One of the more neglected parts of military history is the aspect of diplomacy. Battles and wars are a lot sexier to study than the clauses of treaties, but diplomacy is an important aspect of warfare, in determining who one fights with and against. Savvy diplomats can win battles without bloodshed that are lasting. The Bible itself contains much intriguing information about how godly diplomacy is to be practiced, but few of it is as revealing as the results of one of Joshua’s more surprising stories.
The title of the Bible’s most successful diplomatic corps probably belongs to the people of the city of Gibeon. Here they were, a few days shy of being butchered in holy war by the Israelites  in the conquest of the Holy Land and they managed, through savvy diplomacy, to preserve their lives and, under false pretenses, secure one of the longest lasting attested treaty relationships I know of in history. Joshua 9 tells how, and it is to this section of scripture that I wish to examine. Let us uncover the biblical way of war with regards to treaty obligations.
A City-State In The Crosshairs
Let us begin our look at Joshua 9 by examining the geography of the situation. When Israel entered into Canaan and took the cities of Jericho and Ai (along with, presumably, Bethel) and then renewed the covenant at Shechem, the next city along their path south was Gibeon, a gateway city to Southern Canaan. No doubt hearing about the total destruction visited on Jericho and Ai, they wished to avoid such a fate themselves.
Joshua 9:1-15 tells just how the Gideonite diplomatic corps deceived the Israelites. It is worthwhile to examine just how this happened, lest we also be deceived: “And it came to pass that when all the kings who were on this side of the Jordan, in the hills and in the lowland and in all the coasts of the Great Sea toward Lebanon–the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite–heard about it, that they gathered together to fight with Joshua and Israel with one accord. But when the descendents of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they worked craftily and went and pretended to be ambassadors. And they took old sacks on their donkeys, old wineskins torn and mended, old and patched sandals on their feet, and old garments on themselves; and all of the bread of their provision was dry and moldy. And they went to Joshua, to the camp at Gilgal, and siad to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a far country; now therefore, make a covenant with us.” Then the men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you dwell among us; so how can we make a covenant with you?” But they said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you, and where do you come from?” So they said to him, “From a very far country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God; for we have heard of His fame, and all that He did in the land of Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan,–to Sihon king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who was at Ashtaroth. Therefore our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spoke to us, saying, “Take provisions with you for the journey, and go to the meet them, and say to them, “We are your servants; now therefore make a covenant with us.” ” This bread of ours we took hot for our provision from our houses on the day we departed to come to you. But now look, it is dry and moldy. And these wineskins which we filled were new, and see, they are torn; and these our garments and our sandals have become old because of the very long journey. Then the men of Israel took some of their provisions; but they did not ask counsel of the Lord. So Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to let them live; and the rulers of the congregation swore to them.”
This particular story raises some very fascinating issues when it comes to biblical diplomacy. Let us examine it at least briefly to see what happened here and why. For one, when the rest of the inhabitants of the land were seeking to make war with the Israelites, the city of Gibeon and its neighbors wished to make peace. They realized that they were under the death sentence and they believed that unless they became the servants of the Israelites they would be killed. We should note therefore that they understood the “warning message” about Israel’s purpose in the Promised Land and they believed that message and that their lives were at stake. Knowing that they could not make an open treaty, since they were under the herem, or ban, they sought to make a treaty by stealth. To do so, they fraudulently made it appear as if they had come a long way instead of from a short two or three day’s journey, by tampering with the evidence–their clothing, food, and sacks. The Israelites were suspicious about their intentions, but did not inquire of God, and in their own human attempts to “verify” the evidence were deceived by the preparations of the Gibeonites. Additionally, though being themselves afraid for their lives after what had happened to Jericho and Ai, they very intelligently only mentioned what had happened to the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan, something they could have heard about in the time it would take to make a “long journey” and did not reveal their fear of what had happened only a short time ago at Jericho and Ai. The Israelites were fooled by the faked evidence and not suspicious enough to ask God, and so they made a treaty with people who were under the death penalty.
This raises some very serious questions, in light of what happens afterward. For one, why did God let this happen? These people had no legal right to make treaties according to the law (Deuteronomy 20:16-18), but were seeking to be covered under the principles of perpetual servitude that were the first terms offered to any city or kingdom at war with Israel (Deuteronomy 20:10-15). Let us note that there are at least three reasons why the Gibeonites were able to do so. For one, they (like Rehab) were clever and somewhat deceptive in their means to ensure they would fall under the protection of Israel. Rehab protected the spies and demanded in exchange that her life be saved. She was herself brought into the line of David and eventually Jesus Christ for her faith (Matthew 1:5). The Gibeonites simply pulled the wool over the eyes of the credulous Israelites and, as we will shortly see, were dedicated to the tabernacle (and later the temple) service. The second reason for their deliverance was the lack of spiritual discernment of the Israelites. They trusted in their own sight and their own modest abilities to verify the evidence rather than trusting in God to discern the truth from the faked evidence deliberately intended to deceive them. It is a lesson we would all do well to learn so that we can avoid being deceived ourselves. The third reason, though, for their deliverance is perhaps the most profound–God wished to spare them. God allowed their deception to work because He wishes for all to be saved. He could have stopped the efforts of the Gibeonites by appearing in a pillar of cloud or fire, but he let the Gibeonites save their lives through deception. When the Bible says that God desires for all men to be saved and is not willing that any should perish (1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9), it included the Gibeonites under the death penalty who were to be the next city destroyed. Literally at the last minute God gave them mercy when they submitted to His rule through His servants of Israel and saved them from being destroyed.
The Results of the Deception
Let us look at Joshua 9:16-27 to see the results of the deception of Gibeon, which have some very profound consequences for our study of diplomacy according to the biblical standard of practice: “And it happened at the end of three days, after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors who dwelt near them. Then the children of Israel journeyed and came to their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath Jearim. But the children of Israel did not attack them, because the rulers of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord God of Israel. And all the congregation complained against the rulers. Then all the rulers said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord God of Israel; now therefore, we may not touch them. This we will do to them: We will let them live, lest wrath be upon us because of the oath which we swore to them.” And the rulers said to them, “Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for all the congregations, as the rulers had promised them.” Then Joshua called for them, and he spoke to them, saying, “Why have you deceived us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell near us? Now therefore, you are cursed, and none of you shall be freed from being slaves–woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God.” So they answered Joshua and said, “Because your servants were clearly told that the Lord your God commanded His servant Moses to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you; therefore we were very much afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing. And now, here we are, in your hands; do with us as it seems good and right to do to us.” So he did to them, and delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, so that they did not kill them. And that day Joshua made them woodcutters and water carriers for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, in the place which He would choose, even to this day.”
Let us briefly examine the results of the deception of the Gibeonites. For one, even though their treaty was obtained under false pretenses, it was to be honored. Israel would have been cursed had it broken the treaty. There was no way to un-swear what had been sworn, regardless of the circumstances in which the promise had been obtained. Like the promise of Isaac to Jacob of blessing, even though Jacob had obtained it by pretending to be someone else (Genesis 27:18-29), the treaty alliance between the Gibeonites and the Israelites was inviolate and could not be abrogated or rescinded. As a result, the Gibeonites could only be forced into perpetual slavery in the tabernacle system so they would serve God in menial labor, they and their descendants in perpetuity.
Let us note as an aside that this is the only case in which slavery across the generations in perpetuity was to be allowed–as an exchange for sparing the lives of those put under the ban of annihilation. To perpetually enslave any people not consigned to be obliterated from the face of the earth is itself a violation of the divine order of creation, whether that slavery was in the American south or in Mauritania. Slavery is a preferable state to death and destruction, but not to freedom, and all other slaves except for the Gibeonites were to be freed either within seven years (if they were Israelite indentured servants) or at the Jubilee year (if they were non-Israelites or those who had voluntarily chosen slavery; see Exodus 21:1-4, Deuteronomy 15:12-18, Leviticus 25:44-46).
A Perpetual Treaty
Let us also note that though the treaty had been gained fraudulently that once it was granted Israel was bound irrevocably by its terms. The Bible gives strong indication that this treaty was an “eternal” treaty which remained in effect many hundreds of years afterward and had both immediate and long-term consequences. Let us now briefly examine that biblical evidence.
First, the treaty obligated Israel to fight in defense of the Gibeonites against the other Canaanites kings. In Joshua 10:6 we see the appeal of Gibeon to Israel for aid given that their treaty of servitude to the Israelites seems to have canceled their previous relationship as the vassals of the city of Jerusalem. Joshua 10 as a whole tells the story of this battle, itself worthy of commentary on its own, a battle waged by Israel with the help of God on behalf of the Gibeonites against a coalition of city-states in Southern Canaan. Israel’s blessing by God in the battle would appear to indicate that acting on behalf of treaty obligations is an activity blessed by God.
Second, this treaty protected the lives of the Gibeonites in perpetuity. While some treaties are not worth the paper they are printed on, those treaties engaged in by a godly nation are inviolate and are not to be broken for any reason, lest God curse us as a result of our breach of faith. Just as God’s promises cannot be broken, so God expects our promises to be similarly solid and sure. When Saul himself killed some Gibeonites many years later (some 300 years or so after the treaty was made), the terms of the treaty still applied requiring the law of lex talionis to be enforced on Saul’s own descendants, a story detailed in 2 Samuel 21:1-9.
Third, there is some evidence that the Gibeonites remained in the service to the temple during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, meaning that their perpetual servitude to the service of God can be attested to in scripture almost 1000 years after the treaty was made. Ezra 2:43-54 lists the families of the Nethenim who had returned after the Babylonian captivity (coming from the Hebrew word “nathan,” meaning given, referring to those who were dedicated to the service of the temple, i.e. the Gibeonites). In short, nearly a millennium after the treaty of servitude was made, the Gibeonites were still aware of their perpetual obligations of service to God, evidence of the inviolate and eternal nature of treaties engaged in under the biblical standard.
Let us briefly, therefore, examine the implications of the Bible’s view on treaties. For one, treaties were not considered null and void if they had been engaged in under false pretenses. The making of a promise or oath is not continent on the circumstances in which that oath were made–there is no technicality to get out of it. This means that sometimes God’s will must be accomplished by stealth, and the Bible is full of admittedly deceptive means by which His will is accomplished. Nonetheless, once the vow or promise is made it cannot be taken back. A treaty, therefore, ought to be made carefully because once made it cannot be broken unless the party that breaks it accepts the curse that follows . One ought not to rashly enter treaty commitments because they are considered to last forever according to the biblical standard. They are not to be marriages of convenience but rather eternal covenants binding peoples together, and therefore they ought to be made to last and made between those of the same worldview who accept the same authority and are judged by the same biblical standard.
The everlasting nature of covenants in the eyes of God when made between men also has implications for God’s own covenants. Since the covenants of man are to last forever, and as we have seen have been seen as in effect for a thousand years within the pages of scripture itself with regards to the people of Gibeon, then God can surely be no less faithful to His covenants than He expects mankind to be. If mankind’s covenants are eternal so are the covenants that God has made with man. That which God, who cannot lie, has promised, that He will fulfill (Titus 1:2). That covenant can be physical in nature, concerning physical blessings to physical people, or spiritual, concerning eternal life to those who believe and are covered, but either way, God is faithful to His covenants and expects us to be. Therefore, if we wish to be pleasing to Him, we must be faithful to our covenants as well, and to take them as seriously as God does, lest we be accursed.
 This is of great personal interest to me. As the descendant of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, some of my ancestors had to flea the Trail of Tears, brought on by the violation of treaties between the United States and a peaceful, civilized tribe and the use of force to evict people from their homes, I consider those slaveowners who stole the land of my ancestors to be accursed by God for their treaty breaking. The United States as a whole, given its lengthy history of violating treaties made with the native peoples whose land was taken, is under judgment for violating this standard of biblical law.