Sunday, May 04, 2008

Israel Blows their Chance to Exterminate Gibeon: Joshua 9

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Israel's vicious and sudden aggression has prompted other kings in the region to consider an alliance against them. One nation, Gibeon, decides to spurn this alliance, reasoning that the Israelites and their magic god are much too powerful to oppose even in unity. They decide upon an alternative strategy, diplomacy.

Of course, diplomacy is difficult when your enemy has decided it must massacre you down to the last child, so some deception is in order. The Gibeonites send an envoy to Joshua and somehow manage to fool him into thinking that their nation is far away and not part of the lands Israel claims as its inheritance. Joshua and his aides clearly goof here; they're repeatedly sending spies out but somehow they missed an entire country! At any rate, Joshua agreeably signs a peace treaty with the Gibeonites.

Joshua learns of the deception only a few days later and the army marches to challenge several nearby Gibeonite cities. The rank and file is ready to attack, but Joshua and the elders hold them back, noting that they cannot simply break their treaty oath. However, they find what must be seen as a dubious technicality: the treaty never said in what condition the Gibeonites must live, just that it is a peaceful one; therefore the Gibeonites are to be reduced into slavery forever as "woodcutters and water carriers." Basically, they turn Gibeon into Canada (the description of the Canadian resource economy as "hewers of wood and drawers of water" is now so old and well-established that my considerable skill with Google couldn't identify who first drew the link).

I heard a pastor speak on the subject of the Gibeonites a few years ago and he drew the fairly standard evangelical conclusion that the Gibeonites were wicked and deceitful, and made Israel wicked by duping them (because they were supposed to kill the Gibeonites, according to God's standing rules of war). Thus the Gibeonites are a human serpent, tempting the righteous into sin. Perhaps, my pastor speculated, the Gibeonites might have essentially "converted" to the law of Moses and lived as free aliens among the Israelites by doing so. Perhaps Joshua ought to have sought God's advice before making a foolish oath - a good idea in principle though it's difficult for me, if demonstrably not for the pastor in question, to feel any regret that Joshua has muffed his chance to commit mass murder.

Joshua himself is unhappy too, and falls prey to the same strange disinterest or blindness about other cultures' interpretations of the Israelites that too many are today. He summons the Gibeonite envoys to return and asks them, sounding wounded, why they would have deceived the Israelites. He proclaims a "curse" in response: the Gibeonites will become servants. He displays a truly stunning lack of empathy, or even of any intelligent perception at all, in his questioning.

The Gibeonites seem surprised to have to justify their actions too, but explain that the choice seemed obvious to them: they could fight the Israelites and be slaughtered, or they could negotiate and live. Since that choice still applies, they quickly accept their future as servants.

It would be nice to say that this was an unusual case of the Israelites showing some mercy to their enemies, or some such, and therefore use the Gibeonite story to distract from the general carnage and bloodbaths of Joshua. On the other hand, the implications are in many ways no less disturbing than they would have been had the Israelites simply killed the Gibeonites. First, the Gibeonites aren't being given any favours here. The Israelites do everything in their power to oppress and subjugate the Gibeonites without completely breaking their word and attacking them outright. Even if the choice between death by the sword and eternal slavery was a fair and just one, it was not a choice offered to the Gibeonites; it was one they had to steal by guile.

Second, the story of the Gibeonites could easily be used to argue against compromise or tolerance. Make no treaty with the infidel, the subtext practically screams. If you do, you won't be able to defeat them properly later! The Israelites clearly aren't holding back out of mercy or reluctance to kill, but merely because if they slaughtered the Gibeonites they'd be breaking a vow. That is the sin, not the killing; and vow-breaking is a sin against God, not a sin against man. Therefore just strike down your opponents outright; do not negotiate and do not compromise. Church denominations have been following these rules in dealing with each other for centuries.