What’s up with that?
3But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, 4they on their part acted with cunning
The inhabitants of Gibeon did not want to end up as victims of a Hoy War, so they acted deceitfully, with cunning, fudging the facts. This narrative assumes that we remember the prohibition against making the kind of treaties the Gibeonites are looking for:’
Deut. 7:1 When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, … 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
We see that the Gibionites’ deception included the ruse that they were from afar, not near, because they are aware of the distinction Israel is to make in treatment of the peoples she encounters in the land detailed in Deut. 20:10-18. Near folks get annihilated, far folks may make a treaty to live as slaves.
So with these legal mandates in mind, we understand why it is in the Gibeonites interest to fudge the facts, and for Joshua to take the evidence of their long journey into consideration and then going ahead with a peace treaty with them.
It turns out of course that they lied, they are actually close neighbors, and now there is a covenant sworn in an oath to YHWH that keeps Joshua from killing them.
Then we get this cryptic note that God had not been consulted before the treaty was made:
14So the leaders… did not ask direction from the LORD.
Presumably, YHWH would have exposed the ruse and there would have been no treaty(?) but since they didn’t ask, and there is a treaty, now they are bound, since they swore to YWHW an oath of peace.
They do this more than once, as in the case of the spies who were hidden by Rahab, promising her and her family protection as a reward.
What is the theology behind this text? God is continually dealing with exceptions to his iron-clad rules. Life is a lot messier than the black and white of text on a page. Somehow, over and over, God accommodates himself to the foibles and unfaithfulness of his people. That’s step one.
Step two in my reaction to these Joshua stories is the fluidity of the boundary between the “in” people and the “out” people. It’s supposed to be a clear “us” and “them” with rules for how to act towards “each other” and “the others”. But that boundary has fuzzy edges. They came out of Egypt as a “mixed multitude” to begin with, and end up making deals with different peoples for reasons that make sense at the time. Plus, some of the ones who are securely “in” the people of Israel, like Achen, can be expelled from the people through his own unfaithfulness to YHWH (he took the treasure and hid it in his tent). Again the boundary of “insiders” and “outsiders” gets relativized.
All of this continues along a discernible trajectory in the Hebrew Bible. There are those who are “my people” who God says will be called “not my people” on the on hand (Hosea 1) and there are the nations who will eventually stream to Zion to learn Torah on the other hand. The boundary is fluid.
Jesus seems totally conversant with this fluidity when he tells the parable of the wheat and tares which must be left to grow up together – the sorting out of good and bad is simply beyond our capacity – leave it to God at the end of time (Matt 13).
The trajectory of openness to the other seems discernible to me: if there are sheep and goats, even goats fudging the facts to look like sheep, I’m not the one to do the sorting.