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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 17

Verse 1

The historian returns to the tribe of Manasseh with the view of confirming what we formerly saw with regard to the daughters of Selophead. For though it was a novelty for females to succeed indiscriminately with males, yet as five of them had survived their father, they proved it to be equitable that they should be admitted to a portion, lest while he was innocent he should lie under the reproach of having died childless. God had replied to Moses by his oracle, that in regard to succession they should be counted as one head. They now demand that the decision thus given by the mouth of the Lord shall be carried into effect. As to the name of first-born, still given to Manasseh, it must be understood so as not to be at variance with the prophecy of Jacob; or rather his primogeniture is here in a manner buried, and his dignity restricted to the past. Here, however, it is to be observed, that men are so tenacious and so much devoted to their own interests, that it seldom occurs to them to give others their due. The daughters of Selophead had obtained a portion by a heavenly decree; nor had any one dared to utter a word against it; and yet if they had remained silent no regard would have been paid to them. Therefore, lest the delay should prove injurious to them, they apply to Joshua and Eleazar, and insist that they shall not be deprived of their legitimate succession. No delay is interposed by Joshua to prevent their immediately obtaining what is just, nor is there any murmuring on the part of the people. Hence we infer, that all were disposed to act equitably; but every one is occupied with his own interest, and too apt carelessly to overlook that of others.

Verse 5

5. And there fell ten portions to Manasseh, etc The children of Manasseh are in this passage classed under seven stems. Machir, the first-born, is placed apart; the other six follow. Here the question arises, How was the inheritance divided into ten parts? Some expositors cunningly disguise the difficulty; (155) others, because they are unable to solve it, indulge in the merest trifling. It is certainly very absurd that four portions should be given to five daughters; and it is not a whit more congruous that their share should be doubled because their father was the first-born. It is beyond all controversy, that Gilead, son of Machir, and great-grandfather of the females of whom we are now speaking, chose his settlement in mount Gilead and Bashan. Therefore, seeing he had already obtained an inheritance by privilege without lot, he ought not to have obtained one by lot in the land of Canaan, unless perhaps he settled only a part of his family beyond the Jordan. For Hepher was one of his sons, but not the only one; and likewise the offspring of five other brothers might be distinguished into several heads according to the number of which the allocation by lot might be made. For it is not known in what degree families whose portion fell in the land of Canaan were taken. And all we read here is, that ten lots were east among the sons of Manasseh in addition to the country which they had formerly acquired for themselves beyond the Jordan. It is thus vain to dispute concerning the number, which cannot be ascertained with certainty from the present narrative, because the first thing necessary to be known is the exact number of families to whom the division was common. Nay, it is not impossible that the daughters of Selophead obtained their patrimony there. They are said, indeed, to have dwelt among the brethren of their father; but the place is not given. Be this as it may, I have no doubt that mutual equity was observed, and that after provision was made for others, the land which had been submitted to lot was distributed among ten families whose names are here omitted.

(155) Latin, “ Quidam astute hunc scrupulum dissimulant.” French, “ Aucuns y vent a la finesse ne faisans nulle mention de ceste difficulte;” “Some have recourse to finesse, making no mention of this difficulty.” — Ed.

Verse 11

11. And Manasseh had in Issachar, etc How they were so mingled as to possess some cities in the lot of Asher and Issachar, while the tribe of Ephraim dwelt between their limits, it is not easy to divine, unless, perhaps, it was perceived that a more commodious habitation would not be liable to many complaints, (156) or, perhaps, after the whole country had become more certainly known, some change was made on principles of equity in the former partition. This, therefore, seems to have been a new acquisition after it was discovered that the children of Manasseh might occupy a wider extent without loss to others. Nor was the habitation given to them a subjugated one, which they might immediately enjoy, but it was an inheritance treasured up in hope, and founded more upon heavenly promise than on actual possession. And yet their not gaining possession of those cities is attributed to their fault, because the lot assigning it to them was an indubitable pledge of victory. The reason, therefore, why they could not expel the inhabitants was, because they were not fully persuaded in their minds that God is true, and stifled his agency by their own sluggishness. But another crime still less pardonable was committed when, having it in their power easily to destroy all, they not only were slothful in executing the command of God, but, induced by filthy lucre, (157) they preserved those alive whom God had doomed to destruction. For persons, on whom we impose tribute, we in a manner take under our faith and protection. God had appointed them the ministers of his vengeance, and he supplies them with strength to execute it: they not only delay, but deprive themselves of the liberty of acting rightly. It is not strange, therefore, that God severely punished this perverse heartlessness, by making those nations whom they had pardoned in the face of a clear prohibition, to become like thorns to pierce their eyes and pricks to gall their sides.

Here, again, a question arises, How were cities granted to them in the tribe of Asher and Issachar, when the portions of both were as yet unknown? Here, therefore, that which had not yet taken place is related by way of anticipation. Be this as it may, we gather that from ignorance of the localities, single portions were not divided so exactly as not to make it necessary afterwards to correct what had been more or less decided. (158) And we must hold in general, with regard both to the tribe of Ephraim and the others, that many of the cities which they gained were of no account because of the devastation. I doubt not that many ruins here lie buried. On the other hand, we must conclude that in fertile spots, or spots possessed of other advantages, where petty villages only existed, their famous cities were founded. It is certain that Sichem was of sufficient importance to hold both a name and rank, and yet there is no mention of it here. The same is the case with Samaria, which, as is well known, belonged to the same tribe of Ephraim when it was the metropolis of the kingdom of Israel. It is plain, therefore, that each tribe possessed several cities, which are here passed over in silence.

(156) Latin, “ Nisi quia forte perspectum est; nec habitatio commodior obnoxia esset multis querimoniis.” French, “ Sinon possible qu’on voulust avoir esgard que s’ils eussent este plus a leur aise, cela eust engendre des complaintes;” “Unless it be possible that they were pleased to take it into consideration that if they had been more at their ease, that might have engendered complaints.” — Ed.

(157) Latin, “ Turpi lucro adduti.” French, “ Sous couleur de quelque gain vilain et infame;” “Under color of some vile and infamous gain.” — Ed.

(158) In the French this section of the commentary stops here, and all that follows in the Latin is omitted. It only amounts, however, to a transposition, as the omitted paragraph is inserted under the section of Joshua 17:14, at the place indicated by a note. — Ed.

Verse 14

14. And the children of Joseph spoke unto Joshua, etc Although they clothe their complaint with some color of excuse, yet they dishonestly disguise the fact, that more was comprehended in one lot than was proper for one tribe. I know not, however, whether or not the lot was cast indefinitely for the sons of Joseph: it certainly does not seem congruous that it should be so. Joshua and the other dividers were not unaware that Ephraim and Manasseh formed two heads, or two stems: and it has repeatedly been said before that the land was divided into ten tribes, which number was not accurate, unless the tribe of Manasseh was considered distinct from that of Ephraim. It is certain, therefore, that they had not fallen into such a gross blunder as to throw the two names into one lot. Now, to conceal two tribes under the name of Joseph, in order to defraud them of half their right, would have been intolerable injustice. We may add, that the domain of each was distinctly explained and described by its proper boundaries. (159)

We are therefore led to conclude, that when the lots were cast for the two tribes, the admirable counsel of God arranged that the brothers, who had a common father, should be contiguous and neighbors to each other. It is unworthy in them, therefore, to complain and plead that only one inheritance had been given to them, because Joshua had neither such heartlessness nor so much malice as to defraud them of a clear right either through thoughtlessness or envy. (160) But herein lay the falsehood of their complaint concerning narrow boundaries, that they counted all that was yet to be acquired by warlike prowess as nothing; as if the lot had assigned portions to the other tribes only in subjugated territory. Joshua, accordingly, in a single sentence, refutes and disposes of their plea, and retorts upon them a charge by which they were trying to throw obloquy upon him. If your resources and your numbers are so great, why, he asks, do you not make an inroad on the enemy, whose country has been given to you? Nor will the event disappoint you, if, trusting to the promise of God, you boldly proceed to the inheritance which he has bestowed upon you. We see how, although proper provision had been made for them, they were so blinded by sloth as to complain that they were straitened for room, because they were unwilling to move their finger to seek the full possession of their inheritance. Wherefore, this passage teaches us, that if at any time we think less is performed for us than is due, we ought carefully to shake off all delays, and not rashly throw upon others the blame which is inherent in ourselves.

(159) The omitted paragraph of the section of Joshua 17:11 is inserted here. — Ed.

(160) It is impossible, of course, to make any suppositions at variance with the honor and integrity of Joshua, and it must therefore be held that in whatever manner the lot was taken for the children of Joseph, the strictest equity was observed. Is it necessary, however, to adopt one of the two alternatives, — either that separate lots were taken for Ephraim and Manasseh, or that Joshua deceived them? Though they counted as two tribes, they had only one patriarch for their ancestor, and it may therefore have been most expedient that, as they were brethren, their settlements should be adjacent to each other. This might, perhaps, have been obtained by taking separate lots, for we have already seen, on several occasions, how the lot, though apparently fortuitous, was providentially controlled, so as to give results at once confirmatory of ancient predictions, and conducive to the public good; and we may therefore presume that even if separate lots had been taken, the result might be still have been to place the two kindred tribes in juxtaposition. But this was only problematical, and the only way of placing the matter beyond doubt was to make one lot serve for both. And there was no necessary injustice in this, since, as has been repeatedly observed, the lot only fixed the locality, without determining its precise limits, and thus left it open to enlarge or curtail them according to the extent of the population. If injustice had been done to the children of Joseph, it would not have been merely because they had been placed in one lot, but because this lot, though really intended for two tribes, had been left as small as if it had been intended only for one. The unreasonableness and dishonesty of the complaint, therefore, lay, according to this view, in their insisting on the fact that only one lot had been taken, and at the same time keeping out of view the other equally important fact, that in fixing its boundaries due allowance had been made for their numbers, and distinct settlements of sufficient magnitude given to each. That only one lot had been taken is strongly confirmed by the whole tenor of the narrative: First, When the children distinctly put the question to Joshua, “Why has thou given me but one lot and one portion to inherit?” he does not silence them at once by answering that the assertion which they thus broadly made in the form of a question was not true. On the contrary, the indirectness of his answer seems to imply that the truth of the assertion could not be denied. Secondly, The narrative in Joshua 16:0, in describing the allocations of Ephraim and Manasseh, speak of them as forming only one lot. Thus, it is said, (Joshua 16:1,)

The lot of the children of Joseph fell from Jordan by Jericho, unto the water of Jericho on the east;”

and (Joshua 16:4.)

So the children of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, took their inheritance.”


Verse 16

16. And the children of Joseph said, etc It is too apparent that they were thinking only of themselves, because they quibble as much as they can, in order to avoid following the suggestion of Joshua, than which, however, nothing was more reasonable. They object, that the mountain is rugged and little better than a desert, and therefore, though it were added to them, they would derive very little benefit from it. In regard to the plain, which was cultivated and fertile, they object that they are shut out and debarred from it because of the formidable array of the enemy. Accordingly, they make mention of their iron chariots, as if they had not already learned by experience that the Lord was able, without any difficulty, to trample down both horses and chariots. Joshua, however, by a simple and right-hearted answer, administers due castigation, as well to their avarice as their effeminacy and torpor. If the forest, as it now stands, is not sufficiently productive, cut down the trees and convert it into good fields; provided you are not sparing of your labor, you will have no reason to be dissatisfied with your habitation. Iron chariots, moreover, cannot prevent the Lord from performing what he has promised to you. The inheritance is yours; do only your part by entering with due confidence on the possession of it.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Joshua 17". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.