Then Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come. 2“Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father. 3“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. 4Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen. 7Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
8 “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
These four chapters of Joshua stand at the center of a long unit that extends from 13:8 to 21:42, dealing with the distribution of the inheritance, the promised land. It occupies a key position. Chapters 20, 21, part of the distribution narrative, can also be treated as a separate unit since they deal with the cities of refuge and the provisions made for the tribe of Levi (at which we will look next week). So for the purposes of our story line we will pick up at 15:1 and move through to the end of chapter 19.
With the inheritance to Ruben, Gad, and half of Manasseh already established east of the Jordan (13:15-31), the narrator now turns to Judah, preceded by the story of Caleb (14:6-15), which takes priority because of the Lord’s specific promise to him over four decades before this allocation by lot. The last sentence of chapter 14, concluding the Caleb narrative, “And the land had rest from war” (14:15b), is an echo of the last sentence of Chapter 11, which rounded off the previous section describing the conquest of the land. Now with that testimony to all that Yahweh has achieved for his people echoing in our ears, we are ready to turn our attention to the tribes who will inherit west of the Jordan. Which parts of the land that is now at “rest” will be allocated to each tribe, clan, and family?
We have mentioned several times that these records of which tribe lived where may be dull reading for us, but it acts as the warranty deed to the tribal land. More importantly, it is primarily a witness to YHWH’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to Abraham made centuries before. First, we see 2 1/2 tribes west of the Jordan receive their allotted land. Judah, whose inheritance is described in the greatest detail, Ephraim, and half the tribe of Manasseh have received their land to fully conquer and settle. That leaves seven tribes still to be settled, excluding Levi, recalling that half the tribe of Manasseh will be living on the other side of the river.
What follows then in this section of five chapters is a succession of lists of the remaining tribes and their allotments. The lists are not identical in structure, emphasis, or length but each has certain common elements: boundary lists and city lists; notices of cities or territories remaining to be conquered; stories of individuals or groups asking for and receiving their inheritances; and, introductory and concluding statements. Chapter 18 contains Joshua’s instructions for the land’s seven divisions and chapter 19 records how those instructions work out for the tribes of Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan.
This is the proof, both to Israel and to all who read this book of Joshua, God will keep the promises he has made. He has both the power and the integrity always to do what he says he will do. The lists are extensive and leave no tribe or clan or family without provision. What was true for the nation was also true in specific detail for each individual. Each received their terra firma, proving that none of their struggles and not one step of their journey had been in vain.
Commentators agree that Judah comes first in the order primarily because of the special blessings conferred on their tribal patriarch by Jacob, as we read earlier. Juda’s three older brothers lost their right to greater inheritance because of their sins. Judah received the special blessing conferred by Jacob. As the Old Testament story develops, Judah assumes increasing importance among the 12, not least because King David and his descendants come from Judah, as does David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1).
After the nation of Israel divides following the reign of Solomon, it is Judah by which the southern Kingdom is known, with its capital in Jerusalem and the Lord’s temple there, so that in every way this tribe has the supremacy. In 15:1-12 its boundaries are carefully and clearly set out on all four points of the compass. The southern boundary extends from the southern tip of the Dead Sea westward to the Mediterranean. The eastern boundary is the western shores of the Dead Sea, and it stretches to the north from the northern end of the sea beyond Jerusalem to the area of Ekron and so westward to the Mediterranean.
Following the digression regarding Caleb’s inheritance (15:13-19), the allocation continues in verse 20 with the list of the Canaanite towns included in it, beginning with the Negev in the South (15:21-32), followed by the foothills of the West (15:33-44) and the Philistine settlements at the coast (15:45-47). The list moves to the hill country (15:48-60) and concludes with the desert (15:61, 62).
As the list develops, the number of towns and villages is totaled, giving an escalating sense both of the size and scope of the conquest and also of all that still needed to be done. As a reminder, verse 63 records the honest fact that they could not drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, even though Joshua had killed its king and defeated its army in the battle of Gibeon (10:22-27). This is but one of a series of foreboding verses that occur throughout these chapters, pointing to the incomplete nature of the conquest and the problems this will create for Israel in the future.
In Judges 1:21 the tribe of Benjamin receives the blame for failure to conquer this area of the land, probably because Jerusalem was situated on the border between the tribes, although it seems from Judges 1:8 that Judah may have had some temporary, limited success at conquest. Calvin spares no punches commenting on this failure:
… had they exerted themselves to the full measure of their strength, and failed of success, the dishonor would have fallen on God himself, who had promised that he would continue with them as their leader until he should give them full and free possession of the land, and that he would send hornets to drive out the inhabitants. Therefore, it was owing entirely to their own sluggishness that they did not make themselves masters of the city of Jerusalem. This they were not able to do; but their own torpor, their neglect of the divine command from a love of ease, were the real obstacles.
Calvin’s comment reveals the irony of the author’s statement, “And the land had rest from war” (14:15b). At least part of the reason that the land had rest from war was the failure of the Israelites to keep on pressing the attack and taking the entirety of their land. The covenant of works always reveals our insufficiencies. The Law always accuses.
The next tribes to receive land are the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, again because of Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:22-26. With half of Manasseh already settled east of the river, the remaining half, along with Ephraim, are given large territories in the central part of the land, including many of the place names that become increasingly familiar to us as the Old Testament unfolds. Following a detailed description of the southern boundary in 16:1-4, 16:5-10 gives the details of the territory for Ephraim, followed by those for western Manasseh in 17:1-13. The author tells us that although they were reckoned as two tribes they drew only one lot, which is the reason for the complaint made in 17:14-18.
“Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the Lord has blessed me?” They accused Joshua of using their common descent from Joseph to deprive them of more territory they believe should be rightly theirs. His reply is masterful. If they are such a great and numerous people, then they are able to go out and attack the enemy whose territory has been allotted to them but not yet taken (17:15). Joshua’s implication is they have plenty of space, but they must apply energy and determination to make it their own. The territory was not insufficient, but their obedience and faith seemed to be so. The covenant of works reveals our innate inability to conform to it.
There was a great deal of forested land in the hill country to be won, but it would be a demanding project. Their response was to quibble about the unsuitability of their allotment (17:16), which would confine them to the plain where the Canaanites are still dwelling with their chariots of iron. But Joshua will not budge. If their two tribes are so numerous, let them use their numbers and strength to subdue the land and drive out the Canaanites, whatever their weaponry (17:17, 18). Whatever they had learned from their previous miraculous experiences, they have quickly forgotten. The question as to whether they will have the faith of Joshua and Caleb to accomplish the project is left hanging in the balance.
This section contains another incident concerning the five daughters of Zelophehad (17:3-6). Their backstory is recorded in Numbers 26:33 and 27:1-11. Their father had died in the wilderness, and they had no brothers. They appealed directly to Moses and Eleazar that their family name should not be removed, but that they should be given an inheritance among their father’s brothers, in the tribe of Manasseh.
The Lord instructed Moses to grant their request and established laws of inheritance that enabled its transfer to a man’s daughters if he died having no sons. Much like Caleb, the five women come forward now to claim their God-given inheritance. They are another example of trust in the promises of YHWH. What we see is that faith excludes no one on the basis of race or gender. We also see that what determined their rights was the written Word of God, the Pentateuch written by Moses and obeyed by Joshua.
Our storyline next focuses on the establishment of the Tabernacle at Shiloh. We have heard the provisions for the five tribes and Levi, who receives no land but rather is given the special blessing of serving the Lord. That puts us at the halfway point in the great land distribution. Chapters 18 and 19 form a unit bracketed by 18:1 and 19:51 which both reference Shiloh.
Joshua moves his center of operations from Gilgal to Shiloh, situated in the middle of the country. This shows a shift from being on a war footing, with the main camp at Gilgal, to being at rest. Until this point the Tabernacle and the ark have either been adjacent to the camp, or possibly traveling with the army as at Jericho. But now there is sufficient rest for the whole congregation to gather at Shiloh and to establish the shrine of God’s manifest presence on a more permanent basis.
The Tabernacle was still there at the time of Samuel’s birth and childhood. There it would remain until captured by the Philistines at the time of Eli’s death (1 Samuel 1-4). The people of God are established in the land, and the presence of God is located in their midst, at Shiloh, northwest of Jericho, in the territory of Ephraim. Joshua uses the occasion to stir the people to renewed effort in taking full possession of those parts of the land over which they did not yet exercise control.
Joshua accuses the people of growing slack in their pursuit of the conquest (18:3), reminding them again that the land is God’s gracious gift to them. Much of the land was already in their hands, but that land was either the settlements east of the river or the central and southern areas allocated to Judah and Ephraim-Manasseh. As the allocations begin to move out across the country, much more work would need to be done to make these territories their own.
Some of these territories had more military challenges than others. So to ensure the fair and just distribution of the land when the lots were cast, Joshua appoints 21 surveyors, not spies but reconnaissance officials, three from each of the seven remaining tribes, to “go up and down the land… [and] write a description of it” (18:4). Reminding them of the allocations already made, which will not change, and also the fact that Levi is excluded, Joshua commissions them to divide the land into seven portions and to describe it fully, bringing their findings in written form back to him (18:5-7).
The 21 surveyors go out and eventually return with “a description of it by towns in seven divisions,” written in “a book” (18:9). With this book in hand Joshua is ready to cast lots for the seven tribes, and the result is recorded for us in the rest of this section. The task was accomplished, and the unity of the nation was preserved and perhaps even enhanced.
Benjamin is the first of the seven to whom the lot falls (18:7). As with Judah, the boundaries are described in considerable detail in verses 11 through 20, followed by a listing of the cities, 26 in all (vv. 21-28). Benjamin’s northern boundary is the same as Ephraim’s southern boundary. Simeon is next, and “their inheritance was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah” (19:1), so that they have a kind of enclave, surrounded by the tribe of Judah. They received 17 cities along with the surrounding villages (19:1-9). Since Jacob’s patriarchal blessing in Genesis 49 plays a hand in the allocation of the land, it is worth remembering that Genesis 49:7 states about Simeon and Levi, “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” Simeon’s story becomes one of declining numbers and loss of identity.
The third lot came up for Zebulon, mentioned before his older brother Issachar, as in the order of blessing in Genesis 49. The territory assigned is in the north of the country, bounded by Asher to the west, Naphtali to the north, and Issachar on the south (19:10-16). Issachar comes next in 19:17-23, with more attention given to their cities than to the boundaries.
Asher is fifth (19:24-31), again with the description emphasizing their 22 cities. Naftali follows (19:32-39) with their territory situated between Asher and the upper Jordan river. His land included attractive densely forested mountains and fairly fertile lower areas. It was the heartland of Galilee through which the major trade route between Jezreel and points north ran.
Last came Dan (19:40-48), with another description emphasizing the cities, being generally located between Judah and Ephraim, to the west of Benjamin, and including the coastal region of the Mediterranean Sea. Verse 47 is an interesting but ominous comment from the time perspective of the writer after the days of Joshua. He notes their territory was “lost to them” or literally “went out from them.” Maybe it was never properly taken, or perhaps Dan only occupied it briefly, but the fact of their northern migration to Leshem, which they captured and renamed Dan, is documented in the book of Judges:
The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain (Judges 1:34).
In fact, it was the House of Joseph that subjugated the Amorites, which may indicate some lack of commitment or effort from the Danites. The full account of Dan’s migration to the north is recounted in Judges 18, which makes for incredibly sad reading because it culminates in their setting up their own shrine, a carved image, and an independent priesthood to rival the House of God at Shiloh.
The narrative concludes with Joshua 19:49-51, which focuses on Joshua’s own personal inheritance given to him by the people of Israel in accordance with the command of God (19:50). Like Caleb, he had been given God’s promise back in Numbers 14:30 that he would live in the land. Like Caleb, he believed that promise. Being from the tribe of Ephraim, he asked for a city in their territory in order to settle back among his people at Timnath-serah in the hill country. This is where Joshua would die and be buried (Judges 2:9).
It is fitting for Joshua, the great servant leader, to put himself last in the division of the land. Calvin sees humility even in Joshua’s reward, believing Joshua asks for and receives (wait for it) …a pile of stones:
In the reward itself also the same temperance and frugality are conspicuous. The city he asks to be given to himself and his family was a mere heap of stones, either because it had been demolished and converted into a heap of ruins, or because no city had yet been built upon it.
Joshua 19:51 closes the unit in a formal way. The agenda is completed. The meeting is closed. The task is finished. “So they finished dividing the land.” The great all-tribal convention at Shiloh has completed its work. All of it had taken place at the command of the Lord, at the entrance to the tent of meeting and so before the Lord, and he had providentially ruled over his sovereign distribution of the lots. The land was God’s alone to give. He granted it to his people, not merely in a general sense, but in specific detail, town by town, tribe by tribe.
Of course the land had to be received by faith and turned into reality by continuing trust and dedicated obedience as Israel committed herself to take full possession of their allotted lands. Such is the case under the covenant of works. It commands constant dedication and perfect obedience. As time would prove, Israel could not keep her land because she could not keep the covenant of works. She could not maintain her own covenant faithfulness. She would find herself torn asunder by her idolatry. Ultimately, Judah and Benjamin would find themselves carted off in slavery to the land from which their father Abraham had originally come.
St Author of Hebrews explains:
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
8 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 49:1–10.
 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Commentary on the Book of Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 209–210.
 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Commentary on the Book of Joshua (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 237.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 8:6–13.