It’s tough to understand these events without a map so you may want to consult the one in your Bible titled “The Twelve Tribes In Canaan”.
The first city Israel conquered in the Promised Land was Jericho (Joshua 6), just north and east of the Dead Sea. The second, Ai (chapter 8), was ten miles further to the west.
You must imagine the panic that set in among the city-states nearby. After all, Israel had collapsed the walls of Jericho and decimated Ai, leaving it “neither survivors nor fugitives.” The choices for the rest were to run, or stay and fight. If they are going to fight, they will have to work together. But the people of Gibeon (chapter 9) concoct a fantastic ruse, saving their lives, but submitting themselves to Israel as slaves and taking themselves out of the opposition. Gibeon was a large and powerful city. Her submission was seen as “selling out” by her neighbors.
Chapter 10 tells of a confederation of five city-states determined to teach Gibeon a lesson. Israel, however, comes to Gibeon’s aid and routs the city-states. This defeat effectively gives Israel control of the southern part of the land. It also gave her confidence to face what was to follow: a massive coalition from the north with an army “as numerous as sands on the seashore” (chapter 11). Israel’s defeat of this army effectively gave her control of the north and the whole of Palestine. The conquering of the land therefore occurs in just two chapters. Peace took quite a bit longer.
Joshua 11:18-20 is significant. “Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
In other words, it might have been in their best interests to try to make peace with Israel. Had they done so, Israel might have been reluctant to exterminate them. But the evil of the people of Canaan was so great, God was determined that they and His people would not coexist. And so, God helped the Canaanites to be braver than they should have been, so that Israel would be braver than she would have been, so that the Canaanites would be destroyed.
If you think that’s not fair, remember this one point: The story underscores how God really feels about evil and the people who perpetuate it.