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Thursday, September 21st, 2023
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 21

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.Then came near the heads, etc Here we have at a later period a narrative of what ought to have preceded. For no cities of refuge were appointed before they had been assigned to the Levites. To this may be added what was formerly said, that Joshua and Eleazar had made an end of dividing the land. Now, the land was not truly divided till the habitation of the Levites was fixed. We must understand, therefore, that when the lot was cast in the name of the ten tribes, a reservation was made of cities in the land of Canaan for the habitation of the Levites. Beyond the Jordan their portion had already been assigned to them. But as the Levites come forward and request a ratification of the divine grant, it is probable that they were neglected till they pleaded their own cause. For so it is apt to happen, every one being so attentive in looking after his own affairs that even brethren are forgotten. It was certainly disgraceful to the people that they required to be pulled by the ear, and put in mind of what the Lord had clearly ordered respecting the Levites. But had they not demanded a domicile for themselves, there was a risk of their being left to lie in the open air; although, at the same time, we are permitted to infer that the people erred more from carelessness and forgetfulness than from any intention to deceive, as they make no delay as soon as they are admonished; nay, they are praised for their obedience in that they did what was just and right according to the word of the Lord.

Verse 4

4.And the lot came out for the families, etc Here is first described the number of cities of which we shall have to speak by and bye. Secondly, it is distinctly said that the lot fell out to the children of Aaron in the tribe of Judah. This did not happen fortuitously, because God in his admirable counsel placed them in that locality where he had determined to choose a temple for himself. Thirdly, the narrative proceeds to give the exact names of the cities, of which the first mentioned is Hebron, of which Caleb, with great equanimity, allowed himself to be deprived. Should any one object that the first city of all that ought to have been given them was Jerusalem, where they were to have their future station, it is easy to answer, that moderate sized cities were delivered to them as their condition required. Moreover, Jerusalem was not then subjugated, as it continued under the power of the Jebusites. In short, it would have been absurd to assign a royal seat to priests. And their religion and faith was the better proved by this, that they migrated of their own accord from their native soil to devote their attention to sacred things. For no priest performed the office without becoming a stranger. Their weakness, however, was so far indulged by giving them a grant of neighboring cities, that they might not have the fatigue of a long journey in going to perform their function. Moreover, the giving of thirteen cities for a habitation to one family, and that not very numerous, confirms what I have elsewhere said, that the other tribes possessed very many cities, (175) of which no mention is made; in a short time this will be more certainly confirmed.

(175) Latin, “Plurimis urbibus.” French, “Plusieurs villes :” “Several cities.” — Ed.

Verse 20

20.And the families of the children of Kohath, etc Why it was necessary that the Levites should be dispersed among the different tribes, the reader may see in my Commentaries on the Books of Moses. This dispersion had, indeed, been imposed on their progenitor as a punishment for the cruelty and perfidy of which he had been guilty toward the children of Shechem, but the disgrace of it had been converted into the highest honor by their appointment as a kind of guardians in every district to retain the people in the pure worship of God. It is true, they were everywhere strangers; but still it was with the very high dignity of acting as stewards for God, and preventing their countrymen from revolting from piety. This is the reason for stating so carefully how many cities they obtained from each tribe; they were everywhere to keep watch, and preserve the purity of sacred rites unimpaired.

Verse 41

41.All the cities of the Levites, etc This passage more especially shows what I have already more than once adverted to, that the boundaries of the other tribes were not so confined as not to comprehend a far larger number of cities than is actually mentioned. It is perfectly well known that Levi was the least numerous of all the tribes. With what equity, then, could it have been allowed to expand itself over four times the space allowed to the tribe of Zebulun, which, though more populous, is mentioned as only possessing twelve cities. Only sixteen are enumerated as belonging to the tribe of Issachar, nineteen to the tribe of Naphtali, and twenty-two to the tribe of Asher. It would surely have been an unequal division to give the greater number of cities for habitation to the smaller population. Hence we infer, that not only the villages which are here set down as accessories of the cities were fit for habitation, but that other cities also, of which no mention is made, were included. In short, the extent of the lot of Levi makes it perfectly obvious how large and ample the territories of the other tribes must have been.

Verse 43

43.And the Lord gave unto Israel, etc Should any one raise a question as to this rest, the answer is easy. The nations of Canaan were so completely overcome with fear, that they thought they could not better consult their interest than by servility flattering the Israelites, and purchasing peace from them on any terms. (176) Plainly, therefore, the country was subdued and rendered peaceful for habitation, since no one gave any annoyance, or dared to entertain any hostile intentions, since there were no threats, no snares, no violence, no conspiracies.

A second point, however, raises some doubt, (177) namely, how the children of Israel can be said to have been settled in the possession of the land promised to them, and to have become masters of it, in such a sense that in regard to the enjoyment of it, not one syllable of the promises of God had failed. For we have already seen that many of the enemy were intermingled with them. The divine intention was, that not one of the enemy should be permitted to remain; on the other hand, the Israelites do not drive out many, but admit them as neighbors, as if the inheritance had been common to them; they even make pactions with them. How then can these two things be reconciled, that God, as he had promised, gave possession of the land to the people, and yet they were excluded from some portion by the power or obstinate resistance of the enemy?

In order to remove this appearance of contradiction, it is necessary to distinguish between the certain, clear, and steadfast faithfulness of God in keeping his promises, and between the effeminacy and sluggishness of the people, in consequence of which the benefit of the divine goodness in a manner slipped through their hands. Whatever war the people undertook, in whatever direction they moved their standards, victory was prepared; nor was there any other delay or obstacle to their exterminating all their enemies than their own voluntary torpor. Wherefore, although they did not rout them all so as to make their possession clear, yet the truth of God came visibly forth, and was realized, inasmuch as they might have obtained what was remaining without any difficulty, had they been pleased to avail themselves of the victories offered to them. The whole comes to this, that it was owing entirely to their own cowardice that they did not enjoy the divine goodness in all its fullness and integrity. This will be still clearer from the following chapter.

(176) French, “Ils penserent qu’il n’y avoit rien meilleur pour eux ni plus expedient, que de racheter la paix avec les enfans d’Israel, en faisans les chiens couchans (comme l’on dit) devant eux, et leur gratifiant en toutes choses;” “They thought there was nothing better for them, nor more expedient, than to purchase peace with the children of Israel by acting (so to speak) like fawning dogs before them, and gratifying them in all things.” — Ed.

(177) Latin, “Verum de secundo ambigitur.” French, “Mais il y a plus grande difficulte sur le second point;” “But there is greater difficulty as to the second point.” — Ed.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Joshua 21". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/joshua-21.html. 1840-57.
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