Military strategists aim to secure the high ground because of the tactical advantage that comes when an army is positioned higher than its enemies. So, it is not surprising that when the Israelites entered the promised land, the path through Jericho and Ai to Shechem took them into the hill country, in the center of Canaan (Josh. 1–8). From that position, they would have a strategic advantage for conquering the rest of the land.
But the land would not be taken without a fight. We see in today’s passage that the kings of “the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” all came together to fight against Israel (9:1–2). Earlier, the peoples of the land had been terrified of the Israelites (5:1; 2:8–11), but now they were willing to make war against them. Perhaps the news of the Israelites’ initial defeat at Ai convinced them that defeating Israel was possible. In any case, these peoples lived throughout the promised land, so the Israelites were essentially surrounded by enemies at this point of the conquest.
Yet not all of the Hivites were willing to join this coalition, for we see that the “inhabitants of Gibeon,” with whom Israel made a treaty, were Hivites (9:3–15). When the residents of Gibeon first met with Israel, the Israelites did not know they were Hivites, one of the peoples with whom the Israelites were forbidden to make peace (Deut. 20:16–18). The Gibeonites deceived Israel into thinking that they were from another land, and the Israelites covenanted with them to preserve them in keeping with the permission God gave to Israel to enter into treaties with peoples outside the land of Canaan (Josh 9:14–15).
The Israelites were deceived because they “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Josh. 9:14). Understandably, the narrator faults Israel for this failure. After all, trusting our own wisdom is always foolish (Prov. 3:5–6). However, when the Israelites uncovered the ruse, Joshua and the Israelite leaders did not break their word to the Gibeonites. They understood that we must keep our lawful vows (Deut. 23:21). So, the Gibeonites preserved their lives, but since as residents of Canaan they were to be subject to Israel, they were pressed into servanthood (Josh. 9:16–27). The Gibeonites did not deserve to live, but they received grace even though they had deceived God’s people. This grace would later bear even more fruit. Eventually, the Gibeonites were fully assimilated into Israel, as seen in their being among the Israelites who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the exile (Neh. 3:7).