Big Mistake at Gilgal

They lived just twenty-five miles down the road, but lied and said they had come from far away. Sure looked like they had. Their costuming and props were Hollywood-production caliber: battered sandals; sweat-stained clothes that hadn’t seen soap and water since they were stitched together—ya could smell ’em ’fore ya seen ’em; scrawny malnourished donkeys loaded with cracked wineskins and tattered sacks of moldy bread.

Who were these guys, and what did they want? They were Gibeonites, and they wanted a treaty of peace. They had been scared out of their skulls when Joshua had marched into Canaan and wiped out Jericho and Ai. So they staged a hoax and came limping into Joshua’s camp at Gilgal.

“Who are you and where do you come from?” Joshua asked.

“Your servants have come from a very distant country,” they said. “We are your servants; make a treaty with us. This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey” (Joshua 9:9, 11-13).

Watch out! Here it comes … “The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live …” (Joshua 9:14-15).

Big mistake. God had stabbed seven pins in the map of Canaan, marking seven nations that Israel was to destroy. “Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2). One of those pins targeted the Hittites, where the Gibeonites’ held citizenship.

Three days after signing the treaty, Joshua and his buddies found out that the Gibeonites were neighbors, living just over in the next county. They were mighty miffed when they realized they had been duped, but they couldn’t trash the treaty because it had been ratified by an oath in the name of the Lord.

In hindsight the cause of the mistake is easy to spot—the Israelite brass “did not inquire of the Lord.” They trusted their own observation, relied on their own judgment, and made their own decision. A costly mistake. And no less so now than then. Human wisdom is limited. Making decisions without inquiring of the Lord is a mistake in any country, in any century, in any circumstance.

In 1933 Hitler’s minions, by rigged election, were put in charge of the German Protestant Reich Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant young theologian, was fiercely and vocally opposed to Hitler’s regime. But he was fighting a losing battle. He was arrested and imprisoned on April 6, 1943, and condemned to death on April 8, 1945—without witnesses, records of proceedings, or defense. The next day at dawn Bonhoeffer was stripped, led naked into the execution yard of Flossenbürg concentration camp, and hanged with a thin wire—just twenty-three days before the U.S. Army’s 90th Infantry Division liberated the camp.

One of Bonhoeffer’s favorite verses—the text used at his memorial service—was, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). He often quoted this verse as his confession that human solutions are elusive and fragile, and as his conviction that if we keep our eyes and ears open to God the right answers will eventually come.

He was crushed by the takeover of the German church by the Nazis, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”

He was grieved by a raging World War that had begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”

He was tormented by the brutal persecution and execution of millions of Jews, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”

Bonhoeffer refused to take his eyes off the Lord, and resisted making any decision, large or small, without inquiring of the Lord. “What good did it do?” you may ask—after all, he was imprisoned at the tender age of 37 and executed at 39. He totally relied on the Lord, yet in that dark patch of history everything went wrong.

Or did it? Consider that those dismal days gave us Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose courage, faith, and writings have inspired thousands, and continue to do so over a half-century after his death.

You hit rough spots in life where you helplessly sigh, “I don’t know what to do.” I hope you add one more phrase: “but my eyes are upon you, Lord.”

Sometimes we don’t know what to do—and know we don’t know what to do. And sometimes we think we know what to do—but, like Joshua and his pals, are mistaken.

“Do not take your eyes off the goal,” we’re told. Is that the best advice? No. The best advice is, “Do not take your eyes off the Lord.”

Let it never be said that you did not inquire of the Lord.