16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. 17 And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18 But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. 20 This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21 And the leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, just as the leaders had said of them.
22 Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? 23 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.” 24 They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.” 26 So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them. 27 But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose. – Joshua 9:16-27 ESV
Had there been an Academy Awards ceremony in those days, the entire nation of Gibeon would have not only have been nominated for a Best Actor award, they would have taken home the Oscar. Their portrayal of a poor, disheveled people who had traveled many miles in order to secure a peace treaty with Israel was so convincing that Joshua and the elders of Israel had been duped into believing them. And not only did they make a treaty of non-aggression with the Gibeonites, they swore an oath before God.
“We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.” – Joshua 9:19 ESV
By invoking the name of God, Joshua and the leaders of Israel had bound themselves to Him, not the Gibeonites. They were now obligated to God. If they broke their commitment, they would answer to God. And it is important to note that this vow or oath was in direct violation of God’s command that they completely destroy and eliminate all the nations living in the land of Canaan. They had made a vow to God obligating themselves to disobey the command of God. We can attempt to excuse their behavior by pointing out that they had been deceived by the Gibeonites. But their real sin was that they had failed to seek the counsel of God (vs 14).
One of the things that stands out in this chapter is the seeming incongruity of the opening verses. It opens with a rather ominous announcement that when the nations west of the Jordan heard about Israel’s conquests and the building of their altar at Mount Ebal, they formed alliances against Israel.
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. – Joshua 9:1-2 ESV
Perhaps news of these military alliances had reached Joshua and the elders of Israel and had played a role in their decision to make a treaty with the Gibeonites. The temptation would have been great to form an alliance with another nation in the hopes of avoiding yet another conflict and of having someone to come to their aid should they need it. But God had clearly forbidden the making of alliances. He wanted the Israelites to depend upon Him. And the fact that the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites were joining forces against the Israelites was no concern to God. And it should have been no concern to Joshua. God had promised to give them ALL the land and ALL the nations living in the land.
But the oath was made and the treaty sealed. The Israelites were committed to sparing the lives of the Gibeonites. And when they discovered that they had been lied to and that the Gibeonites were actually inhabitants of the land of Canaan and not foreigners from a distant nation, all the Israelites could do was get angry. The people of Israel turned their anger against Joshua and the elders, questioning their leadership and the wisdom behind their decision. This passage forms a turning point in the corporate history of Israel. The defeats of the cities of Jericho and Ai should have been an example of how things were going to go from that point forward. Those two victories were to have been the first of many God-ordained battles. But with the swearing of the oath to spare the people of Gibeon, Israel set a new standard of partial obedience and dangerous compromise that would haunt them for years to come. In fact, when Saul became the first king of Israel, he had violated the oath made by Joshua and put some of the Gibeonites to death. And as a result, God was forced to bring a famine on the nation of Israel for their breaking of the alliance and of their oath to God.
1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. – 2 Samuel 21:1-2 ESV
The fateful decision made by Joshua and the elders of Israel had long-term ramifications. And once they had made their choice to spare the people of Gibeon, they were forced to make yet another decision: What to do with them. And once again, it appears that Joshua did not seek the counsel of God, but made a unilateral decision to turn the Gibeonites into servants, humiliating them for their deception by forcing them into a life-long role of subjugation and servitude. He made them “cutters of wood and drawers of water.” But look closely at what Joshua decided to do and the exact nature of the role he assigned to these pagan idol-worshipers.
Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose. – Joshua 9:27 ESV
While these people had feigned a fear of God, they had no love for God. They had only hoped to escape annihilation at the hands of Israelites. When Joshua had questioned them about the motive behind their deception, they had responded:
“Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.” – Joshua 9:24 ESV
They had feared for their lives, but they had no fear of or love for God. And yet, Joshua was giving them access to the altar of God. He was making a decision to allow these pagan foreigners to play a part in the worship of God even though, as idol worshipers, they were unholy and unacceptable to God. On top of that, Joshua was contaminating the people of God by allowing the inhabitants of Gibeon and the surrounding cities to remain alive, risking the influence of their idolatrous habits and setting up the potential for intermarriage. Joshua had compromised the integrity of his own people by refusing to seek the counsel of God. He and the elders of Israel had made a decision without God that could only lead to future decisions that violated the will of God.
The people of God have always faced the temptation to compromise with the world. Even today, we find ourselves living in a land that is hostile to our faith and our God. And while some oppose us, others seek to make alliances with us. They call on us to compromise our convictions in order that we might all “just get along.” They challenge our beliefs and tempt us to question the validity of God’s commands regarding everything from the sanctity of life to His ban on same-sex marriage. They ask us to join them in their effort to create a more loving and tolerant society. But we must seek God’s will. We must ask what He would have us do. Our decisions will have long-lasting and far-reaching ramifications. The little compromises we make today will cost us dearly tomorrow.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.