Posted by: mattcolvin | June 27, 2012

Shrewsbury Gibeonites


Wednesday of the third week after Trinity: Joshua 9:3-21.

Our kids have a storybook with illustrated folk tales involving giants. One of the best is the story of the Shrewsbury shoemaker. When a malevolent giant is walking to Shrewsbury with a gigantic shovelful of earth, intending to bury the town, the town cobbler comes out to meet him with a sack of old shoes, and claims that he wore them all out walking from Shrewsbury, which is, QED, extremely distant. The giant believes him, gives up his nefarious scheme, and dumps the shovelful of dirt, creating the hill called the Wrekin.

This story is adapted from the account of the Gibeonites’ deception of Israel in Joshua 9. The Israelites, however, are more astute than the giant in the folk tale. They immediately suspect that something may be up, and it takes a thorough exhibition of a much more elaborate assemblage of props — tattered garments, worn sandals, and moldy bread — to convince them.

I enjoy these Biblical stories of trickery: Michal’s decoy David in the bed to fool Saul’s men, Rachel’s menstrual excuse to conceal the idols from Laban, Laban’s bride-switcheroo on Jacob, the entire book of Ruth (according to Daube’s interpretation), etc. But often, there is something missing in modern Christian interpretations of them.

Most pastors preaching on Joshua 9 just zoom in on verse 14:

Then the men of Israel took some of their provisions; but they did not ask counsel of the Lord.

See, they say, you have to ask counsel of the Lord. That’s true, of course, but it’s trite and it doesn’t show much understanding of the story, which actually has a little bit of “fraud on law for fraud on law,” to use the title of a relevant article by Daube (CWDD Vol. 3, p. 300). Daube comments:

The truth was revealed in time, but there was no going back on the oath. None the less, the liars did not escape unscathed. The Israelites pointed out that the covenant guaranteed merely “their lives,” not their equality, and they made them into bondsmen… Exploitation of formalism is answered by exploitation of formalism. The Gibeonites win peace; they can hold the Hebrews to their undertaking despite its flawed basis. But the Hebrews, too, know how to play this game. They curtail the Gibeonites’ liberty: the undertaking must be honored, yes, but only it’s exact wording, not its usual implications.

In this instance, I would suggest that Daube has missed one relevant detail that would make the story an even better example of “answering a formalist according to his formalism”: The rulers of Israel say to the congregation, “Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for all the congregation, as the rulers had promised them.” Now, this may be a mistranslation. It might be better rendered as, “because the rulers (sc. of Israel) had promised them,” and it might be narrator-speech rather than the words of the Israelite rulers. But is just possible that they are seizing upon the Gibeonites’ ambassadors’ own words: when they presented themselves to Joshua, they twice said, “We are your servants” (9:8,9). Now, this is of course nothing but a bit of humble politeness, akin to Victorian or Georgian Englishmen signing their letters with the valediction, “Very obediently yours” or “Your very humble servant, The Duke of York.” For the recipient of such a letter to insist on being obeyed, or to take possession of the sender as a slave, would be almost comic misinterpretation. But with the Gibeonites, the case is altered. They have lied and deceived and used legal formalism to bind the Israelites au pied de la lettre. They are therefore fair game for such misinterpretation. “Oh, that’s the way it is?” say the Hebrews, “Then you are our servants, since that’s what you said.”


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