Four years ago I published a post entitled Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. The first two paragraphs read as follows:
Moralistic, therapeutic deism, a term first used by Christian Smith, seems a fitting description of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. The followers of this religion believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants them to feel good about themselves, doesn’t need to be consulted except in case of emergencies, and who will accept all good people into heaven.
One unfortunate result is that such people read the Old Testament as a series of morality tales, leading to conclusions that play up the foolishness and waywardness of Old Testament characters. Such a reading altogether misses the redemption story that is an essential ingredient of these histories. The New Testament points to these histories as God’s way of revealing little by little his plan of redemption.
Today I want to write about how the story of the Gibeonites, beginning in the ninth chapter of Joshua, is commonly misinterpreted. Bible story books and Sunday School lessons tend to make a big thing of how the Gibeonites tricked the elders of Israel. In doing so, they altogether miss how this account fits into the redemption story.
If God had been displeased with the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites, would he not have told Joshua to just stand back and let the armies of the south destroy Gibeon? Instead he told Joshua to go up to battle and that he would deliver the attacking armies into Joshua’s hand. Then God performed one of the great miracles of the Old Testament, making the sun stand still for another whole day. At the same time, God poured out hail on the attacking armies.
Up to this point, the children of Israel were occupying a small enclave in the plains of Jericho. The mountainous country was before them; the population in those mountains far outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. Yet the pact with the Gibeonites provided the opening to utterly destroy those armies during the battle of the long day and subsequent battles in the days following. Now the Israelites were masters of all the southern half of the Promised Land.
This stirred the nations in the north to gather together to battle, but once again the Lord assured Joshua that He would deliver them to him. Joshua and the Israelites won another great victory and were now in possession of all the land. They had not destroyed all the people of the land, but there were no longer any mighty armies to stand against them.
As we read the whole story, the inescapable conclusion is that God blessed the Israelites for accepting the Gibeonites. Yes, they came with a deceitful story, yet they did it because they recognized the greatness of God. They submitted willingly to the conditions laid upon them by the elders of Israel, knowing that the alternative was death. Joshua 11:19 says: “There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon: all other they took in battle.”
The Gibeonites became hewers of wood and drawers of water for the service of the tabernacle. There was an element of mercy in this, they were not made slaves to individual Israelites, which could well have led to oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are the same people as those later called Nethinims.
The Gibeonites were Hivites, descendants of Canaaan. Others of the Hivites remained and later troubled the Israelites. There is no hint in the Bible that the Gibeonites were in any way associated with them. They had made their choice to take their place among the people of God.
Nevertheless, there came a time when King Saul thought he would be doing God a service by wiping out the Gibeonites. Because of this God sent a three year famine in Israel in the time of King David. The famine ceased when seven of Sauls grandsons were hung. This may look like revenge, but perhaps a better explanation is that this was a means to make it publicly known to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God.
Are we perhaps thinking like Saul if we condemn the Gibeonites for their deception? The real story here, as I see it, is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but all the accounts that mention them demonstrate the purity and sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.