November 11th, 2018

The Lord rewards Caleb for a lifetime of quiet faith and faithfulness.

Joshua 14:6-15

Veterans Day

We couldn’t have a better Scripture text for Veterans’ Day weekend.

The first half of the book of Joshua (chapters 1-12) chronicles the battles the Israelites fought as they occupied their new homeland at the command and in fulfillment of the promises of Yahweh. The process lasted about five years. Over the past few weeks we have studied some of the major battles – Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon, but there were, according to Joshua 12, 31 kings west of the Jordan that were subdued or killed. I addressed the moral questions about the conquest in an earlier sermon.

The end of today’s text, Joshua 14:15, says, “Then the land had rest from war.” Every able-bodied adult male had been conscripted into this army. These people knew what it was like to fight hand-to-hand in combat. They understood the difference between tactics and strategy. They knew what it was like to get up at the beginning of the day and know there was a significant chance at the end of that day they would either be dead or maimed. They were mourning brothers, friends, and other comrades who had died in battle. They lived with PTSD, even though they couldn’t name it. They understood shame and honor, loss and victory, cowardice and bravery. This was a nation of veterans who knew what it means to be “faithful, whatever.”

For this reason, I want to begin this Veterans Day sermon by honoring veterans in this congregation. Please stand if you served our country in World War II… in the Korean War… in the Vietnam War… in Afghanistan, Iraq, or some other aspect of the war on terror… in any branch of the service past or present, even if not during wartime. We thank you for your service, and I want to pause now and offer a prayer for you and for our country and our world. Let us pray.

I’m going to approach the sermon a little differently today. One of my purposes in preaching is to teach and model how to study and apply the Bible. There are many ways to misuse the Bible, but I don’t spend a lot of time attacking those because that would almost certainly elevate my pride and yours:  “We do Bible the right way at Corinth and other Christians don’t.” But I am intentional about using Scripture in a way that boosts your confidence in the Bible as a God-breathed book that the Holy Spirit gave us to shape our thoughts and actions, our faith and character.

This fall my Sunday School class is an introduction to and overview of the Bible. We repeat this series every fall, so maybe you’d like to join us next year. The goal is to equip class members to understand and teach the Bible. Last week, Kevin Watkins led the class and handed out a Bible study bookmark from InterVarsity. Kevin was on staff with IV for 7 years at Washington and Lee University before joining us a few months ago. I like this bookmark as a basic guide to Bible study. We’ll have copies available after the worship service, but for today I’ll follow its three major steps.

Observe: What’s there?

Context. Joshua 14:6-15 is a really interesting story, for reasons we’ll come to, but in that respect it’s unusual in this part of Joshua. This is the only passage we will address in a section of Joshua that stretches chapters 11-22. These 12 chapters mostly summarize military victories and land surveys. I’m sure they were important to the original readers, but they feel less so to us.

Characters. As with the whole book, the most important character is Yahweh (the LORD), who is directing this venture. He had made promises, and he is keeping them. Moses still looms large, even though he’s been dead for several years. They are still following Moses’ directions. Joshua, the Israelites’ leader, is running this meeting.

Caleb intrigues me the most in this story. As the Land Allotment Committee convenes (6), he steps up and addresses Joshua. We learn that his father Jephunneh was a Kenizzite. The Kenizzites lived in the land of Canaan before Israel did (Genesis 15:19). In other words, Caleb was not a full-blooded Israelite, but he was still one of the leaders in his tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:2,6) from the time of the exodus.

Caleb says to Joshua, “You know what the LORD said to Moses at Kadesh Barnea about you and me.” (Kadesh Barnea was the place where twelve men had been appointed to explore the land of Canaan.) Caleb says he was forty years old at the time, which means that he had lived most of life before then as a slave in Egypt. When the twelve reported to Moses after their mission, Caleb says, “I brought him back a report according to my convictions, but my fellow Israelites who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt in fear. I, however, followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly” (7-8). He goes on to quote Moses, who said, “The land on which your feet have walked will be your inheritance… because you have followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly” (9, quoting Deuteronomy 1:36).

Caleb continues his speech with some rather remarkable statements. He notes that God “has kept me alive for forty-five years… while Israel moved about in the wilderness.” (This is one place where we learn that the conquest took five years.) He’s already said he was 40 years old when the promise was made, and that was 45 years ago, but now he adds up the numbers for them. “I’m 85 now!” he said, “but don’t you underestimate me. I’m just as strong and vigorous as ever.” The Hebrew is lost a little in the NIV, but he says he’s vigorous both for “battle” and for “going and coming.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this well:  “My strength for battle and for daily tasks is now as it was then.” He adds, “Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. Anakites or not, God help me, I will drive them out” (10-12, much of it my own paraphrase).

Joshua says yes and blesses Caleb, because, Joshua reiterates, “he followed the LORD, the God of Israel, wholeheartedly” (13-14). The passage ends with some names and places we’re not as familiar with – Hebron, Kiriath Arba, Anakites. In this “observe” part of Bible study, you can’t get hung up on details you don’t understand. The story closes, “Then the land had rest from war” (15).

Imagination. Can’t you just see in your mind this 85-year-old man, self-described as “vigorous,” stepping into this committee meeting of mostly younger men – bold, confident, assertive? He’s recounting conversations and events from forty-plus years earlier, much as Linda and I did last weekend at our 40-year college reunion. He gets lost in his memories and yet there’s fire in his eyes and power in his voice. “I can still take on these giants and their fortified cities!” This is a speech worthy of Braveheart or Frodo Baggins, George Washington or George Patton.

Repetition. What have we observed? That Caleb is the central character. That he asks for and receives his land inheritance because he followed the LORD wholeheartedly. That the promise from God to Moses to Joshua to Caleb is kept. And that this is an important personal story in the distribution of land after the conquest.

Interpret:  What does it mean?

Questions. What in this passage piques our curiosity? For me, it’s first, what are these places and why are they significant? Second, what is Caleb’s backstory? It turns out those two questions are connected.

Gilgal (6), the place where this conversation takes place, has been headquarters for Joshua and the Israelites all through the conquest. It’s where they had set up stones taken from the middle of the Jordan, probably in a circle since that’s what “Gilgal” means. Apparently during these early years, the Israelites started an annual festival to remember this “crossing into the covenant.” It was still celebrated more than a millennium later by the Qumran community. Saul was crowned king in Gilgal, and the throne was also taken away from him because of his disobedience at Gilgal. The original readers of Joshua knew this was an important place.

Hebron (14) is more important for this story. It has been an important city in Israel from before Joshua’s time. Abraham had bought a cave there as a family burial plot. Later in Joshua, Hebron was designated for Levites to live there and also as a city of refuge for those accused of murder. This was in part due to its fortified walls, so that the accused could have protective custody until the trial. Israel’s greatest king, David, was crowned at Hebron and made it his capital for seven years.

Hebron is in an ideal location for a fortified city. Located in the desert hills west of the Dead Sea, it rises above other hills at 3000 feet above sea level. Caleb would have to fight uphill. Even more intimidating, however, was that the occupants of that city were Anakites. Who are the Anakites? In Joshua’s time it was like saying the Carolina Panthers are going to have to go to Pittsburgh and play the Steelers, only worse. Before the Israelites got there, the city was named for a man named Arba, who was their legendary Joan of Arc, their Alexander the Great, their Hercules, their Charlemagne. Yet Caleb, now 85, says, “Give me Arba’s city. I want lead the charge, because this is the very city those other ten spies said we’d never take. Hebron will be my home.”

The backstory for all of this is found in Numbers 13-14. The report brought by the twelve explorers was unanimous in one respect. The land was “flowing with milk and honey,” and its produce was abundant and substantial (Numbers 13:23,27). But ten of twelve explorers terrified the Israelites with reports of giants in the land who lived in fortified cities. “We even saw the Nephilim there.” These were legendary superhumans from the time of Noah (Genesis 6:4), the ancestors of the Anakites. “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” they said (Numbers 13:23-33). The report of the ten caused all of Israel to rebel against Moses and Aaron and say they were going back to Egypt. As punishment, God had caused the whole group to wander forty years in the desert while everyone over the age of 20 died (Numbers 14), with two exceptions – Joshua and Caleb, who brought back the minority report.

My curiosity discovered something else. Back in Numbers, it was Caleb (not Joshua) who is said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (Numbers 13:30). God had told Moses, “My servant Caleb (not Joshua) has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it” (Numbers 14:24). At this point in his story, this God-honoring, courageous, faith-filled Caleb seems more important than Joshua.

My curiosity then asked the question, “What happened to Caleb between the explorer story at Kadesh Barnea and the committee meeting 45 years later at Gilgal?” The Bible’s answer is… silence! Nothing is recorded about Caleb. Everything’s Joshua, Joshua, Joshua. Joshua is Moses’ God-picked successor. Joshua is promised success if he is strong and courageous. Joshua tells the people what God is going to do at the Jordan River. Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho.” Joshua prayed and the sun stood still. Joshua subdued 31 kings. Caleb’s never mentioned, not in the wilderness or in the battles, not until now, 45 years later, when the land has rest from war.

Summary. Why is this story here? My summary of Joshua 14:6-15 is this:  The Lord rewards Caleb for a lifetime of quiet faith and faithfulness with his promised inheritance. But vigorous Caleb still has to speak up for it and fight for it.

Apply:  So what?

Challenge. How does this passage challenge how I see God, myself, or the world? I keep reminding you and me that Joshua is not about Joshua or the Israelites, or in the case of today’s text, about Caleb. Nor is it about you. The book of Joshua is about God.

The message here in Joshua 14 is that God is faithful, whatever. There are two paragraphs in the NIV’s rendition of Caleb’s speech, and both begin with a God-centered sentence. “You know what the LORD said to Moses, the man of God” (6). “Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive” (10).

This is a story about God keeping his promises. The word “promise” is overused in our culture. We speak of vows, oaths, and promises too lightly. We make promises we can’t keep and then dismiss them because they were only words.

In my view, we also use the word “promise” too often about words in the Bible. If you do the word study, you’ll notice the Bible almost always uses the word “promise” in relation to the big picture. Promises are made to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and so on – but they’re not really about those individuals. They’re about what God is going to do for his people. Promise is used in the Bible of the coming of Messiah, and of Jesus’ coming again. It’s spiritually dangerous to take a Bible verse, apply it to our situation, and call it God’s “promise.” We may be setting ourselves up for disappointment with God.

But here in Joshua 14, we do have that kind of personalized promise to Caleb. It’s important for us to notice, though, that even this is not about Caleb; it’s about God. God had made an audible and specific promise to Caleb, and he kept his word. So this passage truly is here to remind us that God is faithful, whatever. This may challenge your faith where you are right now. Maybe you’re going through a season of difficulty, delay, dryness, distance, darkness, or desperation. You’ve been praying a long time, and nothing happened. You’ve been asking God to change your loved one, or change you, or change the world, and nothing’s changed.

Think about Caleb, waiting for 45 years from the promise to the fulfillment. Few of us have waited that long! This is a passage about trusting God to be faithful, whatever. He is worthy of our trust.

Change. Just because the book of Joshua is about God doesn’t mean that there’s no message for me. Knowing God changes me. This story challenges me to be faithful, whatever.

I have never seen this story the way I saw it this week. Caleb rose to the top spiritually when the explorers reported back at Kadesh Barnea, even above Joshua. After that, Caleb was pushed to the background. He is just another Israelite. He lives in the background as the Israelites wander through the desert, picking up manna one more day, packing up and moving his tent with everyone else. Nobody looks to him for leadership.

When Moses dies, Caleb’s not promoted to #2 behind Joshua. He’s not even in Joshua’s cabinet. If he’s one of the first to cross the Jordan or one of the guys who picks up the twelve stones, we don’t know about it. He doesn’t lead the charge into Jericho or Ai or fight the coalition at Gibeon. Apparently, he does fight in the battles, because everyone does, but that’s at great risk. He’s two decades older than the other soldiers. Maybe he won’t survive.

But he keeps himself in shape physically. He must have been running marathons in the desert or lifting weights or something because he’s still fit for battle at age 85. He keeps in shape emotionally and psychologically, because he’s still vigorous at age 85. He keeps in shape spiritually, because for all these years he can say, “I have followed the LORD wholeheartedly.” He never complains about being pushed to the background. When he finally steps to the front of the pack at the distribution of the land, it is to honor the name of the LORD, who has kept his promises.

I want the end of my story to be that I was faithful, whatever. I want to be ready to fight uphill and tackle new challenges. I want the record of my life to show that I honored my vows to my wife and loved her well. I want you to say of me on my last day as your pastor that I lived with integrity and honor and trust in God. Most importantly, no matter what else happens, I want the Lord to say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Don’t you? That’s my “so what” from this passage. It’s not about me; it’s about God. Because God is faithful, whatever, I want to be faithful, whatever. Amen.

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