New Zealand is a unique nation, as it is one of a few which was founded on a covenant, between the migrant and indigenous people. This article was first published in September 1983. Since then the Government has started making restitution. However, the process is not yet complete, so the message of the article is still relevant


Every year in February, New Zealand looks back to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. In recent years, the coming together of the two nations has been marred by confrontation. The tense situation, which has developed, urgently needs a Christian analysis.

A similar situation arose in Old Testament times over a treaty between the Israelites and the Gibeonites. Joshua was leading the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan. The Gibeonites tricked the elders of Israel into making a peace treaty. They pretended to have come from a distant land, when they actually lived close by. Although the Israelites had been deceived, they honoured the treaty.

Two hundred years later, when David was king, there were three years of severe drought. The Lord told David that this happened, because his predecessor Saul had violated the treaty, made by Joshua, by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites. David made restitution by allowing seven of Saul's descendants to be put to death. God then heard David's prayers and the drought came to an end.

Covenants between Nations

From the account of God's dealings with these two nations (Joshua 9, 2 Samuel 21), we can discover a number of principles that apply to a treaty between two nations.

  1. A treaty is like an oath to God (Joshua 9:1). It is binding on both parties. Even if it is unwise or has been made under deception, it must be honoured. To break a treaty is to disobey God.

  2. Breaking the terms of a treaty will bring dire consequences for the nation concerned (2 Sam 21:1,2). It puts the nation under a curse. In the case of Israel, the consequence was a severe drought. God is just and his justice is built into the workings of the world. The wicked eventually reap the consequences of their actions (Psalm 94:3, 23).

  3. Sometimes the consequences of a broken treaty will not be worked out immediately, but are experienced by a later generation (Exodus 20:6). The consequences of Saul's actions were experienced in the time of David when Saul was already dead.

  4. Restitution is the biblical solution (2 Sam 21:6,14). Where there is injustice, God always requires some repayment. When David made restitution to the Gibeonites, the drought came to an end. The curse that Saul's action had brought on the nation was broken. If David had not taken action, the drought would have continued. Restitution is inescapable. If it is not made voluntarily, it will be made through the workings of history.

  5. The principle of biblical justice is "like for like", so the restoration should be similar to, or typical of, the injustice that was done.

  6. Restitution must be proportional. Total restitution is usually impossible. It should be made in proportion to the injustice and the length of time that has passed since the injustice was done.

  7. Restitution must be reasonable. God requires those who receive restitution to be merciful. The Gibeonites only demanded the death of seven people. While this may seem harsh to us; it was only a small repayment for the annihilation of a nation.

  8. The size of the restitution will depend on the amount of time that has elapsed. This is especially important, if several generations have passed. It is not possible to exactly restore a situation, several hundred years after an injustice has occurred. The reason is that the effects of injustice dissipate over time. The situation of those who suffered will have changed depending on other events that have occurred. Some will have benefited from the mistakes of others. On the other side, by the time four or five generations have passed, the person who did an injustice will have dozens of descendants. The benefits will have been diluted, as they are spread among many people. Many of those who benefited from the injustice will have already suffered through other circumstances. It is not possible to turn back the clock and make things exactly as they were at the time. Restitution several generations after the event will be more symbolic than total.

  9. During a time of restitution, the dominant party should act generously. David allowed the Gibeonites to decide what restitution should be made. David agreed to give everything they asked for, except he spared Mephibosheth. David demonstrated a generous spirit.

  10. The injured party must be patient. They must not take matters into their own hands (2 Sam 21:4). The fact that a treaty is broken does not justify violence. The injured party must wait on God, who has promised to come to the rescue of those who are mistreated. Vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:19-21, Proverbs 20:22). Although the Gibeonites knew they had been treated unjustly, they did not use violence. They patiently waited until God exposed the sin and brought about justice. They were then able to ask for restitution. If they had sought revenge, they would have lost their right to the protection of the Lord.

  11. Only those who are covered by a higher covenant, escape the consequences of a broken treaty (2 Samuel 21:7). Mephibosheth was not put to death, although he was a grandson of Saul. His father Jonathan had made a covenant or treaty with David (1 Sam 18:3). As this covenant took precedence, his life was saved.

The Treaty of Waitangi

These principles apply to the treaty of Waitangi. The treaty involved an element of deception. As William Colenso pointed out at the time of the signing, many of the Maori chiefs did not fully understand the terms of the treaty. There were also significant differences between the Maori and English versions of the treaty. This deception was probably not deliberate, but Governor Hobson did not take sufficient care to ensure that the Maori understood the treaty. Some of the responsibility rests with the missionaries who translated and explained it. However, the biblical principle remains: deception does not nullify a treaty. Although the signing of the Treaty was handled unwisely, it must still be honoured.

New Zealand governments have not kept their side of the treaty. It guaranteed the chiefs and tribes of New Zealand, full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands and estates, forests and fisheries and other properties, so long as it was their wish and desire to retain the same in their possession. This promise has not been honoured.

Some examples:

  1. The New Zealand Company purchased land in the Wellington area illegally and then virtually forced the Maori owners off their land. Commissioner Spain recognised that the company's title was invalid, but because settlers had already arrived the land was not returned to its owners. This means that our capital city is built on land that was bought in contravention of the treaty.

  2. The so-called Maori wars started because settlers could not live with the terms of the treaty. Under its terms, Maori were not obliged to sell their land. Even if they were not using it, they could not be forced to sell. However, land-hungry settlers wanted Maori land that appeared to be going to waste. In each case, Maori were provoked by the settlers. When they retaliated, the British declared war on them. Any Maori who fought was declared to be rebels, and their land was confiscated. Through these wars, some of the best land in Taranaki, Waikato, and the Bay of Plenty was confiscated by the Government. In most cases, the only crime of the Maori concerned, was an unwillingness to sell their land a right given to them by the Treaty.

  3. After the wars, legislation was passed that made it hard for Maori to hold their land. Keith Sinclair says that "the law became a legal jungle within which the Maori lost themselves, and were preyed on by land speculators or their agents and shyster lawyers". Under these laws, millions of acres passed out of Maori ownership.

  4. Christian leaders remained silent about these injustices. This silence hardened many Maori to the gospel. Here too, some responsibility belongs to the Church.

Like Saul's attempt to wipe out the Gibeonites, the ill-treatment of the Maori people is a blot on our nation's history. Most responsibility rests with the legislators and the land agents, but they were under tremendous pressure from the settlers to get more land. Settlers rationalised this by saying that the land was idle. There were also Maori, who sold land that belonged to someone else, just to get revenge or make money.

Our nation will eventually reap the consequences of this injustice. In the long-term justice will be worked out. Deuteronomy 27:17 tells us that anyone who changes ancient boundaries by force or by deception is under a curse. Now, this is exactly what our nation has done. Because many of the early setters trusted in God, they did not experience the consequences of the Government's actions. God was merciful and spared them, but justice cannot be postponed forever. As our nation turns away from God, we can expect his justice to be worked out.

The increasing violence, which is disturbing our society, is the consequence of the injustice of the past. As would be expected, violence is becoming most common among younger Maori. It will get worse. In the future, we could see Maori terrorist groups at work. If this happens, we would be experiencing the consequences of breaking a treaty. All injustice must be paid for. The only solution is restitution. As soon as David realised what had happened to the Gibeonites, he met with them and negotiated a reasonable restitution. This brought peace to the land.


Our government should go to Maori tribal leaders and negotiate a reasonable restitution. First of all, they should acknowledge the binding power of the Treaty of Waitangi for New Zealand. Secondly, they should publicly acknowledge that the Treaty has been broken. Thirdly, they should follow repentance with restitution. This may involve grants of money or land. Restitution should be made to each tribe that has suffered injustice.

The following points should be noted.

  1. Restitution should be reasonable and proportional. The Maori who negotiate are required by God to be merciful. They should also take into account all that has been done for their people over the years. They should remember that the clock cannot be turned back to make things exactly as they were. It is not possible to exactly restore a situation several hundred years after an injustice has occurred. Much of the land that was confiscated is no longer owned by the families who first benefited from the injustice. The wealth of some of these families has often disappeared through bad management or disaster. They have already received their justice. Often it has been diluted by it being spread among large numbers of descendants. On the other hand, some of the Maori, who were robbed, have become rich through their success in business. Another complication is that, due to inter-racial marriage, many New Zealanders are descended from both sides of the injustice.

  2. The Maori people must guard against taking matters into their own hands. The fact that injustice has taken place in the past does not justify violence in the present. If they turn to violence, they will bring judgement on their own heads. The same applies to those who resort to illegal forms of protest.

  3. The Maori people should also be careful not to blame all their problems on past injustice. This is a trap that can prevent them from getting on and solving their problems. People who only see themselves as victims of justice tend to become paralysed and are often unable to make or take the opportunities that come their way. Those who constantly dwell on the past are usually powerless to face the future. Only through faith in Christ can they achieve lasting solutions to their problems and achieve their full potential.

New Covenant Reconciliation

There is another solution to this problem. Mephibosheth escaped the consequences of Saul's actions, because his father Jonathan had made a covenant with David. He was protected by a covenant that took precedence over the covenant with the Gibeonites. If the people of New Zealand turned back to Jesus, and acknowledged him as their Lord, they could come under the covenant that he made with his people. It takes precedence over the Covenant of Waitangi. Those who are covered by it can claim the benefits of his perfect sacrifice. Sin and injustice always require atonement (restitution to God). The blood of Jesus shed on the cross counts as atonement for those belonging to him. Those who reject his atonement must expect judgement for their sins. The same applies to a nation. The sins of leaders cannot be overlooked; they must be atoned for. If our nation would submit to Jesus his blood would count as atonement for our sins. His blood would count as restitution for the breaking of the Treaty of Waitangi.

If this were to happen, the Maori people would still benefit. As the nation submitted to Christ, there would be a tremendous outflow of sharing with those in need. Some people would be led to express their repentance by making restitution (Luke 19:1-10). Some of this sharing would flow to the Maori people. Obedience to God would restore his blessing to the whole nation. This would also benefit the Maori people. The Government would begin to rule according to the Word of God. This would mean justice for everyone. Maori and Pakeha would live in peace, bound together by the love of Christ.


This is a challenge to our nation. If we fail to acknowledge the injustice of the past, we can only expect more violence in the future. The police will be able to control the situation for a while, but it will eventually get out of, control, as hearts are hardened.

Where there is injustice, restitution is inescapable. Those who reject the atonement of Jesus must make restitution themselves. Those who refuse to make restitution voluntarily will be forced to make restitution through the judgements of history.

If we harden our hearts, and refuse to acknowledge the sins of the past, we can only expect judgement. Our nation will be torn apart by violence. If we are honest about our failures, and make fair restitution to the Maori people, we can live in harmony with them. Or better still, if we would turn back to Jesus Christ, we could live together in his peace. The blessing of God would be restored to our nation. Waitangi Day would then be a joyous celebration of our peace and unity; no longer spoiled by shame and hurts from the past.

Ahab and the Foreshore.