The Old Testament lesson prescribed in the daily office lectionary for today is a passage from the Book of Joshua, Chapter 9:3-21. In this analysis I have expanded the text to include verses 1and 2 at the beginning and verses 22 thorough 27 at the end.
This passage describes the deceit practiced by the Gibeonites in obtaining a covenant of peace from Joshua which in effect guarantees that the army of Israel will not kill the Gibeonites. The deceit is accomplished through oral representations and what Melvin Belli,the famous trial lawyer, liked to call “demonstrative evidence”. The Gibeonites collected old clothes and stale crusty molded food and used it to support their assertion that they have traveled form a land far, far away and one being a country not in the immediate neighborhood. It seems the Israelites had received a divine mandate to eliminate all of the peoples other than themselves in the Promised Land and while some of the peoples contrived to resist through physical force the Gibeonites felt a more subtle approach night yield greater fruit. So they approach the Israelites and their leader Joshua with the argument that they are from another “country” so far away their clothes have become old and worn and their food crusty and moldy on the long trip to see the people of Israel. The Israelites are skeptical, at first, verse 7 “perhaps you live among us” but after viewing the demonstrative evidence they are convinced that these folk are actually from another country far away and not covered by the Deuteronomic command. It is worthy to note that the text states the men of Israel “partook of their provisions” and “did not ask direction from the Lord”. In other words they viewed the evidence, sampled the food and believed making a decision based upon their own senses without requesting spiritual guidance from God.
So Joshua makes peace with them and enters into a covenant. But as with all lies the truth comes to the fore in three days’ time when word reaches Israel that the Gibeonites were indeed “living among them” Incensed the army of Israel sets out to set things right and marches on the Gibeonite cities. But “the people of Israel did not kill them, because the leaders of the congregation had “sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel” This illustrates the difference between a covenant before God and a contract of men. In the case of a contract the misrepresentation or fraud of one of the parties can render the contract void, or voidable, whereas a covenant involves someone in addition to the two parties making the deal. It involves the Lord God. One does not simply disregard his oath before God and undo a covenant. He does not do so because of the fear of the wrath of God and second because God is part of the deal. He signs off on the deal because he wants it that way and once he decides he wants it that way you don’t just back out because the other side has been a bit cavalier with the truth. And, of course, God would have known all along that the other party was lying. And, therefore he has tacitly approved the deal warts and all.
What happens next in my mind affirms the divine intent. The people of Israel “murmur” against the Gibeonites”. Now murmuring is defined by Webster as “a half suppressed or muttered complaint”. And here is another thought: the people of Israel were upset with the Gibeonites because they thought they had violated God’s will by working around the Deuteronomic command. But wait, we just talked about the covenant and how God is a party and if he allows the subterfuge to work perhaps that is his will? Perhaps God became a little tired of all the slaughter in the holy land and realized that his previous command was a trite harsh. A lesson is in here for those of us who presume to want to avenge transgressions against our Lord as if commissioned to do so. Truth is he is very capable of taking care of himself and he may have something else in mind so careful with the murmuring.
The leaders reminded the people about the oath before God and point out the potential for “wrath” should they lay hands upon these sinners. And not to stop with theological arguments they added a “sweetener” by suggesting that the people let them live and they can become your laborers: hewers of wood, and drawers of water for all the congregation.
The people mollified Joshua summons the Gibeonites leaders and asks them to explain themselves. The Gibeonites confess their sin but explain their fear of being slaughtered as their reasoning for the deceit. They go on to submit themselves to: “do as it seems good and right in your sight.” Joshua accepts the confession but issues a conditional absolution: “Now, therefore you are cursed” he says as he delivers them out of the hands of the people of Israel and then he makes “them hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and the altar.” And here again we see daylight. Joshua is in effect “forgiving” these people their sin in deceiving and absolving them through a penance of service. Is he altering the Law of Moses by not carrying out its death sentence or simply expanding it to show a compassion coming not from the people of Israel but rather from the living God who is privileged to change his mind and his law as he pleases?
This is reminiscent of someone who comes along much later who as the new Moses restates the Law of Moses in much more expansive terms. We know him as Jesus.