3 But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4 they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, 5 with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. 6 And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” … 15 And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.
16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. 17 And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18 But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. 20 This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21 And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them. (Joshua 9:3–6, 15–21 ESV)
The first thing to know about the people of Gibeon — and its dependent cities — is that they are Hivites. They are one of the seven “nations” (גּוֹיִם goyim) inhabiting the land of promise given to Israel in Deteruonomy 7. They are doomed for destruction. And they know it.
In doing so, they have betrayed an arising alliance between Canaanite kingdoms and city states to deal with the threat that is Israel. They have decided to try and make a separate peace.
The ruse they use — there’s an awful lot of subterfuge in scripture, and a damn lot of it is successful — is to pretend they are from farther away than they really are. They wear worn clothes, patched sandals, dry and crumbly bread, and wine in old wineskins. To pretend they are people other than who they are.
They come to make this deal because they are afraid. They have seen what Israel had done — no, they have have what Israel’s God has done — and they are terrified.
9 They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. 11 So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’
We are your servants. עַבְדֵיכֶ֣ם אֲנַ֔חְנוּ, using the same Hebrew word — עבד ebed — used to describe Israel’s status in Egypt.
Israel agrees. On the third day after the covenant is cut, Israel discovers the real identity of their newfound friends and allies. Despite what must be intense anger on Israel’s part, they keep the word of their covenant. “We swore an oath,” Israel says. The Gibeonites effectively surrender to Israel
24 … Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it. (Joshua 9:24–25)
Joshua enslaves the Hivite inhabitants of Gibeon and its satellite cities, the price they will pay for their deception.
But perhaps it beats expulsion and/or extermination, I suppose. Better to live on your knees than to die on your feet.
A couple of things here.
First, the Gibeonites understand who is at work in the war overtaking their land. They don’t fear Israel — they fear the Lord, the God of Israel. They know the land has been promised, and they’ve heard — heard — of what Israel’s God has done in Egypt, in Jericho, in Ai, and they know they don’t stand a chance against the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
They fear God. Their covenant may be with Joshua, but they want to be on the right said of Joshua’s God. They have become the sojourners we saw in the last chapter, foreigners who have defected to Israel and adopted its cause as their own.
Because they fear God.
Second, the Torah is clear — absolutely no deals with any of the Canaanite people. “You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy 7:2b) That is the law. Violating this is as much an abomination as anyone who marries his half sister, or takes two sisters as wives, or any man who lies with a male as with woman.
And yet here is Israel, tricked into a deal in much the way Abraham tricked Pharaoh into thinking Sarah was simply his sister (as opposed to also being his wife), or Jacob was tricked into marrying two sisters. Gibeon got the better of Israel. Israel has violated the law, the command of God given to Moses, a teaching made for their own good.
Israel lets it stand. “Let the wrath be upon us!” they say. Oh, the Gibeonites pay the price by being enslaved (this passage has, sadly done much to justify slavery as a part of conquest), which is hardly a good thing. But when faced with a clear violation of the teaching, Israel does not try to right the wrong. Israel lets the violation — including the subterfuge — stand.
Israel’s word matters as much as God’s. Think about that for a moment. It’s not that the teaching given to Israel through Moses doesn’t matter — there will be consequences for Israel because of its failure to follow through with merciless war against the people of Canaan. That war is for Israel’s own good — the gods of the Canaanites will prove an endless distraction for Israel.
But just as God is learning to deal with faithless Israel, Israel is slowly beginning to learn what God’s faithfulness means. That God won’t just be there to redeem Israel only when Israel behaves itself, but also — and perhaps especially — when Israel fails or refuses to follow the command of God. Yes, Israel is tricked, but that should give Israel more justification for vengeance against Gibeon, more reason to set fire to these cities and kill all who live in them. Instead, Israel stands firm on its word: “Let them live.”
The covenants we make as the people of God matter. They matter as much as any commandment God has given us.
They might even matter more.