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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 16

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Joshua 16 and Joshua 17 outline the territory of Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. They had been officially adopted by Jacob as his own sons, endowing them with status equal in every way to the remainder of the Twelve Patriarchs. By this maneuver, Jacob gave the “double portion,” one of the prerogatives of the birthright to Joseph, the oldest son of his favorite (and only lawful) wife Rachel. That, of course, would have made Thirteen Patriarchs instead of Twelve Patriarchs, but Levi did not inherit with the others because “The Lord was his portion.”

All of the scholars speak of the uncertainty, confusion, and inadequate nature of the instructions here given. Surely, when compared with the detailed account of all those cities conveyed to Judah, this seems to fall far short. Matthew Henry complained that, “For this, no reason can be assigned.”(F1) However, we believe the reason lies in the fact that God, who must be understood as the author here, had no particular interest in ANY of the tribes except that of Judah, through whom the Messiah would eventually be delivered to mankind. The record here is merely to show that ALL the tribes received their inheritance as God had promised, but that they failed to drive out the pagan influence that eventually ruined them.

Many witnesses of the confusion and uncertainty attending these descriptions might be cited: “The border of Joseph is very slightly traced out.”(F2) “It is by no means easy to define the boundaries of the tribes.”(F3) “It is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that a passage is missing here.”(F4) “The material exhibits considerable disarray, as if its order has been disturbed.”(F5) “This list must be compared with Joshua 18:12-13, which describes the northern border of Benjamin.”(F6) “We may conclude that all of these passages were abbreviated from full descriptions to suit the author’s purpose.”(F7) Cook also affirmed that, “From the abrupt manner in which the statements are introduced, as well as from their imperfect character, there is probability in the conjecture that some words, in these verses, have fallen out of the text.”(F8)

Despite whatever insufficiencies are alleged to characterize the instructions here, the principal facts are plain enough, and, through comparison with the boundaries of the other tribes, scholars are able to give accurate outlines of the territories assigned to Joseph’s two sons:

“The territory of the tribes of Joseph was drawn as one allotment. Afterward, it was divided between Ephraim (the southern part), and the half-tribe of Manasseh (the northerm part. Note that Ephraim’s border is outlined first, although that tribe was smaller (Numbers 26:34; Numbers 26:37), and Ephraim was younger than Manasseh. This was because the birthright of Joseph’s sons had been transferred to Ephraim (Genesis 48:9-20).”(F9)

Verses 1-4

“And the lot came out for the children of Joseph from the Jordan at Jericho, at the waters of Jericho on the east, even the wilderness, going up from Jericho through the hill country to Bethel; and it went out from Bethel to Luz, and passed along the border of the Archites to Ataroth; and it went down westward to the border of the Japhletites, unto the border of Beth-horon the nether, even unto Gezer; and the goings out thereof were at the sea. And the children of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim took their inheritance.”

One problem here is that Bethel and Luz are often understood as two different names for the same place; but as Plummer noted: “The new city did not coincide precisely in its site with the old.”(F10) It was like old and new Carthage, or the old Jericho and new Jericho, as we observed in the N.T.

Nothing is known of the Japhletites. The The New Bible Dictionary does not even have an entry under that title.

What did this allotment include? Dummelow has given a summary of what was included:

“The territory of the two tribes, described in Joshua 16:1-4, comprised the central and most fertile part of Palestine. The south border ran from Jericho to Bethel and Beth-horon to the sea (the Mediterranean); and the north border ran from Mount Carmel, along the southern border of the plain of Esdraelon to the Jordan.”(F11)

Despite the fact of Ephraim’s border reaching the Mediterranean at a point coinciding with the northwest comer of Judah’s territory, it appears that Dan also had a stake in the towns around Joppa (Joshua 19:45-46), thus sharing that part of the seacoast with Ephraim.

Verses 5-10

“And the border of the children of Ephraim according to their families was thus: the border of their inheritance eastward was Ataroth-addar, unto Beth-horon the upper; and the border went out westward at Michmethath on the north; and the border turned about eastward unto Taanath-shiloh, and passed along it on the east of Janoah; and it went down from Janoah to Ataroth, and to Naarah, and reached unto Jericho, and went out at the Jordan. From Tappuah the border went along westward to the brook of Kanah; and the goings out thereof were at the sea. This is the inheritance of the tribe of the children of Ephraim according to their families; together with the cities which were set apart for the children of Ephraim in the midst of the inheritance of the children of Manasseh, all the cities with their villages. And they drove not out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer: but the Canaanites dwelt in the midst of Ephraim unto this day, and are become servants to do taskwork.”

Some have expressed wonder at the short treatment of these directions for the inheritance of the children of Joseph in central Palestine. Henry thought that, “As Joshua himself was of the tribe of Joseph,”(F12) perhaps he intended to parcel out all the cities later. However, we cannot resist the conclusion that the burden of Joshua is principally concerned with that tribe, Judah, through whom Christ would be born. We saw something of this same phenomenon in Numbers where the whole history of that condemned generation of Israel occupies only a handful of pages covering a period of almost forty years! Why? Having already rebelled against God, anything they might have done, or not done lost all eternal significance. Here, in this very chapter we see the rebellion of Ephraim, his arrogance, and his leadership of the ten tribes, already being suggested by events unfolded here. It was through Ephraim that the defection of Northern Israel from the Lord occurred, and through Ephraim the southern kingdom itself was also finally corrupted. In these facts one must read the reason for the slight treatment of their inheritance.

Notice that Ephraim’s territory was expanded by the assignment of some of the cities that belonged to Manasseh. Cook stated that, “The reason for this can only be conjectured.”(F13) With all that we learn of Ephraim from the prophecy of Hosea, we do not hesitate to assign as the reason for this enlargement the arrogance and ambition of Ephraim and that domination which he finally exercised over the whole ten northern tribes. Ephraim, even before that enlargement, “had the rich district north and south of Shechem… and the whole fertile plain of the Esdraelon.”(F14) Also, we learn from Joshua 17:14 that their unwillingness to clear out the Canaanites caused their complaint. “Joshua, in effect, told them that if they were the great people they claimed to be, they could extend their territory by clearance and conquest.”(F15)

Before concluding this study of Joshua 16, we wish to take a close look at the final verse, which states that, “The Canaanites dwell in the midst of Ephraim unto this day, and are become servants to do taskwork.” The critics maintain that “this has a bearing on the date when Joshua was written.”(F16) This is a popular assertion and is echoed by a number of scholars. Morton enhanced this declaration by adding that: “Here it says they have become slaves to do taskwork, a situation that arrived under Solomon in the tenth century B.C. (1 Kings 9:15-22).”(F17) Are these allegations true? Let’s take a look at the passage Morton cited as proof:

“Pharaoh the king of Egypt had gone up, and taken Gezer, and burnt it with fire, and slain the Canaanites that dwelt in the city, and given it for portion unto his daughter, Solomon’s wife. And Solomon built Gezer, etc. (1 Kings 9:15-16).”

When Solomon came to power, there were no longer any Canaanites in Gezer; they had already been killed by the king of Egypt (Josh. 16:15). It is true that Solomon, after this transfer of Gezer to his domain by Pharaoh rounded up the remnant of all the Canaanites in Israel and made forced-laborers, or servants out of them but nowhere do we find that any inhabitants of Gezer were included in that Solomonic levy. Thus, it is clear that once again, the overwilling critics to find evidence of a LATE DATE of Joshua are totally in error. The Ephraimites, not Solomon, are here said to have reduced the Gezerites to slavery, and, on that grounds, we must reject the assumption of Woudstra that Gezer maintained its independence. How could that be true with its citizens serving as slaves of Israel? We have already determined that the expression, “unto this day,” has no bearing whatever on dates but is merely an idiom affirming the truth of the narrative.

An appropriate conclusion for this sixteenth chapter:

“Many famous places were within this lot of the tribe of Ephraim, although not mentioned here: (1) Samuel’s city Ramah (Arimathea in the N.T.), from whom another Joseph requested of Pilate the body of Jesus; (2) Shiloh where the tabernacle was first set up; (3) Tizrah, the capital of Jeroboam and his successors; (4) Samaria, built by Omri, and the capital of the Northern Kingdom in its final years; (5) Shechem, the city where Jacob lived; (6) Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, where the children of Israel pledged themselves to observe the whole Law of Moses; (7) Sychar, where, “Jesus sat thus by the well!” and (8) Ephraim, the city to which Jesus retired during his last week on earth were all a part of the territory of Ephraim.”(F18)

When this ambitious and arrogant tribe rebelled against the house of David and took away the northern ten tribes, they usurped the name “Israel” as pertaining to themselves, but the prophets consistently referred to the Northen “Israel” as Ephraim, that name being applied no less than 37 times in the prophecy of Hosea alone!

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 16". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-16.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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