Bible Commentaries
Joshua 9

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary


CHAP. IX. The Gibeonites obtain a league with Israel by craft; which being discovered, they are condemned to a state of slavery.

Before Christ 1450.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. And it came to pass, when all the kings, &c.— The success of Joshua's arms in the eastern part of the land of Canaan, soon struck with terror those princes whose territories lay to the west of that country. The fright was general, even to the mountains inhabited by the Amorites on the south, (Deuteronomy 7:19-20.) upon the coasts of the Mediterranean, where the Canaanites, properly so called, had their settlements; and to Lebanon, which bounded the Promised Land on the north. See on Deu 20:17 and hereafter on chap Joshua 16:10.

The great sea over against Lebanon The Mediterranean sea as far as to Lebanon. See Nold. 80. 831.

Note; 1. Those whom God means to destroy, are generally infatuated with malice and revenge. The enemies of God's people, however divided among themselves, are unanimous to oppose the truth: Deists, Arians, Socinians, Formalists, moral or profane, Conformists, or Separatists, all unite against the spiritual seed. 3. When we see the world so leagued together against the truth, surely they who are faithful should overlook their trivial differences in unessentials, and, laying every cause of dispute aside, join heart and hand against their common enemy.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. And when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard, &c.— The city of Gibeon, which was much more considerable than Ai, was, according to Eusebius and St. Jerome, the capital of the country of the Hivites. Eusebius adds, that in his time there was a village of this name four miles to the west of Beth-el. Gibeon afterwards fell to the lot of the tribe of Benjamin, and was assigned to the priests. See chap. Joshua 18:25 Joshua 21:17.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. And old shoes, and clouted, upon their feet, &c.— The Hebrew is, shoes spotted, i.e. of divers colours, by reason of their having been spoiled by the clay and dust; and pieced, as if worn out by the length of the journey; with clothes suited to their shoes, and their bread dry and mouldy. In the Hebrew it is bread dry, and נקדים nikkudim; that is to say, literally, pricked, speckled; so they call the cakes pierced with several holes. Buxtorf speaks of them in his Synag. Jude 1:25; Jude 1:12. Perhaps, therefore, it should be translated, and their bread was dry, like cakes, or biscuits. Calmet is of this opinion, which he confirms by the testimony of Jonathan, and other circumstances.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. And they went to Joshua—and said, &c.— Some interpreters are of opinion, that the deputies from the Gibeonites addressed themselves to the first they met in the camp of Gilgal; but it seems more conformable to the text to suppose, that they did not signify their business to any but Joshua, in the presence of the chief men of Israel; i.e. to the heads of the tribes, who formed his council. 'Tis true, we read in the Hebrew, to Joshua,—and to the men of Israel; but the original expression often signifies in Scripture, men of note, people of distinction; and we need only look at verses 15. 18, 19. 21 to perceive that it should be so understood in this place.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. And they said unto Joshua, We are thy servants Being more pressingly interrogated by Joshua, they answered with humility, that, knowing the greatness of the nation of Israel and their own inferiority, they desired nothing more than to live in amity and alliance with them; which is all that the expression, we are thy servants, implies. We see others like it in the history of the Patriarchs, (Genesis 18:3-4; Genesis 32:20.) where they are most certainly used merely by way of compliment.

Verses 9-13

Ver. 9-13. And they said unto him, From a very far country thy servants are come, &c.— Nothing can be more artful than this answer of the Gibeonites, to the prudent and close questions put by Joshua 1:0. Instead of saying, without evasion, whence they came, they again reply, that they came from afar. 2. They give him to understand that they were led to undertake this long journey from a motive of respect for the God of Israel; and, affecting to celebrate the wonders of his power in Egypt, and beyond Jordan, they speak neither of the sacking of Jericho, nor of the destruction of Ai, in order to leave no room to suspect that fear and policy are the real motives of their embassy. 3. To understand them, some would suppose, that they beg of Joshua to enter into league with them, only that they might be united to a people so much more highly favoured by God than any other; and so dexterously is their discourse turned this way, that the Samaritans, in their Chronicle, say, that the Gibeonites made an offer to Joshua to embrace the religion of the Hebrews, and to submit to whatever he should enjoin them. 4. And lastly, The better to deceive Joshua and the heads of the people, they dwell upon their outward condition, where every thing, their clothes, shoes, provisions, and utensils, indicate a long and tedious journey, and bear testimony to the truth of their assertions.—After this, how are they to be excused, and how can their conduct be even justified? This, however, has been done, and the cause of the Gibeonites pleaded, by one of the greatest men of the last age. "The artifice of the Gibeonites," says Puffendorf, in his Law of Nature and Nations, "has nothing blameable in it, and, properly speaking, does not deserve the harsh name of lying. For who would impute a crime to any one, because, to screen himself from the fury of an inexorable and all-destroying enemy, he hath recourse to an innocent fiction? Besides," adds this celebrated writer, "the Israelites, strictly speaking, sustained no injury by this piece of finesse; for what is lost by not shedding the blood of a man, whom yet we can deprive of all his substance, after having so disarmed and weakened him that he is no longer able to rebel against us?" See lib. 4: cap. 2 sect. 7. But the question is, Whether we may justly give to this cunning of the Gibeonites, the appellation of an innocent fiction? Had the Israelites been robbers, who, without any command from heaven, carried their bloody arms into countries to which they had no right; and had the Gibeonites been ignorant that a wonderful providence superintended the conduct of these conquerors; then we might consider the fraud they had recourse to as innocent. But let any one read what they say to Joshua in the 9th verse. The idea which they had formed of the God of Israel, should have engaged them to use every other expedient, rather than that of eluding his justice by disguise and falsehood. They should have gone back, so far as the obscurity of that oeconomy under which they lived would permit, to the cause of that rigour which God exercised towards them. They should have acknowledged, that their crimes had drawn down upon them all those troubles wherewith their nation was oppressed; and after having clothed themselves in sackcloth and ashes, in order to the obtaining pardon, should have left the rest to Providence, and have been convinced that that God, who had moved all nature and the elements to punish guilty nations, is ever able to find out some means or other to serve those who turn unto him and repent.

Verse 14

Ver. 14. And the men took of their victuals It has been asked in what light they thus took of it? and some pretend it was to taste with them in token of friendship, peace, and alliance, according to the ancient custom in use among almost all nations. Others think it was rather to examine whether their bread was, as they said, dry and mouldy, like a biscuit which has been a long voyage.

And asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord They did not consult the high-priest, arrayed in the breast-plate with the Urim and Thummim, as they ought to have done, to know from his mouth the will of the Lord. They were determined by views merely political. After a bare inspection of the victuals which the Gibeonites brought with them, they believed their declaration, and received them cordially, without giving themselves the trouble of consulting God, who, in all probability, would have permitted them to make peace with them, on the conditions imposed by Joshua, and secretly prescribed by his divine providence.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. And Joshua With the advice of the elders, who were deceived as well as himself, made peace with them, &c. That is, he not only preserved their lives, (for, supposing the Gibeonites to have come from a country situate beyond the land of Canaan, nothing obliged him to put them to the sword) but they were left in the quiet possession of their effects. The word life in Scripture is frequently of equal signification with prosperity; in which sense we understand it here. Joshua promised to preserve to the Gibeonites their territories, privileges, and liberty. Hence this general seems to have engaged himself, without knowing it, to what he could not perform; for all alliance with the Canaanites was prohibited. And how, indeed, could the Israelites contract alliances with nations, whose gods and worship they were to abolish, and whose government they were commanded utterly to overthrow? See Deu 7:2 and Shuckford's Connection, vol. 3: p. 385.

And the princes-sware They ratified this treaty of peace by a solemn oath, the violation whereof was afterwards punished with terrible severity. See 2 Samuel 21:6.

REFLECTIONS.—The same event produces very different effects, according to the different tempers of men. Israel's success roused the other Canaanites to battle, and warned the Gibeonites to make their peace before the sword overtook them. As no mention is made of Gibeon's king, and the three confederate cities, it seems they were a little republic; and whilst the proud kings of Canaan refused to bow, in their senators there was wisdom. We have here,

1. The method they took to obtain peace with Israel. Well acquainted with the late transaction, and being hardly more than eight leagues distant from the camp in Gilgal, of course, likely to be soon exposed to the arm of Israel, and no strangers to the utter extirpation of the Canaanites, which was commanded; they disguised themselves, as ambassadors come from a far country, on the fame of Israel's exploits; and, to confirm the cheat, appear before Joshua, as having undergone a tedious journey. Note; (1.) They who pretend to do us most honour are most likely to impose upon us. (2.) Pretences to antiquity have, we see, of old deceived God's Israel; we must beware of being caught with this Gibeonitish wile. (3.) Not every beggar who appears in rags is an object of distress: humble and true poverty has an artless tale; but when your Honour, or your Reverence, is pat on the tongue, this court to your pride detects the knave.

2. The Israelites and Joshua have some suspicion, and therefore begin to question who they were, and whence they came. We should not be credulous to every tale, but examine well before we contract intimacy. In our spiritual warfare, as much need is there to be aware of the wily serpent as of the roaring lion.
3. The more danger there is of discovery, the more need of strong assurances and artful pleas, to gain credit to their assertions. Though they carefully conceal the mention of the place, they affirm that they come from a far country; as if utterly unknown to Israel, and that their inducement was a respect for Israel's God, whose wonders in Egypt and the land of Bashan they had heard, not mentioning Ai or Jericho, though these latter were the real motives to their journey. They profess to be so affected by these wonders of God, that on any terms they would make peace with them, and call themselves their servants, as if ready to do them any service which should be desired. Note; (1.) A Canaanite is never at a loss for a lie. (2.) One lie seldom stands alone, but requires the addition of others to support its credibility. (3.) It is very evil to seek a right end by wrong means: Perhaps if they had spoken honestly and openly, God would have interposed for them, and they would have found better terms than they afterwards obtained.

4. The stratagem succeeds, and Joshua and the princes, having inspected their bread, and found it agreeable to their description, too hastily concluded on the truth of their story; and counting it unnecessary on such an occasion to ask counsel of God, they make an agreement with them, and confirm it with an oath to let them live. Note; (1.) They who are honest themselves, are least suspicious of fraud in others. (2.) When we are hasty in our resolves, we shall often have cause to repent of them. (3.) Nothing of importance should be transacted by us, without prayer to God for his direction. (4.) It is wise in every sinner to imitate (in a good sense) those Gibeonites; in rags of humiliation and godly sorrow, to be found at the feet of Jesus, seeking that peace without which we perish, and we need not doubt of success; for he will say unto us, "Live;" and, for the comfort of our hope, confirm it with an oath.

Verse 16

Ver. 16. And—at the end of three days—they heard that they were their neighbours Montanus's opinion of this matter is very probable. The pretended ambassadors of the Gibeonites having informed their countrymen of the success of their stratagem, rejoicings were made, the news of which could not fail to be soon brought to the camp of Israel.

Verse 17

Ver. 17. And the children of Israel journeyed, &c.— Three days after Joshua had learned the cheat of the Gibeonites, he sent out a detachment from his army to reconnoitre their country. Gibeon was the capital city; Chephirah and Beeroth fell with it to the tribe of Benjamin. The latter, in the time of Eusebius and St. Jerome, was but a village, in the way from Jerusalem to Sichem, seven miles from Jerusalem.—Maundrell, who confounds Beeroth with Beer, mentioned Jdg 9:21 says, that the situation is very pleasant, upon a little eminence, which looks towards the south. At the top of this ascent, there is a fountain abounding with excellent water, which gives its name to Beer. On the upper side are the remains of an old church, built by the empress Helena, in memory of the Blessed Virgin. See Journey to Aleppo, p. 64. With respect to Kirjath-jearim, which fell to the tribe of Judah, it was situate between the confines of this tribe and that of Benjamin, nine miles from Jerusalem, and between that capital and Lydda. The ark of the covenant remained at Kirjath-jearim twenty years. The prophet Urijah, mentioned Jer 26:20 was a native of the place.

Verse 18

Ver. 18. And the children of Israel smote them not, &c.— Even though they had not thought themselves bound by their oath, (as some think they were not, since it had been obtained upon a false pretence;) yet it was for the honour of religion that they should shew themselves scrupulous not to violate an engagement which had been entered into in the name of Jehovah. Nothing could be more proper than this prudent delicacy, to give the Gibeonites great ideas of the majesty of the true God, a majesty which would have been degraded in the sight of the Canaanites by a different conduct. Such was the respect of the ancient Hebrews for oaths, that even when they might have found plausible pretences for breaking them, they made it an indispensable duty to keep them faithfully. "Then," to use the words of a celebrated Roman historian, "men were not arrived at that pitch of indifference and contempt for religion, which is now grown so common: instead of giving themselves the liberty to interpret laws and oaths according to their own interest, each, on the contrary, submitted his conduct to the laws." Liv. l. iii. c. 20.

All the congregation murmured against the princes It is the disposition of almost all nations to be ever ready to cavil at the conduct of those who govern them. In the present case, the Israelites could not justly reproach their leaders with being actuated by levity, and exposing the nation to fail in its duty, however it might be conducted; but what they most repined at was, evidently, because they could not pillage the cities of the Gibeonites, and enrich themselves with their spoils.

Verse 19

Ver. 19. But all the princes said—we have sworn, &c.— But did this oath then, made lightly, and upon a false pretence, bind Joshua and the Israelites? I. Some able interpreters think it did; and their reason is, because Joshua had not been deceived by the Gibeonites in the essential point. The Gibeonites had given themselves out to be foreigners, in order to obtain peace; but, as they could have obtained it, though Canaanites, by renouncing idolatry, and submitting themselves to the Israelites, this falsehood, say these critics, could not deceive Joshua in the essential part of his commission; so that, having once engaged, he was obliged to keep his word; and if he subjected the Gibeonites to servitude, it was only to punish their knavery. Of this opinion are Grotius and Puffendorf. Some remarks are added to confirm these reflections. 1. All the leaders of Israel thought themselves bound by their oath. 2. God punishes the violation of it long afterwards in the family of Saul. 3. As it is expressly declared, that the Gibeonites were the only people that sought for peace with the children of Israel, and as the other nations, who obstinately persisted to oppose them, were for that reason destroyed without mercy; it follows plainly, that there was nothing in the divine laws which obliged Joshua to destroy the Gibeonites in case they applied for peace; consequently, nothing that could dispense with his preserving their lives, after having engaged himself thereto by oath. See Calmet. II. Other casuists, on the contrary, are of opinion, that as Joshua, deceived by the Gibeonites, had promised to them, upon oath, a thing which he neither could promise nor perform, viz. to save their lives, this oath was therefore invalid. These learned men conceive, that the commands of God, respecting the destruction of the Canaanites, allowed of no exception; that the seven nations were to be destroyed without mercy, whether they submitted or not; consequently, that Joshua, on being informed that the Gibeonites were of Canaan, could not, nor ought to keep the oath that he had too lightly made, to preserve them; and that if he regarded this oath, it was, doubtless, because God ratified it by some apparent act, whereof the Scripture, which frequently omits particular circumstances, makes no mention. See Poole's Synopsis, and Barbeyrac's note on Puffendorf's Law of Nature and Nations, b. iv. c. 2. sect. 7. III. As we have embraced the opinion of those interpreters and divines, who think that God had given orders to spare those among the Canaanites who should renounce idolatry and submit to the government of Israel, we cannot subscribe to Grotius's decision. We must not, however, pass over in silence the manner in which this whole affair has been stated by an able critic. After shewing that the people of Israel could enter into no alliance with the Gibeonites in full form; that he treated literally with their ambassadors; that he engaged, in the most sacred manner, to spare the whole nation; that these words contained a formal engagement not to wage war against them; and, consequently, that it is rightly said, that he was unluckily situated, to oblige himself by oath to do that for them which he could not do, without rendering himself guilty of an express breach of the orders which he had received from God; but that the fraud of the Gibeonites having been discovered, Joshua represented to them, that his orders expressly signified, that he was to destroy all the Canaanitish nations, if they refused to submit to the religion and laws of Israel; that they had taken him by surprize, by falsely feigning to be what they were not; and that it was his duty to destroy them; that, nevertheless, he would propose to them an expedient for saving their lives, which was, not only by receiving the civil and religious laws of the Hebrews, but also by resolving to be for ever employed in hewing of wood and drawing of water for the whole congregation, as a punishment for their perfidy; that, how hard soever this condition might be, they chose rather to accept it than to die; that God agreed to this second treaty, as conformable to the orders he had issued against the Canaanites; and that by this means Joshua happily drew himself out of the dilemma into which he had fallen, together with the princes of Israel. See Shuckford's Connection, vol. iii. p. 372, &c.

Verse 20

Ver. 20. This we will do to them, &c.— "That we may not draw down upon us the wrath of God, by the violation of our oath, though rashly made; this is what we may now do with the Gibeonites. Let their lives be spared, but let them be reduced to the servile occupations of hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation, them, and their children after them, for ever." The expression, all the congregation, is explained in ver. 23 to be the house of God. Thus then the Gibeonites were condemned to fetch all the water and wood necessary for the sacrifices, purifications, holy feastings, and, without exception, for whatever the service of the sanctuary required; a mean and toilsome occupation, (see Deuteronomy 29:11.) which indicated a real slavery; and which, doubtless, they filled up by turns, in the same manner as the Levites discharged their functions. The Romans observed the same conduct as Joshua's towards the Brutians, a people who at that time possessed what is now called Calabria; and to punish whom for having quitted their alliance, and taken part with Hannibal, they condemned them to serve always as couriers to all the magistrates and officers whom they sent into the provinces dependent on the republic. See Strabo, lib. 5: Some learned men are of opinion, that the Gibeonites were afterwards called Nethinims; i.e. people given, as it were, to the service of God. Note; How great the mercy shewn unto the sinner, if but his life were given him for a prey; but how much greater, when his lot is assigned him in the temple of God, and the perfect freedom of God's service becomes his happy portion.

Verse 23

Ver. 23. Now, therefore, ye are cursed, &c.— "Notwithstanding the oath which we have sworn to you, ye shall not utterly escape that sentence of malediction which the Lord of the whole earth has pronounced upon the Canaanitish nations, to which you belong." The base and vile service to which they were about to be for ever subjected, well deserved the odious epithet of a curse. The Gibeonites, in fact, ceased to be free men, and masters of themselves, by reason of the servile offices to which they were put. They did not, however, properly speaking, become absolute slaves.

Hewers of wood, and drawers of water, for the house of my God This is the limitation of their servitude; to carry wood and water for the use of the tabernacle, and afterwards of the temple, or for such other like purposes, as need or circumstances required: for instance, Solomon is thought to have employed them among the hewers of stone, and carriers of burdens, in the building of his magnificent structure. See 1 Chronicles 22:2. 2 Chronicles 2:17-18. Grotius has well expressed their condition: "They were subjected to certain personal servitude; whereas, had they but acted sincerely, they might have been received upon the footing of simple tributaries:" De B. & P. l. ii. c. 13. sect. 4. n. 2. Or, in some generations to come, they might have been even associated with the people of God. See on Deuteronomy 23:2. The author of the Observations remarks, that the labour enjoined the Gibeonites was also what females were wont to perform, and do to this day in those countries. So Dr. Shaw (p. 241 of his Travels) mentions the going out of the women at evening to fetch water, as still the custom of the Arabs of Barbary; and he cites Gen 24:11 to prove that it was the custom anciently; to which he might have added 1Sa 9:11 and John 4:7. The author of the History of the Piratical States of Barbary assures us also, (page 47.) that they cut the fuel. "Amongst the Arabs of the kingdom of Algiers, the care of the cattle belongs to the women and children; they also provide food for the family, cut wood, fetch water, and, when their domestic affairs allow them, tend their silk-worms." D'Arvieux likewise, in his voyage to Palestine, by Roque, p. 230 represents the daughters of the Turcmen of Palestine as fetching wood as well as water. As the women of these countries cut fuel now, as well as fetch water, we may believe that they did so formerly, and that they are both equally ancient customs: a supposition very much confirmed by Jer 7:18 and Lam 5:13 which speak of the children's fetching wood,—the young women. The bitterness then of the doom of the Gibeonites does not seem to have consisted in the laboriousness of the service enjoined them, as has been commonly understood; for it was usual for the women and children to perform what was required of the Gibeonites; but in its degrading them from the characteristic employments of men. The not receiving them as allies, was bitter; the disarming them who had been warriors, and condemning them to the employment of females in those days, was worse; but the extending this degradation to their posterity, bitterest of all; insomuch that it is no wonder, under these circumstances, that they are said to have been cursed.

Verse 27

Ver. 27. And Joshua made them that day hewers, &c.— Thenceforward he condemned them for ever to this service, the duties of which they continued to discharge in the time of Nehemiah, under the name of Nethinims; who, as we before observed on ver. 20 are considered by some learned men as having been the posterity of the Gibeonites: others, among whom is Calmet, observe, that the Gibeonites were greatly diminished by the persecution which Saul carried on among them, and that it was evidently this which obliged David and the princes of Israel to contribute slaves to the service of the house of the Lord, who were called Nethinims. The Gibeonites are no more mentioned after the captivity; or, if they are, a passage in Neh 10:34 would incline one to think that they were then discharged from one part of their office; and Josephus, Bell. Jud. lib. ii. c. 7. seems to confirm this opinion.

In the place which he should choose The tabernacle was now at Gilgal, whence it was conveyed to Shiloh, Nob, and Gibeon; in which last two cities it remained for fifty-five year. Patrick. See 1 Kings 3:2.Psalms 48:1; Psalms 48:1.

REFLECTIONS.—The business being thus determined, Joshua called for the chief men of these cities probably, and let them know the resolution.

1. He reproves them for their imposition. A lie deserves rebuke: yet he speaks with mildness, considering their situation, and feeling for their distress. Note; If we considered the violence of others' temptation, we should be less severe against their sin, considering ourselves, lest we also should be tempted. 2. They confess their fault, and assign their reason; which, though it will by no means excuse their sin, at least may be some alleviation of it. When life is at stake, it requires great grace to dare to speak the truth. 3. Joshua condemns them to perpetual servitude. Though the curse of death was removed, the curse of bondage was upon them. However, in its issue it was to be of service to all parties: To the Gibeonites themselves, who, being thus employed about the sanctuary, would be better taught, and have a peculiar privilege of spiritual improvement: To the priests and Levites, who would be much assisted by the ministry of these strong men, in the very laborious work of drawing so much water as the frequent ablutions required, and cleaving so much wood as the frequent sacrifices would need: To the people, who had a common interest in the altar, that it should be well served, and were probably, before this, themselves assistants in these common services. Note; God can thus over-rule the issue of events, and bring much good out of evil. 4. The Gibeonites readily acquiesce in the determination. They refer themselves entirely to Joshua, to be and do as he pleased; and he saves them, and sets them to work. Their cities were given to the people, and their service employed for the public. Note; (1.) The soul which refers itself wholly to Jesus Christ need not fear being cast away. (2.) If Christ receives us, we need not complain of any cross that he is pleased to lay upon us. (3.) They, who serve the Saviour, will ever have reason to bless the day in which they made the exchange of carnal liberty for spiritual subjection.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Joshua 9". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.