V.1-2 – Following the success of Israel against Jericho (fortified city of the border) and Ai (small, local city), the remaining city-states of Canaan begin to form an anti-Israel coalition. Rather than be picked off one by one, they plan to attack Israel on-masse (as we will see in a later chapter).
V.3-13 – The people of Gibeon (a larger neighboring city) create an elaborate illusion, giving the impression that they have come from a distant land (a plausible lie) and wish to form an alliance with Israel (the truth). This may seem unusual, especially given the details revealed about Gibeon in the next chapter (big city, strong army, etc.), but given the Israelites’ victories on the eastern (and now western) sides of the Jordan River, it is clear to the city-states of Canaan that open opposition to Israel is fast becoming a death sentence.
V.14-18 – Israel makes a fateful decision: they choose to accept the alliance WITHOUT CONSULTING THE LORD. Their choice to rush into a hasty alliance shows 2 things: 1) they were eager for allies in the battle against the Canaanites, and 2) they forgot that GOD was the One granting them victory in battles ahead; as Abraham’s “solution” in Ishmael caused problems for his family in the years and generations that followed, so will it be with Israel’s hasty covenant with the Gibeonites. Even when the deception is revealed, Israel is bound by the vows they have made, and no attack (of retaliation or otherwise) can be made against Gibeon, and the people’s view of their leadership begins to sour (a similar trait passed on from the older generation in the wilderness).
V.19-27 – With the Gibeonites having fulfilled their deception (and tied themselves to Israel), the leadership of Israel now decides what to do. Joshua and the rulers (established under Moses after Jethro’s advice) declare that, while they will uphold the agreement to not attack Gibeon, the people of Gibeon will now serve Israel as menial labor – woodcutters and water-carriers, servicing both the Tabernacle altar and the population of Israel in general.
Some might consider their treatment poetic justice, but keep in mind what is happening behind the scenes. For the first time in their history, the Israelites become the oppressors; after being slaves to the Egyptians, they are now making slaves of their Canaanite neighbors. More than that, this will mark the beginning of a stumbling block for Israel; their Canaanite neighbors will serve as both a reminder (of Israel’s failure to consult the LORD) and a temptation (culture of idolatry, as with the previous generation in Numbers). From here through the book of Judges, the moral decay of Israel will spiral until they become worse than their pagan neighbors.