God had miraculously led the children of Israel through Jordan and to victory over Jericho and Ai. Before them now were the mountains; the nations in those mountains greatly outnumbered the Israelites and they were men of war. These were the people who had so frightened their fathers forty years earlier; the challenge before them was formidable.
Up in their mountain stronghold, the people of Gibeon had gotten the message that God planned to give this land to the Israelites and they believed that He could and would do it. They also knew that God had forbade the Israelites to make any covenant with the people of the land. So they hit upon a ruse, sending a delegation pretending to come from a far country and wanting to make a league of peace between their people and the people of God.
Of course it was deception, and yes, Joshua and the elders of Israel were tricked into doing what God had told them not to do. And yet, what was the result? Bible story lessons make this a great issue. But what evidence can they point to of God’s displeasure?
The kings of the Amorites called out their armies to attack Gibeon in order to prevent the Israelites from gaining a foothold in the mountains. God told Joshua to go to the defence of the Gibeonites and promised to deliver the attacking armies into his hands. He rained hailstones that killed more of the Amorites than Joshua’s army, He made the sun stand still in the sky until the victory was complete. Over the next few days Joshua and the Israelites attacked and vanquished all the Amorite cities. Far from punishing the Gibeonites, God had used them as the key to the conquest of the whole southern half of the promised land.
Now the kings of the north, Hittites, Perezites, Jebusites and the rest of the Amorites and Hivites, gathered together to prepare an attack on the Israelites. Joshua and the army marched north to attack the gathered armies and once again God gave them a decisive history. Now they were masters of the whole 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.”
We can natter on if we wish about the wickedness of the Gibeonite deceit and the wickedness of the people of God in falling for their treachery. But we won’t find anything in the Word of God to back us up.
It is true that God did instruct the people in Deuteronomy 20:17 : “But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.” Are we blaming God for not sticking to His word even when one group of those people willingly submitted to Him? God later told Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
The story of the Gibeonites is a vivid portrayal of the redemption that God offers to all mankind when we accept His judgement on our sins. It is a story of God’s providential care of His people in leading them to victory and of his mercy to the heathen in drawing them to find salvation with His people.
The Gibeonites did not become slaves to the Israelites. Read the story carefully, they became slaves of the Levites for the service of the tabernacle. There was mercy even in this. Their work was menial, but it was for the service of God and it protected them from oppression and mistreatment. It is likely that the Gibeonites are included among the people later called Nethinims.
There came a time when King Saul thought he would do 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. I don’t read this as revenge. This was the most effective means of getting the message out to all Israel that the slaying of the Gibeonites was entirely Saul’s idea and contrary to the will of God. Nowadays Twitter may be quicker, but often not much kinder.
Let’s not be like Saul and condemn the Gibeonites for their deception. The real story here is a group of Gentiles forsaking their gods to seek refuge with Israel and their God. Perhaps their methods were questionable, but the Bible account leads us to believe the sincerity of their desire to fully submit to the Almighty God.