Thibble Thursday: Extreme diplomacy (Joshua 9–10)

Got distracted by a coding problem and suddenly it got late yesterday. Sorry! Here’s this week’s chunk-o’-genocide. And for all the Jewish folks in my audience, hope your High Holy Days are going well (I figure this blog probably has me on the outs with God, but, hey, it’s my culture and there’s a long Jewish tradition of poking at the Bible and trying to figure out what it’s going on about and maybe God approves of that).


So we have an interlude here, after the fearless Israelites have made serious headway into Israel, conquering and laying waste the cities of Jericho and Ai. Unsurprisingly, the local kingdoms were freaked out by these easy conquests. Chapter 9 treats us to a clever little drama which has a fair number of strange aspects. One kingdom, the Gibeonites (also referred to as the Hivites), after learning that the Israelites are genocidal maniacs, abandoned their homes and took on the guise of travelers. Encountering the Israelites so disguised, they actually got classified a bit differently than they might otherwise have been: the Israelites thought of them as “strangers in your midst” rather than “inhabitants of the land”, which is, not to put to fine a point on it, the difference in divine mandate between charity and genocide.

The Book of Joshua seems to occasionally go on about the dangers of independent thought. For instance, not consulting with God before the battle of Ai was a tragedy, and here, too, it’s pointed out, specifically, in verse 9:14, that the Israelites reached their decision in this case without asking God’s opinion (if asked, of course God would’ve seen through the Gibeonites’ disguise). But they didn’t ask, and instead swore a peace pact with them, in direct opposition to the divine commandment.

Surprisingly, God’s wrath doesn’t figure into this story; instead, the Israelites learn how they’ve been tricked when they go to conquer the Gibeonite towns and find their new allies already living there. A community crisis seems to be brewing in verse 18–21, where it becomes clear that the community as a whole is not really on board with the pact made by their leaders. This plot thread, alas, goes absolutely nowhere, and it’s settled by fiat that the Gibeonites will not be massacred, but will be relegated to servitude. There’s also a postscript where Joshua repeats the decree of the community leaders, that the Gibeonites will then and for the future be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, which is to say, positions of unskilled labor. The final verse has a phrase I’m starting to find very familiar in Joshua in describing their subordinate position in the community: “as they still are”. Similar locutions appeared earlier in talking about the position of Rahab’s family in the community, the building of the cairn after crossing the Jordan, the name of the Valley of Achor, and so forth. This formula suggests some sort of etiology to me, so maybe that’s a good perspective to take on this story.

The nice thing about etiological myths is that their existence is justified by whatever present-day (in the case of the book of Joshua, “present day” being the Assyrian exile) situation, landmark, or what-have-you they seek to explain. So we don’t need to take the whole Gibeonite-peace-treaty story at face value, but to someone not familiar with the shape of the Jewish community in exile, the situation described by this etiology is at least as interesting as the myth itself. Who were these Gibeonites/Hivites? Was there a significant ethnic subject class in ancient Israel?

I can’t find much about them, to be honest. The Hivites, when they’re mentioned in the Bible, appear mostly in laundry-lists of the previous residents of the land. There are a few scattered Gibeonites mentioned by name among the prophets and chronologies, and the Gibeonites collectively are only mentioned in the story of David’s reign as having been massacred by Saul, in an incident so insignificant it didn’t even get mentioned back in Saul’s own story.

Post-Biblical commentaries do only slightly better. The Babylonian Talmud, in a particularly dense section of Tractate Yevamot full of obscure forbidden relations, forbids Jews to marry the descendants of the Gibeonites. But nowhere except here do we really get a strong notion that the Gibeonite sub-nation was actually a subject class the way they’re presented here.

However, the introduction of the Gibeonites at least gives us a good notiion of the geography of the conquest. With the exception of the excursion to Gerizim and Ebal back in Chapter 8 (which I’m tempted to read as misplaced, because really they’re way too far north), the attack so far has been pretty much a westward push from Jericho. Ai was a little bit to the north, and Gibeon (whose identifiable ruins are in modern-day Jib) a little to the south, and the push is pretty much into the Jerusalem sphere of influence.

The geography becomes confusing at this point, because in Chapter 10 we’re told of a confederation of five kings who fear the Israelite-Gibeonite alliance. The inclusion of Jerusalem in this confederation makes a lot of sense: it’s near Gibeon, and it’s right in the way of the Israelite army. Lachish, Hebron, and Eglon are all pretty close to each other, at least, and they’re not absurdly far from Jerusalem, but, still, they’re a ways off to the south. I’m not sure we know where Jarmuth is; some theories put it in the north, at Al-Yarmuk, which makes absolutely no sense, as that’s nowhere near the other four. This whole episode only makes geographic sense if we assume the Israelite army is here turning southwards and that Jarmuth is actually an unknown southern city.

Anyways, rather than attacking Israel, since they’ve seen how well that works, this coalition elects to attack the Gibeonites instead, and the Gibeonites call upon the Israelites for help. Joshua’s response here seems a bit odd given that we don’t know the exact details of the Gibeonite pact. Joshua has no reason to grieve particularly at the Gibeonites’ misfortunes, seeing as how a mere chapter ago he was cursing their deceptions. And while he has, rather foolishly given the overall goal of the Israelites, sworn not to slaughter them himself, it seems like it’d get him off the hook to have them conveniently slaughtered by someone else. Were I Joshua, I might even ascribe such an auspicious solution to my own rash vow as an expression of divine will.

But Joshua sends aid, so the only reasonable interpretation is that the treaty the Israelites made with what appeared to be nomads is that it goes beyond a non-aggression pact and includes elements of mutual defense, necessitating the use of the entire Israelite army to rescure their hapless allies.

God makes an appearance here (where was he back when Gibeon was pulling the wool over Joshua’s eyes?), and promises victory. Unsurprisingly, the Israelites rout the attackers, chase them back, and watch as God throws hailstones, or maybe meteors, at the retreating armies.

Verses 10:12–14 describe a potent but seemingly unnecessary miracle: Joshua makes the sun halt in the sky during the battle. It’s not clear why this is necessary or even useful: sure, it’s an impressive show, but it’s wholly irrelevant to the actual narrative of the battle. Most other miracles tie in, somehow, to the narrative, but this one, for all its fame, is actually entirely gratuitous.

Amusingly, Joshua’s invocation to stop the sun is presented as a quotation from the “Book of the Jashar”, or possibly “Book of the Upright”. We have no idea what this text is, but it must’ve been familiar to the Deuteronomists, or they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

So the battle itself is described frankly rather boringly, with only the meteors as a highlight. But the kings of the coalition are captured in caves, and get to serve in a victory ritual, with the Israelite chiefs triumphing and stepping on their heads to exult in their power. And then they impale all the kings. Pleasant people, those Israelites.

Verse 10:28–38 are a dry and actually pretty dull chronicle of a rather extraordinary wave of genocide at this point, as Joshua sacks city after city killing everyone inside. This’ll include the entire region of the aforementioned five kings, except for Jerusalem itself. So the fighting starts in Makkedah (a city in the southern end of the coalition force, not involved in the war but with the bad fortune to be where the defeated kings fled to), and then rolls through Libnah (not really mentioned previously) and Lachish, takes a short side-trip to wipe out reinforcements sent from Gezer (off to the north), continues to Eglon and Hebron, then to Debir (we’re not sure where this city would be, although it’s probably in the south, but confusingly, the king of Eglon is also named Debir).

The sites above whose locations we know suggest that this is pretty much the entire historically inhabited section of southern Israel. South of Hebron was mostly desert, and there wasn’t much there. Verses 40–42 explicitly support this premise, claiming that these cities ruled over the “hill country, the Negeb, the Shfela, and the slopes”. That’s pretty much the entire southern half of historical Israel.

So at this point, with these 6 conquests (and one rout of a visiting army), Joshua’s depopulated a large chunk of Israel. You might notice that Jerusalem is not in this list, so that’s yet to be conquered. And then there’s the entire north to be dealt with!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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