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GIBEONITES FEARED FOR THEIR LIVES BEFORE THE LORD

Joshua 9:1-9:27
Key Verse: 9:24

We return to the study of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the Israelites’ conquering the nations in Canaan and dividing the land among the twelve tribes of Israel according to God’s promise and command. People can be apt to decline such fighting and conquering stories, for they involve the killing of many. Yet we need a spiritual understanding of those narratives, believing that God is love and he wants to bless all people of the world. As we study the book of Joshua with a right heart and mind, we can have a deeper, spiritual understanding of God’s work and history. Today’s passage is a very interesting, unique story in the Bible. It is about Gibeonites’ response to what the Lord God of Israel had done, and their survival, and the Israelites’ keeping their promise. We will see that God is willing to save any people who fear for their lives before him.

First, survival strategy of the Gibeonites (1-15). Look at verses 1 and 2. “Now when all the kings west of Jordan heard about these things…they came together to make war against Joshua and Israel.” Here these things are particularly the Israelites’ astounding victory over the two great cities, Jericho and Ai. How extensive the coalition of the kings was is written: those in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Great Sea as far as Lebanon. The six kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites were mentioned. When the kings heard about “these things,” of course they feared the men of Israel. In that fear they mustered all their military power, and came together to make war against Joshua and Israel. From a human viewpoint, this was the best thing they could do to defend themselves.

But there was a different people. Look at verses 3 and 4. “However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse.” Let’s think about the Gibeonites. First of all, they did not join the alliance of the six kings. Not joining in this confederation was a dangerous thing. They could be completely isolated in the world power struggle. And what they did was to resort to a ruse, when they heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai. Definitely they were not 100% sure that resorting to a ruse would work out, they had maybe a 50/50 chance. Why did they take such a risk? For to them this was the wisest choice they could make for their survival. In fact it was the last resort with no other option if they wanted to survive.

Let’s see further. Look at verses 4b-6. “They went as a delegation whose donkeys are loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy.” What kind of delegation was this? In history delegates were supposed to wear nice and decent clothes to show their respect and deference to the other part. For the initial impression would be critical for their diplomat. But they came with old clothes and worn and patched sandals. Their donkeys were loaded with worn-out saddle bags and cracked and mended old wineskins. All their bread was dry and moldy. It looked like a very funny and weird strategy. Then what was the point of the strategy? The Gibeonite delegates said to Joshua, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.” The whole point of their strategy was to show that they came from a distant country. They knew that they had to make a treaty with Israel, which was the only way of survival to them. Also they knew that if they had appeared as neighbours, the Israelites would not make a treaty with them. It is likely that the delegates of Gibeon studied the history of Israel through and through. According to Deuteronomy 20:10-18, God left some possibility for the Israelite to make a treaty with the countries that were at a distance from them, but no room at all for a treaty with the neighbouring countries. So through their thorough exploration the Gibeonites must have discovered a slight hope of their survival in the commandment of the God of Israel. And they collected all their wisdom to find a way to make a treaty with the Israelites. It was to induce the Israelites to see that they were from a distant country, and so make a treaty with them.

Then how is the story developed? Look at verse 7. “The men of Israel said to the Hivites, ‘But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?’” Probably, at a glance the men of Israelites could sense that the delegates were the Hivites, one of the neighbouring peoples. So they said, “Perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?” At this point the hearts of the delegates must have sunk. What could they do in this situation? They could have just insisted that they came from a distant country. Or in embarrassment they could have given up their mission as delegates, saying, “Sorry. We told a lie.” However, now they humbly said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” But Joshua asked, “Who are you and where do you come from?” To Joshua’s eyes they were suspicious and so he asked them with such questions. Now at this spot, how to answer Joshua was really a matter of life and death. So they answered, “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, and all that he did to the two kings of Amorites east of Jordan—Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.” Here we see their underlying reason for what they did was the fame of the LORD the God of Israel. They said continually, “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.”’ This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey.” They presented all the explanations they could make to confirm what they did was true. The delegates were resolved to carry out their given task and let their strategy work. They were determined delegates.

How did their answer affect Joshua and his people? Look at verse 14. “The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD.” Their speech was so persuasive that the men of Israel just checked their food and that’s all. They did not inquire of the LORD. We don’t know exactly why the men of Israel did not inquire of the LORD. Probably after their great victory on Ai, they were complacent. Yet, it is certain that the delegates’ words affected them not to 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. In this way the survival strategy of the delegates of the Gibeonites which sounded weird, and even silly, succeeded.

We know that in a battle strategy is very important. One who has a better strategy wins (the battle of Zama). In our Christian life we need simple faith, trusting in God in all things. Yet we also need wisdom and strategy, for it is a spiritual battle. May each of us have a good plan and strategy in our battle of faith and in serving the work of God this year.

Second, faithfulness of the Israelites (16-21). Look at verse 16. “Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbours, living near them.” What a shock! Their suspicion came true. What did they do? The Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. They must have gone there to avenge them in a momentary anger for being deceived. However, verse 18 says, “But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the LORD, the God of Israel.” This can be a virtue of God’s people. In that moment they were not carried away by their emotional anger and revenging spirit. For the three days in coming to Gibeon, they may have repented of not inquiring of the LORD and thought of what would be a right thing to do at this time. Anyhow, they did not attack the Gibeonites because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the LORD, the God of Israel. It is certain that they knew that Gods’ people had to keep the oath they made even when it would hurt them (Psalm 16:5). Humanly speaking, the Israelites had enough reason to attack and retaliate against the Gibeonites, because the Gibeonites had deceived them. But they did not act based on human reason and their reasonable judgment. Rather, they wanted to obey God after the mistake. Later on, during the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years. David did not know the reason. When he prayed, God showed that it was because Saul put the Gibeonites to death breaking the oath. David called the Gibeonites and asked them how he should make amends. They asked for the lives of seven of Saul’s descendants, and David satisfied their demand. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land (2 Sam 21:1-14). It was almost 500 years after the oath made to the Gibeonites, but God remembered the oath and disliked what Saul had done to them. In light of this event, we can see that what the men of Israel did toward the Gibeonites at this time was right and pleasing to God. The LORD God keeps his promises, and so he wants his people to keep their promises before him. When we study Joshua, it is stressed. Joshua 21:45 says, “Not one of all the LORD’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; everyone was fulfilled.” Again 23:14 says, “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.” The LORD God has kept his promise until he sent his Son Jesus to this world.

The decision of the leaders of the assembly was right. But the whole assembly was not happy with it and grumbled against the leaders. However, all the leaders were inflexible and said, “We have given them our oath by the LORD the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. This is what we will do to them: We will let them live; so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them.” They continued, “Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community.” The author commented at the end verse 21, “So the leaders’ promise to them was kept.” It was truly a beauty of God’s people.

Third, the fear of the Gibeonites (22-27). Now what comes next in this story? Look at verses 22,23. “The Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, ‘Why did you deceive us by saying, ‘We live a long way from you,’ while actually you live near us? You are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God.” When he said, “You are now under a curse,” Joshua entrusted them to God’s judgment for their deceitful act. According to God’s command in Deuteronomy 20:11, he let them be subject to forced labour.

How did the Gibeonites respond at this? Look at verses 24,25. “They answered Joshua, ‘Your servants were clearly told how the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you.” This is really a heart-moving statement. They heard of God’s command to Moses and were responsive. The feared for their lives, of course not only their own lives, but also the lives of their wives and children and the whole country people. When they feared for their lives because of the LORD God and his people, they feared nothing else and would do anything in order to survive. They courageously did not join the alliance of the majority of the adjacent kings. They devised such a risky strategy and disguised themselves only for the saving of their lives and the lives of their loved ones and their fellow countrymen.

Finally what did Joshua do to them. Look at verses 26, 27. “So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the place the LORD would choose. And that is what they are to this day.” They were indeed saved and would be happy to do forced labour, living with the people of God.

When we study the Bible, we see that God’s great agony was that his people did not take God’s words, especially the words of judgment to the heart. They ignored God’s commandment and later on forsook the LORD their God. In light of this how commendable what the Gibeonites did was before God. In Joshua chapter 2 the beautiful act of Rahab, a prostitute of Jerico, is written. She hid the spies of Israel, because when she heard what the LORD had done, she believed that the LORD, the God of Israel, is God in heaven above and on the earth below (Jos 6:9-12), and feared the LORD. Then she and all her family members were saved. Bible does not judge her as a traitor of her country, but a woman of faith. Hebrews 11:31 says, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” These two events, one concerning Rahab and the other, Gibeonites, are written in the book of Joshua. It shows that this book is not just the story of Israelites’ conquering the land. It reveals God’s heart desire that he is willing to save those who have heard of him and fear for their lives. In the book of Jonah we see another beautiful example of this. When the people of Nineveh heard God’s impending judgment upon them through Jonah who just said, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” they were responsive. All of them, from the greatest to the least, even animals fasted and repented. They were not sure that God would save them. Question, “Who knows!” they called urgently on God that he might relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that they would not perish. Then God could not reject their sincere repentance. He saved them, not bringing upon them the destruction he had planned.

God gives us the message of judgment not just to threaten us but help us to fear for our lives and the lives of those whom we love and who are entrusted to us. We remember how Abraham pleaded with the LORD when he heard about the imminent judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. He feared for the lives of the people there including his nephew Lot and prayed to the LORD boldly and persistently. Because of his earnest intercessory prayer God saved Lot from the catastrophe that overthrew the two cities. There was a king of Israel, Jehoiakim. God told the prophet Jeremiah to take a scroll and write on it all the words of judgment he would bring to Israel so that the people might turn to God. Jeremiah dictated all the words and his secretary Baruch wrote them on the scroll. When the words on the scroll were read to the king, Jehoiakim did not like the words of judgment. He and all his attendants had no fear. He cut off the scroll portion by portion with a knife and threw the pieces into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burnt. By doing so, he could not remove the judgment. Rather tragically he brought God’s every disaster upon himself and his people (Jer 36:1-32). There was another king, Josiah. The Book of the Law of the LORD was found in the temple and brought to him. Then the king let his secretary Shaphan read from it. When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes because of their sins and the sins of their forefathers. He went up to the temple of the LORD with all the people of Jerusalem from the least to the greatest. He himself read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant. He made a resolution to obey the words of the LORD along with the people of Jerusalem. God blessed the king and his people abundantly, not bringing judgment upon them (1 Kings 22:8-20; 2 Chronicles 34:14-33). God is eager to save and bless those who are responsive to his words and work.

Jesus the Son of God came to this world and spoke to the people and did numerous miracles, healing all kinds of sickness and driving out demons. But people’s response varied. Pharisees regarded Jesus’ work as Satan’s work and severely attacked and insulted him and finally let him be crucified by the hands of Romans. So they invited God’s unbearable judgment upon them and their descendants. When Jesus was dying on the cross, two robbers showed different responses. One hurled insults at him, but the other was penitent and asked for his mercy. At the last moment he gloriously entered the paradise along with Jesus. Jesus said to his disciples, Truly, his mercy extends to those who fear him and fear for their lives, from generation to generation (Lk 1:56).

Thank God that he is willing to save those who fear for their lives before him. As we hear the words of God and his work, may we be responsive and fear for our lives and the lives of others, especially life everlasting, and gather all our wisdom and effort for the salvation work.

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