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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 13

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here begins the second half of the Book of Joshua, the half which relates the division of the land of Canaan among the children of Israel. Scholars are still advocating all kinds of alleged “sources” for this material and at least a half dozen dates for the time when it was written. One insurmountable fact is that Israel accepted these divisions as originating with God Himself through Moses and Joshua, and despite the Israelites’ character of never having been able to get along with any other nation in human history, the twelve tribes accepted these divisions, and as far as we have been able to determine never, even one time, engaged in quarrels, disagreements, or wars among themselves over the undisputed boundaries of their possessions! Could such a thing have happened if the origin of these divisions had been otherwise than as indicated in this chapter?

“Who actually made the divisions? Who made the allocations? Joshua 13:7 suggests that it was Joshua; Joshua 14:1 that it was Eleazer the priest and the heads of families; Joshua 14:5 that it was the people as a whole. These, however, are not mutually exclusive.”(F1)

We may even go a bit further and declare that it was God who made the allocations, by His determination of the issue in the casting of lots. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of Jehovah” (Proverbs 16:33).

Regarding alternative allegations regarding the date and authorship of these chapters, there is, as yet, no agreement whatever among the scholars and critics. Every seminary has its own theory, and as “prestigious” theologians are replaced by others just as “prestigious,” these theories are fluid, constantly changing and being replaced by more theories just as fluid. If one does not wish to be contradicted by the new theories that will be current 10 years from now, let him accept the time-tested understanding of JOSHUA’s authorship, as advocated here. Nothing can destroy the conviction of the great majority of mankind that for thousands of years has ascribed these writings to Joshua. Concerning all the suggestions as to alternative dates and authors, Blair also commented that, “On the evidence available, it is difficult to come to any conclusion;…the basic form of these divisions dates back to the conquest.”(F2)

These detailed boundaries and scores of particular places mentioned here, “Were vital for the tribes themselves, for these were the title-deeds of their inheritance.”(F3) We shall not be concerned with a discussion of each one of the places mentioned here, because, as John Calvin said, “Great labor (on that project) would produce little fruit to the reader.”(F4) About one-fourth of all the place-names given here are absolutely “unknown.”(F5) Several of them are the grounds of contention among archeologists, with some claiming one site, and others another site, as the location of a given city. Besides that, in a number of other cases, there are as many as four towns with the same name! The important thing is that the people concerned did know and did understand the boundaries which are here outlined. Before moving to a study of the Sacred Text itself, we take time to notice the following:

“The whole land has been subdued (Josh. 11:23-12), but here we read that even in Joshua’s old age there remained “very much land to be possessed.” This plainly comes through from an older source than Joshua 12, and is very much nearer the true state of things. The later writer, however, in order to bring the statement into harmony with what was written in Joshua 12, proceeds to explain the phrase “very much land” by referring it to distant places in the West and in the North, some of which never came into the possession of Israel at all.”(F6)

We have included this comment, not for any value in it, there being none at all, but for the purpose of showing the biased and fallacious reasoning of critics. Note that Holmes says that the later writer brought the place into harmony with what was already written, but how could he know that it was not the original author himself who brought about the harmony? Furthermore, the “very much land” in the North and West had already been identified with that Canaan which God promised the Israelites even from the days of Abraham and the later patriarchs! Sure, Israel did not finally possess all of it, but that will be fully explained under Joshua 13:6, below. God’s promise to “drive them out” was never an unconditional declaration, but it was always contingent upon Israel’s obedience and cooperation, neither of which God received.

Dean Stanley described this portion of the Book of Joshua, as, “The Domesday Book,” comparing it to the book of that name which was compiled by William the Conquerer (1085-1086). However, Plummer pointed out the essential differences in the books,(F7) but, as far as God’s intention of destroying the occupants of Israel’s remaining possessions was concerned, it was indeed the Doomsday Book. That Israel failed to carry out God’s intention in this matter did not change God’s purpose.

The conflict with which we are confronted here in the view of “a task well done” as contrasted “with much yet left to do,” is a fact of all life, especially in the spiritual sector. This experience of the secular Israel is a type of the Christian Church, or a type of the human heart.

“The work of subduing God’s enemies is gradual. One successful engagement does not conclude the war. The enemy renews his assaults, and when force fails, he tries fraud. When direct temptations are of no avail, he resorts to enticements. The victory belongs only to him who has learned to keep guard over himself, and to direct his ways to the counsels of God.”(F8)

Verses 1-7

“Now Joshua was old and well stricken in years; and Jehovah said unto him, Thou art old and well stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed. This is the land that yet remaineth: all the region of the Philistines, and all the Geshurites; from the Shihor, which is before Egypt, even unto the border of Ekron northward, which is reckoned to the Canaanites; the five lords of the Philistines; the Gazites, and the Ashdodites, the Ashkelonites, the Gittites, and the Ekronites; also the Avvim, on the south; all the land of the Canaanites, and Mearah that belongeth to the Sidonians, unto Aphek, to the border of the Amorites; and the land of the Gebalites, and all Lebanon toward the sunrising, from Baal-gad under mount Hermon unto the entrance of Hamath; all the inhabitants of the hill-country from Lebanon unto Misrephoth-maim, even all the Sidonians; them will I drive out from before the children of Israel: only allot thou it unto Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded thee. Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance unto the nine tribes and the half tribe of Manasseh.”

“Thou art old” (Joshua 13:1). “Joshua was 110 years old the year he died (Joshua 24:29); so he must have been more than 90 years old at this time.”(F9) If one wonders why the age of Joshua is stressed here, “It was a principal reason why he should speedily apply himself to the dividing of that which he had conquered.”(F10) Henry further observed that, “All people, but especially old people, should set themselves to do quickly that which must be done before they die, lest death prevent them.”(F11) “Joshua’s original commission required that he should `divide the land’ to Israel, and his advanced age was a special reason for discharging that duty at once.”(F12)

Joshua 13:2-3 name the still unconquered areas in the south, and Joshua 13:4-5, and Joshua 13:6 name those in the north.”(F13)

“Sihor” (Joshua 13:3). “This word originally referred to the Nile river. Here, however, it is located east of Egypt and apparently designates the southern border of Canaan…. the Brook of Egypt (Wady el-’Arish).(F14)

“From the south” (Joshua 13:4). This connects with what precedes.”(F15) “This indicates the southern limit of the still unconquered territory, and Joshua 13:3 gives the northern limit.”(F16) Jamieson pointed out the wisdom of putting these limits and boundaries on record, “As in any case of misunderstanding or dispute about the exact limits of each district of property an appeal could always be made to this authoritative document.”(F17) This southern limit included the Mediterranean coast as far as the Brook of Egypt. The northern limit was to Aphek, to the border of the Amorites. “This was the Aphek in the allotment to Asher, and the `border of the Amorites’ was the northern boundary of the territory of Bashan.”(F18) We learn from these same sources that Aphek was the site of the Syrian temple of Astarte, dedicated to her as mourning for Tammuz, the ruins of which are still visible. It is not believed that Asher ever actually occupied the territory this far.

“Them will I drive out from before the children of Israel” (Joshua 13:6). This was by no means an unconditional promise. Despite this, some people have taken upon themselves to deny the authenticity of Divine revelation on this matter, affirming that, “God promised that Joshua should conquer the whole land,”(F19) and then, of course, it did not happen! Again from Clarke, “This is a total mistake.”(F20) God never absolutely, or UNCONDITIONALLY, promised to put Israel in possession of the whole land of Canaan. The promise of their possessing it DEPENDED upon their fidelity to God. They were NOT faithful, but rebelled against God repeatedly, and that is why Israel actually failed to possess great portions of the promised land. Furthermore, they did not drive out the Canaanites, even where they did possess it, and eventually Israel was seduced and corrupted by the pagan worship that surrounded them to such a degree, and in such an aggravated sense, that God removed Israel, absolutely, and altogether, from their status of being God’s Chosen People. From the days of Hosea, and afterward, Israel’s status was that of a “slave” and not that of a wife, in the house of God. Read Hosea, especially the 9th chapter. (Also see our full discussion of this question in Vol. 2 of my series on the minor prophets.) “If Israel, through sloth, or cowardice, or affection to those idolaters (of Canaan), sit still and let them alone, they must blame themselves, and not God, if they be not driven out.”(F21) Although Israel never held all of the land described by these boundaries, this chapter shows that ALL of Canaan was indeed promised by God to Israel, contingent only upon their obedience and cooperation, neither of which they gave.

Verses 8-14

“With him the Reubenites and the Gadites received their inheritance, which Moses gave them, beyond the Jordan eastward, even as Moses the servant of Jehovah gave them: from Aroer, that is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, and the city that is in the middle of the valley, and all the plain of the Medeba unto Dibon; and all the cities of Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, unto the border of the children of Ammon; and Gilead, and the border of the Geshurites and Maacathites, and all mount Hermon, and all Bashan unto Salecah; all the kingdom of Og in Bashan, who reigned in Ashteroth and in Edrei (the same was left of the remnant of the Rephaim); for these did Moses smite, and drove them out. Nevertheless the children of Israel drove not out the Geshurites, nor the Maacathites: but Geshur and Maacath dwell in the midst of Israel unto this day. Only unto the tribe of Levi he gave no inheritance; the offerings of Jehovah, the God of Israel, made by fire are his inheritance, as he spake unto him.”

See a complete discussion of the events here repeated from Deuteronomy 3:1-17, and from Numbers 32.

“Aroer” (Joshua 13:9). This is one of at least three cities, possibly four, that bore this name!(F22)

The mention here (Joshua 13:14) of Levi’s not receiving an inheritance also carries the notation that they were to receive all of the offerings made by fire. They were also assigned certain cities throughout Israel, as more particularly noted in Joshua 21. In Paul’s eloquent support of the principle that the Christian church should adequately support its ministers, he appealed to the example of the Levites (2 Corinthians 9).

Verses 15-23

“And Moses gave unto the tribe of the children of Reuben according to their families. And their border was from Aroer, that is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, and the city that is in the middle of the valley, and all the plain by Medeba; Heshbon, and all its cities that are in the plain: Dibon, and Bamoth-baal, and Beth-baal-meon, and Jahaz, and Kedemoth, and Mephaath, and Kiriathaim, and Sibmah, and Zereth-shahar in the mount of the valley, and Beth-peor, and the slopes of Pisgah, and Beth-jeshimoth, and all the cities of the plain, and all the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, whom Moses smote with the chiefs of Midian, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the princes of Sihon, that dwelt in the land. Balaam also the son-of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among the rest of the slain. And the border of the children of Reuben was the Jordan, and the border thereof. This was the inheritance of the children of Reuben, according to their families, the cities and the villages thereof.”

This material is an expansion of Numbers 32:33-42; and this location of Reuben east of the Jordan was discussed in Vol. 3 of our Pentateuchal series under that reference. There we learned that Israel actually took possession of that land; “But in the reigns of the wicked Omri and Ahab, the power of Israel declined; and, following the battle of Ramoth-Gilead and the defeat and death of Ahab, the Moabites succeeded in shaking off the Israelitish yoke and even recovering a portion of Sihon’s former kingdom.”(F23)

Due to the uncertainty regarding the identity of some of the places mentioned here, we cannot now precisely outline the territory of Reuben; but, as Morton said, “Essentially, it was as follows:”(F24) the Arnon river was the south boundary; on the north the boundary was the Wadi Hesban; on the west was the Jordan river and the Dead Sea; and on the east was an indefinite boundary marked by the edge of the desert.

The tragic story of Reuben was summarized this way by Cook:

“The Reubenites became much intermixed afterward with the Moabites, who, in fact, later acquired much of their land, and several, if not all of the cities mentioned in this passage”(F25)

It was the shameful worship of Baal as promulgated by the daughters of Moab in the disaster at Baal-Peor that proved to be very attractive to the Israelites; and it must be accepted as very probable that this was precisely the thing that, in the end, destroyed Reuben, whose tribe was the very first to go into captivity. (See my comments on this in the parallel text in Numbers.)

“Bamoth-baal… Beth-baal… etc.” (Joshua 13:17). Note the predominance of the name of the Moabitish god, “Baal” in these place-names. These “high places were probably so-called from the altars that were erected on hills for the impure worship of this Canaanite Priapus.”(F26) This pagan god was the god of gardens, fertility, and procreation. His worship was an excuse for lewdness, lustfulness, and persistent, morbid and excessive sexual excitement.(F27)

Beth-peor is the place where Israel received Moses’ farewell address (Deuteronomy 3:29); here Balaam uttered one of his prophesies (Numbers 23:28); “It was also in easy reach of Shittim, where Israel followed Baal-peor (Numbers 25:3).”(F28) Woudstra also thought that the inclusion a moment later in the sacred text of an account of Balaam’s death might have been intended as an indirect warning to the Reubenites. This is certainly possible.

(For full comment on Balaam and his efforts to curse Israel, see our discussion of this in Vol. 3 of the Pentateuchal series, pp. 459-488.)

Verses 24-28

“And Moses gave unto the tribe of Gad, unto the children of Gad, according to their families. And their border was Jazer, and all the cities of Gilead, and half the land of the children of Ammon, unto Aroer that is before Rabbah; and from Heshbon unto Ramoth-Mizpeh, and Betonim; and from Mahanaim unto the border of Debir; and in the valley of Beth-haram, and Beth-nimrah, and Succoth, and Zaphon, the rest of the kingdom of Sihon king of Heshbon, the Jordan and the border thereof, unto the uttermost part of the sea of Chinneroth, beyond the Jordan eastward. This is the inheritance of the children of Gad according to their families, the cities and the villages thereof.”

Gad’s territory included the balance of the old empire of Sihon as far north as the Jabbok River and somewhat beyond it. The western boundary was the Jordan River. At the Jordan, Gad controlled the area as far as the southern tip of Lake Galilee (Chinneroth, here). Gad received that part of Ammon’s territory that Sihon had conquered. Otherwise, Israel was forbidden to encroach on Ammon’s land, but the part they had already lost to Sihon, Israel could acquire. On the southeast, the town of Aroer marked the boundary between Gad and Ammon.

Ramoth-Mizpeh is thought to be the same as Ramoth-Gilead. Gad’s territory was famous for “balm,” for the “wood of Ephraim” where Absalom’s rebellious army was beaten; also Sharon, famous for its roses, was in this territory. Also, as Matthew Henry said, “Here lived those Gadarenes who loved their swine more than their Saviour!”(F29)

Verses 29-31

“And Moses gave inheritance unto the half-tribe of Manasseh; and it was for the half-tribe of the children of Manasseh according to their families. And their border was from Mahanaim, all Bashan, all the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, and all the towns of Jair, which are in Bashan, three-score cities. and half Gilead, and Ashteroth, and Edrei, the cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan, were for the children of Machir the son of Manasseh, even for the half of the children of Machir according to their families.”

“This description of Manasseh’s territory consists of little else besides the enumeration of districts, the nucleus of which consisted of all of Bashan and half of Gilead.”(F30) The prominence of Machir in this paragraph probably came from his power as a good warrior. This territory reached all the way from Mount Hermon almost to the Jabbok River, and also included all of the upper reaches of the Jordan River.

Verses 32-33

“These are the inheritances which Moses distributed in the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan at Jericho, eastward. But unto the tribe of Levi Moses gave no inheritance: Jehovah, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as he spake unto them.”

Who but Joshua would have been so particular at this point to repeat the allocations made by Moses, doing so in great detail? This is in perfect keeping with what is known of the character and disposition of Joshua, and of no other. He did not wish to carry out even a Divine assignment, without acknowledging in such a dramatic manner the magnificent debt that all of them already owed to the Great Lawgiver.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 13". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-13.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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