing and agreeing, Abraham challenges God, accusing him of injustice. “Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen. 18:24-25, NLT).

Abraham does not approach this conversation with God as a sycophantic courtier. He is not the president’s lawyer inventing legal justification for “enhanced interrogation.” To press it further, Abraham does not respond to God with an Oswald Chambers-like submission. Abraham knows God has the power to do whatever he wants, but having the power does not automatically confer the right. For Abraham, God’s overwhelming power does not confer indisputable authority.

God readily agreed to Abraham’s conditions limiting God’s freedom to act destructively against the cities, and when the investigating angels couldn’t find even the 10 righteous inhabitants Abraham specified, God honored Abraham’s scruples by evacuating Lot and his family before the fire fell (Genesis 18, 19).

We could appropriately argue that God intended Abraham to act the part of “savior” in this story. God announces an investigation and Abraham, knowing the moral plight of the Sodomites, steps in to plead for them. In doing this, God is deliberately setting Abraham up as a type of the Savior. Interpreted this way, the passage makes my point even more strongly: The mission of Christians is not to join God in “investigating” and “condemning.” Our job is to join the Savior in advocating for mercy.

Example No. 3: Moses and the Idolatrous Israelites

The people of Israel were camped at Mt. Sinai. Moses was up on the mountain communing with God. After Moses had been on the mountain for weeks, the people began to fret. They wanted a visible god to lead them. So Aaron made a golden calf, and the people began dancing around this idol in worship. God informed Moses of this problem and then gave him a direct order: “Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation” (Ex. 32:10, NLT).

In the case of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham challenges God. Here, Moses defies God. He countermands the very words of God. There was no hint of diffidence or ambiguity in God’s command. Moses understood it perfectly. But instead of obeying and getting out of the way, Moses questioned God’s judgment. “God, I don’t think you really want to do that. If you do it, you’ll be sorry.” Later, Moses upped his protest by declaring: “I will not step aside. To kill them, you’re going to have to go through me.”

God backed down.

Both Abraham and Moses are celebrated as righteous men. Their challenges to the very words of God are recognized as acts of righteousness. These leaders were honored by God for their obedience and also for their bold challenges.

Example No. 4: Joshua and the Gibeonites

The people of Israel invaded Palestine. At Jericho they annihilated every man, woman, child, and animal—except Rahab and everyone in her hotel. After Jericho, the Israelites destroyed the city and people of Ai. Both of these savage exterminations were ordered explicitly by God. When tribal groups throughout Palestine heard the news, they formed a league to fight the invaders. The Gibeonites, however, tried a different tactic. They sent a delegation to ask for a peace treaty with the Israelites (see Joshua 9).

When the emissaries arrived, Joshua interrogated them. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

The ambassadors answered: “Your servants have come from a very distant country. Stories of your exploits have reached even as far as our country. We’ve heard about what your God did to the Egyptians and to kings here in our region. We have come to offer ourselves as vassals. We’re prepared to pay tribute. We just want to be on your side. We want to connect with the God who is able to do what your God does.”

Joshua responded: “God has forbidden us to make treaties with anyone in this area. How do we know you live far enough away for us to even consider making a treaty?”

The Gibeonites managed to convince Joshua and the elders that they did, in fact, live far away. Joshua and the elders agreed to a treaty. A few days later, the Israelites discovered they’d been fooled. The Gibeonites lived only three days away from the Israelite camp. The Israelites were outraged. They marched to the region of Gibeon to annihilate these deceiving Canaanites.

Once in the Gibeonite neighborhood, however, Joshua restrained his army. “We gave our word,” he said. “When we make a promise, we keep it. Even to pagans. Even if they tricked us.”

The army was outraged at Joshua’s refusal to exterminate these worthless people. They threatened mutiny, but Joshua was adamant. “Yes, they are Canaanites. Yes, they fooled us. Yes, they are on God’s extermination list. Yes, God forbade us to make a treaty with people like this. But, no, we are not going to break our word. A treaty is a treaty. An oath is an oath.”

Joshua summoned the Gibeonite leaders. “Why did you deceive us, saying you lived a long way away?”

The Gibeonites answered:

“Your servants had heard definite, detailed reports about the command your God gave you to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. We’ve seen your God’s power in Egypt and in the battles against Sihon, king of Hesbon, and Og, king of Bashan, and at Jericho and Ai. We are helpless against you militarily. We did the only thing we could think of to save our lives. We are in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right.”

So Joshua saved them. He imposed severe “tribute.” They were consigned to serve as temple slaves in perpetuity. But they were alive.

God’s command to wipe out the people of Canaan was so emphatic, so clear and unmistakable, that the pagan people themselves had memorized it. There was nothing fuzzy in God’s directions. God had ordered the Israelites to exterminate these wicked people. When Joshua saved the Gibeonites, he was countermanding the very words of God. Was he right to do so?

A few generations later, King Saul violated the treaty Joshua had made and tried to carry out God’s command to exterminate the Gibeonites. During the reign of the next king, David, God sent a famine to punish Israel for Saul’s effort to obey God’s extermination decree. To atone for Saul’s actions against the Gibeonites, David executed seven of Saul’s descendants. Only after this act of retribution against Saul’s family did God revoke the famine decree.

Whatever else we make of this macabre story, it clearly demonstrates God’s endorsement of Joshua’s contravention of God’s explicit command regarding the peoples of Canaan. Joshua, a type of Christ, disobeyed the divine command and saved the condemned people. Saul, a type of Satan, attempted to carry out God’s verdict of condemnation.

Is there any question about which of these leaders is a more appropriate model for leaders today? 

John McLarty is retired from being senior pastor at Green Lake Church in Seattle. He is a host of Talking Rocks Tours. He is author of Damn My Son, available for $1 on the Amazon Kindle.

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