And when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done unto Jericho and to Ai, They did work wilily, and went and made as if they had been ambassadors. . . .
And they went to Joshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We be come from a far country: now therefore make ye a league with us. . . .
And Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, and let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them.
Two cities had fallen before the march of Israel; Jericho’s walls had crumbled into dust; Ai had been burned with fire. With these victories still fresh in their minds, the children of Israel were brought to stand over against each other upon the slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. There they were called to affirm their dedication to God and His law as they took up their places in this new land. It was a thing that could not be allowed to wait. It had to become immediately apparent that God was not destroying one people just to replace them with another, He was destroying the wicked that the righteous might inhabit the land. Nothing could reveal that more clearly than that great congregational meeting at Gerizim and Ebal. From the valley in between was read word for word the whole law; from the mountain sides above echoed the affirming “Amen” of the people to blessings and cursings both. These were a people that were different. They were dedicated to the service of Jehovah God and His law.
From Gerizim and Ebal, Joshua led the people to Gilgal where they encamped so as to make provisions for their farther advancements. While they were there a very strange situation suddenly developed. There appeared one day at the gate of the camp a delegation of men in the most dilapidated state imaginable. Their clothing was almost literally rags. They were old, and where they had torn and worn through they were crudely mended as though by inexperienced hands. Their shoes too were old and hardly hung together. The sacks and wine-skins which held their provisions and drink had tears and holes in them that had merely been tied shut with pieces of twine. The provisions themselves were so moldy, dry, and stale that to eat them was hardly conceivable. The men asked, to speak to the leader of Israel whoever he might be. Thus they were brought to the tent of Joshua. There it was discovered that these men, as incongruous as it appeared, were actually an official delegation representing another nation.
Once Joshua had called together the elders of Israel to hear what these men had to say, they heard a very simple explanation. “We have come from a far country,” said the men, “Now therefore make ye a league with us.”
The request of these men took the elders of Israel by surprise. This was something with which they had never expected to be confronted. They knew, of course, that the heathen nations of the land were frightened by their presence in Canaan. But they also knew that those same nations were very determinedly wicked. They hated Israel and could never be expected to suggest even the possibility of making peace with them. This was just as well, for God had forbidden them to make peace with the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. The command of God was to destroy them. This they had to do, and it would be a lot easier if they did not have to do this over against a lot of requests to make peace.
But these men said that they were not inhabitants of the land, or at least they said that they came from a far country. This would make quite a difference, for God had not commanded them to make war with the nations outside of the boundaries of Canaan. With such they could suite properly make a league of peace. But could they be sure? They turned to the men and addressed them again, “Peradventure ye dwell among us; and how shall we make a league with you?”
The answer they gave came as a surprise. They turned to Joshua and said, “We are thy servants.” What they evidently meant by this was, ‘We are at your mercy. If you do not trust us or what we have said, it is within your power to do with us what you want.”
It was hard to reject such words of humility and be harsh on people like that. It surely was entirely different from anything that they had ever heard about the Canaanites, of the land. With a new warmth of kindness in his voice, Joshua turned to them and asked, “Who are ye? and from whence came ye?”
The Gibeonites immediately felt that they had come a long way with their soft answer to the accusation of the elders. They had turned away that feeling of suspicion which surrounded them almost from the very moment they had stepped into the camp. Joshua was beginning to take an attitude of kindness toward them, and that was half of the battle won. With a new feeling of confidence they began to talk. “From a very far country thy servants are come because of the name of the LORD thy God: for we have heard the fame of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites, that were beyond Jordan, to Sihon king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Basham, which was at Ashtaroth. Wherefore our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spake to us, saying, Take victuals with you for the journey, and go to meet them, and say unto them, We are your servants: therefore now make ye a league with us. This our bread we took hot for our provision out of our houses on the day we came forth to go unto you; but now, behold, it is dry, and it is moldy: and these bottles of wine, which we filled, were new; and, behold, they be rent: and these garments and our shoes are become old by reason of the very long journey.”
The elders of Israel were thrilled by what they heard. To them it was a wonderful thing to hear strangers testifying to the greatness of Jehovah God with warmth and admiration. It must have seemed strange at first that the men did not mention the most recent and greatest works of Jehovah, the passage through the Jordan river, the fall of Jericho, and the destruction of Ai. But when they stopped to think of it, that was as it should be. If these men had come as far as they said they did, they must have been on their way already when these things had happened, and they had not even heard of them yet. Actually when one tried to figure out how long these men had been traveling, it was hard to imagine. Everything about them was so impossibly old and worn. In all of Israel’s journeys in the wilderness, no one had even begun to look anything like that. But then, God had been with them and had preserved them from any harm on their journey. These men must have come a terribly long way to arrive in such condition.
Actually, of course, when it tames down to it, these men had not answered the question of Joshua as to who they were and where they were from. But was it necessary to push the point with men who so apparently had come so far? The elders took the food that was left and passed it among themselves. Just one taste was enough to convince anyone that it was terribly old. One could hardly help but sympathize with anyone who had to live on food like that. It did not take them long to agree that it surely would not hurt to make peace with these men. It was a pleasure to make peace with those who showed such humility, and there was proof enough that they must have lived outside of the territory of Canaan proper. Joshua, standing as Israel’s spokesman, made the testimonial to these men and their nation. The princes of Israel then rose and all gave their oath to stand by the terms of this league.
Once again both Joshua and the princes of Israel had made a very critical error. Convinced of the validity of their own judgment, they had gone on to follow it to its conclusion without consulting with their God as they were supposed to. It was really the same error which they had made before attacking Ai, and just as that time, it came back to plague them again. Within three days the report came to them. Those with whom they had made peace were not from far away but lived in the very heart of the land of Canaan. In fact, when Israel started traveling again, theirs were the first cities that they came to, Gibeon, Chephirath, Beeroth, and Kirjathjearim. Nor had the attitude of the people been misrepresented. They greeted the children of Israel with open gates as friends.
Now there was little more that the children of Israel could do. They had given their testimony under oath that they would not destroy these Gibeonites; honesty before God and man demanded that such an oath should be kept unless it should give rise to some future sin. That was not so in this case, and their obligation now was to abide by what had been promised. Neither could the Gibeonites be given the whole blame. The means had been there for them to receive infallible instructions from God and they had neglected them. For this they themselves were to be blamed and no one else. When the people came murmuring to them for that which they had done, all they could answer was, “We have sworn unto them by the LORD God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them; we will even let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we sware unto them.”
However, although the Gibeonites could hardly be destroyed any more, neither was it necessary to let them go unpunished for their deception. Thus the princes of Israel decreed, “Let them live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation.”
Joshua summoned to him the representatives of the Gibeonites and gave to them the verdict of the princes of Israel. He said, “Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying, We are very far from you; when ye dwell among us? Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.”
If Joshua had thought to see the Gibeonites dismayed by this announcement, he must have been rather amazed by their reaction. The Gibeonites were only too amazed themselves that the children of Israel should think to abide by an oath so extracted. To them the duties laid upon them were good enough in exchange for the saving of their lives, As they answered to Joshua, “Because it was certainly told thy servants, how that the LORD thy God commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you, therefore we were sore afraid of our lives because of you, and have done this thing. An now, behold, we are in thine hand: as it seemeth good and right unto thee to do unto us, do.”
Neither in all of this, should we forget the fact that God was giving the guidance of His providence. The Gibeonites were manifestly a people different from the rest of the Canaanites. It could be said of them as of the rest, that: they had filled their cup of iniquity. They were assimilated as servants into the nation of Israel, and there is no reason to think anyone ever came to regret the arrangement. They were faithful in their service, and neither do we ever read that they were the cause of Israel falling into sin. Apparently they were taken into the promise of God’s covenant.