The Treaty With the Gibeonites

(Originally published November 18, 2016)

This week we are reading chapter 9 of Joshua, wherein the Israelites, fresh off their victory against Ai, are duped into making a covenant with the Gibeonites.  We began our study by looking at how the Canaanites’ attitude toward the Israelites has changed.  In chapter 5 the Canaanites were paralyzed with fear at the invading Israelites, to the point that they do not attack them, even when the Israelites are staying in camp to perform religious ceremonies which leave them rather vulnerable.  This fear has now worn off and the Canaanites are banding together to fight the invaders of their land.

We were asked to consider the opposition of the world to the One and Only True God as traced through Scripture. Beginning with the preparations for war which the Canaanites are making in Joshua 9, we then look to the Psalms.

“Why do the nations rage     and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,  “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”” Psalm 2:1-3

And thence to the New Testament where this passage from Psalm 2 is quoted as it applies to Jesus.

“(The Sovereign Lord) through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’— for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,…” Acts 4:25-27

And so we clearly see how the world, represented by nations, kings, and rulers, align themselves against the Lord and His Christ at every opportunity.

The Gibeonites had heard about the fate of those nations which had attempted to oppose Israel.  The fate that awaits all who oppose the second Joshua, our Lord Jesus Christ, can be found in Revelation, in a passage in which we see him in all his splendor as our Warrior King.

“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself.  He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.  And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”  Revelation 19:11-16 (*see note at the end of the post)

Simply put, there is no means by which any in the world can resist the Almighty God.  All efforts to fight him are futile.  They may appear to be successful for a season, but in the end a fearsome judgement awaits his enemies.

As chapter 9 of Joshua opens we must keep in mind the flow of events.  The Israelites have just finished an elaborate ceremony in which the Law of God was read aloud to the entire nation.  Fresh on their minds are the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience.  Included in the Law is the prohibition against making a treaty with any of the people who dwell in the promised land.  They may make treaties with peoples who live far away, covenants of peace and forced labor (Deut. 20:10-18), but all those who live in the promised land are to be devoted to destruction in order that they might not lead the Israelites astray into the worship of false gods.

Whether the Gibeonites knew of these conditions in the Israelites’ Law or not, they know that their only hope for survival is to somehow make peace with them.  And therefore, they resort to trickery.  Disguising their ambassadors in worn-out clothing and sandals and carrying worn-out parcels of dry and crumbly bread, they mask themselves as travelers from a far land.  Rather than attacking the Israelites, they attempt to sneak into a treaty to save themselves.  Not only was this a risk concerning their dealings with the Israelites, but, as John Calvin points out, this was putting themselves at risk with their Canaanite neighbors as well.

“The inhabitants of Gibeon alone rejecting the proposal to make war have recourse to fraud, and endeavor to obtain peace by pretending to live at a great distance. To make such an attempt, was very odious to their neighbors, because it was, in a manner, to make a schism among them, to open a door to the Israelites, and weaken the strength of their allies…. The Gibeonites, indeed, judged rightly and prudently, when they resolved to bear anything sooner than provoke God more against them, by a vain resistance.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]

Israel’s first reaction to the Gibeonite embassy is suspicion.  They question them closely, inspect their failing provisions, and, feeling that they have done their due diligence, proceed to make a covenant of peace with them.  The question, then, is, how exactly did Israel sin in this matter?  After a brief, if ineffective, investigation they believed the Gibeonites’ story that they were from a distant land and were not their neighbors, were they wrong to make a peace treaty with them?  It seems unfair to charge them with sin when they were deceived and proceeding according to the Law in good faith.  When I turned to my commentaries, they agreed.

“It is true that Joshua and the princes of the congregation had not violated any express command of God by doing this; for the only thing prohibited in the law was making treaties with the Canaanites, which they did not suppose the Gibeonites to be, whilst in Deu. 20:11, where wars with foreign nations (not Canaanites) are referred to, permission is given to make peace with them, so that all treaties with foreign nations are not forbidden. But they had failed in this respect, that, trusting to the crafty words of the Gibeonites, and to outward appearances only, they had forgotten their attitude to the Lord their God who had promised to His congregation, in all important matters, a direct revelation of His own will.”  [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]

“This is the great problem with a failure to consult the Lord in all matters: we must live with the consequences of our wrong actions.  “Can’t a sin or wrong action be forgiven?” someone asks.  Yes, of course.  But the consequences of that false step must often be lived with indefinitely.”  [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice,  Published 1989 by Baker Books]

Their sin rested in not consulting the Lord before making the covenant with the Gibeonites.  Making treaties with foreign powers was a matter of importance, and they had followed the Law in every respect, except they failed to ask the Lord before signing on the dotted line.  Once they discover the deception they pick up and march straight to Gibeon—which took all of two days, clearly in the neighborhood—and confront the Gibeonites with their fraud.  This confrontation, however, did not involve an attack, “because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Joshua 9: 18)

The leaders of Israel now have further problem on their hands: the reaction of their own people to this discovery.  The people began “murmuring” against their leaders.  These people have always been good at murmuring, haven’t they?!  But then, aren’t we all?  But their complaints stop there and do not lead to action once they hear from their leaders why they must not attack the Gibeonites.

“…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. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.”” Joshua 9:19-21

Why would attacking the lying Canaanites who had deceived them into a treaty based on false pretenses be a sin?  Keil and Delitzsch explain:

“As they had been absolutely forbidden to make any treaties with the Canaanites, it might be supposed that, after the discovery of the deception which had been practiced upon them, the Israelitish rulers would be under no obligation to observe the treaty which they had made with the Gibeonites in full faith in the truth of their word. And no doubt from the stand-point of strict justice this view appears to be a right one. But the princes of Israel shrank back from breaking the oath which, as is emphatically stated in v. 19, they had sworn by Jehovah the God of Israel, not because they assumed, as Hauff supposes, “that an oath simply regarded as an outward and holy transaction had an absolutely binding force,” but because they were afraid of bringing the name of the God of Israel into contempt among the Canaanites, which they would have done if they had broken the oath which they had sworn by this God, and had destroyed the Gibeonites.

They had done this without asking the mouth of Jehovah (v. 14), and thus had sinned against the Lord their God. But they could not repair this fault by breaking the oath which they had thus imprudently taken, i.e., by committing a fresh sin; for the violation of an oath is always sin…”

And, from John Calvin, in his commentary on this passage:

“…the obligation of an oath ought to be held in the greatest sacredness… since the sacred name of God is more precious than the wealth of a whole world. (85) Hence though a man may have sworn with little consideration, no loss or expense will free him from performance. I have no doubt, that in this sense David says, (Psalms 15:4,) that the true worshipers of God, if they have sworn to their hurt, change not, because they will bear loss sooner than expose the name of God to contempt, by retracting their promises.

In the deference which the common people pay to their leaders, by abstaining from all violence to the Gibeonites, we behold the integrity of the age… The more praise, therefore, is due to that rude simplicity in which the religious obligation prevailed more than the too subtle arguments which the greater part of men in the present day approve and applaud. The people are indeed indignant that their leaders had taken more upon them than they were entitled to do, but their moderation does not allow them to proceed beyond murmur and noise.”  John Calvin

Left with the responsibility to uphold the covenant which they had made with the Gibeonites, they follow the Law of God by attaching the clause that in exchange for their lives the Gibeonites must now submit to forced labor, and the Gibeonites acquiesce to the terms of the treaty.

“They answered Joshua, “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.  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

Interestingly, Keil and Delitzsch point out that this literally fulfills the curse of Noah upon Canaan.  “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” Genesis 9:25

As to the covenant itself, Keil and Delitzsch offer more insight: By taking an oath to the ambassadors that they would let the Gibeonites live, the princes of Israel had acted unconsciously in violation of the command of God that they were to destroy the Canaanites. As soon therefore as they discovered their error or their oversight, they were bound to do all in their power to ward off from the congregation the danger which might arise of their being drawn away to idolatry— the very thing which the Lord had intended to avert by giving that command…. while letting the Gibeonites live, it was their duty to put them in such a position, that they could not possibly seduce the Israelites to idolatry. That they acted rightly in this respect, is evident from the fact that their conduct is never blamed either by the historian or by the history, inasmuch as it is not stated anywhere that the Gibeonites, after being made into temple slaves, held out any inducement to the Israelites to join in idolatrous worship…”  C. F. Keil

And, of course, John Calvin:

“…they decline not the punishment, which they acknowledge to be justly inflicted. It may indeed be, that overcome with fear, they refused nothing, nay, calmly and flatteringly acquiesced in the terms imposed on them. For what could they gain by disputing? I have no doubt, however, that as they were conscious of having done wrong, and had no means of completely exculpating themselves, they considered themselves very humanely dealt with, so long as their lives were saved…”  John Calvin

Let’s turn our attention now to the Gibeonites themselves.  They precipitated this new crisis for the Israelites by behaving like none of the neighboring tribes in respect to the invading newcomers.  As we near the end of our lesson we are asked to consider what Rahab and the Gibeonites have in common and how they are different.  As we read through the accounts in Joshua of Rahab and the Gibeonites we see several similarities.  Both were inhabitants of the land, and therefore under the ban of destruction to the Lord; they have both heard of the God of Israel and his marvelous deeds on behalf of his people; because of this, they are both in fear for their lives and recognize their peril as the Lord is empowering his people against their enemies; and they both risk all by turning their backs on their fellow Canaanites in order to seek peace with God’s people.

Their actions based on this common understanding differ in that Rahab openly pleads for her life and the lives of her family after helping the spies in Jericho, and the Gibeonites employ deceit to save their lives.  By these differing means they come into covenant with the Israelites, and they each trust the Israelites to keep their word.  Finally, they each receive mercy and are spared from destruction.  They have more in common than differences.

Our final question takes us to 2 Samuel to learn how seriously God views promises made in his name—even those wrongly entered as was this covenant with the Gibeonites.

“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 Samuel 21:1 (you may read through verse 6 for the whole story)

Keil and Delitzsch comment on this as follows:

“God himself reckoned the attempt of Saul to destroy the Gibeonites, in his false zeal for the children of Israel, as an act of blood-guiltiness on the part of the nation of Israel for which expiation must be made (2Sa. 21: 1ff.), and consequently approved of the observance of the oath which had been sworn to them, though without thereby sanctioning the treaty itself.”  C. F. Keil

God considered the covenant to be binding upon the Israelites, and thus the Gibeonites are to dwell in safety with the Israelites.  The implications of this are seen further into the Old Testament and explained rather poignantly by James Montgomery Boyce and Francis Schaeffer:

“The Gibeonites were made servants to the Jews, but the place of their service was specifically said to be (at least in part) at the altar of the Lord.  In other words, although servants, they had the privilege of being brought close to spiritual things on a regular basis.

Francis Schaeffer makes a point of the Gibeonites loyalty once they had made their decision.  For many years after this incident, there was war between the citizens of the land and the invading Israelites.  Yet never once in the record of that long conquest do we hear of any Gibeonite defecting to his original side.

Schaeffer: “When the land was divided, Gibeon was one of the cities given to the line of Aaron.  It became a special place where God was known.  Approximately four hundred years later, David put the tabernacle in that city.  This meant that the altar and priests were in Gibeon as well.  At least one of David’s mighty men, those who were closest to him in battle, was a Gibeonite.  At that important and solemn moment when Solomon, David’s son, ascended the throne, Solomon made burnt offerings at Gibeon.  It was there he had his vision, when God spoke to him about his coming rule.  Much later still, about five hundred years before Christ, in the time of Zerubbabel, the genealogies of those Jews who returned from captivity under the Babylonians included a list of the Gibeonites… In the days of Nehemiah, the Gibeonites are mentioned as being among the people who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.  The Gibeonites had come in among the people of God, and hundreds of years later they were still there.””  James Montgomery Boyce (italics mine)

While there is no direct mention in Scripture of the Gibeonites being commended for their faith as was Rahab, they were clearly blessed by their close association with Israel and their service in the temple.

Our God is a keeper of promises and faithful to his Word.

*Of interest: Revelation 19:11-16 was the inspiration for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe during the American Civil War.  I recently saw a video of this hymn being performed by the choir of the United States Naval Academy during their annual All Saints concert in the chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  I am blessed to know the midshipman who sings the solo for the forth verse.  I do not know the spiritual condition of all these who are singing this glorious hymn about our victorious Lord, but I do know that they, once they finish their education and training, will be officers in our Navy and the Marines, and will therefore be putting their lives on the line to make men free.  Our own dear Graeme, as he sings of being transfigured by Christ, I know to be a Believer.  God bless them all.  Enjoy the performance here.

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