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Monday, July 15th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here we have the list of the forty-eight Levitical cities, appointed by Joshua, and the other Jewish authorities, at the end of the general subjugation of Canaan, shortly prior to the death of Joshua. The screams of the Bible’s critical enemies declare this chapter to be “unhistorical,”(F1) but we reject this out of hand as being merely the prejudice of unbelievers and totally irresponsible! Equally objectional is the efforts of critics to assign a seventh-century B.C. date to this list on the basis of, “The distinction between the priests and the Levites in the division of these cities (which is post-exilic).”(F2) We reject this because it was Moses himself who made that distinction, a distinction that is just as historical as anything else in the Bible, occurring in the fifteenth century B.C., not in the seventh century! It will be remembered from the Book of Numbers that only the priests (the sons of Aaron) could prepare the sacred furniture of the tabernacle for transporting it, and that the Levites were assigned the task of actually carrying it or hauling it in wagons. The acceptable versions of the Holy Bible all teach this, but the critical enemies of the Word of God have made their own corrupt “bible,” and it is from it that they procure all this NONSENSE about how they suppose it to have been put together by a whole stable of “editors” and “redactors,” etc.; and if one wishes to find something “unhistorical,” it is that revised “bible” of the critics!

Here is the record of one of the sons of Jacob - Levi. And there are no valid reasons whatever for denying the HISTORICAL REALITY of the Levitical cities appointed here. The Levites were exempt from military service, and the historical fact of the Levites having no allotted territory, as did all the others, actually demands the appointment of these cities. If we have been told once, up to this point in the five Books of Moses and in Joshua that, “Levi received no inheritance, because the Lord is his inheritance, we have encountered that statement or its equivalent fifteen times!” Now, the question is, “How could it be supposed that the whole tribe of Levi sat still on the matter of requesting the cities Moses had promised for five hundred years or so. That the events reported in this chapter actually occurred within the lifetime of Joshua and almost simultaneously with the final allotments to the various tribes appears to be an absolute certainty, required by the actual circumstances of the case.

Some have complained that the Levitical cities were the last to be assigned, but, as Plummer noted: “Since the Levitical cities were to be assigned within the limits of the property of the other tribes, it was impossible to apportion them until the allotments to all the other tribes had been made.”(F3)

These cities were appointed by lot, indicating the Divine authority of the assignments, and, of course, all of those allegations about late dates, etc., deny absolutely that God had anything to do with this.

Not only that, “This distribution of the Levitical cities was a fulfillment of Jacob’s curse on Levi (Genesis 49:5-7), but God overruled it, through Moses, because of this tribe’s having stood with Moses in a crucial hour (Exodus 32:26).”(F4) The Levitical cities, although `scattered’ as Jacob foretold, nevertheless preserved the identity of the Levites, and their assignment as the teachers of Israel made them necessary and important.

We are indebted to J. R. Dummelow for the following chapter divisions:

(1) The authorities - Eleazar, Joshua, and the princes - are approached by the Levites with a request for the cities, which God, through Moses, had promised (Joshua 21:1-2).

(2) The number and location of the cities is summarized (Joshua 21:3-8).

(3) The Aaronic priests receive their cities in Judah and Benjamin (Joshua 21:9-19).

(4) The cities of the Kohathites are selected from Ephraim, Dan, and West Manasseh (Joshua 21:20-26).

(5) The cities of the Gershonites were chosen in East Manasseh, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali (Joshua 21:27-33).

(6) The cities of the Merarites were chosen from Zebulun, Reuben, and Gad (Joshua 21:34-42).

(7) Then we have the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and His giving rest to the people (Joshua 21:43-45).

Verses 1-2

“Then came near the heads of fathers’ houses of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of fathers’ houses of the children of Israel; and they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, Jehovah commanded by Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle.”

The mention of Eleazar in this passage is not an indication of “P” as a source of this paragraph. This is merely a statement of what happened. The whole government of Israel at that moment in their history was somewhat of a triple authority composed of the head of religion (Eleazar), the executive head of the nation (Joshua), and the representative of all the people. Plummer pointed out that, throughout history this multiple division of governmental powers has persisted. In England, there is the Monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, and the Judicial System. In America, we have the same divisions, the “house of Lords” in the Senate, the “house of Commons” in the House of Representatives, the executive head of the nation in the presidency, and the judicial authority in the Supreme Court. The meaning of these verses is therefore that the Levites appealed to the central government, and backed up their request by appealing to the commandment of God through Moses. Can anyone believe that the Levites WAITED HUNDREDS OF YEARS to do this? Notice further that the appointment of these Levitical cities was to be done after the appointment of the six cities of refuge, since “That is exactly how Moses commanded it to be done.”(F5)

Verses 3-8


“And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, according to the commandment of Jehovah, these cities with their suburbs. “And the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites: and the children of Aaron the priest, who were of the Levites, and by lot out of the tribe of Judah, and out of the tribe of the Simeonites, and out of the tribe of Benjamin, thirteen cities. “And the rest of the children of Kohath had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Ephraim, and out of the tribe of Dan, and out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, ten cities. “And the children of Gershon had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Issachar, and out of the tribe of Asher, and out of the tribe of Naphtali, and out of the tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen cities. “The children of Merari according to their families had out of the tribe of Reuben, and out of the tribe of Gad, and out of the tribe of Zebulun, twelve cities. “And the Children of Israel gave by lot unto the Levites these cities with their suburbs, as Jehovah commanded by Moses.”

“Thirteen cities” (Joshua 21:4) The simple fact that the children of Aaron at that time could have numbered only a few families shows this assignment of `thirteen cities’ to them to be purely imaginary.”(F6) Again, this is due to a failure of the critic to read the Bible. “It appears (1 Chronicles 24) that the two surviving sons of Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, had twenty-four sons!”(F7) The same author declared that, “Their number by this time might well have been several thousand.”(F8) Besides that, as Plummer noted: (1) the cities, at first, were probably not inhabited exclusively by priests; (2) all of these cities had not yet been taken from the Canaanites; and (3) the cities themselves, in some cases, were very small.(F9)

The Aaronic priests are all located within the area of Judah and Benjamin. The working of providence is seen in this, because all of the priests drew cities in that area which, in time, would become the center of Israel’s worship in Jerusalem. Cook thought this was because God “chose Jerusalem beforetime as the site of His Temple.”(F10) We partially disagree with this, because it appears from 2 Samuel 7 that a Temple was never in God’s purpose at all. God no doubt intended that the Tabernacle should continue to be the location of God’s altar after the entry into Canaan. The Temple was David’s idea, and, although God accommodated to it, we believe the purpose of the providential placement of these priests in the Jerusalem area was to have them near the Tabernacle, not the Temple.

Verses 9-19


“And they gave out of the tribe of the children of Judah, and out of the tribe of the children of Simeon, these cities which are here mentioned by name: and they were for the children of Aaron, of the family of the Kohathites, who were of the children of Levi; for theirs was the first lot. And they gave them Kiriath-arba, which Arba was the father of Anak (the same is Hebron), in the hill-country of Judah, with the suburbs thereof round about it. But the fields of the city, and the villages thereof, gave they to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for his possession. “And unto the children of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron with its suburbs, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Libnah with its suburbs, and Jattir with its suburbs, and Eshtemoa with its suburbs, and Holon with its suburbs, and Debir with its suburbs, and Ain with its suburbs, and Juttah with its suburbs, and Beth-shemesh with its suburbs; nine cities out of these two tribes. And out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with its suburbs, Geba with its suburbs, Anothoth with its suburbs, and Aimon with its suburbs; four cities. All the cities of the children of Aaron, the priests, were thirteen cities with their suburbs.”

There are four major divisions of the Levites. Now Levi had only three sons Kohath, Gershon, and Merari; but one of Kohath’s descendants was Aaron who became a sub-tribe of his own, all of the priests being restricted to his descendants. All of the other descendants of Kohath were the Levites, thus giving us: (1) the sons of Kohath (through Aaron) the priests (Note that the priests also, as descendants from Levi, were Levites, sometimes called Levitical priests); (2) the sons of Kohath (the Levites); (3) the sons of Gershon (Levites); and (4) the sons of Merari (Levites).

There is another list of these Levitical cities in 1 Chronicles 6:54-81, with certain variations in it due to the double names borne by some cities, and to changes which, from time to time, might have been made. It will be observed here that Hebron had first been assigned to Caleb; but here it was given to the priests. In all probability, this was done with the full and happy consent of Caleb who nevertheless received suburban locations which Caleb himself may be presumed to have chosen. Several commentators have mentioned these two lists, referring to the variations as “slight,”(F11) or “only minor.”(F12) Our own view is that the variations are of very little, if any, significance. Plummer pointed out the type of variations found. For example “Ibleam” is found in one place and “Bileam” in another, these being obviously the same word.(F13)

We have already commented on the more important cities in this list, and regarding some of the others, about all that is known may be gleaned from this paragraph.

Verses 20-26


“And the families of the children of Kohath, the Levites, even the rest of the children of Kohath, they had their cities out of the lot of the tribe of Ephraim. And they gave them Shechem with its suburbs in the hill-country of Ephraim, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Gezer with its suburbs, and Kibzaim with its suburbs, and Beth-horon with its suburbs; four cities. and out of the tribe of Dan Elteke with its suburbs, Gibethon with its suburbs, Aijalon with its suburbs, Gath-rimmon with its suburbs; four cities. And out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Taanach with its suburbs, and Gath-rimmon with its suburbs; two cities. All the cities of the families of the rest of the children of Kohath were ten with their suburbs.”

The mention of Gath-rimmon twice, in both Joshua 21:24-25, according to the scholars, is a copyist’s error, the true reading being given in the list in Chronicles were we find “Bileam” (the Ibleam of Joshua 17:11) instead of the second Gath-rimmon here.(F14)

Verses 27-33


“And unto the children of Gershon, of the families of the Levites, out of the half-tribe of Manasseh they gave Golan in Bashan with its suburbs, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Beeshterah with its suburbs; two cities. And out of the tribe of Isaachar, Kishion with its suburbs, Daberath with its suburbs, Jarmuth with its suburbs, En-gannim with its suburbs; four cities. And out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with its suburbs, Abdon with its suburbs, Helkath with its suburbs, and Rehob with its suburbs; four cities. And out of the tribe of Napthali, Kedesh in Galilee with it suburbs, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Hammoth-dot with its suburbs, and Kartan with its suburbs; three cities. All the cities of the Gershonites according to their families were thirteen cities with their suburbs.”

“Beeshterah” (Joshua 21:27). This is another of those “variations” from the list in 1 Chronicles 6, which reads “Ashteroth”; “But Beeshterah is only an abbreviated form of Beth-Ashtaroth, meaning the place of Ashtaroth, or the Temple of Ashtaroth.”(F15) Thus, we have another instance of the same city with different names, the city here, of course, being one of Og’s capitals.

In all of these assignments, it should be remembered that the Levites were neither the sole possessors of those cities nor the rulers of them. “The regulation meant that adequate room for the Levites was to be provided, and that they had the right to the pasture lands around their cities.”(F16)

Verses 34-40


“And unto the families of the children of Merari, the rest of the Levites, out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with its suburbs, Kartah with its suburbs, Dimnah with its suburbs, Nahalal with its suburbs; four cities. And out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with its suburbs, and Jahaz with its suburbs, Kedemoth with its suburbs, and Mephaath with its suburbs; four cities. And out of the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead with its suburbs, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Mahanaim with its suburbs, Heshbon with its suburbs, Jazer with its suburbs; four cities in all. All these were the cities of the children of Merari according to their families, even the rest of the families of the Levites, and their lot was twelve cities.”

It is specifically pointed out that each of these four divisions of the cities of the Levites received either one or two of the cities of refuge: (1) The priests received Hebron; (2) the rest of the Kohathites received Shechem; (3) The Gershonites received Golan and Kedesh; (4) The Merarites received Bezer and Ramoth-Gilead.

Verses 41-42


“All the cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the children of Israel were forty and eight cities with their suburbs. These cities were every one with their suburbs round about them; thus it was with all these cities.”

The numerology of the Hebrews was an extensive study, and a very great importance was attributed to the numbers. This is evident in the fact that these forty-eight cities constituted, in the aggregate, exactly twelve for each one of the four divisions of the Levites. The situation here suggests the twelve tribes marching in four detachments, the ark of God and its guard in the center (Numbers 2).

The Jews considered four the number of the world, and three the number or the `sign’ of God; and twelve the multiple of the two. This symbolism relates especially to the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:12; Revelation 21:14; Revelation 21:16; Revelation 21:19; Revelation 21:21, and Revelation 22:2, where one reads of the City that “lieth four-square,” which has “twelve foundations,” “twelve gates,” “twelve angels,” “twelve names,” “twelve apostles,” “twelve thousand (furlongs),” “twelve kinds of fruit,” and “twelve months” in the year when the tree of life bore its fruit! Also the “four and three” motif is prominent in each of the sequence visions of the “seals,” the “the trumpets,” and the “vials” of the wrath of God, as reported in those middle chapters of Revelation.

Verses 43-45

“So Jehovah gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And Jehovah gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them: and Jehovah delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not aught of any good thing which Jehovah had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.”

In these verses, our eyes are lifted above the sinful errors and mistakes of mankind to the Father Himself; and we behold no shortcomings or failures with Him. All of His deeds are perfect. His eternal purpose moves in perfect synchronization with both time and eternity. With God there are no failures and no defeats. Even in Paradise, it was not Satan who won, but GOD! These verses enable us to see the big picture. God has indeed accomplished exactly what He intended; He has moved the newly-created nation of Israel into the room of the shameful Canaanites whose cup of wickedness was running over, and this nation, in the process of time, would deliver to mankind the Redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

But think of all the sorrows and the suffering, and all the failures and shortcomings of Israel! Yes, there were plenty of these, but Israel herself was expendable from God’s point of view; and, in the process of time they were expended, thrust out of the very land God had given them; but, as God intended, they still delivered the Messiah!

So what a refreshing thing is this little paragraph! God and His holy purposes are eternally successful. With God, “There is no variation nor shadow that is cast by turning!”

Of course, as is always the case with men, the Israelites refused to follow through on their opportunities. Instead of driving out the Canaanite debauchees, Israel soon united with them, allowed themselves to be trapped and seduced by their gods, intermarried with them, and in time became, actually themselves Canaanites (Hosea 12:7; also see my discussion of this in Vol. 2 of the minor prophets Series, pp. 198,199).

There is a type of critic who FINDS FAULT with God: “Well, he did not drive out all the enemies like He promised.” All of God’s promises are CONTINGENT upon the obedience and cooperation of God’s children, and when that is not found, there can be no complete fulfillment of Divine promises.

As Cook stated it:

“It was only the inertness and pusillanimity of Israel which prevented the completion of the conquest when the allotment of Canaan was made by Joshua, and it was their subsequent backsliding that caused God to turn the tide of victory against them and even to cast them out of the land.”(F17)

These verses state that God had delivered all their enemies “into their hands,” and of course, He had. Nothing remained for Israel to do, but to apply themselves to the task and do it! “This they not only failed to do, but they even violated the conditions under which the land had been given to them, and they soon fell under the dominion of those who had been their vassals.”(F18) John Calvin stated that, “Nothing but their own cowardice prevented them from enjoying the blessings of God in all their fullness.”(F19)

These verses conclude the second major division of Joshua (Joshua 13-21), which has been concerned chiefly with the division of the land of Canaan among the Israelites. These verses actually encompass all that has already happened in Joshua thus far: the covenant promise of Josh. 1:19 has been fulfilled; Israel has possessed the Land of Promise, settled it, and received the promised rest; their enemies have been reduced to helplessness. What an inopportune moment for Israel to quit!

We can think of no better conclusion for this major section of Joshua than the last verse of this chapter:

“There failed not aught of any good thing which Jehovah had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass! (Joshua 21:45).”

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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