The victory at Ai galvanized the Canaanites into action. They realized that if they hung back and waited for Israel to attack their cities one by one, they were doomed to defeat. The only way to deal with the threat was to unite and go on the offensive. Therefore, all the kings west of Jordan joined forces and gathered to fight with Israel. The coalition brought armies together from all the scattered places and peoples of Canaan—from the hills, valleys, and coastlands and from the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
The only hold-outs were the people of Gibeon, a Hivite city. They decided that they had better chances of survival if they used cunning rather than a sword. They chose a few men who were good actors and sent them to the camp of Israel with a devious scheme for extracting from the invaders a promise to leave Gibeon alone. This delegation pretended to be ambassadors who had traveled from a far country. So that the subterfuge would be convincing, they made everything in their possession look well-used. Their donkeys carried sacks that were obviously not new and wineskins that had been torn and mended. The men themselves dressed in old clothes, and their shoes were worn and patched. Dry and moldy bread was their only food.
When the Gibeonites begged Israel to make a treaty with them, the men of Israel were at first suspicious. They expressed doubt that the Gibeonites had really come from a far place. Then Joshua questioned them, demanding to know who they were and where they were from. Without hesitation and with speech that must have rung with sincerity, they repeated that they had come from a great distance. They stated that their purpose was to forge an alliance with the people of God. Anticipating that Israel would ask, "Why?" the delegation continued their spiel. Because after hearing about all that God had done for Israel, starting with the plagues in Egypt and continuing to the recent past, when He gave them victory over the kings east of Jordan, their elders and all their people had resolved to make themselves Israel’s servants. In protest against the skepticism of the Israelites who had first interviewed them, they pointed to their bread and wineskins and garments as proof that they had been on the road a long time.
What is remarkable is that the Israelites swallowed the story. Even Joshua, one of the most astute among them, did not question it, although its falsehood should not have been difficult to detect. Consider how inconsistent the evidence was. How long does it take for clothing to look old? Several months at least. But how long does it take bread to turn dry and moldy? Only weeks at most. And how long after it has so deteriorated can it still be used as food? Surely not longer than a few more weeks. So, the condition of the bread was not consistent with the condition of the clothing. Also, the text informs us that the bottles were not only old and rent, but also "bound up" (v. 4); in other words, repaired. Under what circumstances would the wineskins have been mended? It seems likely that the work could have been done only after the bottles had been emptied and before they were refilled. Yet how in a long trip could the Gibeonites have reprovisioned themselves with wine and not with bread? From what distance did they come? It has been estimated that the pace of ancient travel was seldom much faster or slower than fifteen miles per day. Therefore, the clothing of the delegation suggested that they might have traveled a thousand miles. Yet the account does not hint in any way that they came with a strong military escort, surely a necessity in the dangerous world of Joshua's day. All in all, their story sounds fishy.
It must be admitted that the people of God can be gullible. They are too often willing to accept and believe someone just because he can talk religious. Joshua was no different. The pious sentiments expressed by the Gibeonites disarmed his caution. He wanted to believe them because he had no appetite for needless slaughter. He knew that God would never destroy a people who had turned from their idols to exalt His name.
Therefore, having convinced himself that the Gibeonites were telling the truth, Joshua and his men partook of their food. The significance in this has been much debated. Perhaps the Gibeonites had stated that some of the bread and wine had been intended as a gift for Israel. Recognizing that the Israelites could not draw sustenance from settled homes, they brought supplies of food both to meet an anticipated need and to show peaceful intentions.
Then Joshua fulfilled their desire for a peace treaty. He promised not to attack them or kill them, but to consider them as allies. The princes of the congregation ratified the treaty by swearing to its terms.
It was not long, however, before Israel learned that they had been deceived. Just three days later, the news came that the ambassadors were men of Gibeon, a city nearby. How could Joshua have avoided falling victim to a lie? Generally, how can the people of God protect themselves from the kind of gullibility that comes from the worthy desire to think the best about someone? We must always pray for wisdom (Jas. 1:5-8), and God will give it. With God’s help we can see through deceptions and pinpoint a man’s true motives.
But seeking for wisdom is exactly what Joshua failed to do. He hastily gave assurances to the Gibeonites without asking the Lord’s counsel (v. 14). He was fresh from a great victory at Ai, and as a result, he was suffering again from too much self-confidence. As he had after the victory over Jericho, he became content with his own judgment, and he made a bad decision.
Joshua’s ups and downs as leader are a microcosm of the future history of the nation—that is, they prefigure how Israel would always vacillate between conscious dependence on the Lord and callous disregard of the Lord. Throughout the period of the judges, for example, the nation would repeatedly forget what God had done for them in the past and lapse into self-reliance (Judg. 2:8-19). Soon they would turn to the gods of their neighbors and ignore the true God altogether. Then in chastisement He would forsake them and give their enemies the upper hand. After suffering for a while under a foreign oppressor, they would remember God, confess their sins, and cry out for deliverance. And He would send a man to deliver them. But as soon as they recovered a sense of security and returned to prosperity, they would drift away from God again, and the whole cycle would repeat itself.
To verify that the ambassadors had deceived them, the whole nation broke camp and, under the direction of these men, traveled to their home city. They found that Gibeon was only three days distant. To their dismay they found also that the ambassadors represented not just one city, but an extended Hivite settlement encompassing four cities of some importance.
Because they had sworn not to harm the nation that had sent the ambassadors, Israel refrained from attacking the Hivites. But being shackled by this treaty angered the people and stirred up resentment against Joshua and the elders. Why were the people so upset? Because as a result of the treaty, the extensive holdings of these Hivites were now withheld from Israel’s possession. God had promised the whole land to Israel, and now they had allowed the Canaanites to retain a sizable portion.
The princes of Israel replied to the criticism by implicitly acknowledging that they had made a mistake, yet they refused to abrogate the treaty. They had sworn with an oath to let the Gibeonites live, and to violate the oath would invite the wrath of God. No doubt they were especially fearful of His wrath because they had sworn in His name. If they harmed the Gibeonites, they would put themselves in the place of breaking the Third Commandment, which says, "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain" (Ex. 20:7).
Yet the princes were as unhappy with the Gibeonites as everyone else was. They felt that their use of deception justified some punishment. Therefore, the princes decided that the Gibeonites could not be allowed to live alongside Israel on equal terms, as full-fledged allies. Rather, they would be downgraded to the rank of servanthood. It would henceforth be their perpetual obligation to provide wood and water for the whole nation. The exact nature of their duties is not stated here, but more information emerges later in the story.
Joshua then met with the Gibeonites and explained the verdict of the princes. He rebuked them for pretending to live far away when they really dwelt in the land Israel intended to occupy. Yet should we blame them for lying? We argued in our discussion of Rahab's story that lying is justified if it is necessary to save lives. We therefore cannot avoid the question, should we condemn the Gibeonites just because they could not think of any way to avert their own slaughter except by trickery? Yes, we should condemn them. Scripture provides the account in Joshua 9 to give us truth counterbalancing our conclusions based on Joshua 2. Joshua’s judgment that the Gibeonites sinned by lying is not at all unreasonable. Why not? He knew that they could have saved their lives without using deceit. All they had to do was sue for peace. Later in the narrative (Josh. 11:19-20), the author reveals that the Canaanite nations were almost annihilated only because they insisted on fighting against Israel. If any had chosen to surrender and serve Israel's God, they would have been spared.
The sentence Joshua passed on the Gibeonites could have been much harsher. Perhaps he wanted them to see the goodness of God so that their respect for Him would blossom into true faith. He pronounced that they would be perpetual servants of Israel with the special duty to provide lumber and water. He now specified who would receive it. It would go primarily to those who maintained the house of God.
The Gibeonites answered Joshua by defending themselves. They had heard that God had given the land to the Israelites and had commanded them to destroy all the inhabitants. They said that they had used deceit only because they saw no other way of saving their lives. But although they recognized God’s power, they failed to factor either His omniscience or His love into their calculations. Except for Joshua’s failure to consult the Lord, His omniscience would have made it impossible for their ruse to succeed. And His love made their ruse unnecessary. In His compassion and mercy, He was willing to spare them if only they were willing to serve Him. They were without excuse for mistaking His character. The reflections of God in His creation are clear enough to show that He is good.
The Gibeonites did not protest the sentence that the leaders of Israel imposed. Rather, they meekly submitted to it. Whether they truly accepted its justice or concurred out of necessity, we cannot tell. Either way, they were wise enough not to make themselves rebels. No doubt they were relieved and grateful that Israel did not trash the assurances given earlier.
For his part, Joshua kept his word, just as he had earlier kept the word of Moses to the two-and-a-half tribes that wanted to settle east of Jordan. In the comment that Joshua "delivered" the Hivites from the hand of Israel, we find a suggestion that except for Joshua’s firm intervention the nation would have scrapped the treaty and gone to war against the Hivites.
From later historical books we discover that Israel's treaty with the Gibeonites was still being honored centuries later. Saul, the first king of Israel, in essence scrapped the treaty by attempting to exterminate all Gibeonites who remained, but after David became king, he reversed Saul's policy and restored this persecuted people to their rightful place. At the same time he executed some of Saul's sons, presumably because of their role in promoting the slaughter of Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1–10).
Joshua also fulfilled his threat to reduce the Gibeonites to servitude. We find here further information concerning their duties. They would provide wood and water for the altar of the Lord. Since the nation was still moving from camp to camp, the altar’s location is described as "the place which he [the Lord] should choose" in the future.
On the spiritual plane, the Gibeonite deception is another lesson in Christian experience. It pictures a serious problem that has plagued the church from the beginning—the problem of maintaining the church as an assembly of believers only. The Gibeonites, who were not a party to the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and his seed, nevertheless managed to attach themselves to the congregation and gain territory in the Promised Land. How did they do it? By deception. Likewise, how do unbelievers become members of a church? Again, by deception. They profess a faith in Christ that they do not possess.
The evil consequences of Israel making a pact with the Gibeonites are a warning to us.
- The Gibeonites held onto land that should have been occupied by Israel. Much the same happens when unbelievers enter the church. They may rise to positions of responsibility and service that rightly belong to the true servants of God.
- The Gibeonites thought the treaty with Israel made their lives secure. Yet the only grounds for real security are a right relationship with God. Unless they submitted to the commands of God and came into a personal relationship with Him, they had done no more than escape immediate death. The treaty could not provide life in the next world. That required repentance and faith. Neither could it provide happiness and satisfaction in this world. That required a godly life leading to God’s blessing. Much the same evil may follow when unbelievers gain acceptance in a church. If they are not out-and-out hypocrites, their place among God’s people gives them a false security. They think that they are all right with God, that their souls are safe, when in fact they are in jeopardy of hell.
How can we avoid bringing people into the church who are not saved? Again, the story of the Gibeonite deception gives us the clue to the right answer. Israel’s mistake in believing the lie came from neglect of divine counsel. Admitting people to the church must be a careful process supported by prayer.
The chief step in this process is a careful examination of any candidates for membership. The examiner should satisfy himself that they pass certain specific tests.
- Upon questioning, do they demonstrate an understanding of the gospel?
- Do they believe the gospel in all its assertions? Specifically, do they see themselves as sinners unworthy of heaven and worthy only of hell? Is there evidence of sincere remorse for sin? Do they acknowledge that there is no hope of salvation by works or any other means except by faith in Christ? Have they invited Christ to be their personal Savior? Do they confess that Jesus is the Lord God whom they must serve and obey?
- Are they willing and eager to take the first steps of obedience? That is, have they gone through baptism? Do they intend to become active and enthusiastic members of the church?
- Do they have any ulterior motive for wanting to join the church? In the early days of missionary work in China, peasants who were willing to profess Christ received regular handouts of food. The missionaries soon learned that such converts were not dependable. At the first sign of persecution, they vanished. It became evident that food rather than Christ had been the attraction drawing them into the church. They became known as "rice Christians." But even in our culture, some of the people desiring to join a church may have the wrong motives. A husband might be joining just to please his wife, although his heart is unregenerate. A young man might be joining just to catch a certain girl who already belongs. Some down-and-outers might be seeking membership just because they anticipate financial help. It would be hard in any of these cases to refuse membership. Nevertheless, when presented with a doubtful candidate, the church should look for a way to delay action until his motives become clearer. Examining him with the guidance of the Spirit might even draw out answers that will allow the examiner to explain why membership cannot be granted yet. The answer should never be, "No." On the contrary, the applicant should always be encouraged to correct any problems standing in the way of membership.
Yet despite all our precautions we will probably never succeed in creating a church that is totally free of unsaved people. This summary of our prospects is a bit sad, but is fully grounded on what Jesus Himself taught, especially in His Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:224–30, 37–43). He said that during the Church Age, the church would be a mixture of wheat (true believers) and tares (hypocrites). The angels would come to Him and seek permission to root out the tares, but He would refuse, because the drastic measures needed to eliminate them might also harm or remove some of the wheat. We can offer one possible reason. Not infrequently, the tares are joined together with wheat in the same family. Purging the church of one while holding on to the other is difficult if not impossible, and the process may do harm to the wheat.
Sometimes in church history God has purified the church through severe persecution. Then, under peril of losing their place in society or even their lives, hypocrites in the church are quick to leave. But I am sure that we would all rather live in peace, even at the cost of a few hypocrites mingling among us and pretending to be our brothers. The time will come when God will deal with them as they deserve.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.