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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Joshua 9

Verse 1

A sharp focus upon another mistake of the Israelites is provided in Joshua 9, that mistake being their covenant with the Gibeonites to spare them from the kind of destruction that had been executed upon Jericho and Ai. Critical assaults upon this chapter are totally frustrated by a number of facts:

(1) The narrative itself is skillfully presented with a perfection that effectively denies the designation of the chapter as a composite of several narratives from different sources. As Woudstra stated it, "The narrator's skill ... argues against considering the chapter to be a composite of a variety of traditions, patched together so that the seams show in several places."[1]

(2) Critical scholars have been unable to reach any consensus whatever in their vain efforts to identify portions of the chapter with diverse sources. The questions that might be raised remain "unsolved by textual criticism."[2]

(3) Even the critical fancy of moving the date of the passage to the period of the exile, or later, is today widely rejected. Sizoo noted that:

"The fact that such a pact (as the one related in this chapter) existed is attested by 2 Samuel 21:2. Even if that verse is called a gloss (which is the customary device of critics in dealing with passages that contradict their theories), the context clearly reflects a treaty violation by Saul. If such a treaty existed in Saul's day, there is no reason to suppose that it did not date back to the time of the Conquest.[3] (The comments in parenthesis are mine, J.B.C.).

This chapter further reveals what is increasingly evident, that Joshua, like the entire Pentateuch, is in no sense a chronological account of all that Israel did. The Book of Joshua does not give us a thorough, item-by-item account of the conquest of Canaan, but, on the other hand, it relates the events which are pertinent to the redemptive purpose of God. Although Israel did indeed CONQUER all of Canaan, they did NOT drive out all of the Canaanites as God had commanded them, and this chapter relates primarily to that failure on Israel's part.

"And it came to pass when the kings that were beyond the Jordan, in the hill-country, and in the lowland, and all the shore of the Great Sea in front of Lebanon, the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanites, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, heard thereof, that they gathered themselves together to light with Joshua and with Israel, with one accord."

The hill-country, the lowland, and the seacoast were the three geographical divisions of Palestine, and the picture here is simply that of a coalition of many of the kings of Canaan, forced by the fear that fell upon all of them as a result of Israel's victories at Jericho and Ai. They were too late with this. They had been forewarned of what Israel intended to do ever since the crossing of the Red Sea, but they still waited until Joshua and the Israelites were practically upon them before they acted. From the human standpoint, their coalition against Israel was a good thing. As Matthew Henry said:

"Oh that Israel (the Church) would learn this of the Canaanites, to sacrifice private interests to the public welfare, and to lay aside all animosities among themselves, that they may cordially unite against the common enemies of God's Kingdom among men."[4]

"Which were beyond Jordan ..." "Seventeen times in the Book of Joshua, this expression refers to the area east of Jordan, but here it refers to the area west of Jordan."[5] We have seen in previous O.T. books that this expression is worthless in determining either the identity or the location of the writer.

"The Great Sea in front of Lebanon ..." The Great Sea here is, of course, the Mediterranean but the expression, "in front of Lebanon" is evidently a mistranslation, for the simple reason that in the terminology of those days, "in front of" invariably meant "east of."[6] The Mediterranean, of course, is west of Lebanon. The most recent scholarship confirms this judgment by rendering the phrase, "toward Lebanon," instead of "east of Lebanon."[7]

Verse 3

"But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done unto Jericho and to Ai, they also did work wilily, and went and made as if they had been ambassadors, and took old sacks upon their asses, and wine-skins, old, and rent, and bound up, and old and patched shoes upon their feet, and old garments upon them; and all the bread of their provisions was dry and was become mouldy. And they went to Joshua and the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We are come from a far country: now therefore make ye a covenant with us. And the men of Israel said unto the Hivites, Peradventure ye dwell among us; and how shall we make a covenant with you? And they said unto Joshua, We are thy servants. And Joshua said unto them, Who are ye? and whence come ye?"

Here the stratagem of the Gibeonites is explained. Their appeal to Israel appeared to be reasonable, and it was artfully presented, but, even so, the Israelites were suspicious, and Joshua himself took charge of the negotiations.

Gibeon was an important city some "six miles northwest of Jerusalem."[8] This city was the leader of a group of four cities, and, "The Four Cities Alliance led by the Gibeonites lay within a ten-mile radius of Jerusalem."[9] The importance of this union of the Gibeonites and their allies with the Israelites was pointed out by Boling: "Israel then controlled the entire northwest quadrant of the approaches to Jerusalem."[10]

"They also did work wilily ..." (Joshua 9:4). Note the word "also." The Israelites had worked "wilily" in their stratagem that aided their capture of Ai by pretending to flee from them; and, then, when the soldiers of Ai pursued them, the Israelites turned and destroyed them. Cook believed that the word "also," here apparently "connects the stratagem of the Gibeonites with that of the Israelites before Ai."[11]

Certainly, the stratagem of trickery or deceit was one with which Israel should have been very familiar. Such devices were frequently employed by the patriarchs in Israel's early history. Abraham and Isaac both passed their wives off as their sister, resulting in great financial gain to the deceivers. The same device was used by Jacob against his father-in-law, Laban; and Jacob's sons used it on him in the matter of Joseph's alleged death! The sons of Jacob, Levi and Simeon, also brutally deceived and destroyed the men of Shechem following the rape of Dinah.

"Unto the camp at Gilgal ..." (Joshua 9:6). "This was the base of Joshua's operations in the entire southern campaign in Canaan."[12] Alfred Plummer suggested that, "This is another Gilgal to be distinguished from the one previously occupied near Jericho."[13]

The whole paragraph here vividly reflects the restrictions imposed by Exodus 23:32 and Deuteronomy 7:12. Morton stressed this, pointing out that the Gibeonites were careful to pretend that they came from a "far country"; also the Israelites' remark, "peradventure you dwell among us" likewise reflects those same restrictions.[14] This is very significant, for it shows that not merely all Israel but that the total population of Canaan knew of those restrictions laid down through Moses to the effect that the Israelites were NOT to make a covenant with the Canaanites, NOR intermarry with them, NOR to compromise with them in any manner, but they were to drive them out of Palestine.

"Who are ye? and from whence come ye? ..." (Joshua 9:8). Here the Gibeonites were confronted with the crucial question regarding their actual identity. The artful manner of their skillful deception in the answers they gave are truly a marvel. They felt themselves obliged to give a detailed answer, and they did it very artfully with a mixture, of truth, falsehood, and hypocrisy."[15]

Verse 9

"And they said unto him, From a very far country thy servants are come because of the name of Jehovah 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 Bashan, who was at Ashteroth. And our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spake to us saying. Take provisions in your hand for the journey, and go to meet them, and say unto them, We are your servants, and now make yea covenant 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 is become mouldy: and these wine-skins, which we filled, were new; and, behold, they are rent: and these our garments and our shoes are become old by reason of the very long journey. And the men took of their provision, and asked not counsel at the mouth of Jehovah. And Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them."

"We are come because of the name of Jehovah your God ..." This was a falsehood, because it implied their willingness to worship Jehovah. "We have heard of the fame of Jehovah, what he did in Egypt. etc ..." This, of course, was true, but by no means was it the "whole truth." They had also heard of what Jehovah had done to Jericho and Ai, but, as pretended citizens of a very distant place, they lived so far away that the news of Jericho and Ai had not yet reached them! This was skillful lying at its very most efficient level. They mentioned here only what they would have heard about if indeed that had lived "very far away."[16] Their presenting themselves as ambassadors, that is, representatives of other peoples, was true. Gibeon was the leader of a league of cities. The three elements of their deception: (1) the truth, that they had indeed heard of Jehovah and of his works; (2) hypocrisy by pretending that they intended to worship Jehovah; and (3) outright falsehood, that they came from a very far off, that the worn state of their clothes was due to the length of their journey, etc. Their clothing, their shoes, the wineskins, and the hot bread, all of which they said were fresh and new when they left home - all of that was an outright falsehood! Israel allowed themselves to be deceived by the artful presentation of the Gibeonites.

The mention of "Ashteroth" (Joshua 9:10) appears to be another contribution to the deception. Ashteroth was some 20 miles east of Galilee;[17] and their mention of it was probably intended to show their familiarity with places and events far removed from Palestine. As Plummer said, "This entire deception was carried on "with consummate astuteness."[18] Of course, such a skilled and artful deception could not have been conceived and executed except under the urgency of the most critical necessity. "The kind of necessity that precipitated this deception could never have existed in a forger or a interpolator, thus giving us a sign of the genuineness of this narrative."[19]

Textual criticism reaches some kind of a climax of blindness in the complaint of Longacre that there must be two "different versions" of this story woven together here, since "two different reasons" are given for Israel's making a covenant with the Gibeonites![20] Lindsay identified these as: (1) Israel was deceived; and (2) they did not ask counsel of Jehovah! Anyone should be able to discern that these are not two different reasons but one. Israel was deceived, and the reason they were deceived is that they did not ask counsel of Jehovah.

"And the men took of their provision ..." (Joshua 9:14). This means that Israel was completely deceived and that they ate a covenant meal with the Gibeonites, thus making a treaty with them. "The men," mentioned here, were the princes of Israel, the leaders of the people. Their eating of the provisions of the Gibeonites was not a casual thing at all, because, "This seems to refer to the meal that was a part of the treaty-making process in those days."[21] After the princes of Israel had made a treaty and sealed it with a covenant meal, it was too late to back out of the agreement when they later discovered the deception.

We must not try to excuse Israel's failure here. "They were guilty of excessive credulity and culpable negligence in not asking the will of God through the High Priest and the Urim and Thummin, before making any such agreement.[22] God's children are instructed to be "wise as serpents ... harmless as doves." "The child of God is no less in danger today, and needs to be aware of our arch-deceiver who is Satan."[23] "This may have been a full vassal treaty of the pattern of those times, because it certainly included, as events showed, the protection of the vassals against their enemies."[24]

Verse 16

"And it came to pass at the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors, and that they dwelt among them. And the children of Israel journeyed, and came unto their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, and Chephirah, and Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. And the children of Israel smote them not, because the princes of the congregation had sworn unto them by Jehovah, the God of Israel. And all the congregation murmured against the princes. But the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the God of Israel now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them, and let them live; lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we sware unto them. And the princes said unto them, let them live: so they became hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation, as the princes had spoken unto them."

What could be more reasonable or necessary than the appearance of this paragraph exactly where it occurs in the sacred text? After Joshua 9:15, the question is, "What will Israel do about the deception after they find out about it?" This paragraph tells the story. Israel soon heard that they had been deceived, but when they continued their march via Gibeon, they discovered the truth from the Gibeonites themselves. Did Israel honor the covenant? Yes. What then, could be the grounds for the assertion of Sizoo that, "Joshua 9:17-21 are from a different source."[25] The only possible source of such a speculation, which is obviously incorrect, is the fertile soil of some scholar's imagination.

"All the congregation murmured ..." (Joshua 9:18). Why did the people murmur? Matthew Henry wrote that the Israelites desired the prey, or booty, that they would receive from the slaughter of the Gibeonites, being much more "jealous for their profits than for fulfilling God's Word."[26] Adam Clarke went even further and declared that Israel's murmuring was due solely to the fact of their being deprived of the spoil of the Gibeonites. "Israel at that time had fallen under the full control of the predatory spirit."[27] We cannot find any adequate grounds for denying such opinions as these, and it is possible that the sinful, greedy spirit which began at this time to dominate Israel was the true reason why God allowed the nation to be so shamefully deceived.

"Lest wrath be upon us ..." (Joshua 9:20). God would indeed have been displeased with Israel if they had violated the solemn covenant they had made with the Gibeonites in the name of Jehovah. Centuries later, we are told (2 Samuel 21) that the Israelites of David's time felt the "wrath" when Saul broke Israel's ancestral covenant with Gibeon."[28]

"Hewers of wood and drawers of water ..." This was considered the lowest class of work in ancient societies. "The curse of Noah (Genesis 9:25) on the children of Ham was thus fulfilled to the letter in the case of these Hivites."[29]

Verse 22

"And Joshua called for them, and he spake unto them saying, Why have ye beguiled us, saying, we are very far from you, when ye dwell among us? Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. And they answered Joshua, and said, Because it was certainly told thy servants, how that Jehovah 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 for our lives because of you, and have done this thing. And now, behold, we are in thy hand: as it seemeth good and right unto thee to do unto us, do. And so did he unto them, and delivered them out of the hands of the children of Israel, that they slew them not. And Joshua that day made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of Jehovah, unto this day, in the place which he should choose."

One must confess that the Gibeonites gave a straightforward and truthful answer here as to why they had so skillfully deceived Joshua and all the Israelites. Their truthful answer, however, could not justify the fraud and deception, the falsehood and hypocrisy to which they had so effectively resorted, but all that, of course, did lead to their lives being spared.

The critical allegation that "the altar of Jehovah ... in the place which he (God) should choose" was a customary reference to Jerusalem is erroneous. We encountered many such critical assertions in our studies of Deuteronomy, but, as we pointed out, Jerusalem is nowhere mentioned in Deuteronomy, nor is Joshua 9:27 here a reference to it. Note the future tense in "God should choose," meaning that the permanent site of the tabernacle at this point in time had not been chosen. On this account, we reject absolutely the etiological explanation quite arbitrarily assigned to this chapter by some critics.

Blair pointed out that the curse Joshua here placed upon the Gibeonites was softened by the Lord and, indeed changed into a blessing:

"They were doomed to perpetual slavery, yet the curse that came upon them was a blessing. `Blessed are those who dwell in the house of the Lord' (Psalms 84:4). That was the curse that fell on the Gibeonites ... to be attached forever to the congregation and to the altar of God in the place (any place) that the Lord should choose. Such is God's grace. It was for the Gibeonites that God wrought the mighty miracle of the battle of Beth-horon (Joshua 10:7-15); and it was among the Gibeonites that God later located the tabernacle (2 Chronicles 1:3), and, in still later days, when the priests and Levites failed, God replaced them with the Gibeonites (Ezra 2:43; 8:20)."[30]

Joshua's curse upon the Gibeonites was the same as the curse upon the king of Ai. "Thus the judgment upon Ai and its king was pronounced, but not executed, upon the Gibeonites."[31] Why should Gibeon have been cursed at all? As Boling said, "They were cursed for bearing false witness. They were delivered from death by Israel's oath; but the Gibeonites were punished for deceiving Israel."[32] We find a somewhat similar thing in the story of Cain. He was punished, but also protected.

The tragic results of what is recorded in this chapter were profound in character. The old residue of the Canaanites remained in the Promised Land. The Gibeonites were firmly planted in the very heart of Israel's inheritance, and this hard cadre of paganism would, in time, frustrate to a certain degree the holy purpose of God with reference to Israel. The Israelites eventually would intermarry with them, adopt their sensuous pagan religion, and finally forsake God so completely that God would indeed remove them altogether from the Promised Land and send them into captivity. And yet, despite the shortcomings of Israel, a holy remnant of the Chosen People would await the Kingdom of God and would, in the fullness of time, welcome the Messiah into our evil world.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 9". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.