Chapter nine records what was probably Joshua’s weakest moment as Israel’s leader. Through Moses, God had made a distinction between cities that would be far away from Israel’s new land and those located within the land (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). If the city was far away, Israel was allowed to make a peace treaty with them, making them Israel’s servants. However, for cities within the land, they were to be totally destroyed so that Israel would not be led astray from the worship of Jehovah.
Apparently, this information had been leaked in Canaan, and though most of the cities chose to fight Israel, Gibeon (a Hivite city) did not. Instead, they sent a convoy of ambassadors dressed in worn out clothing, carrying dry bread and empty, cracked canteens, to “prove” that they had come from a long distance (Joshua 9:1-13). Coming into Israel’s camp, they acted weary from their long trip, asking for a peace treaty and recounting all of the wonderful things they had heard that God had done for Israel, all the way back to the Red Sea, just as Rahab had done.
Joshua 9:14-15 is the climax (or trough) of the story. “The [Israelite] men examined some of their provisions, but they failed to ask the LORD’s advice.” Relying on their own wisdom, Joshua and the elders of Israel “made a peace treaty with them,” sealed with an oath to Jehovah.
“Three days later,” when Israel approached the Hivite cities, they discovered the deception (Joshua 9:16-21). Naturally, they were furious, and many in Israel demanded that Joshua break the peace treaty and destroy all of the Hivites. However, because of the oath the leaders took, they refused to break it and call down judgment upon themselves. Instead, they decided to treat the Hivites as long-distance foreigners, and made them their servants. Specifically, the Hivites would spend their days chopping wood and carrying water for Israel and God’s altar.
Of course, Joshua wanted to know why they had acted out this deception (Joshua 9:22-27). The answer was actually the truth of their previous claim. They knew of God’s works on behalf of Israel, and they did not want to die with the others. Yet they knew they were at his mercy, so they humbly said, “Now we are in your power. Do to us what you think is good and appropriate.” Joshua, even with his flaws, was a godly man, and he kept his promise to them. They remained alive and servants of Israel. What a powerful reminder to seek the Lord for wisdom rather than relying on our “own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5-6; James 1:5).