In this essay we are ready to take up chapter nine. This is an interesting story, but in a sense it is a sad one. It is about how a particular group of Canaanites, the Gibeonites, acted separately from the other Canaanites in order to save their lives. Notice I said a particular group of Canaanites. Technically the term “Canaanites” refers to a particular nation of people who lived in the land of Canaan. But the term often is used in a broader sense to represent all of the peoples who lived in Canaan. At the moment I am using it in that broad sense, as a label for all of the peoples of the land.
That something needed to be done by the Canaanites in the face of the threat from Israel was clear. The Israelites had killed every man, woman and child in both Jericho and Ai, and so the writing was on the wall so to speak for the rest of the Canaanites. Obviously, Israel was not just seeking territory. They were eliminating everyone in the territories they were conquering. And the Canaanites were reading the situation correctly. Israel was eliminating everyone. God had commanded that they do that, so that they wouldn’t be corrupted by the Canaanites.
Now this brings us face to face with a subject that disturbs some folk. It seems out of character for the God of love who is revealed in Scripture, especially in the New Testament, to be commanding the annihilation of whole people groups. The discussion we had earlier in our study of Joshua in relation to the “ban” placed on Jericho and Ai did not really get at this issue. So let’s pause and look at it for a few moments.
First, let’s turn to two Scriptures in Deuteronomy in order to get the biblical basis for the problem. The first is Deut. 7:1-2, which reads: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Cannanites, Perizites, Hivites, Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you—and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.’’ A second, similar Scripture is Deut. 20:16-17, which reads, “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Cannanites, Perizites, Hivites, Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God”
We see from these Scriptures that God had his reasons for commanding the slaughter of all of the Canaanite peoples. Now some might want to challenge God at that point, and claim that God was unjust to do such a thing. Others might wish to accept it without raising any questions at all, because God is God and he knows what he is doing; and we ought simply to accept it and go on.
It seems to me that both of those approaches are inappropriate extremes. To challenge the justness of God is a rather serious and formidable thing to do; and it could get us in spiritual trouble. On the other hand, to raise no questions at all; and thus to refuse to try to understand what God was doing, is to stick our heads in the sand and leave ourselves vulnerable to intellectual attacks by nonbelievers.
God’s motive certainly wasn’t some sort of “lust for blood,” or a matter of capriciousness. He acted as the God of love as well as the God of justice, as he always does. So we must try to understand how what he commanded that was just at that time in salvation history. It seems to me that the phrase “salvation history” is the key. God’s plan was much larger than the land of Canaan. God had the entire future of humanity and the salvation of the whole world in view, not just Canaan.
Israel was God’s elect. They were the only people on the face of the earth who had any proper understanding of who he was. It was from them that the Messiah, the Savior, was to come. Thus in a sense they were the only “game in town” for the salvation of the world. That made it absolutely essential that Israel stay religiously pure enough for God’s overall plan to unfold in the future of humanity. And God knew humanity well enough to know that they would maintain the necessary level of purity only if the Canaanite religious influences, which were extremely evil, were eliminated. Therefore in the greater scheme of things, the Canaanites, who were evil and deserved judgment, needed to be eliminated for the good, not only of Israel but also of humanity as a whole.
Coming back to Joshua chapter nine, the first two verses inform us that the Canaanite kings decided to band together in an alliance to fight Israel. But then in verses 3-15 we are told about the Gibeonites, one of the Hivite peoples (v. 7), who chose to deal with Israel in a different way. It is quite clear that the Gibeonite solution was one of deception, rather than war. It also was a bit of a gamble. Their deception was to convince Israel that they were “from a far country” rather than from Canaan. And they did that successfully by dressing in worn out clothes, by carrying worn out sacks and wineskins, and by carrying moldy bread.
They wanted a treaty, an alliance (v. 7). And that is where their gamble lay. Obviously they were gambling that Israel would honor the treaty even after they discovered the deception. The Gibianites got the treaty. And verses 16-27 tell us what happened next.
Now it wasn’t likely that the Gibeonites went into the deception with the intention of becoming Israel’s slaves. They probably were hoping for something better than that, an actual friendly alliance. But as you see, as soon as Israel learned about the deception, they marched on Gibeon. They didn’t kill the Gibeonites, which means the deception was a qualified success; but they did enslave them.
Now this raises a new problem. Some ask why the leaders of Israel felt obligated to keep the treaty, when it was based on a deception by the Gibeonites. I believe verse 19 is the key to an answer to that question. Israel swore the treaty “by the Lord.” That is, they invoked the name of the Lord in swearing the treaty. Now in that culture it was a very serious matter to break an oath, even if it had been made imprudently. Moreover, breaking the oath might have brought dishonor to God in the eyes of the Canaanites, since it had been made in his name.
Therefore the leaders of Israel decided to keep the treaty, and let the Gibeonites live. But they placed them into slavery to Israel, and to Israel’s sanctuary, so that there would be little likelihood that the Gibeonites’ religion would influence the Israelites. Apparently the decision was a good one, because later biblical writers never placed any blame on Israel for it; and there is no indication anywhere that the Gibeonites ever induced Israel to join in idolatrous worship.
Turning now to application, the big lesson we can learn from this is seen in verse 14: “The leaders [literally the men] partook of their [that is, the Gibeonites’] provisions, and did not ask direction from the Lord.” Isn’t that classic! They “did not ask direction from the Lord.” Israel failed to pray before the first attack on Ai with disastrous results; and here again, they failed to pray before making their decision about the Gibeonites. And again they found themselves “in the soup.”
That is so like us! We are faced with a decision, and we think we know how to handle the situation. It doesn’t even occur to us to pray about it. And then too late, we discover that we weren’t as smart as we thought we were. Neglect of prayer always suggests pride in our own judgments. So we should be careful to pray about all of our major decisions. We really aren’t as smart as we sometimes think we are.
That is a negative example on the part of Israel. But there also is a positive principle to be seen here. After Israel realized their mistake, they used good sense. They didn’t compound their sin by committing a fresh sin. Rather they assessed the situation, and looked for a way to honor God and the treaty without compromising their religious life. And, in part I trust because of prayer, they were able to do that.
I believe we can follow a principle like that. When we sin, or fail in some other way, we don’t have to say, “It’s too late for me.” We can get right with God, choose to make the best of the bad situation, and move on with our lives.