However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the Israelites, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.” The Israelites said to the Hivites, “But perhaps you live near us, so how can we make a treaty with you?” “We are your servants,” they said to Joshua. But Joshua asked, “Who are you and where do you come from?” They answered: “Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the LORD your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan—Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, ‘Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, “We are your servants; make a treaty with us.”’ This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey.” – Joshua 9:3-13
There is a strange mixture of deceit and faith on the part of the Gibeonites – or perhaps, on second thought, it isn’t really all that strange of a mixture at all. On the one hand, we are told that they deceive the Israelites. That is clearly not a good thing. On the other hand, they have come to believe that the LORD is the true God and they act on their faith. While it is tempting to see comparisons between the Gibeonites and Rahab, it is worth noting that Rahab showed faithfulness rather than deceit to the people of God and, unlike the Gibeonites, Rahab is commended for her faith in the New Testament. So, while Rahab gets fully grafted into Israel and even into the line of the Messiah, the Gibeonites are reduced to a type of servitude.
Adolf Harstad comments:
The Gibeonites express a remarkable confession of faith. Their decision not to fight or flee but to seek a covenant of peace with Israel is not based on the relative size of their armies or the advantages or disadvantages of their position or defenses. Instead, they undertake their course of action based on their knowledge of and belief in who Israel’s LORD is and His prior acts of judgment and salvation:
They said to him: “From a land very far away your servants have come to the name of the LORD your God. For we heard of Him and all that He did in Egypt and all that He did to the two kings of the Amorites who were in the area beyond the Jordan – to Sihon, king of Heshbon, and to Og, king of Bashan, who was in Ashtaroth.
There confession of faith is very similar to that of Rahab in 2:9-11. We may compare the Gibeonites to the Queen of Sheba, who came to Solomon because she heard about his administration under the LORD. We might even compare them to the Greeks who sought to see Jesus (John 12:20-21).
It is true that the Gibeonites “on their part acted with craftiness” (Josh 9:4). Their ruse involves deception. Their actions are stained with sin, just as those of Rahab the prostitute were (Joshua 2). Indeed, the good works of every justified believer are tainted by sin. Nevertheless, it is by grace alone and through faith alone – that sinners are saved. The Giveonites threw themselves at the mercy of Israel and Israel’s God. They did not claim to deserve inclusion in a covenant of peace, nor did they pretend they could offer Israel (and Israel’s God) any benefit in return for the covenant. They did not bargain. They only begged. As Luther wrote just before his death: “We are beggars. That is true.”
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 48
Q. 48. What are we specially taught by these words before me in the first commandment?
A. These words before me in the first commandment teach us that God, who seeth all things, taketh notice of, and is much displeased with, the sin of having any other god.