Lots of Lots

Since these chapters are loaded with details, the following outline of their contents may be helpful:
    The assembly at the sanctuary, 18:1–10
      Opportunity: the land ‘subdued’, 18:1
      Crisis: the people ‘slack’, 18:2–3
      Plan: the land ‘written up’, 18:4–7
      Execution: the land ‘portioned out’, 18:8–10
    The lots for the tribes, 18:11–19:48
      Inheritance of Benjamin, 18:11–28
         Boundaries, 18:11–20
         Towns, 18:21–28
      Inheritance of Simeon, 19:1–9
      Inheritance of Zebulun, 19:10–16
      Inheritance of Issachar, 19:17–23
      Inheritance of Asher, 19:24–31
      Inheritance of Naphtali, 19:32–39
      Inheritance of Dan, 19:40–48
    The reward for the leader, 19:49–51

Again, a contemporary Christian reader of Joshua 18–19 would have to confess that he is not interested in lots. However, I would again insist that all Scripture is profitable and that instructive notes ring in these chapters as well.

A New Day (18:1)

Israel’s assembling and setting up the tabernacle at Shiloh, hints at the dawn of a new day. Shiloh was about ten miles northeast of Bethel, thirty miles north of Jerusalem, in the tribal territory of Ephraim. Shiloh seems to have been the primary centre of Israelite worship during the pre-monarchic period (Josh. 18:1; 21:2, 22:9, 12; Judg. 18:31; 21:12, 19; 1 Sam. 1–2). This was a new situation. The day would come, Moses had told Israel (Deut. 12:1–15), when Yahweh would choose a place in the land where he was to be worshipped, a place where sacrifices were to be offered and sacrificial meals enjoyed. The semilaxity of the wilderness period would cease when God brought them into their inheritance and gave them rest in the land. Here they were to worship faithfully (turning away from the many Canaanite holy spots around them to this one worship centre), joyfully (‘and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God, you and your sons and your daughters and your male and female servants, as well as the Levite who lives within your town gates’), and securely (for Yahweh would give them rest from enemies). Now Yahweh’s dwelling place was erected at Shiloh, where he had caused his name to dwell (cf. Jer. 7:12). ‘The desert did not provide the paradigm for the settled life in the promised land.’1 Yahweh’s intention was for his people to worship him in fidelity, joy, and security.

Shiloh may have marked such a new day, but it was not the final new day. Zechariah saw it and was glad, the time when Yahweh would ‘enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days’ (Luke 1:74–75, NIV). Many of our brothers and sisters long for the new day when they can worship and serve God without fear. But already with Israel we have a clear glimpse of God’s intention for us—to worship him faithfully, joyfully, securely.
A Constant Concern (18:5–7)

Secondly, our writer betrays a constant concern to stress that all Israel, that all twelve tribes receive their share of the land inheritance (18:5–7). As Marten H. Woudstra points out,

  This is not needless redundancy but proceeds from the writer’s thematic interest in the twelve-tribe scheme and in the unity of Israel as it participates equally in the Conquest (cf. 1:12–18) and as it shares alike in the distribution of the promised land.

We last saw it in chapter 13; here again is this careful passion to account for all Israel. So, our writer runs us through the tribal math again. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘there are seven portions for these seven remaining tribes (18:5a), though Judah (one tribe) is already placed in the south and Joseph (one and a half tribes) in the north (18:5b). Please remember that Levi (one tribe) inherits priesthood instead of real estate (18:7a) and that two and a half tribes have already received their lots east of the Jordan.’ This emphasis comes via Joshua’s speech, but it is clearly an emphasis the writer wants to make (cf. ch. 22).

Christian believers can profit from this perspective. We always face the temptation of thinking that we are elite rather than elect, of thinking that, after all, our own particular Christian ghetto is swankier than the others, or of simply losing sight of the fact that other believers share the same Father’s wealth. The New Testament is adamant about this. ‘Because out of his fullness [see 1:14] we all have received, even grace on top of grace’ (John 1:16). ‘For by one Spirit we all were baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all have been given one Spirit to drink’ (1 Cor. 12:13). ‘But to each one of us grace was given in line with the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph. 4:7). The Scriptures are not denying Christian diversity, only rebuking Christian snobbery. All God’s people matter to him; each one is his heir.

A Dangerous Laxity

We hear the keynote, however, of chapters 18–19 when Joshua accuses the seven tribes of developing a dangerous laxity toward the task of possessing the land. ‘How long will you continue to show yourselves slack about going in to possess the land that Yahweh the God of your fathers has given you?’ (18:3). The verbal idea of being slack is a participial form and indicates a persisting action or attitude. It comes from the same root as the verb in 1:5, where Yahweh promises Joshua, ‘I will not let go of you’ (or, ‘I will not drop you’). Here Israel is in danger of letting go, of dropping the call to possess the gift of God.

Now was the crucial time. ‘The land was subdued before them’ (v. 1). Here was their opportunity. While the land was subdued (Hebrew, kabash) they must press on to possess (Hebrew, yarash) it (v. 3). With the backbone of Canaanite resistance presently broken, these tribes must follow up this advantage and nail down the land (i.e. permanently occupy it). But here they remain—letting the opportunity slip away.

Joshua did what he could to get Israel on with it. They were to select three men from each of the seven tribes in question; these twenty-one men were to case out the land and write up a description of it. Then Joshua would cast lots for these tribes and portion out their inheritances to them (vv. 3–7). Perhaps that would shove them out of their sluggishness.

Verse 3 reflects the tension of much believing experience, ancient Israelite and contemporary Christian. Yahweh has promised the land and yet it must be possessed. It is Yahweh’s gift and yet that does not cancel human responsibility. Yahweh’s promises are intended not as sedatives but as stimulants. God does not want us to swallow his promises but to seize them. Such is the apostle’s ‘theo-logic’ in 2 Peter 1:3ff. Peter exclaims that ‘His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness’ and that ‘He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises’ (NASB). Then he concludes: ‘Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge’, and so on (NASB; emphasis added). God’s gifts are not meant to tame but to arouse God’s people.
H. L. Ellison has probably assessed Israel’s slackness correctly:

  The slackness blamed by Joshua (3) may well have been due to an unwillingness to settle down. It was fine to have a ‘promised land,’ but the reality showed the need for learning new skills and engaging in hard work. That is for many the disappointing side of God’s gifts; they are always given that we may serve the better. Even his rest is linked with a yoke (Matt. 11:28–30).

For application, see the previous chapter, and my comments on deviation from Yahweh’s program.

A Necessary Authority

Fourthly, we can note how carefully Joshua places this land division under a necessary authority. Three times we read that after the twenty-one men write up the land, the lot will be cast for the seven tribes ‘before Yahweh’ (18:6, 8, 10), that is, before Yahweh’s presence at the tabernacle in Shiloh.

  The transaction was a solemn one, and he would have it so performed as that the tribes should look upon their possessions, as established to them by divine authority.

Though this seems perfunctory enough to us, it was nevertheless necessary. There could be no end of complaint, quarrelling, or discontent unless the tribes were assured that their lot was determined by the hand of God, that their territory was theirs by Yahweh’s decision.The heart of the matter differs little for the Christian, though it may seldom involve real estate. Only as I am convinced that ‘my times are in thy hand’ (Ps. 31:15—see v. 13 for what those times can be like!) and that Yahweh really does hold my lot (cf. Ps. 16:5), can I be kept from bitterness and discontent. There is, by a strange chemistry, something oddly consoling when I realise in a fresh way that my present lot is what my Lord has intended for me.

A Completed Allotment

Fifthly, chapters 18–19 show us a completed allotment. Whether these seven tribes will overcome their laxity and press their current advantage by cleaning out their local inheritances is not yet clear, but Joshua has done what he could by prodding them and assigning their various lots.

We need not give a close treatment of the geographical-topographical details; the reader may find these elsewhere.5 However, we should note the general location of these tribal lots.

Benjamin received the hill country south of Ephraim and north of Judah (18:11), a section twenty-six miles long east to west and twelve miles wide north to south.6 The description of Benjamin’s inheritance is about twice as long (18:11–28) as that of any of the remaining six tribes, though it is difficult to say precisely how that may be significant.

Simeon is unique in that its inheritance consists of towns within the southwestern section of Judah’s territory (19:1–9). Zebulun’s portion (19:10–16) was in southern Galilee with Asher on the northwest, Naphtali on the northeast, Issachar on the southeast, and Manasseh on the southwest, where the Wadi Kishon formed the border.7 Issachar (19:17–23) settled at the east end of the Valley of Jezreel (Esdraelon) with the Mount Gilboa range to the south and the hills of Lower Galilee on the north.

Asher’s area (19:24–31) stretched all the way from Mount Carmel in the south to Sidon in the north, from the Mediterranean on the west to the western slopes of the Galilean hills on the east. Naphtali’s lot (19:32–39) is not easy to trace, but in general lay between the area of Mount Tabor in the south and the River Litani in the north; on the east it touched the upper Jordan River; hence it covered the greater portion of eastern and central Galilee. Dan’s original territory (19:40–48) lay west of Benjamin’s with Ephraim on the north and Judah on the south.

Let me enter a word about the date of these chapters (see also the discussion on ch. 15).

It has become a scholarly shibboleth to hold that these town lists and border descriptions arose from a time later than the conquest era and have been placed here by the editor(s) of Joshua as though they had arisen in the time of Joshua (when in fact they come from the time of Jehoshaphat, Josiah, or the exile).10 There are hints, however, that the lists are early, dating from the conquest and settlement periods. Adding parenthetical explanations of old place names (e.g. 18:13, 28) suggests the original document(s) was (or were) quite old. If these lists reflect only later historical realities, it is difficult to understand Ekron in Philistia being allotted to Dan (19:43), since there is no evidence that Ekron was ever conquered (other than the temporary taking [Judg. 1:18]).11 Certainly no later writer aware of (later) historical fact would have dreamed of extending Asher’s territory as far as Sidon (19:28; cf. Judg. 1:31), for Sidon was always beyond the pale of Israelite conquest. But such naïveté (as thinking Asher should occupy Sidon) would be perfectly in place at an early date before Israel’s failure to occupy all the land became clear. I do not deny that there are problems in these lists; for example, the tallies of towns in 19:15, 30, 38 do not match up with the towns mentioned in the respective lists. But there is no need to hold that these lots are later constructions retrojected into the Book of Joshua as though they arose at that time.

An Eloquent Witness (19:49–50)

There is, lastly, an eloquent witness to hear at the end of chapter 19. I refer to the note about Joshua’s inheritance in verses 49–50: ‘So they finished distributing the land by its boundaries, and the sons of Israel gave an inheritance among them to Joshua the son of Nun. On the authority of Yahweh they gave it to him—the town he asked for, Timnath-serah, in the hill country of Ephraim; so he rebuilt the town and lived in it.’

Karl Gutbrod, glancing back over chapters 14–19, has rightly stated:

  The territorial description of the west Jordan tribes stands in a striking framework. It begins with the granting of an inheritance to Caleb and ends with the granting of such to Joshua.

Hence the whole account of the land distribution (for the western tribes) must be held together. It is true that the opening (18:1) and closing (19:51) references to Shiloh bind together particularly chapters 18 and 19,13 but this does not negate the fact that chapters 14–19 form a larger unit (compare 14:1 and 19:51a). Indeed one can now detect an overall arrangement in these chapters. I have already pointed out a contrast between Caleb and the Joseph tribes at the beginning and end, respectively, of 14:6–17:18. We can also observe the negative view of the seven tribes at the first of chapters 18–19 (18:3ff.) and the positive counterpart in Joshua at the end (19:49–50). The framework is this:

  Caleb,             14:6–15    positive
  Joseph tribes, 17:14–18   negative
  Seven tribes,  18:1–10     negative
  Joshua,           19:49–50   positive

The contrasts and the overall framework with its focus on Caleb and Joshua cannot help but drive us back to Numbers 13–14. There, of the twelve spies, only Caleb and Joshua were willing to gamble on the sure promise of God to overcome Canaan (Num. 13:30; 14:6–9). Unfortunately, the majority report had been contagious. However, Yahweh promised that his remnant of two believers would in fact enter the land (Num. 14:24, 30, 38) while the rest would die off for their unbelief. At that time Yahweh had doubtless given specific assurances of an inheritance to both Caleb and Joshua (see Caleb’s words in Joshua 14:6, ‘about you and me’).14 Hence Joshua’s inheritance, no less than Caleb’s, is ‘on the authority of Yahweh’ (19:50) and is in perfect line with ‘the word that Yahweh spoke’ (14:6).

So 19:49–50 is no useless tailpiece. Though the notes are not visible in the text, it’s really music. It is simply ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ (Lam. 3:23) in a different key. It is a standing witness to the fact that the majority may be neither faithful nor right (Num. 13–14). It is a witness to the fact that Yahweh keeps his promises (Num. 14:24, 30), even if he must preserve his two faithful men from Anakim, chariots, and high water to do so.

There are lots of lots in chapters 14–20. As they begin with Caleb, so they close with Joshua. What a fulfilment of Numbers 13–14! There is far more theology in Hebron and Timnath-serah than one usually hears.

Taken from Davis, D. R. (2000). Joshua: No Falling Words (pp. 137–145). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.