“Did you know that the word ‘gullible’ is not in the dictionary?” Have you ever heard that one before?
It’s a trick question, because if someone replies, “oh, really?” they are demonstrating that they themselves are, in fact, gullible. They’ll believe what they’re told before they do their own homework and find out for themselves.
Are you gullible? Do you just believe what you’re told? Even if your answer is “no,” even if you’re a pretty wary and wily person, do you think you could ever be tricked? How hard would someone have to work to deceive you?
Our passage today deals with a major act of deception and trickery. And it’s going to cause us to reflect on ourselves in some really important ways.
But before we get there let’s review the situation at the beginning of this episode. By this point in Israel’s conquest, their reputation has spread far in the land. The events at Jericho, Ai, and even the covenant renewal ceremony at the end of chapter 8 would only have intensified this reputation. And so chapter 9 opens by describing two responses to Israel’s victories by the inhabitants of the land.
The first response is the one that most of the nations will display: “they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel” as verse 2 says. They know that Israel’s coming, and they probably know that their God is more powerful than their own gods by far, but still, we’re going to fight. And we’re going to pick up on this response and the battles that ensued in the next chapters.
But there’s a second response from one particular kingdom that’s described in verses 3-4: “But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning.” Gibeon was a small kingdom, made of four cities, about 6 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Archeologists have actually found a bunch of jar handles with the name “Gibeon” inscribed on them at this site.
And when the people of Gibeon heard about Jericho and Ai, “they on their part acted with cunning.” And we should know that the word “cunning” here is not necessarily a bad word. It speaks to being resourceful and clever and it’s likely meant to make us think about what Joshua did to Ai. Joshua acted with a measure of cunning at Ai the ambush there. And now, the Gibeonites on their part acted with cunning.
I love how the narrator doesn’t tell us everything at once here. We know they acted with cunning, but what’s their plan? We don’t find out all at once. All we know is that they took a bunch of old supplies—“worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly” (Joshua 9:4–5).
And now, verse 6, “And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, ‘We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us’” (Joshua 9:6).
So kids, remember how this past Tuesday at Awana was disguise night? Well this day was disguise day for the Gibeonites. They put on these disguises to make it look like they had travelled a really long time to get to Israel instead. When really, they lived very close to Israel. And pretending to be from this foreign nation, they want Israel to make a covenant with them.
Now why would the Gibeonites go to all this work to make it look like they are from another nation? The answer is found all the way towards the end of the chapter—verse 24: “They answered Joshua, ‘Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing’” (Joshua 9:24).
They knew the orders Joshua had been given. They knew something of what God had said to Israel in Exodus 23:31-11: “And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you” (Exodus 23:31–33).
They know that Israel isn’t supposed to make a covenant with them, so they pretend that they are coming from a far-away land. Because then, maybe they can trick Israel into making a covenant with them and then they will be safe.
Verse 7 tells us that the people of Israel are initially a little suspicious. Verse 7: “But the men of Israel said to the Hivites, ‘Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a covenant with you?’” (Joshua 9:7). These Gibeonites were likely one kingdom of the larger Hivite people in the land. And the men of Israel are suspicious of this. “Maybe you’re actually from around here.” Maybe they’re suspicious of the fact that people would really travel from a foreign land just to make a covenant with Israel when Israel didn’t even have their own cities to live in yet. I mean, that’s flattering but not very likely.
And so it seems like their next step is to bring this delegation to Joshua. And in verse 8: “They said to Joshua, ‘We are your servants.’ And Joshua said to them, ‘Who are you? And where do you come from?’”
Joshua may or may not be as suspicious as the first group of the “men of Israel.” But either way he asks them some very basic questions for a leader to ask a delegation like this: who are you and where are you from?
And notice the very vague answer that he gets in verse 9-13: “They said to him, ‘From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, “Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, ‘We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.’” Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey’” (Joshua 9:9–13).
This reply from them is a masterclass in deception. Did you notice that they did not once answer Joshua’s two very simple questions? They didn’t tell him who they were and they didn’t tell him where they were from. They also didn’t tell him anything that they wouldn’t have known if they weren’t really from across the Jordan. In other words, they didn’t talk about Jericho and Ai, because that would have given them away. But they did use a bunch of flattery and a bunch of repetitious details to spin a convincing story.
Joshua should have pressed them further. “Which country? I asked where you were from.” But it’s likely that his attention was stolen by what they said in verse 9—that they had come “because of the name of the Lord your God.” You can just imagine Joshua standing there thinking “Wow, the distant nations have heard about God’s fame, just like He promised, and they are coming to make a covenant with us, to be our servants! Praise God!”
Rather than thinking critically, rather than noticing that they never really answered his questions, Joshua and the men of Israel are taken in by these words and the believable disguises and props the people use.
Verse 14: “So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them” (Joshua 9:14–15).
Right there in verse 14 is the key to this whole passage and the key to understanding Israel’s failure in this whole passage. The failure here wasn’t just a failure to think critically, it wasn’t just a failure to keep asking the right questions. The failure wasn’t a failure of just being overwhelmed by religious flattery. It was that. But the real failure here was a failure to “ask counsel from the Lord.” A failure to seek God on what He wanted them to do.
This isn’t the first time they’ve done this, right? The first time they went to Ai, God was totally silent, and they should have noticed that. And here it happens again.
It’s not like it needed to be that way. At this point in God’s dealings with his people, they had a way to seek direct answers from Him. Not only did God speak to Joshua as a prophet, but the the priest could cast lots to seek “yes” or “no” answers from God at any point. And Numbers 27:21 specifically shows that Joshua was trained in seeking God’s will by these means.
Making a covenant with a foreign nation was a big deal—the effects could last for generations—and this should have been a decision they got God’s input on. But Joshua didn’t. He went ahead and made his own common-sense decision.
And it doesn’t take long to discover just how foolish of a decision this was. Verse 16: “At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day” (Joshua 9:16–17).
I’d love to know exactly how they found out that they were their neighbours, but somehow it slipped out. And Israel goes and finds their cities—not at a long distance, like they were told, but a mere there days away. And what we see in verse 18 and following is Israel slowly coming to terms with the fact that they were deceived.
The people of Israel apparently are upset about what happened. Look at the end of verse 18: “Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders.” Were they upset that they had disobeyed God? Were they angry with their leaders for being so gullible? Or were they merely upset because they wanted the Gibeonites’ spoil and plunder for themselves? We don’t know. But they’re not happy.
And neither is Joshua. In verse 22 and following we specifically see Joshua’s conversation with the Gibeonites. “Joshua summoned them, and he said to them, ‘Why did you deceive us, saying, “We are very far from you,” when you dwell among us?” (Joshua 9:22). That’s the kind of question you ask when you are upset. The answer is obvious, right? The Gibeonites did this because they didn’t want to die. This is like when a parent asks a child, “What were you thinking?” when they already know that the answer is “nothing.”
And in verse 24 & 25 the Gibeonites tell Joshua what he could have already guessed: “They answered Joshua, ‘Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it’” (Joshua 9:24–25).
So there it is. They knew what God had promised Moses, and rather than fight, they tried to make peace in this sneaky way.
There are some similarities between the Gibeonites and Rahab, isn’t there? They both knew what God had promised and they both knew that their own gods didn’t stand a chance against Israel’s God. But instead of being honest like Rahab they tricked Israel and tried to sneak in the back door, so to speak.
So Israel was in a bit of a pickle here. They were in this covenant that they shouldn’t have gotten in to and wouldn’t have gotten in to if they had known all the facts. What are they supposed to do now? And the answer is not “attack the Gibeonites.” Our passage stresses multiple times that they did not do this.
Verse 18: “But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel.” Verse 19: “But all the leaders said to all the congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.’” Verse 26: “So he did this to them and delivered them out of the hand of the people of Israel, and they did not kill them.”
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Israel was wrong to get into this covenant with Gibeon but the solution wasn’t to break that covenant now by making war on them them.
But the Gibeonites also don’t get off scot-free. As punishment for their deception, and in recognition of their subservient role to Israel, they became servants. Verse 27: “But Joshua made them that day cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord, to this day, in the place that he should choose” (Joshua 9:27).
And so that brings us to the end of chapter 9. This is not the end of Israel’s interactions with Gibeon. Chapter 10 is actually all about Israel keeping this covenant and coming to Gibeon’s aid when the Gibeonites were attacked by a coalition of Canaanite kings. And we’ll get there next week.
But as we step back and look at chapter 9, what are the lessons you and I can learn today from Israel’s mistakes back then?
The main lesson for us today to do with discernment and gullibility and how you and I make sure that we don’t get taken in by those who want to deceive us today. And that’s where we’ll spend most of our time applying this passage to our lives today.
To Those in a Covenant They Shouldn’t Be In
But before we get there, there is another lesson we need to pay attention to, and it has to do with those who, like Israel, find themselves in a covenant relationship that they probably should not be in and probably would not be in if they could go back and do things all over again, knowing what they know now.
And specifically here I’m talking about the covenant of marriage, which, like the covenants of old, is a promise unto death.
I know that as I speak here today, there are married people listening to me who could stop and turn to their spouses and tell them, “If I could go back and start all over again, knowing what I know now, I’d do it all over again.” I’m one of those people. After ten years with Aimee, I’d do it all over again. And I’m so thankful for that.
But I’m also aware of the very painful reality that not every married person can say that. I know that there are many Christians in marriages which they now realize they probably shouldn’t have gotten in to in the first place, had they been doing everything right. And if they were honest, they wouldn’t do it all over again.
You might think this is a really personal topic to be addressing on a Sunday morning. But this experience is lot more common than some of us might think. If you’re not in this spot, most likely you know someone who is. And I believe that our passage today offers some help to those in this spot in three main ways.
First of all, our passage encourages honesty. Did you notice how chapter 9 here does not try to sugarcoat Joshua’s mistake? It is straight up honest about what happened. And so for someone who finds themselves in a painful covenant, they should begin with the same honesty. Probably not to their spouse, but definitely between them and the Lord. If they ignored good counsel, if they listened to their feelings instead of to the wisdom from God’s word or from wise people around them, they need to be honest with God about that and confess it all to Him. God already knows, so there’s no use hiding.
The second help here is that our passage encourages someone in that spot to be faithful to the covenant that they find themselves in. Israel should not have been in covenant with Gibeon, but they were. And so they kept the covenant. We’ll see next week that they kept the covenant even at great cost to themselves. The New Testament’s teaching on marriage reinforces this idea that two wrongs don’t make a right. Unless your spouse is being unfaithful to you, or unless they leave you, you stay faithful to the covenant that you’re in even if you shouldn’t really be in it in the first place.
And the final help here is that God works all things for good. As we read through the history of Israel from this point on, we see that Gibeon essentially became a part of the people of God. They enjoyed many of the blessings of the covenant. We can assume that many of them came to place their faith in Yahweh and, much like Rahab and her descendants, became full members of the people of God. And in that sense, the Gibeonites are a firstfruits of people like you and I, Gentiles who have been made children of Abraham and welcomed in to the people of God.
1 Corinthians 7 speaks about the benefits that a believing spouse can bring to their unbelieving partner—the good effect they can have on them and their children. God really does work all things for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
That doesn’t mean you willingly jump into that kind of situation, but if you find yourself in that spot, you can trust the Lord to care for you and to sustain you and to use you where you’re at.
There’s so much more we could say about this, and I’d love to have a conversation with you if you’d like to follow up with me more about this.
Not Like Children
But let’s move on now to the second major lesson our passage has for us today. And this is not about marriage or even covenant relationships. It’s just the big idea that a good leader like Joshua got duped. He got deceived. And the warning for us is that we shouldn’t let the same thing happen to us. Especially when it comes to our faith, our knowledge of God, our beliefs and convictions.
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). “Let no one deceive you with empty words” (Ephesians 5:6). “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). “Little children, let no one deceive you” (1 John 3:7).
Don’t let yourself be somebody’s fool. Don’t let Satan suck you in with some good-sounding idea or philosophy that trips you up and ties you down. Don’t be gullible. Don’t be deceived.
And don’t think “I could never be deceived. I know my stuff, I’m good.” If Joshua could be flattered and mislead and deceived, it can probably happen to you and I. And in fact, if you think that you’re too wise or too knowledgeable to ever be deceived, then that should be a huge red flag to you, because that’s a sign that you’re already starting to lean too much on your own understanding, which was exactly the mistake Joshua made in this passage. He trusted in his assessment of the situation and did not consult the Lord.
So you and I need to have a healthy distrust of ourselves and a healthy reliance upon God. And we need this because our world is full of ways that we can be deceived. And by the way, when I say “world,” I mean much of what we might call the “Christian” world.Christian websites and Christian television and Christian bookstores are so often full of ideas and philosophies and teachings that are dangerous to you.
And the way that we prevent ourselves from being deceived is by doing what Joshua didn’t do in this passage—we listen to God. We don’t assume that we know everything and we listen to God.
How Do We Listen to God?
And the way that you and I do that today is not by going to a priest and casting lots but by seeking God’s word together with his people. We look into God’s word in fellowship with others who are doing the same thing.
And we really do need each other on this front. Listen to these words from Ephesians 4:14, which tell us that we should “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” I’m sure you know Christians like that. Maybe you are a Christian like that. Always moving from one thing to the next, always grabbing on to the latest and newest and freshest teaching, believing everything you’re told by everybody everywhere.
And what’s the solution to this? Verse 15: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:14–16).
We need the truth of God’s word, and we need each other to speak that truth to each other and to help us understand and apply it so that we can grow up in to maturity together.
Addressing the Spectrum
Now as I talk here about deception and gullibility, I know that there’s a spectrum of personalities here today. I know that some people are more naturally trusting than others. Some people tend to just believe that they’re told. And if that’s the kind of person that you are, then what Ephesians 4 says here is really important. You need to surround yourself with good people and dig in to God’s word with them.
When you encounter a new idea or a new teaching, or if you want to go off and chase some new pursuit, don’t just swallow the hook. Don’t just go for it.
Don’t be impulsive. Talk about it with your mentor or with your small group or with a few different reliable and trustworthy people. People who aren’t afraid to correct you. People who aren’t afraid to speak the truth in love to you.
In my years I’ve seen many Christians go off the rails in foolish ventures or foolish decisions or foolish beliefs. And almost always, the people around them found out once it was too late, once this person had already bought in. How different things would be if we stopped and asked and were’t afraid to listen. That’s what the church is for, according to Ephesians 4.
This is one of the great reasons to join a small group. In a small group you get to build relationships with people and have a time on your calendar, every week, where you get to meet together and speak the truth in love to one another.
Now on the other hand, I know that some people are not naturally trusting—they are more naturally discerning or suspicious. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’re the person who does your homework and looks stuff up before doing or believing anything.
You, too, need other people. Because naturally discerning people face their own temptations. The temptation, for example, to trust their own discernment. To rely on their own sensibilities, and to assume that their own sense of right and wrong perfectly maps on to what the Bible says.
As we mature in Christ, our own intuitions should line up with the Bible more and more. But none of us ever gets to the spot where that has happened perfectly. We always need to be checking ourselves against the word in community with others. If we stop doing that, we’re goners.
And can I just wave a flag around here and say that as we try to be discerning together, our primary community for that should be real Christians whom we see and know, and not the Internet?
Too many Christians think that being discerning means Googling something. And that can be helpful. But we’ve got to be even more careful with so many of the “discernment” resources we find on the internet. There’s a lot of so-called “discernment ministries” or “discernment blogs” out there where a bunch of spiritually unhealthy people with a craving for controversy have made a full-time career out finding fault and spreading gossip and tearing other people to shreds.
And I know that I’ve had this experience, for example, where I’ve quoted an author, or given away a book, and someone has just gone on the internet and searched that person’s name, and up has popped once of these “discernment blogs” that pulls stuff our of context and makes them sound like an absolute monster. And then they think that I believe and am promoting all of that nasty stuff.
And while that feels discerning, it’s actually just a different kind of gullibility. Because you’re just believing whatever that blogger is saying instead of actually reading the book for yourself. And instead of actually coming back to talk to me and saying “hey, I heard you recommend this author, and I read some nasty sounding stuff on them. Can you help me out here?”
And that—real people talking to real people—is what Ephesians 4 is pointing us towards. The internet can be helpful but can never replace the word of God being spoken to us by the godly people that God has surrounded us with in our own local church.
Be Thou My Vision
So once again, the big lesson here is that each of us is vulnerable to being gullible. If Joshua could get tricked by the Gibeonites, then every one of us, in different ways, is vulnerable to being tricked ourselves. And so we need God’s word and we need God’s people to keep us balanced and on track.
And as we end here, let’s remember the goal. The goal in discernment is not just to be right. The goal is Christ. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). That’s what’s so dangerous about deception—it can pull us away from pure faith in Jesus.
And so that’s why we’re going to end this morning by singing “Be Thou My Vision.” That’s the goal here: seeing and knowing and loving the Lord. And we need each other to keep our eyes on Him.