A Desperate Faith
Most of the Canaanite citadels had planned on fighting God's judgment to the death, meeting their divine Enemy with fists raised high in defiance, masters of their own twisted fate to the last. But the people of Gibeon pondered such a course and thought better of it. After all, the God of the Hebrews was 7 and 0 this season. Before Israel even got to the Jordan YHWH had dealt harshly with every nation that attacked them. He drowned Pharaoh and his chariots, thrashed the Amalekites, devastated the Moabites, and reduced the Amorite kingdoms of Sihon and Og to pulp. On this side of the Jordan (which He simply stopped up for a few days) He left the mighty Jericho nothing but a burning crater, and the mountain fortress of Ai a heap of ash. So, where's the wisdom in resisting Him?
They had a point. But, what to do? The Gibeonites knew that Moses had given orders to destroy all Canaanite cities without exception and without mercy. They also heard, though, that Joshua had authority to make treaties with nations outside the land. A plan was hatched to impersonate one of these "far nations". They dressed a handful of their men in tattered clothes and sent them to Joshua's headquarters at Gilgal. It only took about 8 hours to get there, but they practiced looking gaunt and tired. Straggling into the Israelite camp, they made their presentation. "We have traveled a great distance to make a treaty with you," they said. "Boy, are these clothes and sandals worn out. They were new when we left. And these wineskins, all cracked and dry. They were fresh. And this old crusty bread. It was warm when we started."
"Where did you say you were from?" asked Joshua. "Far, far away! Way far. A long distance. Many days. Over the horizon. Nowhere near here." "And why did you say you made this long journey?" one of the Israeli generals asked. "We heard of your fame and the Name of your God and what He did to Sihon and Og and thought it would be good to be friends. Do you need any slaves?"
Joshua and the leaders of Israel, never having been conned before, looked at the old bread and the clothes and the wineskins, but neglected to ask the Lord. "Well, we do have some openings in the hewing wood and drawing water departments," Joshua said. The treaty was signed and the travelers exhibited visible relief.
Three days later the truth came out. The Gibeonites were to have had the very next appointment with destiny. Instead, they had a signed document with the seal of Israel, which protected them from judgment. The congregation griped at the leaders and Joshua had to wipe much egg off his face, but they all knew that this vow must stand. Israel's treaties were YHWH's treaties and the Lord keeps his word. A great lesson was learned about checking with Him before signing covenants. The Gibeonites were the only Canaanites to have a treaty with Israel and they persisted as a subculture within the redeemed nation, obeying the laws of YHWH and serving the people for several hundred years. Generations later, when Saul tried to wipe them out, the Lord judged him for going back on this agreement (II Sam.21).
Interestingly, even though this treaty was a blotch on his otherwise spotless record , Joshua was not rebuked for it. It was a mistake; he should have asked the Lord before making a covenant in His Name. And he did have to live with the consequences. But The Gibeonites, for their part, seem to have been law-abiding citizens. There is no mention of them becoming a "snare" to Israel as other Canaanite groups did. And the defection of Gibeon proved a decided military advantage in the southern campaign. Could it be that the Lord simply made the best of His people's blunder and carried on with the original plan? I think so.
The Gibeonites were deceptive and cunning. Their lives were on the line and they did what they deemed necessary to survive. But in their trickery they actually demonstrated a backwards sort of faith. First, they had the good sense to know that you can't fight God and hope to win. In their own pagan way they had more confidence in the Lord's plans than did the entire previous generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness for not believing His promises. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The Gibeonites didn't know anything about God except that He was infinitely more powerful than they, and that he intended to judge their sin. This represents more faith than we find among the civilized folks in our own "post-Christian" culture. They knew that if they didn't make peace with the Lord, they would certainly die at His hand. True enough, even today.
Furthermore, these pagans believed that God would instruct His people to keep whatever covenant was made in His name, and that even when the ruse was discovered, their defenseless position within the commonwealth of Israel would be a safe one. They believed YHWH was just and merciful.
They also realized that something must actually be done. They couldn't just sit around stroking their beards, discussing the existence of God. They had to act upon the tiny bit of knowledge they possessed. Good wisdom in any age.
When these fragments of knowledge came together (the impending judgment, the trustworthiness of God, the need for a response) the appropriate course of action presented itself -- run to God instead of away from Him. So they did.
And it paid off. Somehow in His providence the Lord's grace covered the Gibeonites who, like Rahab of Jericho, saw the reality of God's purposes and exercised a rudimentary faith. The Lord saw fit in later years to locate the ark at Gibeon for some time (II Chron.1:3), and when Nehemiah came to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, there were the Gibeonites standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israelites (Neh.3:7).
It doesn't take a genius to find salvation, but the little knowledge a person does have must be invested properly. When Jesus spoke of the mustard seed He was pointing this out. Simple, rough, unsophisticated confidence in God may not be the mature sort of faith we're impressed with, but if it is acted upon and a person draws near to the Lord's clear revelation, salvation is at hand. Maturity will follow conversion.
The Gibeonites may have hoped for a simple peace treaty, which would have preserved their autonomy in Canaan. Of course, this was impossible. The Lord doesn't make deals with people. He is not called Lord simply for show. His reign is not a constitutional monarchy where the King is simply a figurehead and the real power resides in the constituency. He is a true Lord with real authority and He requires genuine loyalty on the deepest level. The Gibeonites found this out when Joshua accepted their surrender, but put them to work hauling wood and water. Personal autonomy, the dream of the fallen heart, is something only God has, because only He is naturally and perfectly righteous. We as creatures find our highest calling in service to His lordship. It is better to be a servant in the house of the Lord than a rotting corpse on the battlefield of eternity. Anyone who doesn't see that is what the Bible calls a fool. The Gibeonites may have begun as pagans, but I don't think they were fools. Sometimes I wonder about the culture around us.
Just a thought.