The Israelites, under the leadership of Joshua, were on a path of conquest after entering Canaan. Soon after Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, he conquered Jericho and Ai. His notoriety as an irresistible conqueror on a war path spread far and wide. When Gibeonites heard of Joshua’s conquests aided by Yahweh, they decided to negotiate a truce with Joshua to save themselves (Joshua 9, 10). Who were the Gibeonites? They were a subset of a larger ethnic Hivites—one of the seven nations that populated the Promised Land. God’s instruction to Joshua and the Israelites was explicit: they were to “utterly destroy” the people of these seven nations (Deut. 7:1–3).
Under the Deuteronomic mandate, Joshua would have had to eliminate the Gibeonites. So, motivated by the instinct of self-preservation, the Gibeonites pretended to be people from a faraway country outside the boundaries of the Promised Land. They appealed to Joshua to make a covenant with them and spare their lives. They showed him their dry and crumbly bread, worn-out garments and sandals, and burst wineskins to make Joshua believe they were from a distant land. Joshua fell for their ruse and entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites. Later, when Joshua and the Israelites learned that they got suckered by the Gibeonites, Joshua was upset and called them cursed and said, “Some of you shall never be anything but servants.” Joshua spared their lives because of the covenant he made with them.
As I meditated on this story, I wondered why the Holy Spirit put this story in the larger context of Israel’s struggles, battles, and conquests in the Promised Land. The motivational thrust of this story brought to my attention two irrefutable truths concerning how God directs our lives. First, God leads us by His counsel. The narrator of this story was quick to point out that the leadership of the Israelites “did not ask the counsel from the Lord.” Interesting! Joshua knew the Lord was with him (Joshua 1:2–6) and what God had commanded him to do with these people that populated the land of Canaan. Yet, it never occurred to him to ask the counsel of God before making a covenant with the Gibeonites.
It remains a matter of pure speculation what Joshua might have done if he had sought the counsel of God and the Lord had revealed the deception of the Gibeonites. It is reasonable, however, to assume that Joshua might have enforced the Deuteronomic mandate. Regardless, Joshua had a duty to seek the will of God, which he failed to do. God has promised to guide us by His counsel (Ps. 32:8 Isa. 9:6; John 16:13). Ironically, Joshua, who prefigured Jesus Christ by his name and warrior leadership, missed the mark in seeking the counsel of God. In contrast, Jesus, the Joshua of the new covenant, always sought the counsel of His Father in heaven and did what pleased Him (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38). This story, for sure, reminds us of the necessity of seeking the counsel of God in all that we do. As new covenant believers, our primary source of discerning the will of God by way of broad principles is the Word of God (Bible) and godly counselors (Prov. 11:14).
Second, we learn from this story that God leads us by His providence. In most English translations of the Bible, the word “providence” does not occur. So what is providence? John Piper calls providence God’s purposeful sovereignty—“the act of purposefully providing, sustaining and governing the world.” He must know what he is talking about, for he has written a 750-page tome titled “Providence.” I would argue that an aspect of God’s governing involves His control of humanity’s affairs through history, events, people, circumstances, and calamities, to name a few, to accomplish His purposes.
Though Joshua unadvisedly entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites, God used it to spare their lives based on their acknowledgment of the God of Israel and consigned them to serving as “cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord” (Josh. 9:27). Cutting wood and drawing water for the altar must have been hard but necessary work. Still, it must have also been a source of blessing since they worked with the altar of Yahweh. Additionally, God made Gibeon an object of attack by five kings of the Amorites and used Joshua to save Gibeon and display the power of Yahweh as the warrior God of Israel.
I believe there is a deeper redemptive meaning to this enigmatic story, which is encouraging and instructive. Joshua’s covenant with the Gibeonites and his saving of their lives prefigured the power of the gospel to save both Jew and Gentile through Jesus Christ, the Joshua of the new covenant. Similarly, the victory of Joshua over the five kings in one battle foreshadowed the eschatological triumph of Jesus over the nations of the world (Eph. 1:22; Rev. 1:15). The redemptive movement of the story ends on a note of hope. Unlike the Gibeonites who sought Joshua’s mercy by a ploy, we can come to Jesus Christ just as we are to obtain His mercy. Jesus invites us, saying, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37). Jesus is calling you. Come!