Joshua 9:15: Was the Covenant with the Gibeonites Lawful?

Verse 15:[1] And Joshua (Josh. 11:19; 2 Sam. 21:2) made peace with them, and made a league with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them.

[And he made peace with them (thus Montanus, Jonathan, Syriac, Junius and Tremellius)] He furnished security for them (Arabic). To make peace pertains to the laying aside of an hostile will and resentment; but to strike a covenant has regard to the very agreements, laws, and conditions of peace, as was written by Nahmanides (Masius).

[That they would not be killed (thus Vatablus), לְחַיּוֹתָם[2]] To make them live (Montanus, Jonathan); concerning preserving them in life (Junius and Tremellius). The active signification is often to be understood of permission or concession only (Glassius’ “Grammar” 322). Question: Whether this covenant was able to entered into rightly? Response 1: Some deny (Calvin and Tostatus in Serarius): Whose reasons follow. 1. God prohibited to the Hebrews a covenant with the Canaanites, and He commanded that they all be killed, Exodus 23:32; 34:15; Deuteronomy 7:2 (certain interpreters in Masius). Others, nevertheless, think otherwise. 1. I know that it was said that there was to be no sparing of any of them; but this was done because there were going to be exceedingly few that would repent of their sins (Masius on verses 18 and 27). 2. At the same time, this law, as happens in the case of almost all laws, is to be interpreted with a certain equity, so that it might be consistent with the eternal mercy of God (Masius on verse 18). 3. This covenant was lawful, but with conditions different than with those of another country (Bonfrerius, Lapide, Masius). These were two: 1. if they would concede their lands to the Israelites, for they were given to them by God (Lapide, Bonfrerius); 2. if they would become proselytes (Lapide, Bonfrerius, Masius, Serarius). Now, the reason of the law is the spirit of the law. But the intention of God in that bloody law was to prevent them from drawing the Hebrews unto their idols and sins, if they should dwell together. For God gives this reason, Exodus 23:32; Deuteronomy 7:4. But, with this danger of contagion ceasing, there was no place for that sanction (Masius on verse 27, Lapide, Bonfrerius). Moreover, the Gibeonites either now embraced the true religion, as Lyra, the English, Calvin, and Nahmanides maintain, because they say that they have come in the name of the Lord, verse 9, which was addressed previously; or were prepared to undertake it (Serarius, Bonfrerius). Indeed, there is no clear mention of their religion in the words of Scripture, because they had already embraced it, as some maintain; according as he appears to be sufficiently settled concerning religion, when he names the house of God in which they would serve perpetually, and so they ought to have been complete strangers to the worship of demons (Masius on verse 23). 2. On behalf of the negative position it is able to be urged that all the people murmured against the Princes on account of this oath, verse 18. Responses: 1. The multitude is always presumptuous, and judges rashly, and is all too ready to disparage Magistracy (Masius on verse 19). 2. Perhaps the covenant was made with them, either with their ancestral religion preserved, or as with tribute-bearing allies; neither of which was permitted to them (Masius on verse 15). 3. Those, as ignorant men, did not know a more just interpretation of that harsh law (Masius on verse 18). 3. Why were they feigning themselves to be foreigners, if it was lawful for them as natives to be kept safe? Response: It is not strange that with respect to the Gibeonites, barbarous men, that more just interpretation of the law did not come into mind (Masius on verse 27). [In the end, concerning this opinion Masius thus pronounces that by a great many it is not so much defended as held (Masius on verse 27).] Response 2: To others this covenant appears lawful (thus Masius, Serarius, Lapide, Bonfrerius, Grotius, Junius, Lyra). Thus all the Rabbis and Augustine (Serarius). Their reasons follow. 1. They urge Deuteronomy 20:10, in which they are commanded before the siege of a city to offer peace to their enemies, and, if they accept it, to enter into covenant with them. Which law all the Hebrews think to pertain to the Canaanites equally with foreigners (Masius on verses 15 and 27). But the distinction, which is stated in what follows, between the natives and foreigners they only understand of those that refuse the offered peace: Namely, that among the Canaanites all, among foreigners the males alone, were to be killed (Masius on verse 15). Indeed, equity itself dictates this for all nations, that no war was just apart from due warning. And the Jews relate that Joshua by public letters, as soon as he had reached Canaan, advised all cities everywhere to surrender. They think that thereafter no nation, besides the Moabites and the Ammonites (concerning whom singular commands are on record[3]), is to be invited to peace (Masius on verse 27). It was commanded, Deuteronomy 20:10 and following, that, after they approached to conquer places intended for them by God, they not allow any to live: But these asked for life before they approached them (Junius, similarly Malvenda). 2. They urge Joshua 11:19, in which they are said to have been destroyed, because no others besides the Gibeonites made peace with the Israelites (Masius on verse 27, Lapide, Bonfrerius). 3. That this covenant was approved by God the example of Saul shows, in whom He avenged with severity the violation of this covenant, 2 Samuel 21:1 (Masius on verse 18, Lapide, Bonfrerius), where the reason for the punishment is related, (not that God had afterwards approved, but) that the Israelites had sworn to them (Bonfrerius). 4. Who would believe that King Solomon, so flourishing in piety, power, and resources, was unwilling to kill the remaining Canaanites (whom he reduced to servitude), if he had not understood that God commanded this (Masius)? 5. Joshua refrained from them after he knew them to be Canaanites, which he would not have done if his promise had been contrary to the law of God (Lapide). For Sacred Scripture bears witness that Joshua failed in nothing of all that Moses had commanded[4] (certain interpreters). 6. The Canaanites, according to the prophesy of Noah, Genesis 9:25, were going to serve the posterity of Noah: therefore, it was not agreeable that all should be cut off (Masius on verse 27).

[They swore] That is, that they were going to keep the covenant entered into with them (Vatablus).

To let them live, that is, that they would not destroy them. Some question whether this league was lawful and obliging, because it is contrary to a positive and precedent law of God, by which they were enjoined to make no peace with them, but utterly to destroy them, Exodus 23:32; 34:12; etc. But this law seems to admit of some exception and favourable interpretation, and that taken from the reason and soul of that law; which was this, that the Israelites might not be tainted with their idolatry and other abominations by cohabitation with them; and therefore when that reason ceased, that is, if they were willing to relinquish their possessions and idolatry, and other wickedness, and to embrace the true religion, they might be spared. And though this law was delivered in general terms, because God foresaw that the Israelites would be most prone to err on that hand, by sparing those whom they should destroy; yet that it was to be understood with an exception of penitents and true converts might easily be gathered, both from the example of Rahab, and from the tenor of Divine threatenings, which, though absolutely delivered, allow of this exception; as appears from Jeremiah 18:7, 8; Jonah 3; 4, and from the great kindness and favour which God hath manifested unto all true penitents, in delivering them from evils threatened to them, and inflicted upon others; which kindness of God we also are obliged to imitate by virtue of that natural and moral law of God implanted in us, and revealed to us, to which such positive commands as this of killing the Canaanites must give place. And that this league was lawful and obliging, may seem probable, 1. Because Joshua and all the princes upon the review concluded it so to be, and spared them accordingly, Joshua 9:19, 20, 22, 23. 2. Because God punished the violation of it long after, 2 Samuel 21:1. 3. Because God is said to have hardened the hearts of all other cities not to seek peace with Israel, that so he might utterly destroy them, Joshua 11:19, 20, which seems to imply that their utter destruction did not necessarily come upon them by virtue of any absolute and peremptory command of God to destroy them, but by their own obstinate hardness, whereby they neglected and refused to make peace with the Israelites. Objection. This league was grounded upon a deceit and error of the persons, which also they had entered a caution against, Joshua 9:7. Answer. Their supposition that they were Canaanites was indeed a part of the foregoing discourse, verse 7, and the Israelites rested satisfied with their answer, and believed they were not, and so entered into the league; but that league was absolute, not suspended upon that or any other condition; and the error was not about the persons, but about the country and people to which they belonged, which was not material to this contract, no more than it is to a contract of marriage, that the one person believed the other to be of another country or family than indeed they were.

[1] Hebrew: וַיַּ֙עַשׂ לָהֶ֤ם יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ שָׁל֔וֹם וַיִּכְרֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם בְּרִ֖ית לְחַיּוֹתָ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבְע֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם נְשִׂיאֵ֖י הָעֵדָֽה׃

[2] חָיָה, to live, is in the Piel conjugation, which sometimes conveys a causative sense.

[3] See Deuteronomy 2:9, 19.

[4] See Joshua 11:15.

2 thoughts on “Joshua 9:15: Was the Covenant with the Gibeonites Lawful?

  1. Matthew Henry: “Here is…[t]he treaty soon concluded with the Gibeonites, Joshua 9:15. The thing was not done with much formality, but in short, 1. They agreed to let them live, and more the Gibeonites did not ask. In a common war this would have been but a small matter to be granted; but in the wars of Canaan, which were to make a general destruction, it was a great favour to a Canaanite to have his life given him for a prey, Jeremiah 45:5. 2. This agreement was made not by Joshua only, but by the princes of the congregation in conjunction with him. Though Joshua had an extraordinary call to the government, and extraordinary qualifications for it, yet he would not act in an affair of this nature without the counsel and concurrence of the princes, who were neither kept in the dark nor kept under foot, but were treated by him as sharers in the government. 3. It was ratified by an oath; they swore unto them, not by any of the gods of Canaan, but by the God of Israel only, Joshua 9:19. Those that mean honestly do not startle at assurances, but satisfy those with whom they treat, and glorify God by calling him to witness to the sincerity of their intentions. 4. Nothing appears to have been culpable in all this but that it was done rashly; they took of their victuals, by which they satisfied themselves that it was indeed old and dry, but did not consider that his was no proof of their bringing it fresh from home; so that, making use of their senses only, but not their reason, they received the men (as the margin reads it) because of their victuals, perceiving perhaps, upon the view and taste of their bread, not only that now it was old, but that it had been fine and very good at first, whence they inferred that they were persons of some quality, and therefore the friendship of their country was not to be despised. But they asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord. They had the Urim and Thummim with them, which they might have advised with in this difficult case, and which would have told them no lie, would have led them into no error; but they relied so much on their own politics that they thought it needless to bring the matter to the oracle. Joshua himself was not altogether without blame herein. Note, We make more haste than good speed in any business when we stay not to take God along with us, and by the word and prayer to consult him. Many a time we see cause to reflect upon it with regret that such and such an affair miscarried, because we asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord; would we acknowledge him in all our ways, we should find them more safe, easy, and successful.”

  2. Ursinus, “Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism”: “Oaths which have been properly made concerning things lawful, true, certain, weighty and possible, should necessarily be kept…. Objection: The oath of peace which was made with the Gibeonites was contrary to the command of God (Joshua 9:15). Therefore it is lawful to keep oaths which have been taken in reference to things which are unlawful. Answer. 1. We deny that the oath which the princes of the children of Israel made, was unlawful; for they were not forbidden to make peace with any of the nations which God had commanded to be destroyed, if it was desired by any of these nations and they were willing to embrace the Jewish religion, which was the case as it respects the Gibeonites. 2. The objection also contains the fallacy of making that a cause which is none. The Israelites kept this oath, not because they felt themselves bound to do so, having been deceived when they made it, supposing that the Gibeonites had come from a far country; but, 1. That they might avoid offence, so that the name of God might not be reproached or evil spoken of among heathen nations, which might have been the case had they not kept the oath which they had made. 2. Because it was lawful and proper to save those that sought peace, and embraced the Jewish religion, even though there had been no oath taken in the case.”

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