Fooled by the Gibeonites!

Series: Joshua, by rosie moore

“The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbours, living near them” (Joshua 9:14-16).

The people of Gibeon told a crafty lie and even produced fake evidence to back up their claims: dusty sandals, mouldy bread, old cracked wineskins and worn out clothes were all part of an elaborate hoax to convince Joshua that they lived in a distant country. And Joshua and the Israelites leaders took the bait, hook, line and sinker. They were conned by a smelly rucksack of fake possessions!

But unlike the kings of the other Canaanite tribes who joined together to make war against Joshua and Israel, the people of Gibeon wanted to be allies of the Israelites. They knew that the Lord had clearly told Israel to make treaties with people outside the land of Canaan, but not inside, “otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God” (Deut 20:10-18Num 33:51-52). And so, the Gibeonites’ ruse to enter a peace treaty with Israel was in fact a desperate attempt to save their own lives.

Read Joshua 9 for the full story.

The crafty lie.

In reality, Gibeon was only 24 kilometers from Jericho, part of the land that God expressly told his people to conquer and destroy.

Their elaborate lie was couched in false humility and flattery: We are your servants Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the Lord your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the JordanSihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. 11 And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, We are your servants; make a treaty with us.”(Josh 9:7-11).

The mighty men of Gibeon used all the right words and adopted a subservient posture. “We are your servants” is their repeated refrain. They purposefully didn’t mention the conquests of Jericho and Ai, possibly because the Israelites had nothing to do with these victories.

Joshua’s bad judgment.

But instead of taking counsel from the Lord, Joshua and his counsellors trusted their natural instincts. They were fooled by the Gibeonites’ facade and fake evidence. And so, instead of annihilating Gibeon, as God had commanded, they made a peace pact with the Gibeonites, to let them live.  It was ratified with an oath, and three days later, the truth came out. Israel’s leaders realised that they’d been conned by a nation of Canaanites through poor judgment.

Have you ever felt the heat rise in your face when you suddenly realise you’ve been conned? I have! Just the other day, late on a Friday afternoon, I nearly fell for a scam when a guy phoned me, claiming to be from the bank’s fraud department. He asked me a whole bunch of security questions. He told me the last four digits on my credit card and he knew my address. He caught me completely off guard.

He said that he suspected three fraudulent transactions on my card—large amounts which were quite obviously not mine. I was feeling panicky when he asked me if I wanted him to reverse them. “Of course I want you to reverse them! Please do it for me now!”

Then the guy asked me to check my phone for an OTP authorising him to reverse the charges. I saw the OTP coming through and almost started reading the numbers out to him… nice and clearly. That’s when I looked at my husband’s shocked face and smelled a rat! I was on the brink of giving the scamster permission to raid our account! Like me, Joshua must have felt a complete fool for believing the Gibeonites. They were not who they pretended to be.

Verse 14 makes it clear that the leaders’ poor judgment and rash promise were because they failed to ask the Lord for wisdom and discernment in an important decision. Believing they could trust their common sense and impressions, God’s people were led into deception. They walked by sight and not by faith. And, as a result of their self-reliance, Israel was stuck with the Gibeonites as their allies forever.

They did not ask counsel from the Lord.

How many times have we done the same as Christians? Self- reliance and independence are perpetual temptations, especially when decisions seem self-evident and obvious.  The Lord says that we should pray about everything we do or decide—big and small, because wisdom is a communicable attribute of God.

As Job affirmed many centuries ago,

“To God belong wisdom and power;

Counsel and understanding are his” (Job 12:13).

Because we are always dependent on His counsel, we should ask God for wisdom and discernment for the practical decisions of life, as there’s a vast difference between our limited human understanding and God’s heavenly wisdom (James 1:5-7).

James says that a double-minded person is someone torn between trusting God and wanting to trust in our own solutions to our problems. If you have ever watched the ocean, you will know how restless and unstable the rolling waves are. They are at the mercy of wind, gravity and tide. Likewise, without God’s true wisdom and righteous discernment, we will be unstable in all our ways. That’s why we need to “commit our way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will act” (Ps 37:5).

Like David, it’s good for believers to pray for God’s counsel and wisdom every day:

“Guide me in your truth and teach me,

For you are God my Saviour,

And my hope is in you all day long.” (Ps 25:5)

 “Since you are my rock and my fortress,

For the sake of your name lead and guide me” (Ps 31:3).

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Thankfully, after their costly mistake, Joshua and the Israelite leaders did not pile sin upon sin by breaking their oath to the Gibeonites.  They knew that they needed to keep their promise, even a bad promise which caused the congregation to murmur against the leaders.

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. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.  And the leaders said to them, Let them live.” (Joshua 9:18-21).

In the light of public pressure, it is easy to justify sin in order to rectify a previous sin or foolish act, but it is a mark of godliness to do the right thing, even when it is costly. Psalm 15:4 reminds us that God honours those who fear the Lord by keeping their promises when it hurts: “He honours those who fear the Lord; he who swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

Many years later, King Saul broke this vow to the Gibeonites and his crime resulted in a three-year famine for Israel in David’s time (2 Sam 21:1). Once again, we are reminded that our sins have serious and far-reaching consequences.

Good news for the Gibeonites.

But this story isn’t just about seeking God’s wisdom and not making rash promises. It also involves good news for the treacherous Gibeonites and displays the gracious providence of God. Actually, it gives us a sneak preview of the gospel and God’s intention to bless all the families and nations on earth through Israel, as He promised Abraham (Gen 12:3). The Gibeonites received mercy rather than the judgment they deserved.

Joshua unwittingly entered into a covenant of peace with a whole nation of Canaanites– God’s enemies– who would essentially be incorporated into Israel and become servants of the Lord, intimately involved in the nation’s worship.

Interestingly, after Joshua 9, the Gibeonites became a target of attack because of their alliance with Israel (Josh 10:4). They became servants in God’s tabernacle and Gibeon became a priestly city, where the Ark of the Covenant often stayed (1 Chron 16:39-4021:29). At least one of David’s mighty men was a Gibeonite (1 Chron 12:4) and a prophet called Hananiah came from the city of Gibeon (Jer 28:1). The Gibeonites would later help Israel in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, under Nehemiah (Neh 3:77:25).

And so, God used Joshua’s rash vow to bless the Gibeonites, and He used the Gibeonites to bless Israel! This is God’s mysterious providence at work in history, even through foolishness and sin, even through Joshua’s curse which made the Gibeonites “woodcutters and water carriers in the service of the whole assembly” (Josh 9:21).

This story reminded me of Joseph’s response to his brothers who had dealt treacherously with him, and were now throwing themselves at his mercy:

His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, Behold, we are your servants. But Joseph said to them, Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones (Gen 50:18-21).

Behold, we are in your hand.

Similarly, when Joshua confronts the Gibeonites with their deception, they throw themselves at Joshua’s mercy:

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 youso we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it (Josh 9:23-25).

As with Rahab, I’m not sure how much the Gibeonites knew about the Lord. But they did show faith by throwing themselves at the mercy of Joshua, God’s servant, whose name means “God saves”. They had absolute certainty that God was giving the land to Israel and responded with appropriate fear before God’s people, convinced that judgment was coming.

While they were still God’s enemies, the Gibeonites were precocious in seeking refuge among the people of Israel. They preferred to be on God’s side rather than align with the other Canaanite kings. And in his great mercy, God honoured their request. Doesn’t Jesus similarly honour the precocious faith of a Canaanite woman in the first century who sought freedom for her demon-possessed child? (Mark 7:24-29)

I wonder if the response of the Gibeonites to Joshua isn’t a model of how sinners are invited to confess our own treachery; surrender to Christ, and ask Him for a peace treaty? After all, this is the only way that God’s enemies become His servants and family.

And hasn’t Jesus ratified an eternal covenant with all those who take refuge in Him through his death and resurrection? (Heb 13:20-21Matt 26:28) This covenant is summed up in the wonderful refrain repeated throughout Scripture:

“I will be your God and you will be my people, and I will dwell among you” (Ex 6:7Ezek 11:202 Cor 6:16Rev 21:3).

What an undeserved, oath-bound promise that every sinner can cling to, if we have thrown ourselves at Christ’s mercy! Perhaps one day we shall meet some of the mighty men of Gibeon, as we worship the Lamb together around the heavenly throne (Rev 5:9-10).


Father, you have qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints. You have rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of your beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. May we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In you, Jesus, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. By your grace, we long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.