Was Joshua Acting Morally When He Enslaved the Gibeonites?
Joshua’s behavior toward the Gibeonites in Joshua 9 is another chapter that is difficult to understand unless it is read in a rational manner. The chapter relates that the inhabitants of Gibeon, a collection of cities situated about six miles northeast of Jerusalem, heard of Joshua’s victory in his battle with Jericho and decided to trick the invading Israelites into forming a peace pact with them. The Bible does not state why the Gibeonites felt that they had to trick the Israelites and not simply petition for peace. Did the Israelites feel that they were forbidden to make peace with any nearby Canaanite nation? It would seem so.
The Gibeonites sent emissaries to Joshua and the Israelite forces. They disguised their ambassadors to look like they had traveled a long distance. They came with dust on their faces, wore worn-out clothes, and carried near-moldy food. They told the Israelites, “We came from a far country, now make a covenant with us.”
The Israelite leaders were suspicious and, despite the Gibeonite claim, asked if they dwelt nearby. Again, the wording of the text seems to imply that the Israelites were not allowed to make peace with any Canaanite nation that lived near their settlements, even if the nation agreed to peace.
The emissaries ignored the Israelite elders, turned and spoke directly to Joshua, “We are your servants.” But Joshua repeated the elders’ question, “Who are you and where do you come from?” The ambassadors replied, “From a very far country.” The ambassadors explained that they had heard what “the Lord your God” did for the Israelites, and said that their countrymen told them to take provisions, go to the Israelites, and make a covenant. They showed Joshua their dry and moldy bread, near-shredded wineskins, and soiled cloths, and declared they were “worn out from the very long journey.”
Fooled by the deception, “Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to allow them to live; and the leaders of the people swore to them [that they would not harm them].”
Three days later, the Israelites discovered that the emissaries were from a neighboring, not a distant, nation. They marched against the Gibeonites but did not kill them because of their oath. The Gibeonites asked for mercy and justified their deception by telling Joshua that they had heard that “the Lord your God commanded His servant Moses to give you all the land [of Canaan] and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you. So we were very frightened for our lives because of you, and therefore we did this thing.” Joshua compromised. He did not kill the Gibeonites, but made them “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord.”
1. Were the Israelites allowed to make a covenant of peace with their nearby Canaanite neighbors?
2. Since the Gibeonites had a good excuse for their actions and spoke ambiguously but did not lie, and since they were seeking peace, why were they so severely punished?
3. Since the oath that the Israelite elders swore was prompted by a trick, why didn’t they simply nullify it? Under the Common Law of England and America, for example, a contract made because of a deception is voidable; couldn’t the same rationale apply to Joshua and the Israelites? Didn’t the rabbis teach that an oath could be nullified under certain conditions?
There are many different interpretations of this intriguing Gibeonite saga. The Talmud, Rashi, Tosaphot, Nachmanides, Rabad, and others discuss the episode. Maimonides addresses it in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malakhim, chapters 5 and 6.
Maimonides states that the Israelites were not only allowed to make peace with the Canaanites, they were obligated to do so if at all reasonable.
He reminds his readers of Deuteronomy 20:10, which states: “when you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement.” If they agree to peace, are willing to be subjects of the Israelites, and obey the basic laws of civilization called the Seven Noahide Laws, the Israelites must accept them peaceably.
Although the text of Joshua does not state it, Maimonides explains that when Joshua began the conquest of Canaan, he sent three letters to the Canaanites. The first told the Canaanites: whoever wants to flee, we will allow them to flee. The second said: whoever wants to make peace should do so. The third stated: whoever wants war should prepare for battle.
Maimonides asks our question. Why then did the Gibeonites need a ruse? He replies that the Gibeonites rejected the first two letters. Then, after calmer thought, they reconsidered and wanted peace, but imagined that the Israelites would not give them a second chance for peace. They were wrong, but their error explains their behavior.
Why, asks Maimonides, were the elders angry when they realized that they had been tricked? He answers that the Israelites felt that they had been misled to violate a biblical commandment. The Bible states in Deuteronomy 7:2, “do not make a covenant with them [the Canaanites].” The only way that they could make peace was if the Canaanites agreed to the above-mentioned conditions, which did not happen in this case. This is why they punished the Gibeonites for their deception.
Finally, Maimonides asks why the Israelites didn’t simply nullify their oath since it was made as a result of a trick. He replies that had they done so and had people heard that they did not keep their oath, it would have resulted in the profanation of God’s name.
Maimonides’ interpretation of the Gibeonite event is given in his Mishneh Torah, his non-philosophical code of Jewish laws. It is possible that if he had addressed the story in his philosophical Guide of the Perplexed, which was composed for people who thought rationally, he might have given it a different twist.
Although the Bible says nothing about the three letters that Maimonides mentions in his Mishneh Torah and it is possible that letters were never sent, it is reasonable to assume that the Israelites would have made peace with the Canaanites if it were possible. We can also reasonably assume that the Gibeonites resorted to their trick because they thought the Israelites would kill them as other conquering nations did at that time. It is also likely that the Israelites would have wanted the Canaanites to be subject to them and to pay them tribute, since this was the practice of the time, and we see that the Israelites required subjugation when they were able to do so.
However, it is unlikely that the Israelites insisted that conquered nations observe the Noahide Laws because these laws probably did not exist during the days of Joshua and there is nothing mentioned about this requirement in the Bible. Noahide laws are, in fact, not mentioned in Jewish literature until the third century C.E. In any event, it is not necessary to accept this idea to explain the story: the Israelites would have made peace with the Gibeonites if they requested peace, but the Gibeonites did not know this and resorted to their ruse. The Gibeonite deception angered the Israelites, and while the Israelites kept their oath and did not kill the Gibeonites, they did force the Gibeonites to perform certain labors.
But we are left with one question: why didn’t the Israelites simply nullify their trick-induced vow? Maimonides’ solution that it might lead to a profanation of God’s name is possible but unlikely; people who heard about the disavowal of the oath probably would have also heard that it was the result of a trick and God’s name would not have been profaned.
Maimonides’ explanation is based on the presumption that a system existed during the biblical period to annul vows, but this is in all probability untrue. The rabbis developed a system for nullifying vows, but this system was post-biblical. There is nothing in the Bible that allows the nullification of an oath. People considered a vow sacred and were convinced that when they uttered a vow it had to be kept under all circumstances.
Jephthah made a vow in Judges 11, for example, to sacrifice the first thing that came out to meet him when he returned from war. He clearly expected that the first thing that he would see was one of his animals that grazed in the field surrounding his home. When his daughter greeted him, he had to carry out his vow. Anglo-Saxon law allows the nullification of vows based on a mistake, so too does rabbinical law; but this ability to nullify an oath did not exist in the biblical period. The only near-nullification process that is mentioned in the Bible is that a father or husband can nullify a daughter or wife’s vow, but this, regrettably, may have been allowed because the young girl was considered somewhat like the property of the father and husband without rights of her own. I will discuss this in greater detail in part 2.
This ancient Jewish view of the non-nullification of vows was in all likelihood the view of all, or at least most, ancients. Thomas Hobbes discusses the rationale of the practice.
Oaths and Contracts: The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) achieved international fame for his 1651 classic The Leviathan. Hobbes postulated that people joined together to form societies because of self-defense and enlightened self-interest. The natural condition of people, according to Hobbes, was an isolated wild existence, unrestrained selfish uncivilized competition where each person took care of his or her own needs.
In this “state of nature,” each person had a “natural right” to everything they could acquire, including the right to defend themselves and their acquisitions in any way they chose. There was “war of all against all.” Life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
People soon realized that there were others who were smarter and stronger than they were, and they feared a brutish death. The more intelligent among them persuaded the people that their own self-interest was better protected by joining together, having their behavior controlled by mutual agreement, a contract. Law, according to Hobbes, is the enforcement of contracts.
Apropos our subject, Hobbes pointed out that at least in early societies, the most important law, the basis of civilization, was that “covenants must be honored.” The social contract that formed the societies stood or fell by the validity of this rule. He gave the example of a man who promised a robber, who was threatening his life, that he would give him a thousand pieces of gold the next day and that he would not tell the police about him. Would this man be bound by this oath? Hobbes says “yes.” If he did not keep his promise, this robber and all others would not trust people in these situations, and the chance of saving one’s life in the future would be lessened by this breach of his oath.
The period of Joshua as well as the subsequent time of the Judges, all the way to the time of King Saul and probably later, was a time in which the Bible testifies “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Thus, this was a period when self-interest and the cohesion of society made it vital that every person kept his oath. It was only later, when society was more firmly grounded, that the rabbis devised ways in which, under certain controlled circumstances, oaths could be annulled.
The story of Joshua’s encounter with the Gibeonites raises many questions: Did the conquering Israelites, entering Canaan, feel that they had to kill all of the land’s inhabitants? Did the Bible require the murder? Why did the Gibeonites feel that they had to use a trick to induce the Israelites to grant them peace? Why did the Israelites consider themselves bound to keep the oath that they made with the Gibeonites even though the oath was induced by a trick and the rabbis allow nullification of oaths under these circumstances?
A reasonable explanation of the story is, as Maimonides explains, that the Israelites were not required to kill the Canaanite inhabitants and were encouraged to make peace with them. However, for whatever reason, the Gibeonites did not know this and resorted to a trick, saying in essence that they were not Canaanites, and, therefore, were eligible for peace. The Israelites were taken in by the deception and gave an oath not to kill them. When they discovered the deception they felt bound to keep their vow. Why?
Here we departed from Maimonides. In his Mishneh Torah, he accepted the notion that the rabbinical vow nullification process existed in biblical days. We pointed out that it is more reasonable to assume that this process did not exist in biblical times. The ancients were convinced that they could not break sacred vows. This view is supported by the story of Jephthah and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Once again, an approach that puts the story into historical perspective helps the reader to understand the text in the most logical manner.
 This chapter is from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.