After a week away from outlining the details of Joshua, we return to see in Joshua 9 ten things about God’s mercy.
1. The theme of Joshua 9 is mercy.
While geographical and personal details, not to mention extended dialogue, fills Joshua 9, the main message is one of God’s mercy. This is mildly surprising since God does not speak in this chapter and the people of Israel don’t seek his counsel. However, that the people of Gibeon are not destroyed but given a place of service in God’s tabernacle is strong indication of the mercy that God has for people marked out for destruction.
As Kenneth Mathews notes, “Because of their service to the Lord at the tabernacle, they [the Gibeonites] live at the centerpiece of Israel’s unity and worship.” In other words, “by grace those initially outside the covenant are brought near to God” (Mathews, Joshua, 84).
2. The actions of the Gibeonites is set to contrast with the other nations of Canaan.
After observing mercy as the primary theme in Joshua 9, it is important to recognize why the Gibeonites received mercy. It was not for lying to Israel about the location of their hometown; it was because their response to Israel’s God stands in stark contrast to the other nations. This is how the chapter begins and it sets God’s mercy to the Gibeonites against his vengeance towards the other city-states who take up arms against Israel.
Highlighting difference, Joshua 9 begins,
1 As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, heard of this, 2 they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. 3 But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4 they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, 5 with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly.
The difference hangs on the “but” in the middle. When Gibeon’s neighbors heard of Jericho and Ai, they rose to war (vv. 1–2). “But” when Gibeon heard of it, they laid down their swords and shields and made a plan to seek peace (vv. 3–5). Clearly, their plan was devoid of spiritual wisdom and righteousness, but seen against the hostility of other nations, we discover that the Gibeonites, a band of warriors themselves (10:2), demonstrated their fear of God through their unwillingness fight against Israel.
3. The background of Joshua 9 is found in the Pentateuch.
It requires a full knowledge of the Pentateuch to understand all that is going on in Joshua 9. In fact, there are at least five passages that inform this chapter. Space does not permit a full inquiry, but let me mention each.
First, Genesis 9:25–27; 10:15–20 – The curse of Canaan pronounced in Genesis is now coming to fruition in God’s judgment on cities of Canaan. Gibeon is one of the cities of the Hivites (Josh. 9:7) and thus under threat of God’s judgment.
Second, Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 23:23–24; 33:2; 34:11; Deut. 7:1–2; 20:16 confirm Genesis 9’s judgment on the peoples of Canaan. At least seven times in Exodus and Deuteronomy Moses lists the Canaanite cities under threat of God’s judgment. In fact, the list of peoples found in Joshua 9:1–2 repeats those found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The reason why the Gibeonites deceive Israel is because of the judgment threatened by Yahweh—a credible threat confirmed by the word of God. Consider two instances of this threat.
23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. (Exod. 23:23–24)
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deuteronomy 7:1–2)
Third, Deuteronomy 20:10–18 lists differing rules for cities near and far from Israel. Those far from Israel who seek peace with God’s people should be spared from the sword (vv. 10–15), but those near to Israel whose practices of idolatry would lead God’s people astray are commanded to be destroyed. Verses 16–18 state,
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.
As with the other passages (see above) that call for Gibeon’s destruction, this passage denies any chance of peace. Accordingly, the Gibeonites reason that they must present themselves as people far away, for God’s Law make provision of safety for such “far away” people.
Fourth, Deuteronomy 29:10–12 gives instructions for foreigners brought in as servants to Israel. In the context of Moses’s covenant renewal with Israel, Moses assigns a place for sojourners to chop wood and haul water. This passage explains that when Joshua assigns the Gibeonites to chopping wood and hauling water (from Gibeon where there was a prominent well), he is fulfilling this word from Moses and explaining the covenant relationship between Israel and the Gibeonites.
10 “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is making with you today . . . (29:10–12)
Fifth, Genesis 34:1–31 recounts the last time Israel and the Hivites met. Interestingly, there are a number of connections between Genesis 34 and Joshua 9. Some of these connections include similarities in covenant-making, deception, and curses turned into blessings.
Here’s a short excursus highlighting the differences:
In Genesis 34 Shechem (son of Hamor) rapes Dinah (daughter of Jacob). When Shechem expresses his longing for Dinah to his father, Hamor attempts to establish a covenant between his people (the Hivites) and Jacob. Hamor’s rationale is that Jacob’s family would join their people and dwell in their land (vv. 18–24)—the emphasis in this chapter is on Israel joining the Hivites.
In the same chapter, two sons of Israel (Levi and Simeon) deceive the Hivites. They tell the men of Shechem that if they circumcise themselves—the visible sign of Israel’s covenant—they would enter into covenant with them. However, on the third day, when the men were healing, these two sons came and killed all the men. As a result, no covenant was made.
Thus, we find in Genesis 34 an episode of covenant-making and deception just like Joshua 9. However, the connection most significant for making sense of Joshua 9 is the one related to Levi and Simeon who previously deceived the Hivites. After and because of their violence towards Shechem, Genesis 49:5–7 says these brothers would be scattered through the land. Their curse was that they lost their inheritance (i.e., their portion) in the land. Yet, in time, their curse became a blessing, as God located the tribe of Levi as “priests” at the tabernacle (Deut. 33:8–11).
Something similar occurs with the people of Gibeon. Because of their deceit, they are cursed (Josh. 9:23). However, like the Levites, they become servants in God’s house. Joshua 9:23 reads in full: “Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” This is a most peculiar curse, as it brings near the Gibeonites to the place of God’s dwelling, the location of greatest blessing in Israel. We will flesh out some of the implications of this below, but for now we must see how Genesis 34 informs Joshua 9.
5. The narrative arc of Joshua 9 includes two major sections.
Moving from the background to the text of Joshua 9, we can see that the chapter breaks into two sections. The first section (vv. 3–15) introduces us to the men of Gibeon and their plan to deceive Israel to save their lives. This results in a covenant between Israel and Gibeon. The second section shows the discovery of their deceit and the incredibly mercy of God to preserve their lives as these men become servants in God’s house.
Here is one way to outline the chapter.
A The Gibeonites Deception Plotted (vv. 3–6) – “Make a covenant with us” (v. 6)
B1 The Men of Israel Respond to Gibeonites (v. 7)
C Gibeonites Appeal to Joshua (v. 8a) – “We are your servants.”
B2 Joshua Inquires (v. 9b) – Where are you from?
D Speaking to Joshua: Gibeon’s Detailed Deception (vv. 9–13)
(“We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us,” v. 12)
B1’ The Men of Israel Act (v. 14) – see with their eyes, but don’t pray for wisdom
B2’ Joshua Makes a Covenant (v. 15)
A’ The Gibeonite Deception Discovered (vv. 16–18) – “they lived among them” (v. 16)
B1 The Men of Israel (the Leaders) Respond to Israel (v. 19–20)
C The Leaders say to Gibeonites (v. 21) – “Let them live”
B2 Joshua Inquires and Accuses (v. 22–23)
D Speaking to Joshua: Gibeon Explains Their Deceit (vv. 24–25)
(Main Point: They feared the Lord and sought mercy.)
B2’ Joshua saves Gibeon from people (v. 26)
B2’’ Joshua makes them living sacrifices (v. 27)
6. The number of “characters” (groups and individuals) exceeds anything other chapter in Joshua.
From this outline, we can see the interchange of multiple actors in this chapter. Unlike other chapters in Joshua, God and his voice are not present. But in his place, Joshua serves as a faithful mediator. While it is apparent that the leaders of Israel fail to consult God, nothing in the chapter actually indicts Joshua. Rather, the emphasis is on the leaders of Israel.
Looking at the whole chapter, it is worth while to consider who is speaking and acting. This helps us get a sense of what is going on and what is most important. Here’s a quick cast list in Joshua 9.
- The Gibeonites are composed of four cities from among the Hivites (9:1–2, 7, 17). Because of their deceit they (1) become servants of Israel (9:8, 9, 11), (2) enter covenant with Israel (9:7, 11), (3) and proceed to be servants in God’s house (v. 23)
- The elders of Gibeon send a delegation to make a covenant with Israel (9:11).
- The delegation of Gibeon risks their lives to approach Israel (who previously killed their ancestors) and seek a covenant. They have the longest speeches in the chapter (9:9–13, 24–25).
- **The men of Israel (1) question the Gibeonites (v. 7), (2) examine the bread (v. 14a), (3) fail to consult God (v. 14b).
- **The “sons of Israel” (1) find the “hidden” cities (v. 17), (2) refuse to attack them (v. 18).
- **The leaders of the congregation (1) swear an oath to the Gibeonites (v. 15), (2) explain their non-violence to the congregation (v. 19–20), (3) pronounce a sentence of life on the Gibeonites (v. 21),
- The congregation murmurs against the leaders (v. 18)
- Joshua is the mediator of the whole event. He is not indicted in this event; he is also not consulted. The priests, under his control, are not sought. But the Gibeonites do address Joshua as their source of salvation.
** Though the text does not say, the men of Israel, the sons of Israel, and the leaders of the congregation should probably be seen as one class of men in Israel.
7. Each of these characters teaches us something.
Corresponding to each character, we learn something for Christians today.
- Motivated by a genuine fear of God and belief in God’s Word, the Gibeonites model what it takes to seek refuge in God. Though their deception is not exemplary, their boldness in seeking God, like the friends who destroyed a roof to get to Jesus, models the kind of boldness that faith produced.
- The men of Israel remind us how self-reliance leads to “bad decisions.” They trusted their own ability to examine the bread, instead of entrusting themselves to God. The result is a covenant relationship that goes against God’s Law.
- The leaders of the congregation model what covenant commitment should look like. Recognizing that breaking the covenant would invite God’s wrath (v. 20), they keep their word, swear an oath to Gibeon, and receive the consequences from the congregation.
- The congregation murmurs against the leaders (v. 18). This is the same word used of Israel murmuring against God and Moses. Yet, here the murmuring is not chided or corrected. In fact, it seems justified. Joshua 9 teaches, therefore, that a certain kind of murmuring against bad decisions by leaders may sometimes be justified.
- Joshua serves as the Savior of Gibeon. As Ken Mathews observes, “The narration often depicts Joshua in a better light than the elders (9:3, 6, 8, 15, 22, 24–25, 26–27)” (Joshua, 81), and Joshua 9:26 clearly assigns salvation (“deliverance”) to Joshua. Moreover, when standing before the people of Israel who would seek to accuse the Gibeonites, these God-fearers speak to Joshua, even when addressed by the congregation (see Josh. 9:8, 24)
- The congregation of Israel must learn to be merciful. While the Law gave Israel a right to destroy Gibeon, their new covenant overturns that legal right. Therefore, Israel must learn how to treat these people with mercy and even trust in them for their worship in God’s house. In this way, we see how God’s mercy to the Gibeonites leads the nation to become a merciful people.
- In sum, the story of Joshua reminds us of the principle that what men intend for evil, or what men fail to do for good, is often used by God for good. In this case, God’s mercy is magnified and the people of Gibeon find a place of service near the house of God. As we will see, this location of service will be a blessing for Gibeon.
From each of these observations, we can make applications to Christ’s church today.
8. The rest of Gibeon’s story.
After Joshua 9 the story of Gibeon is not done. There are at least three more observations we need to make about this people.
First, David avenges Saul’s house in 2 Samuel 21 because Saul killed men from Gibeon. Stressing the importance of the covenant Israel made with the Gibeonites, Yahweh says, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” (v. 1). In response, David offers up seven sons from Saul’s house and the offense of Saul’s death is atoned (vv. 2–9).
Second, Gibeon becomes an important high place in Israel where Solomon went and offered sacrifices (1 Chr. 21:28–30; 2 Chr. 1:2–6). Intriguingly, 1 Kings 3 records the fact that God met him at Gibeon, where he offered Solomon the chance to ask for anything he desired. Perhaps aware of Israel’s failure to consult God with respect to the Gibeonites and clearly cognizant of his newfound position of royal leadership (vv. 6–9), Solomon asks for wisdom—to which God gladly grants. Coincidental or intentional, Solomon’s request for wisdom is the very thing Israel failed to do in Joshua.
Third, there are Gibeonites identified as servants in David’s army and at God’s house. For instance, in 1 Chronicles 12:4, we meet “Ishmaiah of Gibeon” who is a mighty man for David. And in Nehemiah 3:7 we find Melatiah the Gibeonite rebuilding the wall. Moreover, by the presence of God’s house in Gibeon during the days of David and Solomon, we discover the blessing of God on these “cursed” servants.
9. Gibeon’s covenant with Israel does not grant eternal life, but it does bless them.
While Joshua 9 evidences a covenant between Israel and Gibeon, it is important to remember that God’s covenant with Israel, the one just renewed in Joshua 8 is a mixed covenant. In other words, as Paul puts it, “not all Israel is Israel.” Under the Law, there are people of faith and people of unbelief. Put negatively, to be in Israel does not secure eternal life in Christ.
Certainly, the generation entering the land of Canaan demonstrated a covenant faithfulness that exceeds the first generation who died in the wilderness. But unlike participation in the new covenant, which secures salvation for all who are in Christ, the covenant with Moses does not guarantee eternal life. Rather, as Jesus puts it, the Law of Moses spoke of him (John 5:39). Thus, those in Israel and those in Gibeon, now in covenant with Israel, are not guaranteed eternal life. Rather, they are brought near to know the God of Israel and to believe his promises.
In other words, it is an unmistakable blessing for the Gibeonites to be spared (not put to death) and it is a greater blessing to be servants in God’s tabernacle. But because that tabernacle was only a copy of the true temple, their service does not guarantee everyone in Gibeon is saved eternally. It does suggest that there will be believers in their midst, but we should remember how the biblical covenants inform our understanding of salvation.
10. The enduring lesson of Joshua 9 is seeing and imitating the mercy of God.
To understand Joshua 9 takes a lot of work in putting pieces of the Bible together, but the main point is simple. God has mercy on a people who don’t deserve mercy. Indeed, he has had mercy on Israel, a people who have tested his patience. And now he has mercy on Gibeon, even as they lie to his people.
From this episode, we should stand amazed at how God grants mercy to those who fear him. And though these God-fearers act in deceptive ways, ways that the Law of Moses would oppose, their act of allegiance towards God exceeds the way in which they went about it.
Today, we should look for such evidences of grace in the lives of others around us. Often new believers (and immature older believers) may attempt to live for God in ways found in the world. The gang member steals something to give another. In this way, his theft is an evidence of his old life, but if he is seeking to bless another and not himself, we should consider encouraging the act of giving as much as confronting the act of stealing.
Truly, God is a merciful God and we his people should learn how to be merciful. We should grow in spotting the baby steps of young believers and encouraging them in their faith, even when their newfound faith results in bad decisions. At the same time, before pronouncing a judgment in these matters, we should seek God’s wisdom like Solomon and not go it alone like the leaders of Israel in Joshua 9.
Indeed, those called on to make decisions among God’s people also need mercy, and thankfully God delights to give mercy and wisdom when we ask. So let us learn from Joshua 9 how to see God’s mercy, to seek God’s mercy (and wisdom), and to give God’s mercy, such that God is most glorified in our mercy-receiving and mercy-giving.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds