Joshua 9:1-27

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The “this” that they heard of is apparently the early victories of Israel over Jericho and Ai. A number of kings and peoples rose in mass to fight off the invasion. They may have been emboldened by the report of Israel’s initial defeat at Ai. Perhaps that made them think that if only a larger force were gathered, the Canaanites might drive Israel from the land. [Howard, 218] But one town thought better of that idea. Before we read of the next battle with Canaanite peoples, we are treated to a strange episode in which Israel was duped by some devious Canaanites who knew better than to risk battle with the invaders.

Gibeon was a city located some six miles northwest of Jerusalem. We read in 10:2 that “Gibeon was a great city…and all its men were warriors.” Gibeon was the chief city of the Hivites, one of the peoples mentioned in v.1 (cf. v. 7).

The Gibeonites, as will be confirmed in v. 24, knew that, while Israel intended to conquer, if not exterminate, the citizens of Canaan, they were free to make treaties with cities and states outside of Canaan (Deut. 20:10-18). Perhaps the Israelites weren’t the only ones with spies gathering intelligence about their enemies!

They found Israel once again encamped at Gilgal, having returned south from the covenant making ceremony near Shechem.

Joshua was not a dupe. He knew to ask the right questions. He was alert to the possibility of deception.

You will notice that they don’t mention the recent victories at Jericho and Ai; that might give them away.

These men knew how to make a convincing case; how to see the lie!

There is a debate as to whether the men of Israel were simply sampling the food, that is, inspecting it to see if what these men had said about coming from a great distance were true, or whether this is a reference to a meal that was a part of the covenant-ratification ceremony.

The terms of the covenant are spelled out in a summary way as well as the nature of the covenant-making ceremony: obligations were confirmed by an oath. One of the stipulations of the treaty, apparently, was a promise of help should either party be threatened. This will come into play in the next chapter (10:6-7). The treaty would typically include as well sanctions against any party that violated the treaty. If you remember, King Saul many years later tried to annihilate the Gibeonites; the Lord punished Israel with a famine as a result; and eventually seven of Saul’s descendants were handed over to the Gibeonites to be executed as punishment for breaking this treaty, even though it was made centuries before. [2 Sam. 21:1-8]

We are not told how Israel learned that the Gibeonites lived not far away and that they were Canaanites through and through, but the fact that they were impaled Israel on the horns of a dilemma. If they kept the covenant they had made with the Gibeonites they would violate the direct commandment of God not to make a treaty with any Canaanite people. If they broke the covenant, they would betray an oath solemnly sworn, no doubt, in Yahweh’s name. As C.S. Lewis remarks in his wonderful The Weight of Glory (31-32), “Like a good chess player [Satan] is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.”

These are the other Hivite cities. There was apparently a confederation of four towns, similar to the five city confederation of the Philistines. [Howard, 228]

So like human nature. The people complain of their leaders that they were so easily duped though, no doubt, they were in perfect agreement until the mistake was revealed. In any case, their blood was up and they wanted to attack the Gibeonites who had deceived them, but were prevented by the sanctity of Israel’s oath.

The quality of the Gibeonites intelligence exceeded that of what we often get from the CIA today. They are virtually quoting Deuteronomy! [Deut. 7:1-2]

All in all, this was an acceptable outcome for the Gibeonites; certainly preferable to death and extermination! Verse 10 suggests that they had the foresight to expect that they were trading freedom and status for life.

Apparently, so we read both in v. 23 and here, the particular focus of the Gibeonites’ labor was to be the sanctuary. They would cut and carry the wood needed for the altar fires and carry the water needed for the ritual washing of hands and the washing of blood from the pavement at the sanctuary, a considerable amount of both wood and water.

The chapter ends with another reference to Deuteronomy, this to the fact that a place would eventually be chosen where the sanctuary would be located. It is one of the demonstrations of the historicity and antiquity of Deuteronomy that no mention is made in that book of the future location of the sanctuary. At the time the book was written no one knew what that location would be.

There is something wonderfully life-like about this narrative. Ordinary human life is often complicated by the fact that we cannot always rely on people to be what they represent themselves to be or to be honest in their speech and by our capacity to be deceived. And there is something emphatically straightforward in the lesson of this narrative, viz. that no matter what other people say or do, no matter how foolish we may have been, we are obliged to remain true to our word.

There is another lesson here that is also particularly important for everyone, perhaps especially young people, to take to heart. There are a good number of serious problems in life the only real solution to which is not to have got into them in the first place. These are universal truths on display here. They are being proved every day all over the world and at every level of human affairs: international relations, national politics, society and culture, and the life of both the family and the individual. The facts of human life are, of course, also the facts of believing life, of Christian life, for Christian life is human life, human life as it ought to be lived, human life as the knowledge of God and of the truth enables a person to live it.

But, of course, Christians remain sinners and often make the same mistakes other people make, usually because they do not take advantage of the truth that they know. The narrator intrudes but once in this account. From the beginning of the chapter to the end, he has given us an account of what happened. Obviously he is writing his narrative from the vantage point of its conclusion. We know as we begin to read about the Gibeonites who these people are and what they are about. Joshua and the other leaders of the people did not yet know their identity. And the narrator tells us how they deceived the Israelites and what came of that deception.

But in the midst of his historical account the author intrudes his own observation. This happens rarely in Joshua, so when it does we are alerted to the fact that there is something here the narrator thinks is important and he does not want his readers to miss. [Hawk, 143] His comment is found in v. 14:

“[The Israelite leadership] did not ask counsel from the Lord.”

Here is where they went wrong. They should have consulted the Lord. Had they done so, presumably, the deceit would have been unmasked and the mistake avoided. In fact, in Numbers 27:21, Joshua was explicitly commanded by Moses to consult the Lord when decisions had to be made. The high priest had been furnished with the urim and the thummim so there was a way to secure answers to questions such as this one: “should we enter into a covenant with these people?”

Joshua was not unaware of the risk of deceit; he asked some appropriate questions, but he didn’t consult the Lord. The problem was not a failure to think but a failure to consult. Now, of course, today we do not have the urim and the thummim, but we have other ways of consulting the Lord. In particular we have his Word, the entire sixty-six book Bible, which Joshua and the Israelites did not have. And we have prayer by which to seek help from the Lord.

What is the situation people face most often that is similar to this one in Joshua 9? It is marriage. As we noticed last Lord’s Day evening, marriage is also a covenant. The same word used in v. 15 for the treaty that Joshua made with the Gibeonites is used in several places to describe marriage (Prov. 2:17; Malachi 2:14; Ezek. 16:60-63). What is more, marriage is entered into by the taking of vows, just as this covenant was enacted with vows.

And how many times has it happened; how many times have we seen it happen, that a young woman or a young man, like Joshua here, did not do her due diligence or his. She was so wanting to get married that she convinced herself, as Joshua and the leaders of Israel did here, that she could count on this fellow to be a fine and worthy partner. She didn’t consult others perhaps because she didn’t want to hear a discouraging word.

In more than a few cases that I am aware of, no doubt some of you have observed the same, there were doubts expressed about the match, some questions raised about whether the young man was everything he should have been. Joshua had some initial doubts. But she loved him, she wanted to get married, and he provided all the assurances, just as the Gideonites did here. And so the marriage was made, the vows were taken. But not much later the young woman realized that she had been duped. He wasn’t the serious Christian she had assured herself that he was. He wasn’t as kind and thoughtful as he had seemed to be during the courtship. Or she discovered that he had some very bad habits that she had not detected beforehand.

More often than not, alas, the young woman is angry over his deceit, the false representation of himself, and is unwilling to admit that there were warning signs that she consciously ignored, that she had been willful and foolish, and that she had no one to blame but herself. But I know women, thoughtful, intelligent, and godly women who will be the first to admit that they allowed themselves to be snookered and had no one to blame but themselves. After all, if a young man or woman really cares about godliness, is really zealous for the Lord, for his Word, for his house, for his worship, for his people, and for his name and cause, that should be so obvious that even the one who runs may read.

Anyone who has to apologize, even to himself or herself, for the spiritual life of a prospective spouse, anyone who has to overcome the doubts of others — parents, pastors, and friends — by arguing that this person is really more committed to Jesus Christ than he or she may appear to be,  is making the same mistake Joshua made. He or she is failing to take seriously the unreliability of our own hearts, the absolute necessity of taking seriously the Word of God, and the folly of making major decisions without practicing an active and humble dependence upon the Lord. Joshua’s failure is one that is made every single day in the Christian church. Every one of us has made it more than once, but in the case of some decisions the consequences last a lifetime.

In the same way that Israel made a covenant with a Canaanite people, what she had been explicitly forbidden to do, Christians make covenants with unbelievers when they marry them. Or, if not with unbelievers, with those who are barely Christians, or almost Christians, or perhaps Christians. We cannot count on the Canaanites to preserve us from such mistakes. They want what they want and they don’t care much for what matters most to us. They find it quite natural to deceive both themselves and those they marry. How easy then, if one is not wary, thoughtful, and careful, to mistake the flattery and posing of a Gibeonite for the true and sturdy faith of a Rahab! [Davis, 79]

We in the modern west struggle to understand why an oath obtained under false pretenses — or, at least so we may wish to believe (we want to believe that we were deceived and that we didn’t deceive ourselves!) — should have to be honored. But that is only because we are a people with a very low view of both the importance of the truth and the honor and majesty of God. Not so in the Bible. A promise made, all the more a vow in which the name of the Lord was invoked, had to be kept. This is the Bible’s viewpoint from beginning to end.

  1. In Genesis 27 we read the sorry account of Rebekah and Jacob tricking Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that he intended to give to Esau. But that blessing was the Lord’s blessing given by prophecy by the patriarch. No matter that it had been deceitfully obtained, the promise had been made and when Esau pled with his father for the blessing that was his due, Isaac — a man who had committed many grievous sins in the raising of his sons — knew enough to realize that, like the Israelites in Joshua 9, he could not go back on his word; he could not break the promise he had made in the Lord’s name.
  2. Seven of the descendants of King Saul would eventually die because Saul had sought to break the very covenant that Joshua and Israel made with the Gibeonites here in chapter 9. That is how seriously vows were taken by the faithful in Israel and that is why they took them so seriously: Yahweh himself did!
  3. In Ezek. 17 we read of the Lord’s anger toward Zedekiah, one of the last kings of Judah. Zedekiah had sworn an oath to Nebuchadnezzar to submit to Babylonian rule, but then broke that oath and negotiated with the Egyptians. The Lord punished Zedekiah by consigning him to exile and death in Babylon and, so we read in Ezekiel 17:16-20, explicitly because he betrayed the oath he had sworn in the Lord’s name to a pagan king! [Schaeffer, 147]
  4. In Malachi 2 we read that the prayers of God’s people were falling on deaf ears in heaven because Israelite men were betraying the covenant they had made with their wives, divorcing them to marry other women.

No wonder, then, that we read in Psalm 15:4, in an elaborate description of the godly man, that such a man “swears to his own hurt and does not change.” The NIV aptly translates the same phrase as “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” That psalm has been remembered in Scotland as the psalm to be sung at an elder’s deathbed! Why? Because an elder is supposed to be a godly man, such a man who keeps his vow even when it hurts!

And no wonder that Jesus should say a similar thing in the Sermon on the Mount: in effect, “Don’t swear lightly because when you swear in the name of God, God expects you to be faithful.” [Schaeffer, 148]

Do you see how emphatic the Word of God is at this point? Even covenants made and oaths sworn under the most deceitful of conditions are to be kept inviolate. God’s people are to keep their word and God’s name — so often invoked when Christians take vows — must not be dishonored.

What does the couple say when they marry?

“I Rob, take you Florence, to be my wife. And I do promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband,” and so on.

Eternity alone will tell how much of our trouble in the American church today — and we have a lot of trouble — is due to the fact that our prayers are not being heard because we are not keeping our word and not fulfilling the vows we swore in God’s name.

But there is something here to encourage us as well. The chapter is not simply a warning against being duped because we haven’t carefully consulted the Word of God. It is not simply an example of the terrible emphasis the Lord places upon his people keeping their word and honoring the promises they made in his name. It is also a reminder that God honors that faithfulness because he is faithful and he loves faithfulness and he particularly loves it when he sees it in the life of his people. Our sin needn’t be the last word!

Half-way through the chapter we might have expected a very different ending. If the Joshua we read of here in chapter 9 were a modern American Christian he might have conceived of a way round his mistake. He might have offered an argument for breaking the covenant that had, after all, been made under false pretenses. But, if we know the Bible at all well, we are not surprised that Joshua and the leaders of Israel — at this time believing men to the man — understood that option was not open to them.

But, if we know the Bible at all well, we also know that by the end of chapter 9 we have not yet read, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” Sure enough the Gibeonites were pressed into service as woodcutters and water-carriers for the sanctuary of God. We are talking about the adult men, no doubt. The women and children would have continued with their life much as it was before. But at least some of the men (v. 23) would have ceased to be farmers or shop-keepers or traders or craftsmen and become instead laborers in the service of Israelites. Joshua couldn’t break the covenant he had made, but he did what he could to put these tricksters in their place and to preserve Israel from the temptation to take their cue from the dishonesty of these men. Sin pays a wage and the Gibeonites have certainly sinned.

This was no doubt a come-down for the Gibeonites. But it, or something like it, was what the Gibeonites had expected would be their lot. They didn’t imagine when they plotted their trickery that their lives would continue unaffected by Israel’s invasion of their land. They knew they would be exchanging some freedom for their lives. People do that all the time. In time of war in particular people are always weighing the cost of continuing the battle against the likelihood of victory and, when it is clear that they cannot win, they often accept the enemy’s terms even when they are draconian. Even harsh terms are often better than the alternative.

The Lord Jesus, remember, once reminded us of the wisdom of this course of action. If your enemy is coming and you know you can’t beat him, come to terms. Get the best terms you can, of course, but it is better to live yourself and to save your loved ones than to sacrifice them all in a war you have no chance of winning. That was precisely what the Gibeonites thought and did.

So among all the peoples of Canaan who suffered crushing defeat in battle, the destruction of their homes, the death of their armies and their civilian population, there stood the Gibeonites, safely going on with their lives in their untouched towns and cities. Servants, to be sure, but how long was that to last? So far as we know, it was not very long before the Gibeonites were largely assimilated as part of the population of Israel. No doubt this happened over time, but that it happened there is no doubt. They remained in Saul’s day at least somewhat a separate and identifiable people, though whether they were still Israel’s woodcutters and water-carriers we cannot say.

But later still the Gibeonites had clearly already become simply Israelites with a different ancestry. One of David’s mighty men, one of the men closest to him and upon whom he relied, was a Gibeonite. [1 Chron. 12:4] In Nehemiah 3:7 we read that men of Gideon repaired part of the wall of Jerusalem when Nehemiah saw to the rebuilding of the walls of the capital. And in the list of those who returned to Judea from exile in Babylon, we read in Neh. 7:25 that there were 95 sons of Gibeon: that is, 95 Gibeonite families in that group of exiles returning from exile. Those were believers who came back to the Promised Land. And among those believers were a sizeable group of Gibeonites! Indeed, we wonder if there were not among the men who came to Joshua, made to appear as if they had come from a great distance, were not some who were already believers. When they told Joshua in v. 9 that they had come “because of the name of the Lord your God,” they may have been, at least in that, telling the truth. Rahab had realized that Yahweh was something utterly different than the gods of Canaan; perhaps these men did as well.

In other words, the Lord honored the covenant that Joshua made with the Gibeonites, no matter that the covenant was the result of some Gibeonite chicanery and Israelite foolishness. He not only honored it by requiring Israel to leave some Canaanites unmolested in the Promised Land — a spiritually risky thing to do — but by allowing the Hivites, like Rahab, eventually to find a place among the Jews, among the believing Jews, and to be numbered among the people of God. The danger of leaving Hivites in the Promised Land was, of course, the danger Israel was repeatedly warned against in Deuteronomy, viz. that Canaanites, with their sensuality and their material prosperity, would lead Israel astray. The Lord prevented that from happening not only by Joshua’s assigning them to work for the sanctuary, where they would be constantly exposed to the pure worship of God and would learn Israel’s faith, but by bringing these Canaanites into Israel by faith. It wasn’t Joshua’s intention, when he made the covenant with Gibeon, that they should become Israelites in time. But, in fact, that is what happened. From the vantage point of eternity perhaps the most wonderful feature of this history is that there are now Gibeonites in heaven! Where sin abounded, grace abounded still more.

In time they learned the truth about the one living and true God. They witnessed his faithfulness to his people. Surely there were some, perhaps a good number, who early on, like Rahab, realized that their only hope lay with Yahweh himself and became followers of the Lord.

Why did this happen? Because, unlike men so often, the Lord is always true to his word. He never lies; he never deceives. He always keeps his promises. And among those promises is this one: “He who comes to me I will never drive away!”

Men savvy enough to make peace with Israel before they could attack and destroy them were savvy enough to realize that Yahweh is the Lord of heaven and earth as Rahab had before them. If we know that and if we know that the Lord’s word never fails and his promises are always kept, then we too will want to honor him by keeping our word and honoring our promises: our promises to him and our promises to others.