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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 22–27
Verses 22–27

The matter is here settled between Joshua and the Gibeonites, and an explanation of the league agreed upon. We may suppose that now, not the messengers who were first sent, but the elders of Gibeon, and of the cities that were dependent upon it, were themselves present and treated with, that the matter might be fully compromised.

I. Joshua reproves them for their fraud, Josh. 9:22. And they excuse it as well as they can, Josh. 9:24. 1. Joshua gives the reproof very mildly: Wherefore have you beguiled us? He does not load them with any ill names, does not give them any harsh provoking language, does not call them, as they deserved to be called, base liars, but only asks them, Why have you beguiled us? Under the greatest provocations, it is our wisdom and duty to keep our temper, and to bridle our passion; a just cause needs not anger to defend it, and a bad one is made never the better by it. 2. They make the best excuse for themselves, that the thing would bear, Josh. 9:24. They found by the word of God that sentence of death was passed upon them (the command was to destroy all the inhabitants of the land, without exception), and they found by the works of God already wrought that there was no opposing the execution of this sentence; they considered that God’s sovereignty is incontestable, his justice inflexible, his power irresistible, and therefore resolved to try what his mercy was, and found it was not in vain to cast themselves upon it. They do not go about to justify their lie, but in effect beg pardon for it, pleading it was purely to save their lives that they did it, which every man that finds in himself the force of the law of self-preservation will therefore make great allowances for, especially in such a case as this, where the fear was not merely of the power of man (if that were all, one might flee from that to the divine protection), but of the power of God himself, which they saw engaged against them.

II. Joshua condemns them to servitude, as a punishment of their fraud (Josh. 9:23), and they submit to the sentence (Josh. 9:25), and for aught that appears both sides are pleased.

1. Joshua pronounces them perpetual bondmen. They had purchased their lives with a lie, but, that being no good consideration, he obliges them to hold their lives under the rent and reservation of their continual labours, in hewing wood and drawing water, the meanest and most toilsome employments. Thus their lie was punished; had they dealt fairly and plainly with Israel, perhaps they would have had more honourable conditions granted them, but now, since they gain their lives with ragged clothes and clouted shoes, the badges of servitude, they are condemned for ever to wear such, so must their doom be. And thus the ransom of their lives is paid; dominion is acquired by the preservation of a life that lies at mercy (servus dicitur a servando—a servant is so called from the act of saving); they owe their service to those to whom they owe their lives. Observe how the judgment is given against them. (1.) Their servitude is made a curse to them. “Now you are cursed with the ancient curse of Canaan,” from whom these Hivites descended, a servant of servants shalt thou be, Gen. 9:25. What shall be done to the false tongue but this? Cursed shall it be. (2.) Yet this curse is turned into a blessing; they must be servants, but it shall be for the house of my God. The princes would have them slaves unto all the congregation (Josh. 9:21), at least they chose to express themselves so, for the pacifying of the people that were discontented; but Joshua mitigates the sentence, both in honour to God and in favour to the Gibeonites: it would be too hard upon them to make them every man’s drudge; if they must be hewers of wood and drawers of water, than which there cannot be a greater disparagement, especially to those who are citizens of a royal city, and all mighty men (Josh. 10:2), yet they shall be so to the house of my God, than which there cannot be a greater preferment: David himself could have wished to be a door-keeper there. Even servile work becomes honourable when it is done for the house of our God and the offices thereof. [1.] They were hereby excluded from the liberties and privileges of true-born Israelites, and a remaining mark of distinction was put upon their posterity throughout all their generations. [2.] They were hereby employed in such services as required their personal attendance upon the altar of God in the place which he should choose (Josh. 9:27), which would bring them to the knowledge of the law of God, keep them strictly to that holy religion to which they were proselyted, and prevent their revolt to the idolatries of their fathers. [3.] This would be a great advantage to the priests and Levites to have so many, and those mighty men, constant attendants upon them, and engaged by office to do all the drudgery of the tabernacle. A great deal of wood must be hewed for fuel for God’s house, not only to keep the fire burning continually upon the altar, but to boil the flesh of the peace-offerings, etc. And a great deal of water must be drawn for the divers washings which the law prescribed. These and other such servile works, such as washing the vessels, carrying out ashes, sweeping the courts, etc., which otherwise the Levites must have done themselves, these Gibeonites were appointed to do. [4.] They were herein servants to the congregation too; for whatever promotes and helps forward the worship of God is real service to the commonwealth. It is the interest of every Israelite that the altar of God be well attended. Hereby also the congregation was excused from much of that servile work which perhaps would otherwise have been expected from some of them. God had made a law that the Israelites should never make any of their brethren bondmen; if they had slaves, they must be of the heathen that were round about them, Lev. 25:44. Now in honour of this law, and of Israel that was honoured by it, God would not have the drudgery, no, not of the tabernacle itself, to be done by Israelites, but by Gibeonites, who were afterwards called Nethinim, men given to the Levites, as the Levites were to the priests (Num. 3:9), to minister to them in the service of God. [5.] This may be looked upon as typifying the admission of the Gentiles into the gospel church. Now they were taken in upon their submission to be under-officers, but afterwards God promises that he will take of them for priests and Levites, Isa. 66:21.

2. They submit to this condition, Josh. 9:25. Conscious of a fault in framing a lie whereby to deceive the Israelites, and sensible also how narrowly they escaped with their lives and what a kindness it was to have them spared, they acquiesce in the proposal: Do as it seemeth right unto thee. Better live in servitude, especially such servitude, than not live at all. Those of the very meanest and most despicable condition are described to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, Deut. 29:11. But skin for skin, liberty, and labour, and all that a man has, will he give for his life, and no ill bargain. Accordingly the matter was determined. (1.) Joshua delivered them out of the hands of the Israelites that they should not be slain, Josh. 9:26. It seems there were those who would have fallen upon them with the sword if Joshua had not interposed with his authority; but wise generals know when to sheathe the sword, as well as when to draw it. (2.) He then delivered them again into the hands of the Israelites to be enslaved, Josh. 9:27. They were not to keep possession of their cities, for we find afterwards that three of them fell to the lot of Benjamin and one to that of Judah; nor were they themselves to be at their own disposal, but, as bishop Patrick thinks, were dispersed into the cities of the priests and Levites, and came up with them in their courses to serve at the altar, out of the profits of which, it is probable, they were maintained. And thus Israel’s bondmen became the Lord’s freemen, for his service in the meanest office is liberty, and his work is its own wages. And this they got by their early submission. Let us, in like manner, submit to our Lord Jesus, and refer our lives to him, saying, “We are in thy hand, do unto us as seemeth good and right unto thee; only save our souls, and we shall not repent it:” if he appoint us to bear his cross, and draw in his yoke, and serve at his altar, this shall be afterwards neither shame nor grief to us, while the meanest office in God’s service will entitle us to a dwelling in the house of the Lord all the days of our life.