Joshua 9:1-27

But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” [1]

14 So the men took some of their provisions but did not ask counsel from the Lord. 15 And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them. 16 At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them.[2]

Has there ever been a generation that has not known conflict as a given of everyday life? Certainly, no Christian can expect to be immune from the conflict “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” all of which are “the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11, 12). That is why the Prince of Peace told his disciples, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). There is no comfortable ride for the people of God in this fallen world, for the world lies in the powerful grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Realism recognizes that conflict is endemic to human life and unavoidable for a Christian disciple.[3]

A useful way to read the Old Testament is to trace Satan’s constant resistance to the purposes of God. He does everything possible to prevent the coming of the Seed of the Woman who will crush his head (Genesis 3:15). Here in the book of Joshua as the promise of the land begins to be realized, it is not surprising that the opposition increases in size and intensity as we read in 9:1,2.

From a purely human level it could be argued that the Canaanite kings mentioned in verses 1 and 2 are human leaders trying to preserve their inheritance against invaders. But the perspective of the book of Joshua, reflecting the doctrine of the whole Bible, teaches us to see these events as part of a cosmic spiritual conflict of which Joshua’s conquest is an earthly outworking. This part of the world had long been under the devil’s control, and over centuries the sins of the Amorites had multiplied, so that the land overflowed with wickedness. This was an assault upon the righteous character of their Creator, making the conquest a divine initiative to cleanse the land of its iniquity. Naturally, this will not happen without demonic resistance, which means conflict.

For Israel, that meant at this stage of their campaign they had to focus on one supremely important task, obedience to everything God commanded them to do. He is giving them the land, but it’s not completely handed to them on a platter. There is a principle at work here that we find throughout scripture, there are no spiritual advances, personally or corporately, without challenge and conflict. But the outcome never hangs in the balance.

We see that in the opening chapters of the book of Job. The devil is real and completely opposed to God and his people. But as a creature, even he is subservient to God’s will, under God’s judgment, and facing God’s eternal condemnation. Whatever rope the devil may be allowed is only given so that God’s greater purposes will be fulfilled to the praise of the glory of God’s grace.

So, here in 9:1,2, we hear about a potential alliance between the kings of all the city states before whom the devil would love Israel to tremble and break down in fear. But we need to read all that is happening here in light of 11:20: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.

God receives great glory when evil’s arrogance is temporarily allowed to show itself in what turns out to be its own destruction. Satan worked to harden the hearts of all the Canaanite leaders and to unite them as one against the Israelites. Even the devil’s work is part of God’s great plan. That is what divine sovereignty is all about.

Since Chapter 9 begins a new section, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the structure of the book as a whole and to understand where we are in the story. If we compare 5:1 with 9:1, We will see the same formula. The verses serve to introduce the second main section of the book, which runs to the end of chapter 8. In broad terms the first four chapters detailed the preparation for the conquest that culminates in the miraculous crossing of the Jordan. Chapters 5 through 8 record the initial victories, starting with the consecration of the nation, the miraculous fall of Jericho, the victory at Ai, and the covenant renewal at Mounts Ebal and Gerizim.

Now we launch into the third section, chapters 9-12. This section takes us further into the conquest and culminates in a list of defeated kings in chapter 12. The unit gives us details of the Gibeonite deception, Israel’s victory in the battle at Gibeon, and the later victory at the waters of Merom, with references to cities and kings that fell before the Israelites.

Joshua 9:1-2 and 12:7-24 are the book ends of the unit, detailing first the kings who set themselves to oppose Israel and then, at the end, what became of those city states. This section is the major part of the conquest story, and there are many spiritual lessons we can learn from it.


Even though the wording of 9:1 and 5:1 is nearly the same, the outcome is quite different. In chapter 5, the kings’ “hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.” But now, “they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel” (9:2). The enemies’ change in attitude comes after the blunders at Ai.

The leaders of Canaan were terrified by the crossing of the Jordan. It seemed the Israelites and their God really were invincible. But the defeat at Ai put a new heart into the leaders. They would need the greatest strength they could muster. We see this new coalition in verse 1. Now they are confident enough to take the fight to the Israelites. Reversals and defeat always empower the enemy, which is why we can never become lax about our total dependence upon God.

Throughout this section there will be more coalitions of opposition. Joshua 10:3 draws our attention to the southern coalition of five kings under Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem. In 11:1-2, we find details of the northern coalition under Jabin, king of Hazor. The opposition is increasingly determined and organized. And it is widespread, from the hill country through the western foothills to the coastal plain as far north as Lebanon gives us a grasp of how widespread and potentially devastating this opposition now is.

But military battles are not the only way to oppose God’s purposes. We might expect the rest of this chapter to detail a great battle between the alliance and the Israelites. But no such battle is recorded. We hear no more of the Canaanite kings until chapter 10, when the alignment is different than the one proposed here in 9:1-2. The intended threat of these unified city states is daunting, but it does not materialize. Instead our attention is turned to a totally different but no less determined attempt to oppose and subvert God’s purposes.

The rest of Chapter 9 is the narrative of the Gibeonite deception. Joshua 9:24 gives us the key when the Gibeonites admit lying to Joshua and the leaders of Israel: “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.

Rather than take up arms against Israel, although “Gibeon was a great city… and all its men were warriors” (10:2), They decided to risk a more subtle, manipulative, and deceptive approach to save themselves and avert the conquest of their city. “They on their part acted with cunning” (9:4a).


This is a surprising and completely unexpected tactic. Verses 3-15 tell us the story very effectively, at times humorously, as we watch the Israelites swallow the Gibeonite bait. The Gibeonites react to exactly the same news about Jericho and Ai that all the other city states had heard. But their response is ingenious. Gibeon was an important city with a number of other small dependent towns clustered around it. It could have defended itself as well as any other city, but instead, they chose to think outside the box.

What if they could bind Israel to a covenant assuring peace without capitulation? It would be worth a try, but there had to be a carefully prepared deception if they were to have any chance of survival. The book of Joshua often reminds us that a primary means of advance in the conquest is the word of truth about Israel’s God and what he has done for them. The Gibeonites know that the fall of Jericho and Ai are merely stage one in the process by which God will give the entire land to the Israelites and destroy its inhabitants (9:24). In contrast to the rest of the kings of Canaan, they alone are certain they face God’s judgment.

They even knew of the details God had commanded in Deuteronomy 20:10-18. In that passage, there is a divine provision for the Israelites to offer terms of peace to a city before attacking it. However it must be a city “very far from you” and not a city “of the nations here” (Deuteronomy 20:15). Those close or to be destroyed. For more distant cities, a peaceful surrender leading to servitude is an option. This explains why the Gibeonites claim, “We have come from a distant country” (Joshua 9:6) and then muster their evidence to prove it.

Their fake story is well prepared and confidently executed. Worn-out sacks, burst wine skins, tattered clothing, and blown out sandals along with dry and crumbly provisions (9:5) all added weight to their story. They arrive at Gilgal, still the headquarters of operations for Joshua (9:6) and make their request for a covenant directly to him. Here the author inserts a warning note by identifying them as “Hivites” for our benefit as readers (9:7). They are clearly one of the tribes listed for destruction. And they clearly believe destruction is coming.

There is irony in the objection of the men of Israel that perhaps these people live nearby. In fact, Gibeon is less than 20 miles away and should certainly be devoted to destruction. But they follow up their disguise with flattery. Twice they tell Joshua they are his “servants” (9: 8, 9). Further there is the deceptive flattery that they have come such a long way to make an alliance (9: 9, 10). The reports of what God has done to his enemies brings them to sue for peace. On a strictly observational level, it is all quite convincing.

They say nothing about the recent victories of Israel over Jericho or Ai because they were supposed to have been traveling from afar distance and would not have heard that news. Everything they said fit their story, and the dry, crumbly food appears to be undeniable corroboration. Joshua and his leaders’ powers of observation wins out over God’s revelation.

What will Joshua and Israel decide? That is the issue glaring at us from the end of verse 13. Will they decide based on the evidence of what they see and what they hear, what their senses and logical deduction seemed to tell them? Or will they follow what the law given to Moses prescribed? Numbers 27:21 is noticeably clear in the instructions given directly to Joshua about what he is to do when the book of the law does not cover the details of a particular circumstance. “He [Joshua] shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord.” In other words, Joshua had a choice between relying on God’s clear revelation as opposed to Joshua’s human observation. But 9:14 is the sad reality and the turning point of the story. “14 So the men took some of their provisions but did not ask counsel from the Lord.

Nobody asked God what they should do, that is the great tragedy of this story. If Satan cannot batter down the front door, he will slip in by a side entrance to compromise God’s people in their fulfillment of God’s will. Notice that it is not simply Joshua, but all the leaders of Israel are implicated in this. Joshua is the one who draws up the binding agreement “to let them live” (9:15). Israel moved forward entirely depending on their own senses and logic, their own wisdom, but they failed to follow the Lord’s Word and seek the Lord’s counsel.

Instead, they entered into a covenant sealed with a solemn oath, the most serious commitment it was possible to make. “15 And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.” The implications for us are obvious. James writes in James 4:17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” He writes that in the context of our false sense of self-confidence about our future rather than a daily submission of every part of our lives to the will of God.

We really can’t blame Joshua for doing what we do every day. Every morning we boot up as orphans living on the mean streets of the world and trying our absolute best to author our own stories the way we want them to turn out. Every day we live by our own observation, sampling the crummy moldy bread and we act foolishly because we have been deceived by what we see and what people say, by flattery and pride.

Disguise and flattery are still prize weapons in the enemy’s arsenal to make us compromise on God’s revealed will and required standards as his redeemed people. We are constantly under pressure not to follow God’s Word in complete dependence and obedience, but to make alliances with people that will lead us further and further away from God’s Word. We are not to be ignorant of the devil’s devices. Appearances can be deceptive, and they very often are. The only sure path to truth is God’s revelation, not our observation.


When we stay in orphan mode, making our decisions on the basis of crumbly bread, rather than inquiring of the Lord, we are bound to face a rude awakening. We see that in verse 16. Israel slams into the wall of reality. The Gibeonites are in fact their neighbors, living among them. Verse 17 indicates there was an even larger federation of villages and towns, of which Gibeon was the chief. The Israelites visited to find out the truth but they did not attack.

There seems to have been some motivation among the people to attack, because they strongly complain against the compromise into which Joshua and the leaders have led them (9:18). But they are prohibited because of the oath which their leaders had made “by the Lord, the God of Israel.” This is the first display of biblical wisdom in this story. As noted in verse 20, if they were to break the terms of their promise, they would themselves become liable to God’s wrath since his name has been invoked in the process.

The honor of YHWH is at stake. His very name (the covenant-making God) implies that he is the God who fully keeps every one of his promises. To turn upon the Gibeonites would be the same as proclaiming that God’s Word is unreliable, that his character is changeable, and his actions unpredictable. His name, not the foolish mistakes of his people, is the most important thing. However remorseful they may feel and however inconvenient it may prove to be, Israel has no alternative.

The Gibeonites’ lives were spared, but their future was one of servitude (9:21). In accordance with the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 20:10, 11), they became “cutters of wood and drawers of water,” a practice applied to other aliens within the community of Israel (Deuteronomy 9:11). Unlike Rahab, who dealt honestly with Israel and entered into full citizenship in the community, the Gibeonites were punished for their deception. But their “punishment” was God’s plan all along.

The primary need for wood and water was for the ministry of the Tabernacle, keeping the Gibeonites close to the presence of the Lord. They became directly involved in serving the Lord and furthering his worship him among the people of God. Regardless of their deception, they had come to recognize their subservient position to Israel and her God and been drawn close to him by serving him.

Even their deception arose out of a healthy fear of Israel’s God. Look at verses 22-25:

22 Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? 23 Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24 They answered Joshua, “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. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.”

The Gibeonites were motivated by two fears. First was the common human fear for one’s life in the face of a powerful enemy. But the second was the fear of Israel’s God, seen in the phrase “for a certainty(9:24). At that point, their knowledge of God was minimal at best. But their knowledge of what God had already accomplished led them to sue for terms of peace. And they became content to put themselves and their future into God’s hands by submitting to God’s people (v.25b). Fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).

The author of the book notes at the end of this story that the Gibeonites became and remained “cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day.” That is significant to the people of God throughout all ages. Promises made in the name of YHWH are never to be broken. Israel’s first king, Saul, was a demonstration of that fact. In 2nd Samuel 21:1-2, We read that under king David’s later rain, the land suffered three years of drought due to the “bloodguilt on Saul and his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (1b).

In his zeal for his country and his lust for his own glory, Saul attempted to remove them and to break the oath sworn by Joshua. But an oath sworn in the name of the one and only covenant God can never be broken, not even by an anointed king. The Gibeonites fought in David’s army. They continued to serve in both the Tabernacle and the temple. The Gibeonites continued in Israel through the generations, even beyond the Babylonian exile. Centuries later, when the walls of Jerusalem were being rebuilt under Nehemiah, we find a listing of the Gibeonites as part of that endeavor (Nehemiah 3:7).

We can make several observations reflecting on this story. One unwise decision and commitment had continuing repercussions for both peoples down the centuries. As believers, we should be cautious about trusting our own observational judgment, since appearances can be deceiving and our own perspectives are partial, limited, and always self-interested. That is why scripture instructs us not to judge people by what we see. Only the Lord can know the heart.

This narrative becomes in part a negative example by which we can understand and reinforce the positives of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” That is a valid and useful observation, but the danger is we forget that God is always the hero of every Old Testament narrative. Forgetting God’s sovereignty leaves us confined to the human sphere, ending up with a few pieces of good advice from a nice little morality play.

Our main observation always ought to be what God is teaching us about himself in an Old Testament story. We are meant to see his overruling, sovereign hand in everything that happened and through all, his total rule, and brilliant redirections, both of the devil’s attacks and of his peoples’ weakness and frailty. This story shows a different sort of satanic attack on God and his purposes, more cunning and subtle than outright hostile aggression, but nonetheless real.

The Gibeonites deception has all the marks of the devil’s lies. That makes it an attempt to destroy Israel from within, bringing Canaanite idolatry and immorality into the very heart of the nation, and threatening the worship of the living God and the fulfillment of his stated purposes. But God uses human agents to keep the altar fires in the temple burning and to keep the water of cleansing rituals well supplied, so as to continue, increase, and extend Israel’s worship of their living God in a demonic land.

The very thing the enemy planned to destroy is preserved and enhanced by God’s overruling Providence. This is not an excuse for our sinful self-confidence, but it ought to give wonderful hope to those of us who are only too conscious of our past sin and weaknesses. In the immeasurable wisdom that belongs to God alone, he even causes the Gibeonites, the agents of deception, to be rescued and brought in among his people. To their temporal blessing their lives were spared, but their eternal blessing is that they were made members of the community of God and his people.

Purely by his promiscuous grace, God chose to save this undeserving tribe of Canaanites and turn the devil’s scheme against him. That is part of God’s glory. He cannot be outmaneuvered by human cunning or hindered by human fallibility. His purposes cannot be thwarted by the devil. His grace turns curses into blessings. He uses our mistakes and foolishness to bind us more closely than ever to him by revealing where we went wrong and to use it as the means by which we begin to go right again.

Think of those pagan Gibeonites marked for utter destruction. They came in the deception of the evil one, doing his bidding and executing his plan. But God, being rich in mercy, wrapped them in his cloak of inheritance. He gave them a place among his people and granted them the unique honor of serving in his Tabernacle. What privileges came their way because their lives were refocused on the Tabernacle, the place of sacrifice and communion with God, the manifestation of his living presence among his people.

They became as fully assimilated into Israel has Rahab and the other foreigners who came into Israel seeking the salvation of God. Neither the Gibeonites nor the Israelites exit the story untainted, but the super-abounding grace of God over all human sin and failure won the day. God is always the hero of the story. His grace displayed in this story Functions as a pointer to the cross of Christ, where we see in the clearest conceivable way that:

…the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many… so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 5:15, 21).



[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 9:3–6.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 9:14–16.

[3] Jackman, 138.