In part 1 of this chapter I mentioned briefly that Maimonides felt that God wanted the Israelites to offer the Canaanites peace before attacking them. This may not be true. I also mentioned briefly that the ancients, including Jews, felt that they are unable to quash vows. I will give more information about it here. We will see that Judges 9 is based on the ancient view concerning encounters with Canaanites that forbid making peace and the ancient view prohibiting cancelling of vows.
Offering peace to the Canaanites
Every biblical source prior to Deuteronomy states that all the Canaanites must be killed; there is no indication that the Israelites should try to first sue for peace. Exodus 23:32 states this clearly: “You may make no covenant with them (the Canaanites).” Exodus 34:12 explains why the Israelites should make no covenant with the Canaanites – for they will lead the Israelites to worship idols: “Take heed to thyself lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest they be a snare in your midst.” This command is repeated in Deuteronomy 7:2, “You must smite them; you must utterly destroy them, you may make no covenant with them, nor show them mercy.
However in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, Moses tells his people that when they draw near a Canaanite town to fight against it, they must first “proclaim peace unto it.” If peace terms are accepted, the Canaanites in the town can “become tributary to you,” meaning that the Israelites may tax them, just as other nations have done to conquered people.
How should we understand this change?
Many traditionalist who refuse to see a development in biblical law state that the pre-Deuteronomy 20 verses must be understood as addressing situations where the Canaanite inhabitants refuse to accept peace terms. In that case, the strong-willed inhabitants should be killed lest they lead the Israelites astray. However, as indicated in Deuteronomy 20, each town should be given a chance to survive.
Others say that Deuteronomy 20 should be seen as a later development, a realization that killing all the Canaanite inhabitants without seeking peace is immoral.
If it was a later development, when was it developed?
Some say that Moses changed many laws just prior to the entry of the Israelites into Canaan when Moses realized that his people needed laws fitting to an urban non-nomadic society, a society where commerce would exist with a wide circle of people. However, others say that Deuteronomy 20 was composed much later, perhaps even during the days of King Josiah when the Bible states that the Judean king’s men discovered a book of the Torah, which some scholars say was Deuteronomy, and he instituted a religious revival based on the book.
If we accept the final ideas regarding offering peace, the Israelites and Gibeonites in Joshua 9 understood that God wanted all of the Canaanites killed. Therefore the Gibeonites felt their only chance for survival was a ruse and the tricked Israelites were angered because they were foolishly tricked and they violated God’s command.
Biblical law forbids nullification of vows: when a person vows he must keep it. The Decalogue states: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” and it gives no exceptions, no way to cancel a vow. It was only in post-biblical times that rabbis changed the law to allow vow repeals. Four tragic stories showing the inability to annul vows appear in the Bible. Joshua was unable to reverse the vow he made to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:19. Jephthah in Judges 11 led Israelites in a battle and vowed that if he was successful, he would sacrifice whatever met him when he returned home. He probably expected to be greeted by one of his animals pasturing in the field surrounding his home, but his daughter greeted him, and since he could not terminate his vow, he had to sacrifice her. The tale of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 21 is a third instance; the tribes were unable to annul their vow not to marry their daughters to men of Benjamin. A fourth example is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27; even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it, even though it was a mistaken blessing and he wanted to change it.
This law only applied to men, as indicated in Numbers 30:3, “When a man vows a vow unto the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself with a bond, he may not break his word; he must do that which came out of his mouth.” But verses 4 though 17 state that a female child’s vow may be cancelled by her father and an adult wife’s vow by her husband because the Bible considered these women belonging to their fathers and husbands who had total control over them, and they could do nothing that their fathers and husbands did not want them to do. However, widows and divorcees who are not controlled, neither they nor any man can annul their vows.
Thus, once the Israelites vowed not to kill the Gibeonites they were stuck. However, they felt that while they could not kill them they could enslave them.