The Wily Work of the Gibeonites

Several years ago I preached a sermon on Joshua 9, a chapter my Bible titles, “The Gibeonite Deception.” The story tells how the Israelites, fresh from their initial victories over the Canaanites at Jericho and Ai, were tricked into making covenant with the people from the city of Gibeon. The Gibeonites were Hivites (Josh 9:7), one of the Canaanite people groups God had singled out when he commanded the people of Israel, “You shall make no covenant with them” (Deut 7:1-2). Unlike the cities outside the borders of the promised land, God commanded that the Canaanite cities like Gibeon should be kharam-ed, put under a ban of complete destruction (Deut 20:10-18).

The Gibeonites may have been aware of God’s command because they came up with an elaborate ruse to fool the Israelites into thinking that they were not from Canaan. When the Gibeonites heard that the Israelite army was approaching, rather than harness their chariots and sharpen their swords, they “took worn out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes;” they made sure “all their provisions were dry and crumbly” (Josh 9:4-5). They went to the Israelites, told them they had come from a distant country, and asked them to make a covenant. At first the Israelites were wary, but the crumbly provisions were enough to convince them that it was safe to make a covenant.

The text says, “The [Israelites] took some of the provisions, but they did not ask counsel from the LORD” (9:14). There’s a good sermon in that verse: one that would remind us that we can’t always trust our natural senses, but need supernatural direction from God. Man shall not make decisions based on crumbly bread alone.

However, that was not point of my sermon, and I don’t think it’s the central message of the passage. My Old Testament professor at Asbury Seminary, Lawson Stone, has pointed out that Joshua 9-11 does not focus on the actions of the Israelites, but the re-actions of the Canaanites. The subsections show a repeated pattern: the various Canaanites 1) hear their predicament, 2) respond, and 3) reap the consequences of their response. The section begins: “As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan…heard [about the destruction of Jericho and Ai], they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard… they on their part acted with cunning” (9:1-4). The same news prompts two different responses, two different strategies.

The Gibeonites “on their part, acted with cunning,” or as the King James says, “They did work wilily.” The wily work of the Gibeonites has occasioned a considerable amount of ethical debate. Is deception ever an acceptable means to achieve a desired end? More pointedly, could it ever be right to trick God’s people into transgressing his explicit command, like Delilah tricked Samson? The text gives little help in answering these difficult ethical questions. The only help it offers for judging the scheme is its presentation the outcome.

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