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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 17

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


Chapters 13-21 The Division of the Land.

The division of the conquered land, and of some not yet conquered, is now outlined. But we must recognise what we mean by conquered. When ancient relatively minor kings moved into a land and conquered it they did not necessarily remain there or station troops there. They followed it up by demanding tribute. The question then was whether the conquest would hold. Would the people accept the position as subject people? That depended both on the strength of the king’s own forces and on the strength or weakness of the conquered people. It was a position that would have to be continually maintained by force.

That was also true in this case. Joshua had conquered the land. But settlement was a different matter. The conquered people might object, especially as they were to be driven out. In the terms of his times Canaan was conquered, but it was certainly not totally under Joshua’s control. He had not left occupying forces. The vacuum left by his invasion would soon be filled by returning refugees and those who had avoided his forces. Thus the conquest would need to be enforced, or otherwise. That was to be the task of the tribes Israel, partly by conquest and partly by slow infiltration. Canaan was a land of forests so that those who chose to do so could advance into a forested part of the land allocated to them and establish themselves there, cutting back the forest and setting up their settlements. This would cause minimal to the present inhabitants. As they then became more settled they could then expand. Others more belligerent could take over smaller cities and settle in them, taking over the fields round about them. Once they grew stronger they could then expand further. The benefit of what Joshua had done lay in the fact that they were now accepted, even if with hostility, as having a right to be in the land. They were a part of the landscape which it was best not to trifle with, because if they were trifled with they had brother tribes whom they could call on for assistance.

The descriptions of the division of the land partly reflect the efficiency of the different surveyors set to the task. Some gave full details of borders, others far sparser details while others merely named cities in the area.

Chapter 17 The Allotment to Manasseh - Joseph’s Complaint.

In this chapter Manasseh’s allotment is described, as part of the allotment to the tribe of Joseph. Ephraim and Manasseh then complain that there is not sufficient room for them and are told to use their initiative and cut down the forests so that they have virgin land on which to live.

Verse 1

Chapter 17 The Allotment to Manasseh - Joseph’s Complaint.

In this chapter Manasseh’s allotment is described, as part of the allotment to the tribe of Joseph. Ephraim and Manasseh then complain that there is not sufficient room for them and are told to use their initiative and cut down the forests so that they have virgin land on which to live.

Joshua 17:1

And this was the lot for the tribe of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. As for Machir, the firstborn of Manasseh, the father of Gilead, because he was a man of war therefore he had Gilead and Bashan.’

It was possibly because of its relationship with Ephraim that Manasseh was such a mixture of a tribe. It was not centrally unified and the section who remained in Transjordan were clearly a militant lot, useful to have guarding the northern borders from the Aramaeans and wandering desert tribes, but more brotherly at a distance. Although the tribe of the firstborn of Joseph, Manasseh were from the beginning secondary to Ephraim (Genesis 48:10-22). At this time it was a separate tribe and yet not a separate tribe.

“Because he was a man of war.” This may suggest that in Egypt Machir had been a military commander and had influenced his family in that direction so that certain sections of them had become military specialists. or it may just suggest that they had inherited his fierceness. ‘Father of Gilead’ may here, in contrast to Joshua 17:3, be referring to that portion of Manasseh seen as ‘Gilead’ because of their residence in Transjordan. But there may be a play on the names.

Verse 2

And this lot was for the remainder of the children of Manasseh according to their families; for the children of Abiezer, and for the children of Helek, and for the children of Asriel, and for the children of Shechem, and for the children of Hepher, and for the children of Shemida. These were the male children of Manasseh, the son of Joseph, according to their families.’

These were in fact depicted as Manasseh’s great-grandchildren in Numbers 26:9-32, and as children of Gilead (see Joshua 17:3 below). Family terminology was applied loosely. ‘Son of’ can simply mean ‘descendant of’ or ‘tribally connected with’. A man ‘bore’ tribes as well as children (Compare Genesis 10:15-18). They then all became his ‘children’. Thus these were tribes connected with the name of Manasseh and connected with his descendants. There is an interesting midway between direct family inheritance and tribal inheritance reminiscent of early days.

It may be that Manasseh had a direct descendant named Shechem, or this may indicate Manasseh as taking Shechem under their umbrella and incorporating them into their tribe at a date prior to the conquest, through messengers sent to make early contact with their brother tribe who were not seen as Canaanites. Either is feasible. There was also a town in Canaan called Hepher whose king was slain by Joshua (Joshua 12:17). But duplication of names was quite common without it necessarily having any significance.

Verse 3

But Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons, but daughters. And these are the names of his daughters, Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.’

We note first that in Joshua 17:2 it is made clear that Hepher was not necessarily the direct descendant of Machir, and the connection may be tribal, although it is always possible for there to be two or more bearing the same name. This inheritance of daughters where men had no sons was confirmed by YHWH to Moses at an earlier time when these forthright daughters of Zelophehad had approached Moses about their position (Numbers 27:1-11). But in this case they were required to marry within the tribe so that their inheritance would not pass outside the tribe (Numbers 36:0). To inherit directly brought tribal responsibility. The names of the daughters are represented elsewhere, but if actual women, princesses of the sub-tribe, had not been directly involved there would have been no reason for inventing an artificial situation. See for Mahlah a family of Manasseh (1 Chronicles 7:18), for Hoglah compare Beth-hoglah (Joshua 15:6), for Tirzah see Joshua 12:24. This merely demonstrates a similar environment with similar names in use.

The whole situation is interesting in bringing out the fact that the subject of dividing the land did not just begin here. It had been under serious consideration for a considerable period of time. Preparatory land surveys had probably already taken place under Moses, and information recorded ready for when the time came.

Verse 4

And they came near before Eleazar the priest, and before Joshua the son of Nun, and before the princes, saying, “YHWH commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our brothers”, therefore according to the commandment of YHWH he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father.’

As they had previously brought their case to Moses and Eleazar the priest of the tribal confederacy, now they brought it to Joshua and Eleazar, and the tribal princes. The dividing of the land satisfactorily was a huge task. It was clearly carried out with great care and much consideration had been given to it. The casting of lots was not in order to make life easy but in order to gain the mind of YHWH about the distribution and to rule out charges of favouritism. Here the daughters were ensuring the portion of their own family.

Verses 5-6

And there fell ten portions (literally ‘lines’ - portions set off by lines) to Manasseh, beside the land of Gilead and Bashan, which is Beyond Jordan, because the daughters of Manasseh had an inheritance among his sons, and the land of Gilead belonged to the rest of the sons of Manasseh.’

The portions would not be equal portions but probably divided according to the land involved and the numbers of members or families in each sub-tribe. Thus the portion for the daughters would be that which would have been allocated to Hepher, divided between them, taking those factors into account. So Manasseh received portions in both Beyond Jordan East and Beyond Jordan West.

Verses 7-10

Joshua 17:7-9 a

‘And the border of Manasseh was from Asher to Michmethath which is before Shechem, and the border went along to the right hand, to the inhabitants of Entappuah. The land of Tappuah belonged to Manasseh, but Tappuah on the border of Manasseh belonged to the children of Ephraim. And the border descended to the river Kanah, southward of the river. These cities belonged to Ephraim among the cities of Manasseh.’

This is a very brief summary of the border relying on familiarity. ‘Asher’ may have been in some way connected with the southern border of Asher later described (at the north west corner of Manasseh) or more probably relates to a town of that name, whereabouts now unknown, possibly north of Michmethath. Michmethath was east of (‘before’) Shechem.

“And the border went along to the right hand, to the inhabitants of Entappuah.” This means southward, to the right hand of someone facing the Jordan. Tappuah, a border town, seemingly belonged to Ephraim (Joshua 16:8-9) but some of the peoples of the area were in Manasseh. It was possibly Sheikh Abu Zarad, about twelve kilometres south of Shechem.

To reach Tappuah the border descended to the south side of the Wadi Qana. ‘These cities’ are presumably those already mentioned, the border cities Michmethath and Tappuah, and possibly Asher, which while seen as on territory belonging to Manasseh, themselves belonged to Ephraim. Joshua 17:9 a should be seen as connected with Joshua 17:8.

Joshua 17:9-10 (9b-10)

And the border of Manasseh was on the north side of the river, and its goings out were at the sea. Southwards it was Ephraim's, and northwards it was Manasseh's, and the sea his border, and they reached to Asher on the north, and to Issachar on the east.’

The Wadi Qanah ran west from the watershed at the head of the Michmethath valley, eight kilometres (five miles) south west of Shechem. Its lower course ran on to the Great Sea. The border between Ephraim and Manasseh was at first southward, as above, and then northward of the river bed until it reached the Great Sea. The Great Sea was its western border.

“And they reached to Asher on the north, and to Issachar on the east.” ‘They’ means the children of Manasseh. This vague definition connecting them with Asher to the north west and Issachar to the east of Asher may have been deliberately vague because at this time the borders were not exactly fixed.

Verse 11

And Manasseh had to Issachar, and to Asher, Beth-shean and her towns (daughters), and Ibleam and her towns, and the inhabitants of Dor and her towns, and the inhabitants of En-dor and her towns, and the inhabitants of Taanach and her towns, and the inhabitants of Megiddo and her towns, even the three heights.’

This probably signifies that these cities with their surrounding towns, making up regions, were on the border, and were seen as belonging to Manasseh while the connecting lands belonged to Issachar and Asher, with the borders not too clear. They were in territory which was dangerous to enter in order to survey it accurately. Dor and her towns formed a region which must have reached to Carmel (Joshua 19:26).

Beth-shean and her towns were situated at the important junction of the Valley of Jezreel with the Jordan Valley. It is at Tell el-Husn. Two 14th century BC royal stelae of Sethos I were found there, one recording that he had a clash with the ‘pr.w (Hapiru). Thus at this time it had come back into Egyptian control. The 13th century BC level contained a temple in which a stela was found depicting a goddess with a two-horned headdress. A similar temple and a statue of Raamses III were found in the 12th century level together with anthropoid clay coffins reminiscent of the Philistines. It would seem that it was controlled by the Philistines as vassals of Egypt.

“Ibleam and her towns.” Ibleam is now Khirbet Bil‘ameh, about sixteen kilometres south east of Meggido on the road from Beth-shean (2 Kings 9:27). It occurs in Egyptian lists as Ybr‘m.

“And the inhabitants of Dor and her towns.” Dor was the important seaport on the Mediterranean coast south of Carmel mentioned by Raamses II and later conquered by the Sea Peoples (the Tjeker). Its towns seemingly stretched up to Carmel.

“And the inhabitants of En-dor and her towns.” This was modern ‘En-dur, six kilometres south of Mount Tabor. It lay outside the chain of fortified towns from Beth-shean to Dor described here which prevented Manasseh’s advance on the plains.

“And the inhabitants of Taanach and her towns.” This was one of the major cities of Canaan, situated at one side of the Plain of Esdraelon, having a large population in the tens of thousands. It was an important city on the main trade route through Canaan. Excavations in Taanach produced fourteen tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform demonstrating that the language was used even between local officials. In the debris of a late bronze age destruction a tablet was found in the Canaanite cuneiform alphabet. Taanach is mentioned by Thothmes III, by Shishak, and in the Amarna letters for raiding Megiddo which was loyal to Egypt.

“And the inhabitants of Megiddo and her towns, even the three heights.” This was the second of the two major cities of Canaan, situated on either side of the Plain of Esdraelon, again having a large population in the tens of thousands. Megiddo was the largest of the two, controlling the pass that led onto the Plain. It also was an important city on the main trade route through Canaan, and for this reason was a main target for Egypt when Egypt was strong. It also had connections with Mesopotmia, and a fragment of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh was found on the site.

Megiddo was destroyed in about 1150 BC, well after the time of Joshua and before the time of Deborah. This may have been the work of Israel, but it could in fact have had any number of causes. Israel were not the only predators. The small settlement then built on the site may well have been an Israelite village. But Megiddo was shortly to be rebuilt by Egypt.

“Even the three heights.” It will be noted that the line from Beth-shean to Dor is covered by the first three towns, then the further three were added on, out of order. This may be because the latter were known as ‘the three heights’. This chain of fortified towns (excluding En-dor, slightly further to the north) protected the valley through which the trade routes passed. ‘With their towns’ demonstrates how towns proliferated in the plains making it difficult for Israel to make inroads there.

Verses 12-13

Yet the children of Manasseh could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities, but the Canaanites would dwell in that land. And it was so that when the children of Israel were grown strong they put the Canaanites to taskwork and did not utterly drive them out.’

This summary, like those in Joshua 15:63; Joshua 16:10, summarises the failure of Israel. At first they could not drive out the Canaanites. That was excusable. The Canaanites were too strong and insisted on staying in the land (‘would stay in the land’). But then in each case the opportunity arose and they failed to take advantage of it. Thus when they did for a while obtain control over the cities they took advantage of it to make gains for themselves rather than driving out the Canaanites. Their failure to do so would result in compromise and breach of the covenant through fraternising with the debased Canaanite religion. Compromise and greed are two ever present enemies for the Christian.

Verse 14

And the children of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion to inherit, seeing I am a great people forasmuch as Yahweh has blessed me up to now?” ’

When the children of Joseph considered the portion that had been allotted to them they were aggrieved. They did not consider their portion large enough once it was taken into account that much of it was covered by forest and that other parts were controlled by people with chariots with iron accoutrements. They were pessimistic and unbelieving. They failed to see what God and hard work could do. We find later that Ephraim continually had this belligerent attitude in view of what they saw as the importance of their tribe (e.g. Judges 8:1; Judges 12:1). They were a prickly people.

Their show of piety, ‘YHWH has blessed me’, hid an ungrateful heart. Their lot had been allocated by YHWH and it was therefore Him Whom they were blaming. They had no doubt sent out scouts to check up on what they were receiving, and their reports had seemingly made them dissatisfied. They had, of course at this stage no real knowledge of what others were receiving, apart possibly from some inkling of what Judah had received. They were simply angry at the size of the task given them and the sparsity of occupiable land in their large allotted area. They were in fact favourably treated.

Their anger was also very much caused by considering what they saw as unfair treatment (regardless of the facts about their allotment). They saw themselves as the equivalent of two tribes and yet only given ‘one lot and one portion’. This again stresses that this was written at a time when their separation as two tribes was still emerging. It had been officially and explicitly started by Moses (Numbers 1:10; Numbers 1:32-34) based on the realities of the situation and the need to maintain ‘twelveness’ once Levi were separated off to Yahweh. And the size of their lot had taken it fully into account. (Indeed ‘one lot and one portion’ may have been an admission that they had received extra with their portion in Transjordan).

This kind of incident serves to demonstrate the accuracy and reliability of the narrative. No one would later invent Ephraim’s dissatisfaction expressed thus, or Manasseh’s, and it arose precisely because they were in association with Joshua and with the other tribes, entering the land at the same time. And it would have been pointless had they not believed that Joshua could do something about it.

This incident reminds us of the difficult task Joshua was facing. He had twelve groups all looking suspiciously at what they were receiving and what others were receiving. Each probably thought their task the hardest, and many in the tribes would be begrudging what had been given to others. They had arrived expecting to find a land flowing with milk and honey and had instead found one full of forests and mountains and flowing with chariots.

To have openly given Ephraim and Manasseh two allotments would have caused great ill-feeling There was still too much of a sense among others that they were still one tribe of the twelve. Yet the use of the lot and the extra land in Transjordan had made it possible for them to receive a portion commensurate with their size, and within their allotment each had received separate allotments (we should note that Joshua was also involved in the divisions within the tribes (Joshua 17:4-5)). But inevitably in such a situation no one was really happy. They were all jealous of each other. And this was the situation Joshua had to deal with.

So when he replied he had to do so in such a way as to pacify Ephraim and Manasseh and at the same time not arouse resentment among the other tribes, especially as he himself was of the tribe of Ephraim (Numbers 13:8). Joshua revealed his quality and statesmanship by the nature of his reply. He wanted positively to encourage them into activity and he must not let the other tribes think that the tribe of Joseph were being favoured. And yet he must also not let the tribe of Joseph feel that they were being treated unfairly. It required great tact.

Verse 15

And Joshua said to them, “If you are a great people, get yourselves up to the forest and clear land for yourselves there in the land of the Perizzites and of the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” ’

If Joshua had emphasised the size of their territory and their extra portion in Transjordan he would have engendered perpetual jealousy among the other tribes. But wisely he desisted. Instead he took up their own claim to be a great people. As they were a great people let them clear land in ‘the forest’ where they only had to deal with village dwellers (Perizzites) and the Rephaim, thus making more land for themselves, land which had possibly not been included in the divisions.

The Perizzites were village dwellers. The Rephaim were a very tall people who engendered awe, but were in fact not on the whole very good fighters (Genesis 14:5; Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 2:19-21). They had been driven out by the Moabites and Ammonites and possibly haunted the forests, flitting with their long thin forms between the trees. Indeed it may be that the later use of the word of spirits and ghosts (Psalms 88:10-11; Proverbs 2:18; Proverbs 9:18; Proverbs 21:16; Job 26:5; Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 26:14; Isaiah 26:19) was in Joshua’s mind, a contemptuous ‘village dwellers and ghosts’. In Phoenician tomb inscriptions rp’m was used in the sense of ghosts.

“The forest” was possibly a word that covered large swathes of forests just as ‘the mountain’ meant the whole of the hill country. What he was pointing out was that there was much forest land on mountains that could be cleared. It might also refer to the wooded highlands on the east of Jordan next to Manasseh’s territory there. That would certainly be something they had to climb to (from the Jordan valley). This would then be a discreet reminder of what they had been given in Gilead and Bashan. Verse 18 refers the forest to ‘hill country’. Both sides of the Jordan may in fact be in mind.

Verse 16

And the children of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us, and all the Canaanites who dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, both they who are in Beth-shean and her towns, and they who are of the valley of Jezreel.” ’

The reply came back from the elders of the tribe of Joseph that even when forest land was cleared the hill country would be insufficient, and the valleys would be out of the question because of the strength of the Canaanite armaments. Like many they wanted ease and comfort without effort or the exercise of faith. But they had summed up their problems accurately. Their eyes were on the strong fortress of Bethshean with its related towns and other Canaanite enclaves in the valley of Jezreel, the deep broad valley of Nahr Jalud which descends eastward from Jezreel. And they were timid and afraid.

“The children of Joseph.” See Joshua 14:4; Joshua 16:1; Joshua 16:4; Joshua 17:14. Sometimes also described as ‘the house of Joseph’ (Joshua 17:17; Joshua 18:5; Judges 1:22). There seems little difference between the expressions although the latter appears to be used to stress the combination of two tribes as one under a joint patriarch as his ‘household’.

Verses 17-18

And Joshua spoke to the house of Joseph, even to Ephraim and to Manasseh, saying, “You are a great people, and have great power, you shall not have one lot only, but the hill country will be yours, for though it is a forest you will cut it down and its goings out will be yours, for you will drive out the Canaanites although they have iron chariots, and although they are strong.’

Joshua then made a prophetic declaration. He first gave them a feeling of their great power and importance. Let them cease their fear and as a large people look to YHWH Whose power they could enjoy. Then he forecast that they would indeed cut down a forest to make way for themselves among the mountains and would eventually defeat the Canaanites with their iron chariots. Certainly later Megiddo and Taanach did become available to their control.

“You shall not have one lot only.” This did not meant that they would receive a second lot but that they could make for themselves a second lot by utilising what had been seen as unusable land.

“Its goings out shall be yours.” They would not be confined to the hill country but through victories over the Canaanites would be able to go out into the plains. They were thus to have faith in YHWH and go forward.

“Even to Ephraim and to Manasseh.” Note the change of order from Joshua 16:4. What followed Joshua 16:4 had in fact put Ephraim first. As with the blessing of Jacob the position of the sons was transposed. This would later be the established order.

So all these words were included in the narrative as an encouragement for God’s people to take the initiative and make opportunities were they do not seem to exist, and not to sit around moaning but to go forward in faith. Then all will open up to them, even what seems unachievable.

It is a reminder to us that lack of opportunity often arises from our unwillingness to look around and see what is available. We want to have it easily, without effort. Thus we miss the opportunities that are there.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Joshua 17". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/joshua-17.html. 2013.
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