At this point, the Israelites have destroyed two major cities on the western side of the Jordan, Jericho and Ai. These were destroyed after the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River. Before that, the main kingdoms on the eastern side of the river, led by Sihon and Og, were also destroyed.
So Joshua 9 gives us two responses. One of them will not be resolved until the next chapter, but it is introduced in Joshua 9:1-2. The kings of the region gather together with the intention of destroying the incoming Israelite invasion. As we consider this, it is important to remember that a “king” here may rule only over a city (and a small one, at that,) and answer to the king next door. There is no reason to dismiss the label of “king” because he did not rule a large territory. That’s an anachronism.
The inhabitants of Gibeon, though, decide that they are not interested in the combat coalition being put together. Instead, they hatch a plan to get themselves out of harm’s way. It’s a simple plan, really, which takes advantage of the cultural expectations of hospitality and oath-keeping. If the Israelites will take them in as weary travelers and make a peace treaty with them, then the Gibeonites will be safe even after the Hebrews know they are local enemies rather than distant ones.
Joshua and the rest of the leaders of Israel realize their mistake. They determine that the Gibeonites will be taken as slave labor for the people of Israel, but since the nation had bound itself with an oath to the Lord God, they determined that they should keep it. It’s a difficult position that they found themselves in: having a made a promise that should not have been made, they must now honor it anyway.
Generally speaking, that’s a bad spot. And there are times when your only option will be to break your word and move forward, but I would suggest those situations are rarer than we want them to be. There are times where the life of another is at stake, for example, or even your own life—a marriage vow to an abuser is an example—that one must break out of an oath.
But that’s life issues, folks, not inconvenience, embarrassment, or financial challenge. We need to not conflate those issues.
Let’s put in focus where the fault is typically laid in this passage: Joshua 9:14. The leaders of Israel conduct their own investigation and do not inquire of YHWH about the Gibeonites. Let’s read that again, just to be certain that’s what it says: Joshua 9:14 (ESV). Indeed, they did not inquire of the Lord God.
Here they are, in the Promised Land, guided by the Lord God, YHWH, to it. He has given them passage through the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, and victory over Sihon and Og. He brought them through the Jordan River rather than over it, then brought them through the walls of Jericho instead of over them. Yet they think that, at this point, they can handle it.
As a result, they set the stage for their own disobedience to His commands by making a covenant with the people of the land. The Gibeonites become the first of the undefeated Canaanites, and in due time, the Israelites will go astray following the Canaanite gods.
It starts with not seeking YHWH here, in the afterglow of the victory over Ai.
What fools they were, we look and say—but we have the benefit of hindsight! Consider our own lives and whether or not we have ever promised foolishly! It has happened before, and it will happen again.
It happens in our personal lives, where we vow and promise without consideration. It happens between churches and other organizations, and it happens between Christians in a society and political leadership—we make promises and commit support without really asking what the Lord says about it! So, what do we do?
1. If we do not know what the Lord says about life in general, how in the world will we know what He says about an alliance? Get your Bible out and read it! Understand the character of God, understand the holiness of God.
2. Be wary of stories that look too good to be true—especially when God has given clear instructions about an issue. Can you picture the leaders of Israel making their covenant with the Gibeonites? “Gee, Jehoahash, it’s a good thing these guys aren’t local, we couldn’t make this deal!” “Yep, Earl, that’s the case….” Guess what? If there’s only one thing wrong with the plan, then look twice at the one thing.
3. Be aware that temptation comes hard on the heels of victory. The Israelites are feeling good about the situation in the Promised Land, having seen the victories at Jericho and Ai. Never let victory lead to complacency, never let success breed apathy—always view each situation afresh, applying the same principles and passion to sorting it out as the last one required.
Don’t start believing everything you hear, especially when God has you on a mission!
1. Question: vv. 1-2 say the kings of the cities formed an alliance…then v. 3 says the “inhabitants” of Gibeon set up this plan. Did the Gibeonites rebel against their king while he was off making the alliance and try to make their own peace? It makes Joshua 10 make even more sense.
2. So, does v. 23 reflect the upcoming worship center or is “house of my God” a reference to the kingdom of God? And do the Gibeonites, in due time, come to worship the God for whom they are hauling wood and water?