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7. Deception by the Gibeonites (Josh. 9:1-27)

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None of us likes to be deceived. We teach our children not to lie and we administer punishment if they do. And yet, lying and disobedience have been present since the fall of the human race. Satan lied to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - they were deceived and disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. Then, they lied to God, by making false excuses – Adam said, I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid (Gen. 3:10). No, the reason why he was afraid and hid from God was because he feared the consequences of having sinned against God, by which act of disobedience his eyes were opened to know good and evil. Thus, the human race was plunged into sin, and ever since then lying and disobedience have characterized and plagued our existence. In our chapter, we will see how the Gibeonites resorted to lying in order, so they thought, to protect themselves from attack as the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land.

Our subject in this study is “the consequences of failing to seek God before we act.” As we will see, such action may lead us into a conflict of ethics. The primary theological principle that emerges from this study is that seeking God’s mind before making commitments is imperative to avoid conflict and disobedience.

The narrative opens with a coalition of kings against Israel (9:1-2). The news of Israel’s victory at Ai (chapter 8) spread throughout the region, just as it had earlier at Jericho (2:10-13) and at the crossing of the Jordan (5:1). Previously, Rahab had told the spies that when they heard what the Lord had done for Israel at the Red Sea and how they had utterly destroyed the two Amorite kings, they lost heart (2:10-11). Similarly, when the Amorite kings heard how the Lord had dried up the water of the Jordan they lost heart and their courage failed because of the Israelites (5:1). In both cases, what they “heard” about the Lord’s power exercised on Israel’s behalf generated in them “fear.” Such is not the case, however, in our passage among the kings who were west of the Jordan in the hill country, in the Judean foothills, and all along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea toward Lebanon – the Hethites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Instead, when they heard about Jericho and Ai…they formed a unified alliance to fight against Joshua and Israel (9:1-2). What they heard did not generate fear in them but emboldened them to form a coalition to fight against Israel.

So, what changed? Why no fear now? Because Israel had been defeated at Ai. That’s what changed. Now their enemies knew that the Israelites were not invincible due, as we know, to the debilitating effect of sin in their midst. As we noted before in our study of the defeat at Ai (chapter 7), one person’s sin can have devastating effects on the entire congregation. In the case of Achan’s sin, it caused a delay in Israel’s possession of the land and, instead of fear, generated courage in a coalition of their opponents. If Achan had not sinned, none of this would have happened. In fact, all their enemies might well have capitulated, as Rahab had done earlier and as the Gibeonites do in our chapter. As someone else has pointed out, as with Adam and Eve in the garden, so with Israel in the Promised Land – one sin had long term consequences (Richard S. Hess, “Joshua: An Introduction & Commentary,” 175-176).

The Gibeonite treaty with Joshua follows similar patterns to previous experiences:

1. Rahab’s agreement with the spies in Joshua 2 preceded Israel’s attack against, and defeat of, Jericho in Joshua 6, just as the Gibeonites’ treaty with Israel in Joshua 9 precedes the wars of Joshua 10. In both cases, deliverance is preceded by the confession of God’s power and salvation for Israel.

2. The Gibeonite deception follows Israel’s covenant renewal (8:30-35), just as Achan’s sin followed the Israel’s consecration to God in circumcision (5:2ff) and the Passover celebration (5:10-12).

Notice these theological principles…

I. When You Act Without God’s Direction, You Can Easily Be Deceived (9:3-15)

The deception enacted - a treaty by trickery (9:4-5). Like the kings of the Hethites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, the Gibeonites also heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai (9:3). But unlike the allied kings, the Gibeonites chose a vastly different response. Rather than risk direct combat, which would undoubtedly lead to their defeat, the Gibeonites chose to trick Israel into making a peace treaty with them.

The Gibeonite deception was not motivated by any threat or loss of life by an Israelite attack - it was purely an act of self-defense and self preservation by way of a well-thought-out trick. In that sense the Gibeonites were shrewd in a prudent way, just like the business manager in Luke 16, who sought to deceive his boss for his own benefit. Somehow the Gibeonites knew that God had promised Israel that he would drive out the Amorites, Canaanites, Hethites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Ex. 34:11). And they also knew that He had warned Israel to not to make a treaty with the inhabitants of the land that you are going to enter; otherwise, they will become a snare to you (Ex. 34:12). Moses repeats this instruction in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 (cf. Deut. 20:15-18).

Thus, the Gibeonites knew that without a peace treaty they would die as Israel took possession of the land. And evidently, since Gibeon was not far from Jericho or Ai, the Gibeonites must have reasoned that, in order to enter into a peace treaty and protect themselves from Israel’s attack, they would have to pretend to come from a distant land, a land beyond the borders of the Promised Land, a land with which Israel was permitted to make a peace treaty. Hence, their elaborate ruse to deceive Israel as to where they came from.

In order to make their fictional story about being from a far away country appear authentic, they gathered provisions and took worn out sacks on their donkeys and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They wore old, patched sandals on their feet and threadbare clothing on their bodies. Their entire provision of bread was dry and crumbly (9:4-5). Everything about their appearance, their clothes, and even their moldy food gave the appearance that they had been travelling for a long time.

The Gibeonite plea (9:6-13). When they meet with Joshua, (1) they profess to be from a distant land (9:6a); (2) they petition for a peace treaty (9:6b); and (3) they pledge to be Israel’s servants (9:8). Understandably Joshua and the men of Israel are skeptical of this story, challenging them: Perhaps you live among us. How can we make a treaty with you? ...Who are you and where do you come from? (9:7-8). But the Gibeonites persist by repeating their earlier pleas, adding that their reason for coming such a distance to make this treaty with Israel is because of the reputation of the Lord your God. For we have heard of his fame and all that he did in Egypt and all that he did to the two Amorite kings beyond the Jordan (9:9-10a). For this reason, their people had sent them (9:10b) to meet with the Israelites and gain their agreement, pleading: We are your servants. Please make a treaty with us (9:11).

No doubt the report they had heard about the power of the God of Israel was the driving force behind this whole drama. No doubt their fear of being attacked and possibly annihilated drove them to carry out this deception. Clearly, as on previous occasions, the reputation of Yahweh preceded the Israelites as they move into Canaan.

The Gibeonites’ confession parallels in some respects that of Rahab with the spies (2:10) in that (1) they had heard of Israel’s victories in Egypt and at the Jordan; (2) they confessed that Israel’s successes are due to the Lord your God (9:9). The Israelites, on the other hand, made no such confession about their God. Instead, they took some of the (Gibeonites’) provisions, but did not seek the Lord’s decision (9:14). They failed to ask for divine guidance, just as they failed to do so at Ai (7:3-4). They relied on their own intuition, their own self-confident abilities. Even for a decision as far-reaching as this, they didn’t stop to seek God.

This should be a powerful lesson to us. Though we are not commissioned by God to physically attack enemies in order to take vacant possession of a geographical area for God’s people, nonetheless we frequently face important, perhaps even life-changing, decisions for which we need God’s wisdom and guidance. This decision of the Israelites was not a simple or inconsequential everyday situation. Furthermore, they had explicit instructions from God through Moses to not make such a treaty (Ex. 34:12, 15). Without wisdom from God, they fell into a trap which would prove difficult to remedy.

In order to bolster their claim to be from a distant land, the Gibeonites describe again the “evidence” by repeating what they had already stated in 9:4-5 – this bread of ours was warm when we took it from our houses as food on the day we left to come to you; but see, it is now dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them; but see, they are cracked. And these clothes and sandals of ours are worn out from the extremely long journey (9:12-13). All this, of course, was a bald-faced lie in order to manipulate the Israelites into protecting them by a peace treaty!

From our perspective, the words of Hamlet spoken about Lady Macbeth come to mind: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Surely, their description of the details about why they came and how far they travelled was a bit over the top. Surely, their explanation should have raised some questions about its truth. But when we are not in sync with God, we can be so easily deceived. We need the wisdom that comes from above, James writes as he draws a distinct contrast between earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom (James 3:13-18). There is no substitute for wisdom that comes from above. We need both the power of God and the wisdom of God which is found in Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

The peace treaty finalized (9:14-15). Despite God’s prohibition through Moses against making a treaty with the inhabitants of the land, Joshua established peace with them and made a treaty to let them live, and the leaders of the community swore an oath to them (9:15b). The peace treaty is finalized.

The first theological principle, then, that we learn in this episode is that “When You Act Without God’s Direction, You Can Easily Be Deceived” (9:3-15). Second…

II. When You Act Without God’s Direction, You May Face An Ethical Dilemma (9:16-25)

The deception exposed (9:16-18). Deception will ultimately be exposed. No one can lie indefinitely without being caught. In this case, three days after making the treaty with them (the Israelites), they heard that the Gibeonites were their neighbors, living among them (9:16). They were not from a distant land at all. They lived nearby, which meant that, according to God’s instructions, they had to drive them out of the land. What a shock for the Israelites to discover that they had been tricked! (This reminds us of how the Israelites themselves had tricked Ai with an ambush - 8:14, 20-21). So, the Israelites chased them to Gibeon and reached them on the third day (9:17).

So, what should they do now? How could they obey God and at the same time be true to their treaty? They had made an agreement based on a false premise and without God’s direction. This conflict of ethics is the direct consequence of failing to seek God before they acted; it is the ethical dilemma that can result from not seeking or following God’s guidance and wisdom.

True to their oath, the Israelites did not attack them… Then the whole community grumbled against the leaders (9:18). Unwise actions by leadership without God’s direction can cause conflict and complaints among God’s people. Grumbling seems to have been a common response of the Israelites when their leaders did not act as they thought they should. In this case, they certainly had justification for their complaint – not against God or Joshua but against the leaders as a group. But it’s always easy to complain after the fact and it’s always easy to complain about decisions made by others. Armchair quarterbacks are always around to give their opinion and to criticize. Nonetheless, the leaders had acted unwisely, perhaps we could say rashly, and in their own self-confidence. God’s thoughts on the matter did not even enter into their thinking when they made the treaty with the Gibeonites.

The irony is that Israel didn’t need to make a treaty with them. They weren’t under any obligation to do so. Moreover, surely you would think that before doing so they would have checked out the Gibeonites’ story. Certainly, the reason for their seeking a peace treaty was reasonable enough, for the reputation of the God of Israel and the victories of the Israelites had preceded them. That part of their story made sense. But would it have been sensible to at least verify their story as to where they came from before entering into this peace treaty? Should it not have seemed strange to the Israelite leadership for unknown people to come to them seeking a peace treaty without anything more than a made-up story? It wasn’t as though Israel had attacked them and they sought to prevent annihilation by seeking peace. No, this was an unprovoked unverified attempt to prevent Israel from taking possession of the land in accordance with God’s instructions.

The deception evaluated (9:19-21). By not consulting God, they now faced an ethical dilemma – namely, to punish the Gibeonites for their deception or to remain true to their treaty. What should they do? Under the circumstances, the Israelite leaders did the only thing they could: We have sworn an oath to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them (9:19). The treaty was unconditional; they must keep their word, erroneous or unwise as it was. This is how we will treat them: we will let them live, so that no wrath will fall on us because of the oath we swore to them (9:19-20). To this the community agreed, Let them live (9:21a). As someone else has said, they must “live as faithfully as they could within the twisted situation” (Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, 81).

But just because the Gibeonites had a peace treaty with Israel did not mean that there would be no consequences for their deceit in obtaining it. Thus, the Gibeonites became woodcutters and water carriers for the whole community, as the leaders had promised (9:21b). Their lives would be spared, and they would be slaves. But the matter did not rest there. The deception exposed and evaluated is followed by…

The deception examined (9:22-25). Why did you deceive us by telling us you live far away from us, when in fact you live among us? Therefore, you are cursed and will always be slaves – woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God (9:22-23). Their explanation is that they deceived the Israelites because they knew what the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land before you. We greatly feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this (9:24). The Gibeonites did what they did because of what they knew – that God had commanded them to destroy all the inhabitants of the land. And what they knew generated in them fear.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the Gibeonites acted on what they knew (albeit deceptively), whereas the Israelites did not. The Israelites knew that God had commanded them not to enter into a treaty with the inhabitants of the land and yet they did so anyway.

Both knowledge and fear are powerful motivators. Knowledge is power, they say. In this case, the Gibeonites’ knowledge was power in that it motivated them to action, to do something to prevent or avoid the inevitable destruction that they knew was coming. But that knowledge also generated fear. Put together, it is easy to understand why the Gibeonites acted so deceitfully. Deceit is never morally right, but when faced with the loss of life one wonders what you would do. Again, like the business manager in Luke 16, they acted shrewdly to make their future secure.

No wonder the Gibeonites said, Now we are in your hands. Do to us whatever you think is right (9:25). To be in your hands really indicates that they are throwing themselves on Israel’s mercy. Do whatever you think is right is an acknowledgement that Israel is the superior power with the authority to grant justice and mercy. This is unconditional surrender, complete dependence on Joshua’s grace and truthfulness.

The first theological principle, then, that we learn in this episode is that “When You Act Without God’s Direction, You Can Easily Be Deceived” (9:3-15). The second is that “When You Act Without God’s Direction, You May Face An Ethical Dilemma” (9:16-25). The third is…

III. When You Act Without God’s Direction, You Need A Redemptive Solution (9:26-27)

With the support of the community and based on what he and the elders had decided, Joshua did what was right under the circumstances. He was caught in an ethical dilemma between his obligation to the Gibeonites and his obligation to God. Now he acts with the wisdom that comes from above. First, he rescued (the Gibeonites) from the Israelites, and they did not kill them (9:26). Joshua lives up to the meaning of his name: “Salvation.” He is their redeemer and protector from the wrath if Israel. This is a huge demonstration of mercy. Their lives were spared for what otherwise could have been disastrous.

Second, on that day he made them woodcutters and water carriers – as they are today – for the community and for the Lord’s altar at the place he would choose (9:27). Though they are consigned to a life of servitude and drudgery, their lives are spared. That in itself would have been enough, but there’s more. In an even greater act of undeserved mercy and favor the Gibeonites joined the Israelite covenant community of faith by serving not only the community but also the Lord’s altar. Granted their position was at the lowest level of servanthood – woodcutters and water carriers - but they participated in the sacrificial worship of the God of Israel by serving at His altar. They were brought into the sphere of spiritual blessing, brought near to the Lord. This was true redemption for those who otherwise deserved to die.

The consequences for Israel and Gibeon could have been far worse. God is very gracious to them. Failure to seek God is different than outright rebellion against God. For that they would have suffered a far worse punishment. But God metes out to us the consequences of our sins and failures with justice and fairness. And that justice and fairness is also meted out by the Israelites to the Gibeonites. A life of servitude and drudgery is far better than annihilation. They recognized the fidelity of Joshua and the Israelite leaders to the covenant they had made with them.

Final Remarks

Israel’s failure to seek the Lord before entering into their treaty with Gibeon follows the same pattern as their failure to seek the Lord when they attacked Ai with only two or three thousand men because, so the spies reported, the people of Ai are so few (7:3). Indeed, they were few. But that didn’t mean they could attack them without seeking God’s direction and power, which they completely failed to do. What they forgot is that without God’s direction and power they were utterly weak, even before just a few. We can’t imagine how much the sin of self-confidence, like Israel’s at Ai, can affect our subsequent lives. It just seems that our own pride so often gets in the way of our dependence on, and trust in, God.

Interestingly, the alliance of the kings (9:1-2) didn’t seem to cause Israel any alarm. In fact, there is no record of this alliance actually fighting Israel, but there will be other alliances later that will do battle with them (chapters 10 and 11). In both instances, in pure grace, God speaks, assuring Joshua to not be afraid of them for He will give him victory over them (10:7 and 11:6). No, it wasn’t the outright threat of war by the kings that caused Israel’s failure and consequent ethical dilemma. Rather, they failed to consult the Lord and were duped by a simple, naïve, poorly executed deception.

Clearly, they had not learned their lesson, for the Gibeonites did not come to protect themselves by military might, but to protect themselves by deception. As at Ai, Israel did not seek the Lord’s counsel (9:14), nor did they consider the clear instructions they had received previously from the Lord (Ex. 34:11-12) and from Moses (Deut. 7:1-2) about destroying the nations in the Promised Land and not making any treaties with them.

So, Israel’s fault here was both a sin of commission (disobedience to God) and a sin of omission (failure to seek God’s direction), both of which exposed their utter weakness. But in spite of this, God is gracious. Israel does not suffer defeat as they did at Ai, but they suffer the humiliation resulting from a very simple deception – one that could have so easily been avoided.

Do you not find in your own life, that you do the same thing? Sometimes we just don’t stop to think about what we are doing and what its consequences might be. Sometimes we fail to seek the Lord in prayer or his word and we plunge ahead with a course of action based solely on or own judgement (or lack thereof). Then there comes a point at which God in his grace prompts us by the Holy Spirit as to why things did not go well, reminding us that we relied on our own understanding rather than on trusting in the Lord with all our heart (Prov. 3:5-6). How much and how often do we need to learn that lesson! But time and time again we neglect the Lord and trust our own self-confidence.

Remember the theological principles we have derived from this narrative:

I. When you act without God’s direction, you can easily be deceived (9:3-15).

II. When you act without God’s direction, you may face an ethical dilemma (9:16-25).

III. When you act without God’s direction, you need a redemptive solution (9:26-27).

Despite their failure here, Joshua and the leaders of Israel found a redemptive solution, one that (1) permitted them to act with integrity in keeping their oath to the Gibeonites; (2) allowed them to punish Gibeon for their deception; and yet (3) provided a way for Gibeon, by sheer grace, to participate in the service and worship of God, as well as their service to the Israelites. That’s brilliant, isn’t it? Only God could do that.

Remember our thesis, our sermon-in-a-sentence: Seeking God’s mind before making commitments is imperative to avoid conflict and disobedience. As we study these wonderful narratives about O.T. characters, may we apply the principles we learn from them to our own lives. God’s word never grows old or out of date, for, as the Scripture says, whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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