February 11, 2008

Joshua 9-11: If you can't beat 'em...

Today's reading is Joshua 9-11 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the Gibeonites' deception of Joshua and the Israelites; and the Israelites' conquest of five Amorite kings, the southern cities, and the northern kings of Canaan.

In today's readings, the Israelites really start to ramp up the war effort. In fact, by the end of Josh. 11, they've conquered all of Canaan, and the rest of the book of Joshua (13 more chapters) is essentially concerned with how the lands are going to be parcelled out among the various tribes. It takes a "very long time" to conquer the lands (Josh. 11:18), but in the end, they complete the task, killing all men, women, and children who previously lived in Canaan... except the Hivites who lived at Gibeon.

It is reasonable to ask at this juncture, "what was so special about the Gibeonites?" The answer to that question is, "they were sneaky."

Gibeon was a near neighbour of Jericho and Ai, which fell to the Israelites in Josh. 5-8 (see my last essay for more on that). Knowing which way the wind was blowing, Gibeon decided to trick the Israelites into signing a peace treaty.

The Gibeonites fitted out a delegation of ambassadors with stale bread, cracked wineskins, and worn-out clothing. Even though Gibeon was only three days' ride away from Gilgal, where the Israelites were camped, the ambassadors seemed like they had travelled on a long journey. (Josh. 9:3-6) They reached the camp, went up to Joshua, and asked for an alliance.

To give them credit, the Israelites don't initially fall for this ploy. "Perhaps you live near us," they say. (Josh. 9:7, NIV) The ambassadors proceed to bring out the cracked wineskins, stale bread, etc. as proof of their long travels. No doubt it was a compelling tale, because the Israelite princes fall for it and -- without asking God -- decide to sign the treaty. (Josh. 9:9-15)

Of course, the Gibeonites were bound to slip up sooner or later. In fact, the deception is revealed in merely three days. (Josh. 9:16) The Israelites march out to the Gibeonites' cities to confront them, but the pact they made ("by the LORD God of Israel" Josh. 9:19) was binding and the Israelites were not allowed to kill their new allies. No matter how much the common grunts grumbled against the princes who had actually signed the treaty, they needed to leave the Gibeonites alive.

However, no good treaty is without a wide range of interpretations. Instead of death, Joshua informs the Gibeonites that they will be wood-cutters and water-carriers for the Israelites, forever. The Gibeonites agree, and are servants of the Israelites "even unto this day." (Josh. 9:27, KJV)

Perhaps the most interesting dialogue occurs in Josh. 9:22-25. Joshua asks the Gibeonites, point blank, "why did you do it?" The answer, it seems, should be obvious: the Gibeonites knew the Israelites were on a war path, intent on killing everyone in Canaan. They knew that in the normal course of events, the Israelites would kill them in short order. Even life as perpetual bondsmen would be better than a quick death, they reasoned. The Gibeonites' answer is not surprising. What is surprising is that Joshua needed to ask the question in the first place, given that the answer should have been obvious.

Two other snippets of this story also deserve mention:

First, in Josh. 9:14-15, the princes of the Israelites sign the peace treaty without consulting God. This is highly unusual behaviour for them. Normally, any major decision involved asking God whether the choice was good or not. Here, the Israelite princes decided to trust their better judgement and failed spectacularly. Even more interestingly, God does not punish the Israelites for their lack of forethought. Usually, if the Israelites failed to consult God on a major issue, he would send some sort of destruction to remind them of their place. Here, the only consequence is the unintended treaty.

The other thing that bears mentioning is dissension within the Israelite ranks. When the army arrives at Gibeon, "all the congregation murmured against the princes" who signed the treaty. (Josh. 9:18, KJV) It seems that the decision to ally with the supposedly-far-off ambassadors was not universally approved. Or, perhaps like modern politics, the masses were fickle, agreeing to the treaty when it seemed in their best interests, and then, when the Gibeonites revealed themselves, claiming to have been against it all along.

We know that Moses had to constantly put up with the Israelites' grumblings throughout the time they were in the desert. The commoners seemed to be simply continuing the trend here, complaining to Joshua, the princes, and anyone who would listen when things didn't go their way. In fact, this is a trend that will continue for at least the next several decades, if not centuries.

Though the treaty with the Gibeonites might initially seem to be a blow to the Israelites' "destroy everything" war strategy, there was an up-side. Just after the treaty was signed, five Amorite kings from the surrounding region decided to punish Gibeon for their betrayal. Together, they besieged the city. The Gibeonites called to Joshua to honour their alliance, so Joshua took his army on a nocturnal stealth attack against the five kings, killed their armies, and promptly destroyed all their cities. (Josh. 10:1-27) In the end, perhaps it saved Joshua a bit of effort by bringing the armies to him, instead of needing to assault each of the Amorite cities at full strength.

At the end of the day, the important thing is that all of Canaan was destroyed except those sneaky Gibeonites. As the saying goes, "it's better to be a live mouse than a dead lion."

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