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Thursday, May 30th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-42

D. The special cities chs. 20:1-21:42

God also set aside special cities for special purposes within the Promised Land.

Verses 1-8

The casting of lots 21:1-8

Probably the leaders identified the towns first and then assigned the various groups of Levites to particular cities by lot (Joshua 21:3-4). The priests (Aaron’s descendants) received 13 cities within the tribal territories of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin (Joshua 21:4). The rest of the Kohathites-Aaron was a descendant of Kohath-obtained 10 cities in Ephraim, Dan, and western Manasseh (Joshua 21:5). The Gershonites lived in 13 cities in Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and eastern Manasseh (Joshua 21:6). The Merarites inherited 12 cities in Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun (Joshua 21:7). The names of these Levitical towns appear in the following verses (Joshua 21:9-40).

Verses 1-42

2. The cities of the Levites 21:1-42

The tribes also had to set aside 42 additional cities for the priests and Levites to inhabit (cf. Numbers 35:1-8).

Verses 9-19

The priests’ towns 21:9-19

The Lord spread out the priests’ 13 towns as follows. Nine were in Judah and Simeon (Joshua 21:9-16), and four were in Benjamin (Joshua 21:17-19).

Verses 20-26

The other Kohathites’ towns 21:20-26

There were 10 of these towns: four in Ephraim (Joshua 21:21-22), four in Dan (Joshua 21:23-24), and two in western Manasseh (Joshua 21:25).

Verses 27-33

The Gershonites’ towns 21:27-33

The Gershonites occupied 13 towns: two in eastern Manasseh (Joshua 21:27), four in Issachar (Joshua 21:28-29), four in Asher (Joshua 21:30-31), and three in Naphtali (Joshua 21:32).

Verses 34-42

The Merarites’ towns 21:34-42

There were 12 towns in which the Merarites resided: four in Zebulun (Joshua 21:34-35), four in Reuben (Joshua 21:36-37), and four in Gad (Joshua 21:38-39).

In all, the Levites received 48 cities with their surrounding pasturelands, including the six cities of refuge (Joshua 21:41-42). God provided so that the Levites, whose responsibilities included the teaching and counseling of the other Israelites in the Law, were not far from anyone in Israel. They were to provide a positive spiritual influence on the whole nation. [Note: See Jacob Milgrom, "The Levitical Town: An Exercise in Realistic Planning," Journal of Jewish Studies 33:1-2 (Spring-Autumn 1982):185-88; and B. S. J. Isserlin, "Israelite Architectural Planning and the Question of the Level of Secular Learning in Ancient Israel," Vetus Testamentum 34:2 (April 1984):169-78.]

"For Christians, the allotment of Levitical towns from each tribe illustrates the principle of returning to God a portion of what has been given to them. These gifts are then used to support others in need and to encourage the proclamation of the faith (cf. Acts 2:44-47; Romans 15:26-27; Philippians 4:10-18)." [Note: Hess, p. 281.]

"Take special care of the poor clergy! This is the theme of the complex formed by Numbers 35 and Joshua 21, along with the relevant Deuteronomic laws." [Note: Butler, p. 232.]

Verses 43-45

E. The faithfulness of God 21:43-45

These verses conclude the account of the division of the land proper (chs. 13-21; cf. Joshua 1:2-6; Joshua 11:23). They bind the two parts of the second half of the book together, and they form a theological conclusion to the entire book up to this point.

These statements may seem at first to mean that at this time the Israelites had obtained everything God had promised the patriarchs. Such was not the case.

"Notwithstanding the fact that many a tract of country still remained in the hands of the Canaanites, the promise that the land of Canaan should be given to the house of Israel for a possession had been fulfilled; for God had not promised the immediate and total destruction of the Canaanites, but only their gradual extermination (Ex. xxiii. 29, 30; Deut. vii. 22). And even though the Israelites never came into undisputed possession of the whole of the promised land, to the full extent of the boundaries laid down in Num. xxxiv. 1-2, never conquering Tyre and Sidon for example, the promises of God were no more broken on that account than they were through the circumstance, that after the death of Joshua and the elders his contemporaries, Israel was sometimes hard pressed by the Canaanites; since the complete fulfillment of this promise was inseparably connected with the fidelity of Israel to the Lord." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 216.]

"The Canaanites, it is true, were yet in possession of some parts of the country, but they were so far subdued, that they gave them [the Israelites] no serious molestation, and they were enabled to sit down in their possessions in the enjoyment of comparative rest and quiet. They had as much of the land in actual possession as they could occupy; and as they increased God enabled them, according to his promise, Exodus 23:30, to carry forward the work of extermination, and obtain further room for their settlement. All the assurances given to Joshua, ch. 1.5, of a successful tide of victories during his life, were accomplished, and as to the subsequent annoyance and occasional prevalence of their enemies, it was owing solely to the supineness and infidelity of Israel. So long as they were obedient, they were uniformly triumphant and prosperous." [Note: Bush, p. 189. See also Campbell, "Joshua," pp. 364-65.]

In Joshua 23:5 Joshua indicated that there was more land that the Israelites needed to possess. In Joshua 24:1-28 he urged the people to commit themselves anew to the Mosaic Covenant so they might possess and experience all that God had promised their forefathers. These passages confirm that Joshua did not mean by his statement of God’s faithfulness here that Israel had already possessed all that God had promised her forefathers.

"The meaning of the Deuteronomist’s rest theology is clearly seen here [in Joshua 21:44]. Rest is peace, absence of enemies and war. See Joshua 1:12-18. The verse is a counterpart to chap. 12, which concluded the first section of the book. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Exodus 33:14. Both major sections of the book thus end with a statement about God’s faithfulness in totally defeating the enemy." [Note: Butler, p. 235.]

The point Joshua was making in Joshua 21:45 was that God had been faithful to His promises up to that moment. He had promised possession of the land, rest on every side, and victory over enemies. Israel had experienced all of these to some degree. God had been faithful to the "good promises" He had made to them when they had prepared to cross the Jordan (Joshua 1:1-9).

It was common among the Semites to regard a part of the whole as the whole (cf. Deuteronomy 26:5-10; 1 Kings 13:32; Jeremiah 31:5; 2 Samuel 5:6-10; Revelation 14:1; Revelation 22:2; Romans 15:19-24). The name for this viewpoint is representative universalism. Some students of this passage believe that Joshua was taking this view here. He was speaking in universal terms. He regarded the individual kings, towns, and areas that he had subdued as representative of the entire land of Canaan. [Note: For development of this very helpful insight, see A. J. Mattill Jr., "Representative Universalism and the Conquest of Canaan," Concordia Theological Monthly 35:1 (1967):8-17. For a short history of the control of Palestine since the time of Christ through 1986, see Ronald Stockton, "Possessing the Land: a chronology of events in the dispute over Palestine," Christianity Today, April 18, 1986, p. 19.]

"The small section summarizes the theological point of the book of Joshua. The entire book is to be read in light of these three verses, particularly the last." [Note: Butler, p. 236.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/joshua-21.html. 2012.
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