Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Stratagem of the Gibeonites, and Their Consequent Preservation - Joshua 9
The victorious advance of the Israelites in the land induced the kings of Canaan to form a common league for the purpose of resisting them. But, as frequently happens, the many kings and lords of the towns and provinces of Canaan were not all united, so as to make a common and vigorous attack. Before the league had been entered into, the inhabitants of Gibeon, one of the largest towns in the central part of Canaan, together with the smaller neighbouring towns that were dependent upon it, attempted to anticipate the danger which threatened them by means of a stratagem, and to enter into a friendly alliance with the Israelites. And they succeeded, inasmuch as Joshua and the elders of the congregation of Israel fell into the snare that was laid for them by the ambassadors of the Gibeonites, who came to the camp at Gilgal, and made the desired treaty with them, without inquiring of the Lord. "This account," as O. v. Gerlach says, "is a warning to the Church of God of all ages against the cunning and dissimulation of the world, which often seeks for a peaceable recognition on the part of the kingdom of God, and even for a reception into it, whenever it may be its advantage to do so."
Jos 9:1, Jos 9:2 form the introduction to chs. 9-11, and correspond to the introduction in Jos 5:1. The news of the miraculous passage of the Israelites through the Jordan had thrown all the kings of Canaan into such despair, that they did not venture to make any attack upon Israel. But they gradually recovered from their first panic, partly, no doubt, in consequence of the failure of the first attack of the Israelites upon Ai, and resolved to join together in making war upon the foreign invaders. The kings of Canaan did this when they heard, sc., what Israel had hitherto undertaken and accomplished, not merely "what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai" (Knobel): that is to say, all the kings across the Jordan, i.e., in the country to the west of the Jordan (היּרדּן עבר, as in Jos 5:1), viz., "upon the mountains" (not only the mountains of Judah, as in Jos 10:40; Jos 11:16, etc., but all the mountains which run throughout the whole length of Canaan, as in Deu 1:7 and Num 13:17 : see the explanation of the latter passage); "in the lowlands" (shephelah, the low-lying country between the mountains and the sea-coast, which is simply intersected by small ranges of hills; see at Deu 1:7); "and on all the coast of the Great Sea towards Lebanon," i.e., the narrow coast of the Mediterranean Sea from Joppa up to the Ladder of Tyre (see at Deu 1:7). The different tribes of the Canaanites are also mentioned by name, as in Jos 3:10, except that the Girgashites are omitted. These gathered themselves together to fight with Joshua and Israel with one mouth, or with one accord (Kg1 22:13).
But the inhabitants of a republic, which included not only Gibeon the capital, but the towns of Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath-jearim also, acted differently from the rest. Gibeon (Γαβάων, Gabaon, lxx Vulg.) was larger than Ai, being one of the royal cities (Jos 10:2), and was inhabited by Hivites, who were a brave people (Jos 10:7; Jos 11:19). It was afterwards allotted to the tribe of Benjamin, and set apart as a Levitical town (Jos 18:25; Jos 21:17). After the destruction of Nob by Saul, the tabernacle was removed thither, and there it remained till the building of Solomon's temple (Ch1 16:39; Ch1 21:29; Kg1 3:4-5; Ch2 1:3.). According to Josephus, it was forty or fifty stadia from Jerusalem, and judging from its name was built upon a hill. It is to be found in the modern Jib, two good hours' journey to the north-west of Jerusalem, a village of moderate size, on a long chalk hill which overlooks a very fertile, well cultivated plain, or rather a basin, consisting of broad valleys and plains, and rises like a vineyard, in the form of separate terraces (Strauss, Sinai, p. 332). The remains of large massive buildings of great antiquity are still to be seen there, also some fountains, and two large subterraneous reservoirs (vid., Rob. Pal. ii. p. 136). When the Gibeonites heard of the fate of Jericho and Ai, they also did (something) with stratagem. In the expression המּה גּם ("they also") there is a reference implied to what Joshua had done at Jericho and Ai; not, however, to the stratagem resorted to in the case of Ai, as such an allusion would not apply to Jericho. They set out as ambassadors: יצטיּרוּ, from צרר, which occurs in every other instance in the form of a noun, signifying a messenger (Pro 13:17, etc.). In the Hithpael it means to make themselves ambassadors, to travel as ambassadors. The translators of the ancient versions, however, adopted the reading יצטיּדוּ, they provided themselves with food; but this was nothing more than a conjecture founded upon Jos 9:12, and without the slightest critical value. They also took "old sacks upon their asses, and old mended wineskins." מצררים, from צרר, lit. bound together, is very characteristic. There are two modes adopted in the East of repairing skins when torn, viz., inserting a patch, or tying up the piece that is torn in the form of a bag. Here the reference is to the latter, which was most in harmony with their statement, that the skins had got injured upon their long journey. Also "old mended sandals upon their feet, and old clothes upon them (upon their bodies); and all the bread of their provisions had become dry and quite mouldy." נקּדים, lit. furnished with points; נקוד, pointed, speckled (Gen 30:32.). Hence the rendering of the lxx, εὐρωτιῶν; Theod., βεβρωμένοι; Luther, schimmlicht, mouldy; whereas the rendering adopted by Aquila is ἐψαθυρωμένος; by Symmachus, κάπορος, i.e., adustus, torridus; and by the Vulgate, in frusta comminuti, i.e., crumbled.
Having made these preparations, they went to the Israelitish camp at Gilgal (Jiljilia), introduced themselves to the men of Israel (אישׁ, in a collective sense, the plural being but little used, and only occurring in Pro 8:4; Isa 53:3, and Psa 141:4) as having come from a distant land, and asked them to make a league with them. But the Israelites hesitated, and said to the Hivites, i.e., the Gibeonites who were Hivites, that they might perhaps be living in the midst of them (the Israelites), i.e., in the land of Canaan, which the Israelites already looked upon as their own; and if so, how could they make a league with them? This hesitation on their part was founded upon the express command of God, that they were not to make any league with the tribes of Canaan (Exo 23:32; Exo 34:12; Num 33:55; Deu 7:2, etc.). In reply to this the Gibeonites simply said, "We are thy servants" (Jos 9:8), i.e., we are at thy service, which, according to the obsequious language common in the East, was nothing more than a phrase intended to secure the favour of Joshua, and by no means implied a readiness on their part to submit to the Israelites and pay them tribute, as Rosenmller, Knobel, and others suppose; for, as Grotius correctly observes, what they wished for was "a friendly alliance, by which both their territory and also full liberty would be secured to themselves." The Keri ויּאמר (Jos 9:7) is nothing more than a critical conjecture, occasioned not so much by the singular אישׁ, which is frequently construed in the historical writings as a collective noun with a plural verb, as by the singular suffix attached to בּקרבּי, which is to be explained on the ground that only one of the Israelites (viz., Joshua) was speaking as the mouthpiece of all the rest. The plural ויּאמרוּ is used, because Joshua spoke in the name of the people.
To the further question put by Joshua, where they had come from, the Gibeonites replied, "From a very distant land have thy servants come, because of the name of Jehovah thy God," or as they themselves proceed at once to explain: "for we have heard the fame (fama) of Him, and all that He did in Egypt, and to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites." They very wisely say nothing about the miracles connected with the crossing of the Jordan and the taking of Jericho, since, "as the inhabitants of a very far distant region, they could not have heard anything about things that had occurred so lately, even by report" (Masius).
When these tidings reached them, they were sent off by the elders (the leaders of the republic) and the inhabitants of the land to meet the Israelites, that they might offer them their service, and form an alliance with them. In confirmation of this, they point to their dried provisions, and their torn and mended skins and clothes.
The Israelites suffered themselves to be taken in by this pretence. "The men (the elders of Israel) took of their provisions; but they did not ask the mouth of the Lord." Instead of inquiring the will of the Lord in this matter through the Urim and Thummim of the high priest (Num 27:21), they contented themselves with taking some of the bread that was shown them, and tasting it; as if the dry mouldy bread furnished a safe guarantee of the truth of the words of these foreign ambassadors. Some commentators regard their taking of their provisions as a sign of mutual friendship, or of the league which they made; but in that case their eating with them would at any rate have been mentioned. Among the Arabs, simply eating bread and salt with a guest is considered a sign of peace and friendship.
So Joshua made (granted) them peace (vid., Isa 27:5), and concluded a covenant with them (להם, in their favour), to let them live; and the princes of the congregation sware unto them. Letting them live is the only article of the league that is mentioned, both because this was the main point, and also with special reference to the fact that the Gibeonites, being Canaanites, ought properly to have been destroyed. It is true that Joshua and the princes of the congregation had not violated any express command of God by doing this; for the only thing prohibited in the law was making treaties with the Canaanites, which they did not suppose the Gibeonites to be, whilst in Deu 20:11, where wars with foreign nations (not Canaanites) are referred to, permission is given to make peace with them, so that all treaties with foreign nations are not forbidden. But they had failed in this respect, that, trusting to the crafty words of the Gibeonites, and to outward appearances only, they had forgotten their attitude to the Lord their God who had promised to His congregation, in all important matters, a direct revelation of His own will.
Three days after the treaty had been concluded, the Israelites discovered that they had been deceived, and that their allies dwelt among them (see Jos 9:7). They set out therefore to deal with the deceivers, and reached their towns Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath-jearim on the third day. "Chephirah, which was afterwards allotted to the tribe of Benjamin along with Gibeon and Beeroth, and was still inhabited after the captivity (Jos 18:25-26; Ezr 2:25; Neh 7:29), is to be seen in the ruins of Kefir, an hour's journey to the east of Yalo, in the mountains, and three hours to the west of Gibeon (see Rob. Bibl. Res. p. 146, and Van de Velde, Memoir, pp. 303-4). Beeroth, Βηρώθ, according to Eusebius (Onom. s. v.) a hamlet near Jerusalem, and seven miles on the road to Nicopolis (it should read Neapolis), was in the tribe of Benjamin (Sa2 4:2), and still exists in the large village of Bireh, which is situated upon a mountain nine Roman miles to the north of Jerusalem in a stony and barren district, and has still several springs and a good well, besides the remains of a fine old church of the time of the Crusades (see Rob. Pal. ii. pp. 130ff.; Seetzen, R. ii. pp. 195-6). Kirjath-jearim, also called Kirjath-baal (Jos 15:60), Baalah (Jos 15:9), and Baal-Jehuda (Sa2 6:2), was allotted to the tribe of Judah. It stood upon the boundary between Judah and Benjamin (Jos 15:60; Jos 18:15); and the ark remained there, after it had been sent back by the Philistines, until the time of David (Sa1 7:2; Sa2 6:2; Ch1 13:5-6). According to the Onom., s. v. Καριαθιαρείμ and Βαάλ, it was nine or ten Roman miles from Jerusalem, on the road to Diospolis (Lydda), and is probably to be seen in the present Kuryet el Enab, a considerable village with a large number of olive trees, figs, pomegranates, and vineyards, from the last of which the old "town of the forests" has received the more modern name of "town of the vine" (see Rob. Pal. ii. p. 335, and Bibl. Res. pp. 156-7; and Seetzen, ii. p. 65). These towns, which formed one republic with Gibeon, and were governed by elders, were at so short a distance from Gilgal (Jiljilia), that the Israelites could reach it in one or two days. The expression "on the third day" is not at variance with this; for it is not stated that Israel took three days to march there, but simply that they arrived there on the third day after receiving the intelligence of the arrival of the ambassadors.
"The Israelites smote them not," sc., with the edge of the sword, "because the princes of the congregation had sworn to them," sc., to let them live (Jos 9:15); but, notwithstanding the murmuring of the congregation, they declared that they might not touch them because of their oath. "This (sc., what we have sworn) we will do to them, and let them live (החיה, inf. abs. with special emphasis instead of the finite verb), lest wrath come upon us because of the oath." Wrath (sc., of God), a judgment such as fell upon Israel in the time of David, because Saul disregarded this oath and sought to destroy the Gibeonites (Sa2 21:1.).
But how could the elders of Israel consider themselves bound by their oath to grant to the Gibeonites the preservation of life which had been secured to them by the treaty they had made, when the very supposition upon which the treaty was made, viz., that the Gibeonites did not belong to the tribes of Canaan, was proved to be false, and the Gibeonites had studiously deceived them by pretending that they had come from a very distant land? As they had been absolutely forbidden to make any treaties with the Canaanites, it might be supposed that, after the discovery of the deception which had been practised upon them, the Israelitish rulers would be under no obligation to observe the treaty which they had made with the Gibeonites in full faith in the truth of their word. And no doubt from the stand-point of strict justice this view appears to be a right one. But the princes of Israel shrank back from breaking the oath which, as is emphatically stated in Jos 9:19, they had sworn by Jehovah the God of Israel, not because they assumed, as Hauff supposes, "that an oath simply regarded as an outward and holy transaction had an absolutely binding force," but because they were afraid of bringing the name of the God of Israel into contempt among the Canaanites, which they would have done if they had broken the oath which they had sworn by this God, and had destroyed the Gibeonites. They were bound to observe the oath which they had once sworn, if only to prevent the sincerity of the God by whom they had sworn from being rendered doubtful in the eyes of the Gibeonites; but they were not justified in taking the oath. They had done this without asking the mouth of Jehovah (Jos 9:14), and thus had sinned against the Lord their God. But they could not repair this fault by breaking the oath which they had thus imprudently taken, i.e., by committing a fresh sin; for the violation of an oath is always sin, even when the oath has been taken inconsiderately, and it is afterwards discovered that what was sworn to was not in accordance with the will of God, and that an observance of the oath will certainly be hurtful (vid., Psa 15:4).
(Note: "The binding power of an oath ought to be held so sacred among us, that we should not swerve from our bond under any pretence of error, even though we had been deceived: since the sacred name of God is of greater worth than all the riches of the world. Even though a person should have sworn therefore without sufficient consideration, no injury or loss will release him from his oath." This is the opinion expressed by Calvin with reference to Psa 15:4; yet for all that he regards the observance of their oath on the part of the princes of Israel as a sin, because he limits this golden rule in the most arbitrary manner to private affairs alone, and therefore concludes that the Israelites were not bound to observe this "wily treaty.")
By taking an oath to the ambassadors that they would let the Gibeonites live, the princes of Israel had acted unconsciously in violation of the command of God that they were to destroy the Canaanites. As soon therefore as they discovered their error or their oversight, they were bound to do all in their power to ward off from the congregation the danger which might arise of their being drawn away to idolatry-the very thing which the Lord had intended to avert by giving that command. If this could by any possibility be done without violating their oath, they were bound to do it for the sake of the name of the Lord by which they swore; that is to say, while letting the Gibeonites live, it was their duty to put them in such a position, that they could not possibly seduce the Israelites to idolatry. And this the princes of Israel proposed to do, by granting to the Gibeonites on the one hand the preservation of their lives according to the oath they had taken, and on the other hand by making them slaves of the sanctuary. That they acted rightly in this respect, is evident from the fact that their conduct is never blamed either by the historian or by the history, inasmuch as it is not stated anywhere that the Gibeonites, after being made into temple slaves, held out any inducement to the Israelites to join in idolatrous worship, and still more from the fact, that at a future period God himself reckoned the attempt of Saul to destroy the Gibeonites, in his false zeal for the children of Israel, as an act of blood-guiltiness on the part of the nation of Israel for which expiation must be made (Sa2 21:1.), and consequently approved of the observance of the oath which had been sworn to them, though without thereby sanctioning the treaty itself.
The princes declared again most emphatically, "They shall live." Thus the Gibeonites became hewers of wood and drawers of water to the congregation, as the princes had said to them, i.e., had resolved concerning them. This resolution they communicated to the congregation at the time, using the expression יחיוּ (let them live); but the historian has passed this over at Jos 9:21, and instead of mentioning the resolution proceeds at once to describe its execution.
Joshua then summoned the Gibeonites, charged them with their deceit, and pronounced upon them the curse of eternal servitude: "There shall not be cut off from you a servant," i.e., ye shall never cease to be servants, ye shall remain servants for ever (vid., Sa2 3:29; Kg1 2:4), "and that as hewers of wood and drawers of waters for our God's house." This is a fuller definition of the expression "for all the congregation" in Jos 9:21. The Gibeonites were to perform for the congregation the slaves' labour of hewing wood and drawing water for the worship of the sanctuary-a duty which was performed, according to Deu 29:10, by the lowest classes of people. In this way the curse of Noah upon Canaan (Gen 9:25) was literally fulfilled upon the Hivites of the Gibeonitish republic.
The Gibeonites offered this excuse for their conduct, that having heard of the command of God which had been issued through Moses, that all the Canaanites were to be destroyed (Deu 7:1; Deu 20:16-17), they had feared greatly for their lives, and readily submitted to the resolution which Joshua made known to them.
"And so did he unto them, and delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, that they slew them not. He made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and indeed for the altar of the Lord," (assigning them) "to the place which God would choose," viz., for the altar. אלהמּקום (to the place) is grammatically dependent upon ויּתּנם (he "gave them"). It by no means follows, however, that Joshua sent them there at that very time, but simply that he sentenced them to service at the altar in the place which would be chosen for the sanctuary. From the words "unto this day," it no doubt follows, on the one hand, that the account was written after the fact had taken place; but, on the other hand, it also follows from the future יבחר (should, or shall choose), that it was written before the place was definitely fixed, and therefore before the building of Solomon's temple.