The Gibeonites were a group of people, descended from the Amorites (2 Samuel 21:2). They are described in Joshua 9 as people who deceived the Israelites in order to protect themselves. After the Israelites had defeated the cities of Jericho (Joshua 6—7) and Ai (Joshua 8), many of the nearby Canaanites united to form a large army to fight Israel (Joshua 9:1–2).
The Gibeonites, however, took a different approach: “They did work wilily, and went and made as if they had been ambassadors, and took old sacks upon their asses, and wine bottles, old, and rent, and bound up; And old shoes and clouted upon their feet, and old garments upon them; and all the bread of their provision was dry and mouldy. And they went to Joshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We be come from a far country: now therefore make ye a league with us.” Joshua 9:4–6
The Israelites did not consult with God before agreeing to the treaty and fell for the Gibeonites’ scheme. The Israelites soon discovered they had been tricked and discussed how to respond. The leaders of Israel decided, “But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them; we will even let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we sware unto them. And the princes said unto them, Let them live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation; as the princes had promised them.” Joshua 9:19–21
The end of this account notes: “And Joshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the Lord, even unto this day, in the place which he should choose.” Joshua 9:27
In other words, the Gibeonites survived, yet they served as slaves to the Israelites for generations to come. The land of Gibeon would later be allotted to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 21:17).
King Saul later broke the treaty that Joshua had signed and attacked the Gibeonites. The background for the slaying of Saul’s descendants was years before, King Saul had tried to eradicate the Gibeonites from Israel; however, his action violated the covenant Joshua had made with Gibeon in Joshua 9. As a direct result of Israel’s breaking their covenant, God sent a famine upon Israel for three years. When David asked the Lord about the famine, God said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death” 2 Samuel 21:1.
After Saul’s time, David had the responsibility to provide justice for the Gibeonites. To appease the Gibeonites and put an end to the famine, David he asked the Gibeonites what they would require to make things right, the Gibeonites requested the lives of seven of Saul’s sons, and David handed them over. “Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them.” 2 Samuel 21:6
God healed Israel’s land after that, “And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was intreated for the land.” 2 Samuel 21:14
“And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.” 2 Samuel 21:9
The Gibeonites’ deception was effective because Joshua and his people did not first consult God for wisdom. Joshua 9 reveals the need for believers in Christ to pray concerning all major decisions and to seek Gods will before moving forward. Also, the fact that the Lord held the Israelites to their covenant with the Gibeonites shows that God requires faithfulness of His people. Breaking a covenant is a serious thing. God saw the killings as justice against the “bloody house” of Saul. God did approve of the killing of the guilty in this case, because it was a just punishment for their involvement in the prior murder of innocent men. Finally, the eventual incorporation of the Gibeonites into Israel shows the mercy and grace of God to all people.