The Craft of the Gibeonites

The Craft of the Gibeonites

Joshua 9

In the ninth chapter of Joshua, we have a very singular illustration of the terror which the wonderful success of the Hebrew arms inspired.

There was an important city called Gibeon, a few miles to the north of Jerusalem, the inhabitants of which, expecting that their turn would speedily come, and despairing of being able to hold out against the invincible host, resolved to try to escape the doom which hung over them. In ordinary cases, they would have thought of submission to the invading force. But they knew that the submission of no Canaanite city would be accepted. Coupling this with the knowledge, that the Hebrews were not forbidden to enter into treaty with, and accept the submission of distant nations, they resolved to save their lives, at least, by inducing the invaders to enter into a treaty of alliance with them, under the pretence of belonging to a far country. For this purpose, they would send to the camp of Israel an embassy, invested with every circumstance tending to confirm the intended delusion, by affording every indication of their having made a long and weary journey. Let us examine for a moment the nature of their equipment, and look to the articles of which it was composed. These we find to be the same which are still required for a journey in the East.

First, “they took old sacks upon their asses.” What were the sacks used for? Interpreters seem at a loss with regard to these “sacks,” having no clear notion of their use. It appears to us, that they were the same as the large bags, usually of hair, in which the orientals pack away, for convenient transport on the backs of animals, all the baggage and commodities required for the journey, excepting only water-bags and large kettles. Beds, boxes, provisions, pots, packages of goods, all are carried in such bags, slung over the back of the animal, one hanging at each side. Being a good deal knocked about and exposed to the weather, these saddle bags—as one might call them but for their size—suffer in a long journey; and hence the Gibeonites took old bags, to convey the impression that a long journey had been made.

The wine bottles which they took with them are also said to have been “old, and rent, and bound up.” At present, in Western Asia, we do not meet with wine-bottles, but only water-bottles—wine being interdicted by the Moslem law, and therefore, although enough used, not being publicly carried about—and in the farther, pagan East, the vine does not grow, and neither wine nor wine-bottles are used. The bottles were of leather, or rather of skins, like those in which water is now, and was indeed formerly, carried about. Classical antiquity has afforded many representations of these wine-skins, for the use of them was by no means confined to the East. At the present day, the same kind of bottles are used for keeping, as well as for conveying wine, in Spain and in the Christian country of Georgia beyond the Caucasus, where, at the city of Teffis, we beheld them for the first time; and found at once every example of the ancient wine-bottles of skin, to which there are so many allusions in Scripture. This, indeed, we imagine to be the native country of the vine: for here only have we beheld it growing wild in the thickets beside the rivers, affording small but very pleasant grapes. The people here have no casks, but preserve their wine in earthen jars and leathern bottles. The latter are made of the skins of goats, oxen, and buffaloes, turned inside out, clipped with the scissors, washed, and rubbed over with warm mineral tar or naphtha. The openings are closed with a sort of wooden bung, except at the feet, where they are only tied up with a cord. The wine is drawn at one foot, merely by opening or closing the noose. It is a very strange and whimsical sight in the eyes of a stranger, to behold oxen and buffaloes full of wine lying in the wine-booth or about the streets, with their legs stretched out. These skins, however, are very convenient for home use or for carriage; for they may be found of all sizes, some very small, the skins of young kids, holding only a few of our bottles. It is thus seen how such bottles might be “rent,” and the rents mended temporarily by being “tied up;” and the nature of the bottles explains the caution of our Savior against putting new wine into old bottles, lest the bottles should be burst by the wine.

In further confirmation, their “shoes were old and clouted.” For “shoes” read “sandals,” such being in most cases denoted by the word translated “shoes” in the authorized version. Now, although little more than a sole of some kind, fastened to the foot by thongs, the sandals might need clouting or patching, as may be seen by the figures of ancient Egyptian sandals, to which those used in Syria were probably similar, unless, from the greater roughness of the country, we may suppose them to have been of stouter make and materials. Of such we have not only figures in sculpture and painting, but actual specimens in cabinets of Egyptian antiques. They are seen to vary somewhat in form. Those worn by the upper classes and by females, were usually pointed and turned up at the toes like skates, and indeed like the Eastern slippers of the present day. They are mostly made of a sort of woven or interlaced work of palm leaves and papyrus stalks, or other similar materials, and sometimes of leather, and they were frequently lined with cloth. In Syria they were probably more exclusively of hide. They were seldom mended, being of so little value that they could be easily renewed when the worse for wear. We have seen a man make himself a new pair out of a piece of skin in a few minutes, for sandals are not wholly disused in the East. The mere fact, that articles so easily renewed, were patched in this instance, was well calculated to suggest a long journey, in which the convenience of purchasing new ones, or materials for making new ones, had not been found—whence, and whence only, they had been obliged to make their old ones serve by patching. It was a singular thing to see sandals clouted at all, and only a journey could explain the fact.
The garments of these pretended ambassadors were also old. It behooves ambassadors in the East to do credit to their master, and show becoming respect to those to whom they are sent, by making a clean and decent, or even a splendid appearance. This was so essential, that their appearance with old and travel-stained clothes could only, upon any common principle, be explained by the assigned reason, that they had come direct from a long journey; and as the place to which they came was a camp and not a town, they had not the opportunity of repairing the damage to their attire which the journey had occasioned.

Lastly, their bread, which they affirmed to have been hot from the oven when they left home, had become “dry and mouldy” by the length of their journey. This transaction conveys a somewhat erroneous impression. The Hebrew word translated “mouldy” is the same which is rendered by “cracknels” in 1Ki_14:3. This is an obsolete word denoting a kind of crisp cake. The original term (nikuddim) would seem, from its etymology, to denote something spotted or sprinkled over; and it is supposed, from the old Jewish explanations, to denote a kind of biscuit, or a small and hard-baked cake, calculated to keep (for a journey or other purpose) by reason of their excessive hardness and freedom from moisture; or perhaps by being twice baked, as the word bis-cuit expresses. Not only are such hard cakes or biscuits still used in the East, but they are, like all biscuits, punctured to render them more hard, and sometimes also they are sprinkled with seeds—either of which circumstances sufficiently meets the etymology of the word. The ordinary bread, baked in thin cakes, like pancakes, is not made to keep more than a day or two, a fresh supply being baked daily. If kept longer it dries up, and becomes excessively hard—harder than any biscuit that we ever knew. It was this kind of common bread that the Gibeonites produced, and indicated its hardness—“hard as biscuits”—in evidence of the length of the journey they had taken.

The device of these Gibeonites was managed very skilfully  The evidence thus furnished seemed to the Israelites so strong, that although aware of the danger of being imposed upon, they entered into a covenant of peace, and bound themselves by the oath of their elders to its observance. A few days after the error into which they had been led was discovered. The people were then indignant at the conduct of their leaders in this business—especially seeing that they could have guarded themselves from all mistake by consulting the Divine oracle. This especially they ought to have done in regard to the first treaty of any kind into which, as a people, they had entered. This came of trusting too much to appearances—of leaning too much to their own understandings—and fancying that it was impossible to mistake such plain evidence as the guileful Gibeonites produced. We do not, however, suppose that the people of Israel had that thirst for blood which some have ascribed to them on account of the displeasure they expressed on this occasion. It is far more likely that they regretted being thus deprived of the spoil of one of the richest cities in the neighborhood; and they may not have been without apprehension that such an infraction of the law given them respecting the conquest of the land, might not be unvisited by some tokens of their Divine King’s displeasure. Such, however, was the respect felt by all the Israelites for the oath which had been taken, that no one supposed there was any other course now to be followed but to spare the lives and respect the property of the Gibeonites; yet, to punish their deception, it was directed that they should henceforth be devoted to the service of the tabernacle, and be employed in the servile and laborious offices of hewing the wood and drawing the water required in the sacred offices, from which the Israelites themselves were thenceforth relieved. It is not to be supposed that the whole or the greater part of them, were thus employed at once. A certain number of them performed it in rotation, while remaining in possession of their city and of their goods.