There’s a certain way I’ve always heard the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites taught: The Gibeonites tricked Israel into making a covenant with them even though Gibeon lay within Israel’s land because Israel didn’t ask God what to do first. If Israel had prayed before acting, God would have told them the Gibeonites were lying and they wouldn’t have made peace with people who were supposed to be their enemies.
I’m rethinking that narrative.
Yes, Israel should have consulted with God before making peace with an unknown group of people. But we assume that God would have revealed Gibeon’s lie and told Israel to destroy the Gibeonites along with the other Canaanite tribes.
What if he didn’t?
What if instead God’s answer would have been something like this: “Hey, these folks are lying to you. But make peace with them anyway”?
Why do I think that’s possible? After all, God had told Israel to drive out all the peoples of the land. That should have applied to Gibeon. Yet if Israel had sinned in making covenant with Gibeon, we might expect the next chapter to be another episode of defeat and repentance. That’s what happened with Achan’s sin. One man’s sin kept the entire nation from victory, and God refused to let Israel go forward until the sin had been dealt with. Yet the next chapter of Joshua describes one of Israel’s most important victories–a victory achieved by God himself fighting for his people. And this battle was prompted by Gibeon’s cry for help after Gibeon was attacked by her neighbors for making peace with Israel. God himself helped Israel keep her covenant with Gibeon and expected Israel to continue to uphold her covenant generations later.
On the face of it, making peace with Gibeon should have been a mistake–a direct violation of God’s command to Israel. But God doesn’t respond to Israel as if they had erred. Why?
Here’s my theory: Gibeon’s deception was actually a stumbling first step of faith.
- Gibeon chose to make peace with Israel when all the people around her were choosing to make war. When the other peoples of Canaan saw Israel’s victories at Jericho and Ai, they joined forces to fight against Israel. Gibeon alone chose to make peace.
- The Gibeonites base their actions on what they had heard about the Lord (Joshua 9:9, 24). They had heard how God had brought Israel out of Egypt and protected them in the wilderness. They had seen Israel defeat Jericho and Ai. They had been told that God had promised their land to his people and they believed God would do it.
What the Gibeonites knew about God told them they were better off joining his people than fighting against them. It’s not a complete declaration of faith. It’s not the rousing speech Rahab gave the spies. But at a time the Gibeonites could have run away from God, they chose to take a step toward him. It was a clumsy step: the Gibeonites deliberately lied. But it was still a step, and God honored it.
You see, God doesn’t turn away those who seek him. And first steps are never graceful. We don’t know all there is to know about God when we take that first step toward him. We don’t fully understand the depths of our own sin. We may not have learned all the rules of the church culture or what “good people” are supposed to do. But in that moment we decide we are better off with God than fighting against him, we take our first stumbling step of faith.
And God honors it.
In his commentary on Joshua Robert L Hubbard suggests that both the stories of Rahab and Gibeon show that God’s mercy and compassion extend to non-Israelites who seek him. Inclusion among God’s people is ultimately defined not by birth but by allegiance to the Lord. Though Gibeon didn’t fully understand God and his ways, their actions put them in a position where they could come to know God better. Because of Gibeon’s deception, Joshua ordered them to serve as “water carriers and woodcutters for the house of my God” (Joshua 9:22-23). What better place to learn about the Lord than serving in his sanctuary? In fact, Gibeon eventually became a center for Israelite worship (1 Kings 3:4, 1 Chronicles 21:29, 2 Chronicles 1:5).
What does all this mean for us? For us who are God’s people, one lesson is to make room for those who are making their first stumbling steps of faith. Faith is a process, and it is not for us to put additional burdens on those who are seeking the Lord. Sometimes we need to give space for the Spirit to work out the details. There should be a place in our community of faith for those who are seeking Him–even when that process is messy.
But maybe you feel more like one of the Gibeonites. Not sure what this whole faith thing is about, finding yourself with more questions than answers. But what you’ve heard about God tugs at you, and you’ve got this gut feeling you’re better off with him than without him. There’s room for you at the table. Press in. Keep seeking. Take that first hesitant, halting step of faith.
He won’t turn you away.