Good News in the Gibeonite Deception

When Israel was fulfilling the Lord's command to take possession of the Promised Land and drive out its inhabitants, the Gibeonites, who were among them, recognized what was happening and concocted a plan.

They disguised themselves as worn out, weary travelers and approached Joshua, telling him they were from a far away land. They "acted with cunning" (Joshua 9:4) to escape being destroyed along with the other Canaanite nations.

They knew they couldn't ask Israel to just leave them alone. They had to secure some kind of positive, ongoing relationship. So, using their disguise, the Gibeonites urged Joshua to become allies. "Make a covenant with us," they pleaded (9:11).

Their cunning worked. "Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live." But note: the Bible makes it clear that the Gibeonites' deftness wasn't the main reason Israel got fooled. Joshua 9:15 clues us in on why Joshua and the other leaders fell for the Gibeonites' trick: they "did not ask counsel from the Lord."

Yikes. That was a big slip. Joshua and the people of Israel were on track to drive out all the Canaanites, just as the Lord had commanded them (Numbers 33:51-52). But then they unwittingly enter into covenant with a whole nation of them.

It was an epic failure. Joshua and the leaders of Israel presumed to be wise enough to handle the situation on their own, and they ended up compromising on what the Lord had commanded them.

There's a lesson in that for us: do not go about life trusting in your own strength. But there's something else I want to point out in this passage. There's more to this story than just a warning about not submitting your plans to the Lord.

Three days after they make the covenant, the Israelites learn that they've been had and that the Gibeonites are actually Canaanite neighbors. The news is obviously regretful. The people of Israel murmur against their leaders about it, but they all agree that they can't go back on what they've promised—the covenant has to stand.

Still, Joshua summons the Gibeonites to learn why they sought to deceive them. The Gibeonites reply,

Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing.

Do you hear faith in the Gibeonites' response? "It was told to your servants for a certainty . . . so we feared greatly."

I suppose you could argue that this is nothing different than the "faith" of demons that James talks about ("Even the demons believe—and shudder!"). But is that the kind of belief going on with the Gibeonites here? I don't think so.

Notice all the parallels between the Gibeonites and Rahab, the hero of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11:31.

  • Like the Gibeonites, Rahab was a native of Canaan (Joshua 2:1).
  • Like the Gibeonites, she had confidence God was giving the land to Israel (2:9).
  • Like the Gibeonites, she responded with fear before God's people, Israel (2:9-11).
  • Like the Gibeonites, Rahab acted with cunning in order that she and her family might find refuge among the people of Israel (2:12-13).

The parallels between the story of Rahab and the story of the Gibeonites seem more than just coincidental. The author of Joshua appears to be demonstrating on more than one occasion—and thereby reaffirming—that God indeed intends to bless all the families of the earth through Israel, as unwitting as Israel may be, according to his promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3).

That is glorious. Even in the Old Testament, God had a heart for and was saving Gentiles, even if, in the mystery of his providence, it was through the disobedience and failures of his people Israel (cf. Romans 11:30-32).

Tyler Kenney (@tylerkenney) is a former content strategist at Desiring God. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the Twin Cities.