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The Gibeonites Save Themselves by Trickery


Now when all the kings who were beyond the Jordan in the hill country and in the lowland all along the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon—the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites—heard of this, 2they gathered together with one accord to fight Joshua and Israel.

3 But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4they on their part acted with cunning: they went and prepared provisions, and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, 5with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes; and all their provisions were dry and moldy. 6They went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal, and said to him and to the Israelites, “We have come from a far country; so now make a treaty with us.” 7But the Israelites said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a treaty with you?” 8They said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you? And where do you come from?” 9They said to him, “Your servants have come from a very far country, because of the name of the L ord your God; for we have heard a report of him, of all that he did in Egypt, 10and of all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, King Sihon of Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan who lived in Ashtaroth. 11So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey; go to meet them, and say to them, “We are your servants; come now, make a treaty with us.” ’ 12Here is our bread; it was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey, on the day we set out to come to you, but now, see, it is dry and moldy; 13these wineskins were new when we filled them, and see, they are burst; and these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” 14So the leaders partook of their provisions, and did not ask direction from the L ord. 15And Joshua made peace with them, guaranteeing their lives by a treaty; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them.

16 But when three days had passed after they had made a treaty with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and were living among them. 17So the Israelites set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. 18But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the L ord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders. 19But all the leaders said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the L ord, the God of Israel, and now we must not touch them. 20This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that wrath may not come upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them.” 21The leaders said to them, “Let them live.” So they became hewers of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation, as the leaders had decided concerning them.

22 Joshua summoned them, and said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ while in fact you are living among us? 23Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall always be slaves, hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the L ord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land before you; so we were in great fear for our lives because of you, and did this thing. 25And now we are in your hand: do as it seems good and right in your sight to do to us.” 26This is what he did for them: he saved them from the Israelites; and they did not kill them. 27But on that day Joshua made them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the L ord, to continue to this day, in the place that he should choose.

1. And it came to pass when all the kings, etc. As the arrival of the people was well known to these kings from the very first, it is certain that their minds were intoxicated from above with security or lethargy, so that they did not forthwith league together to oppose them. It implied excessive stupor not to provide for themselves till they were violently roused to exertion by the overthrow of two cities. 8080     French, “Car c’estoit une stupidite par trop grande de ne se point tenir sur ses gardes, jusqu’a tant quils fussent resveillez comme par force de leur paresse oyans la ruine et le sac de deux villes;” “For it implied excessive stupidity not to stand upon their guard, until they were awakened, as if by force, from their indolence, on hearing of the run and sacking of two towns.” — Ed. For as the war was common, it was a kind of voluntary surrender to send no aid to their neighbors, nay, to have no army ready, which might make a powerful impression for their defense. But in this way God spared the weakness of his people, to whom the combined forces of so many nations would have caused no small fear.

It is certain, then, that by the sloth and torpor of their enemies, the Israelites were rendered more expeditious. For an interval was, in the meanwhile, given them to compose themselves, and thus those whom the mere name of enemies might have alarmed, prepare leisurely to encounter them. 8181     To encounter them.” Latin, “Ad eos excipiendos.” French, “To give them a good reception, and repulse them bravely.” — Ed. In the same way, although the reprobate are desirous, by every possible device, to destroy the Church, God, to take away their power of hurting her, scatters and confounds their counsels, nay, destroys their spirit. 8282     French, “Dissippe et renverse leur conseils, entreprises, et machinations: et mesme il leur oste le sens et l’entendement;” “Dissipates and overturns their counsels, enterprises, and machinations; and even deprives them of sense and understanding.” — Ed. On the other hand, these nations display their frantic audacity. Instead of being overcome by manifest miracle, they continue to rage like wild beasts against the unassailable power of God. A report of the taking of Jericho had reached them. Had it been overthrown by the counsel, or the acting, or the prowess, or the engines of men? Nay, the walls had fallen of their own accord. With what confidence then can they league to take up arms against heaven?

3. And when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard, etc. The inhabitants of Gibeon alone rejecting the proposal to make war have recourse to fraud, and endeavor to obtain peace by pretending to live at a great distance. To make such an attempt, was very odious to their neighbors, because it was, in a manner, to make a schism among them, to open a door to the Israelites, and weaken the strength of their allies. And though blame is justly due to the foolish credulity of Joshua and the rulers, who were under no obligation to bargain rashly in regard to a matter not properly investigated, yet the Lord, who is wont to bring light out of darkness, turned it to the advantage of his people; for it procured them an interval of relaxation, while they halted in a tranquil district.

The Gibeonites, indeed, judged rightly and prudently, when they resolved to bear anything sooner than provoke God more against them, by a vain resistance. But the employment of fraud and illicit arts, to circumvent those whose favor and protection they desired to enjoy, was no less absurd and ridiculous than at variance with reason and equity. For what could be the stability of a league which was founded in nothing but gross fraud? They pretend that they are foreigners who had come from a far distant country. Joshua, therefore, is bargaining with mere masks, and contracts no obligation except in accordance with their words. Hence the craft by which they insinuated themselves ought not to have availed them. Still, as a great degree of integrity yet existed among men, they deemed it enough to obtain an oath even extorted by fraud, feeling fully persuaded, that the people of Israel would not violate it.

The expression, that they too acted cunningly, is erroneously supposed by some to contain an allusion to the stratagem which Joshua had employed in deceiving the citizens of Ai no less inaccurately do others make it refer to the time of Jacob, whose sons, Simeon and Levi, 8383     French, “Duquel les trois enfans, assavoir, Ruben, Levi et Simeon;” “Whose three sons, Reuben, Levi, and Simeon.” — Ed. had treacherously destroyed the Sichemites. (Genesis 34) The antithesis is merely between the hostile preparations of the kings and the secret wiles with which the Gibeonites accosted Joshua. Accordingly, after it is stated, that some had leagued with the intention of trying the result of open war, the trick of the Gibeonites is subjoined, and hence the meaning is, that Joshua had to do not only with professed enemies, who had gathered themselves together to battle, but with the crafty dissimulation of one nation.

It is asked, however, why the Gibeonites labored so anxiously in a matter which was not at all necessary? For we shall see elsewhere that the Israelites were ordered to offer peace to all, that they might thereafter have a just and legitimate cause for declaring war. But as it was everywhere rumored, that they were seeking a permanent settlement in the land of Canaan, (which they could not obtain except by expelling the inhabitants,) the Gibeonites conclude that there is no means of binding them to mercy except by imposing upon them in some way or other; as they would never have spontaneously and knowingly allowed the land which they had invaded to be occupied by others. Nay, as it was known that they had been commanded to destroy all, they had no alternative left but to have recourse to fraud, as all hope of obtaining safety was otherwise taken away. And for this reason they shortly after ask pardon for a fraud wrung from them by necessity.

Here, however, a question arises; as the Israelites object that they are not at liberty to make any paction with the nations of Canaan, but are bound to exterminate them utterly. There is certainly a discrepancy between the two things — to exhort to submission, and at the same time refuse to admit suppliants and volunteers. But although God required that the laws of war should be observed according to use and wont, and that, therefore, peace should be offered on condition of submitting, he merely wished to try the minds of those nations, that they might bring destruction upon themselves by their own obstinacy. At the same time, it was intimated to the Israelitish people, that they must destroy them; and hence the conclusion necessarily followed, that those who dwelt in the land of Canaan could not be tolerated, and that it was unlawful to make a covenant with them.

We shall afterwards find both things distinctly expressed, viz., that all persisted in carrying on war, because it had been the divine intention that their hearts should be hardened, and that they should perish. It was, therefore, a legitimate inference that those who were doomed to death could not be preserved. If any one object that the Gibeonites, who voluntarily applied for peace, were therefore exceptions, I answer, that the Israelites were not at present considering that formal custom which produced no result, but are merely attending to the promise and the command of God. Hence it is, that they allow no hope to remain, because they had been simply and precisely commanded to purge the land by putting every individual to death, and to succeed to the place of those they had slain.

6. And they went to Joshua, etc. I have said that in strict law, a covenant of this description was null and void. For when they obtain their prayer, what is stipulated but just that they should be kept safe, provided they come from a distant and remote region of the globe? And the oftener they reiterate the same falsehood, the more do they annul a compact elicited by fraud, since its true meaning only amounts to this, that the Israelites will offer no molestation to a foreign people, living at a remote distance. This is shown to be more especially the meaning, from the fact, that the Israelites expressly exclude all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. They could not, therefore, gain anything by the fraud. Nor are they more assisted by making a fallacious pretext of the name of God, and thus throwing a kind of mist over the mind of Joshua. They pretend that they had come in the name of God; as if they were professing to give glory to God, even the God of Israel; inasmuch as there is a tacit rejection of the superstitions to which they had been accustomed. For if it is true, that they had come, moved by the faith of the miracles which had been performed in Egypt, they concede supreme power to the God of Israel, though to them a God unknown.

14. And the men took of their victuals, etc. Some commentators here have recourse to the insipid fictions that they ate the bread, to ascertain from the taste whether it were stale from age, or that they confirmed the covenant by a feast. The words rather, in my opinion, are an indirect censure of their excessive credulity in having, on slight grounds acquiesced in a fabulous narrative, and in having attended merely to the bread, without considering that the fiction was devoid of color. And, certainly, had not their senses been blunted, many things would have instantly occurred to refute the Gibeonites. 8484     Nothing could be more gross than the imposition thus practiced. The capital of the Gibeonites was not above fourteen miles west from Jericho, and scarcely half that distance south-west from Ai, where the Israelites had recently gained so signal a victory, and it is therefore not improbable that the Israelites, while pursuing the fugitives, had actually been within the territory which their leaders now ignorantly believe to be so very distant, as to be altogether beyond the limits of the promised land. The compliments paid to their prowess so flattered their pride, and the alliance of a powerful though distant nation held out the hope of so many advantages in the further prosecution of their conquests, that they fell at once into the snare, as if they had almost been willing to be deceived. — Ed. But as it sometimes happens, that the most piercing eyes are dazzled by an empty spectacle, they are more severely condemned for not having ascertained the pleasure of God. The remedy was at hand, had they attempted nothing without consulting the oracle. It was a matter deserving of careful inquiry, and it was therefore a sign of gross carelessness, when a priest was ready to seek an answer from God, by means of Urim and Thummim, to decide rashly in an obscure case, as if they had no means of obtaining advice. Their rashness was the less excusable, from being combined with such supine neglect of the grace of God.

16. And it came to pass, etc. The chastisement of their levity by the discovery of the fraud, three days after, must, by the swiftness of the punishment, have made them more sensible of the shame and disgrace. For it was thus known, that through sloth and lethargy, they had very stupidly fallen into error from not having taken the trouble to inquire into a matter almost placed before their eyes. Their marching quietly through that region, entering cities without trouble, and finding free means of sustenance, was owing to the paternal indulgence of God, who not only pardons their fault, but causes that which might justly have been injurious to turn out to their good. Here it is related that the children of Israel did not act in a hostile manner in that region, because the Gibeonites had received a promise of safety confirmed by an oath.

Now two questions arise — first, Whether the children of Israel, who had no intention whatever to pledge their faith to impostors, had contracted any obligation? and, secondly, Whether it was not in the option of the people to rescind a promise which their leaders had foolishly and erroneously made? In regard to the general position, the obligation of an oath ought to be held in the greatest sacredness, so that we may not, under the pretext of error, resile from pactions, even from those in which we have been deceived, since the sacred name of God is more precious than the wealth of a whole world. 8585     Calvin was well qualified, by his legal education, to discuss the important question here raised, and it is impossible to dispute the soundness of his general positions in regard to it, both here and in the previous section of the Commentary on this chapter. There is, however, an appearance of inconsistency in some of the statements. In the section beginning with the third verse, he says in Latin, “Cum larvis ergo paciscitur Josue, nec quidquam obligationis contrahit, nisi secundum eorum verba;” or as it is in French, “Josue donques traitte alliance avec des masques ou phantosmes et n’est nullement oblige, sinon suivant leurs paroles;” “Joshua, then, makes an alliance with masks or phantoms, and is in no way bound, except according to their words.” Again, in the section beginning with verse the sixth, he says, “Dixi summo jure evanidum et irritum fuisse ejusmodi foedus,” or as it is in French, “J’ay dit qu’a la rigueur de droit une telle alliance estoit nulle et cassee;” “I have said, that in strict law such an alliance was null and void.” And he gives the reason in the form of a question, when he asks, “What do they (the Gibeonites) gain when their request is granted, but just that they are to be kept safe, provided they have come from a distant country?” But if the Gibeonites did not gain, or, in other words, were not entitled to demand anything, it is perfectly obvious that the Israelites could not be bound to grant anything. They were the two parties to a mutual contract, in which the claims of the one party were exactly the counterpart or measure of the obligations of the other. It might have been expected, therefore, that after Calvin had decided that the Gibeonites had no claim, he would, of course, have decided that the Israelites had incurred no obligation. Here, however, when considering this latter point, he seems to change his ground, by distinctly asserting, that we may not resile even from pactions in which we have been deceived. The inconsistency, however, is only apparent. He does not say that we are bound by such pactions, as if they were valid in themselves, but he adverts to circumstances which may lay us under a formal obligation to act as if we were bound by them. In other words, he removes the case from a court of law into the court of conscience, and thus brings it under the class of cases to which St. Paul referred, when he drew a distinction between things lawful and things expedient. Joshua and the elders had sworn rashly, but having by so doing put the honor of the God of Israel, so to speak, in pledge, they were bound, at whatever cost, to redeem it. — Ed. Hence though a man may have sworn with little consideration, no loss or expense will free him from performance. I have no doubt, that in this sense David says, (Psalm 15:4,) that the true worshippers of God, if they have sworn to their hurt, change not, because they will bear loss sooner than expose the name of God to contempt, by retracting their promises.

I conclude, therefore, that if a private interest only is to be affected, everything which we may have promised by oath must be performed. And it is apparent from the words, that the Israelites were afraid lest they should expose the name of their God to disgrace among the nations of Canaan. For I think there is an emphasis in the expression — because they had sworn by the God of Israel. But a special reason left the Israelites at liberty to recede from the deceitful compact; for they had not only given up their own right, but improperly departed from the command of God, with which it was not lawful to interfere in the smallest iota. It was not in their power either to spare the vanquished or enact laws of surrender, whereas they now transact as if the business had been committed to them. We see, accordingly, that they twice profaned the name of God, while, under pretence of the oath, they persevered in defending what they had foolishly promised.

In the deference which the common people pay to their leaders, by abstaining from all violence to the Gibeonites, we behold the integrity of the age. Elsewhere it would have readily occurred to elude the promise by asserting that a whole people were not bound by the agreement of a few individuals, as the Romans did, in repudiating the Caudine peace, to which only the consuls, legates, and tribunes had sworn without the orders of the senate and people. The more praise, therefore, is due to that rude simplicity in which the religious obligation prevailed more than the too subtle arguments which the greater part of men in the present day approve and applaud. The people are indeed indignant that their leaders had taken more upon them than they were entitled to do, but their moderation does not allow them to proceed beyond murmur and noise. 8686     French, “Quand il ne passe point outre le murmure, et qu’il se contente de cela;” “When they do not proceed beyond murmuring, and rest contented with it.” — Ed.

20. This we will do to them, etc. Although, according to agreement, they give the Gibeonites their lives, they ratify the whole covenant only in part. For while the Gibeonites were entitled to be made perfectly secure, they are deprived of liberty, which is dearer than life. From this we infer that Joshua and the others had, as in a case of doubt and perplexity, devised a kind of middle course, so as not to make the oath altogether void. The principal object of this device was to appease the multitude: at the same time, while they were indignant at having been imposed upon by the Gibeonites, they punished the fraud, and did not allow impunity to increase their derision. It was a harsh condition, in this arrangement, that the Gibeonites were not only doomed to servile labors but withdrawn from their homes, to lead a vagrant and wandering life. The office of scullions imposed on them was no less mean than laborious, but the worst, of all was to hew wood and draw water, wherever God should be pleased to station the ark.

22. And Joshua called for them, etc. As he was to deliver a sad and severe sentence, he premises that the resolution involves no injustice, because nothing would be more unbecoming than to allow tricks and wiles to be profitable to those who employ them. He therefore first expostulates with them for having warded off danger by falsehood, and then immediately pronounces them cursed. By this I understand that he throws the blame of their servitude upon themselves, because they bear nothing worse than they have deserved by their guile or perfidy; as if he had said that the ground of the condemnation which he pronounces is in themselves. It is hard, indeed, that no end is assigned to the labors to which they are doomed, for this is implied in the words, Slaves shall never cease from among you: but he declares that no injustice is done them, as they were cursed of their own accord, or by their own fault. They, indeed, extenuate the offense, by alleging the necessity which compelled them, and yet they decline not the punishment, which they acknowledge to be justly inflicted. It may indeed be, that overcome with fear, they refused nothing, nay, calmly and flatteringly 8787     Latin, “Nec sine assentatione;” “Nor without flattery.” French, “et sans flatterie;” “And without flattery.” — Ed. acquiesced in the terms imposed on them. For what could they gain by disputing? I have no doubt, however, that as they were conscious of having done wrong, and had no means of completely exculpating themselves, they considered themselves very humanely dealt with, so long as their lives were saved, 8888     Among the many pernicious consequences resulting form this arrangement, was the formation of a degraded caste in the heart of the Israelitish commonwealth, and the consequent introduction of domestic slavery, in one of its worst forms. — Ed.

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