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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Joshua 21

Verses 1-45

THE CITIES FOR THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES

CRITICAL NOTES.—

Joshua 21:1. The heads of the fathers] On this phrase, cf. note on chap. Joshua 14:1. The fathers of the tribe of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Genesis 46:11; Exodus 6:16). From the Kohathites sprang the priestly family of Aaron. Hence the order of precedence was not the apparent order of birth. In the duties of the Levitical service the Kohathites stood first, the Gershonites next, and the Merarites last. This is also the order in which the lots were drawn for the three branches of the tribe.

Joshua 21:4-8. And the lot came out for the families, etc.] These five verses give a short summary of the distribution, shewing the tribes among which each branch of the Levites settled, and the number of the cities apportioned to each. The Aaronites had thirteen cities, the rest of the Kohathites ten cities, the Gershonites thirteen cities, and the Merarites twelve cities. The remainder of the chapter records the details of the distribution. Most of the cities given to the Levites have already been noticed in the distribution made of them to the tribes.

Joshua 21:5. The rest of the children of Kohath] These were the descendants of Amram through Moses, and the entire posterity of Izehar, Hebron, and Uzziel (Exodus 6:18; Numbers 3:19).

Joshua 21:12. Gave they to Caleb] “If the fields, belonging to the Levites, were thus left in the hands of the tribe, by whom the city had been given up, the Levites cannot have been the sole inhabitants of these cities. For, if they were, where can the Israelites have lived, by whom the land was cultivated! We must certainly assume that the Levites only received as many houses in the cities assigned them, as their numerical strength required, and that it was these which remained in their hands as an inalienable possession. At least, there were in the cities as many other inhabitants as were necessary to cultivate the soil. Moreover, the law (Leviticus 25:32-34) which prohibited the perpetual alienation of the houses of the Levites, and the sale of the pasture land belonging to their cities, in addition to its provision that, if sold, the houses should revert to the Levites in the year of Jubilee, presupposed that there would be other Israelites besides the Levites living in the Levitical cities. At the same time it proves that the Levites held the houses allotted to them, not merely as usufructuarii, but as owners and landlords in full possession.” [Keil.]

Joshua 21:15. Holon] In 1 Chronicles 6:58, called Hilen. It has not been identified.

Joshua 21:16. Ain] Given as “Ashan” in the list of priests’ cities in 1 Chronicles 6:59. Keil thinks that the latter passage probably contains the correct reading. This seems very doubtful. Just as the Holon of Joshua 15:51; Joshua 21:15, is in the text in Chronicles altered to Hilen, so Ain appears to have been changed to Ashan. Ain and Ashan are more than once mentioned in the same verse as distinct and separata cities (chap. Joshua 19:7; 1 Chronicles 4:32), situated near to each other, and belonging to Simeon.

Joshua 21:18. Anathoth] Conspicuous in later history as the birthplace of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:1, etc.). It was also the native town of Abiezer, one of David’s captains (2 Samuel 23:27). It was to Anathoth that Solomon banished Abiathar the priest, after the death of David (1 Kings 2:26). Robinson identified it with Anâta, a small village about four miles N.N.E. of Jerusalem. Almon] In 1 Chronicles 6:60, called Alemeth. Thought by Robinson to be Almit, near Anathoth, on the north-east.

Joshua 21:22. Kibzaim] Called also Jokmeam in 1 Chronicles 6:68. The very similar meaning of the words Kibzaim and Jokmeam favours the idea that they were two names for the same place.

Joshua 21:24. Aijalon] The Ajalon of chap. Joshua 10:12; Joshua 19:42.

Joshua 21:25. Tanach] Called Taanach in chap. Joshua 12:21, Joshua 17:11. Gath-Rimmon] “Instead of Gath-Rimmon, we find, in 1 Chronicles 6:70, Bileam, another form of Jibleam (chap. Joshua 17:11). This reading in the Chronicles is evidently the correct one, and Gath-Rimmon has most probably crept into the text here, through an oversight, out of the preceding verse, although, from the frequent occurrence of this name in connection with different places, it is certainly possible that Gath-Rimmon in the half-tribe of Manasseh may have been another name for the city of Jibleam.” [Keil.]

Joshua 21:27. Beesh-terah] Meaning, “the house” or “temple of Astarte,” and hence, in 1 Chronicles 6:70, called by the name of Ashtaroth. The name Ashtaroth is also given in chap. Joshua 12:4, where the city is spoken of as containing a residence of Og, King of Bashan. Cf. also chap. Joshua 13:12, Genesis 14:5.

Joshua 21:28. Dabareh] In chap. Joshua 19:12, Daberath.

Joshua 21:29. Jarmuth] In chap. Joshua 19:21, Remeth.

Joshua 21:30. Abdon] Probably the place called Hebron in chap. Joshua 19:28. “The name Abdon is found in twenty MSS., Joshua 19:28, instead of the common reading Hebron.” [Gesen.]

Joshua 21:32. Kartan] According to Keil, the word is a contraction of Kirjathaim, named in 1 Chronicles 6:76. Kartan is not mentioned among the cities of Naphtali, chap. Joshua 19:35-38.

Joshua 21:34-35. Kartah … Dimnah] Neither is known, and the names do not occur elsewhere, unless the former be the Kattath of chap. Joshua 19:15.

Joshua 21:36-37. And out of the tribe of Reuben, etc.] These two verses, at one time omitted on the authority of the Masora, are now almost universally received as genuine, and as necessary to the harmony of the text with itself.

Joshua 21:42. With their suburbs round about them] An allusion to the pasture land set apart for the maintenance of the cattle of the Levites (Numbers 35:2-5). At the close of this verse, a clause of fourteen lines is added by the LXX, taken partly from chap. Joshua 19:49-50, and partly, says Keil, from a Jewish legend.

OUTLINES AND COMMENTS ON THE PARAGRAPHS

Joshua 21:1-8.—THE INHERITANCE OF THE PRIESTS AND LEVITES.

This plea of the Levitical families was necessarily deferred till the tribes had received their respective lots. The estate of each tribe had to be determined before these assignments from each estate could be made. No tribe could give cities to the Levites till they knew what cities they had to give. The plea of the Levites was founded on the command of the Lord. There are no people in the whole community who may not find some good words of God to turn into prayer. God has words for all people. He overlooks none. None is so poor that he may not find some promise to render into a petition.

I. The Lord’s confirmation of words that were past. Nearly two centuries and a half before this, a dying patriarch had prophesied of Simeon and Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7). To some extent this prediction had already been fulfilled in respect to Simeon; they were divided in the territory of Judah. Here, Levi is scattered throughout the entire land. God fulfils His words

(1) imperceptibly,
(2) patiently,
(3) surely. Possibly ere ever the people had thought on what was being done, the ancient utterance of Jacob had become an accomplished fact.

II. The Lord’s anticipation of wants that were to come. “The children of Aaron the priest had by lot out of the tribe of Judah, and out of the tribe of Simeon, and out of the tribe of Benjamin, thirteen cities.” Jerusalem, or Jebus, was at this time in the hands of the Canaanites. The ark was at Shiloh. But Jerusalem was to be the place of the future temple. It was at Jerusalem that the great religious centre of the land was presently to be founded, though as yet no sign of this had been given. How important that the priests should be near Jerusalem! God anticipates this, and so orders the lots that the priests’ cities are immediately around the future city of the Lord; while the Kohathites, whose duties were next in importance to those of the priests, are placed next to the priests geographically. Who can refuse to see the discerning eye and provident hand of Jehovah in this significant arrangement?

III. The Lord’s cultivation of the spiritual through the secular. Here are geography and religion hand in hand. The spiritual teachers of the people are scattered among the people. The chief religious authorities are grouped around the future centre of religion. Nothing is too lowly for the care of God. Everything that tends to the welfare of a human soul takes on in that measure so much of the soul’s own importance. Men label things secular, and then treat them as spiritually insignificant; God looks at the very placing of a man’s dwelling in the light of so much help or hindrance to the finding of his eternal home.

Joshua 21:13-19.—THE NUMBER OF CITIES ASSIGNED TO THE PRIESTS.

“Bertholdt and Maurer suppose this chapter to be a distinct document, drawn up at a later period. Their arguments are founded partly upon a fancied, but not actual, discrepancy between Joshua 21:11 seq. and chap. Joshua 14:13 seq. (compared with chap. Joshua 15:18), partly upon the assumption that Caleb did not receive his inheritance till after the death of Joshua, and in part on the impossibility of the increase in the posterity of Aaron’s two sons having been sufficiently large for them to fill two cities during the lifetime of Joshua, to say nothing of thirteen (1 Chronicles 24:2). But this supposes the distributors to have been so shortsighted, that they only selected dwelling-places to meet the wants of the priestly families at that time, and made no allowance for subsequent increase. Moreover, the size of the cities is exaggerated, and the estimate of the number of the priests much too low. It is true that the number is not stated anywhere; but if we take into account that, on the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, Aaron was eighty-three years old, for he died in the fortieth year of the journey, and his age was then 123 (Numbers 33:38), we shall see that the fifth generation of his descendants might have been living at the time when the land was distributed, which was seven years after his death. Moreover, his two sons had together twenty-four male children, who were the ancestors of the twenty-four priestly ranks organised by David (1 Chronicles 24:0.), and if we suppose each of these to have been the father of only six sons, in the third generation the sons of Aaron would have amounted to 144. On the same scale there would be 864 male descendants in the fourth generation, and in the fifth 5184. And even if the fifth generation still consisted of infants, there might easily be 975 families in existence, and thus in every city there could well be seventy-five families of priestly rank, or about 750 inhabitants, since the majority of the third, and even a small portion of the second, generation would be still alive, as well as the fourth and their children; for Eleazar, the head of the first, was not yet dead. And besides this, very few of the cities of Canaan can have been at that time of any magnitude, as we may infer from the fact that there were so many of them; and therefore, as the Levites were not the only inhabitants of their cities, but were associated with such of the other tribes as owned the land in the neighbourhood (cf. Joshua 21:12), the number of cities assigned to the priests does not appear too great; much less will it appear so, when we remember that from the very first, several of these cities remained in the possession of the Canaanites, and were only wrested from them after a severe struggle, at a subsequent period. From all this, then, it is evident that there is no ground for disputing the antiquity of this account; which, in fact, cannot belong to a later period; for if it did, Nob would not be omitted, as that was a Levitical city in the reign of Saul (1 Samuel 22:19).”—[Keil.]

Joshua 21:43-45.—THE GOOD THINGS WHICH THE LORD HATH SPOKEN.

I. The good things of the Lord spoken unto the fathers. The completed works of God are not aimless works, finished as best they can be. Every body that the Lord makes is a clothed skeleton. The features are wonderful, and the visible form beautiful; but the hidden plan and structure of the body, with all its tendons and muscles, and nerves and arteries, is more wonderful and beautiful still. The words which had been spoken to the fathers were God’s outlined plan of the body which He intended to create.

1. The words of the Lord were words of long standing. They had been spoken long before (Genesis 12:7). God’s way is one of patience. God’s words to men, He works out through men. God works out His words by natural processes. Such processes are much slower than many would fain believe. It is only children who would look for seed-time and harvest in the same week, and Jehovah would train, not children, but men.

2. The words of the Lord were never forgotten. The years were very many, but Divine regard to the things which had been said was very constant (cf Genesis 15:18; Genesis 26:4; Exodus 23:31, etc.). Either by direct or indirect words, God was continually reminding His people throughout these intervening centuries that His good words were ever in His remembrance. Divine patience has nothing of heedlessness.

3. The words of the Lord were very comprehensive, and yet full of detail. There were absolute words, promising the land, as a whole, in strong and unhesitating terms. There were also words which indicated the very position that the tribes were to occupy, and which described the character of their inheritance. The word of the Lord is very bold. God shews men things to come with as much exactness as men can shew things that have been. God’s prophecies are among the world’s most truthful histories.

II. The good things of the Lord fulfilled unto the children.

1. The fulfilment was delayed through sin. The forty years in the wilderness. Even these may be only a part of the delay which God saw to be necessary on account of human weakness and wickedness.

2. The fulfilment was accomplished notwithstanding sin. God absolutely performed His good words. “There stood not a man of all their enemies before them.” None of the Canaanites dared to meet the Israelites in arms. God overcomes even our iniquities.

3. Sin made the fulfilment less perfect than it might have been. Many of the cities were still held by the Canaanites. This was because of the fear and unbelief and slothfulness of the Israelites (cf. on chap. Joshua 16:10; Joshua 17:12-13; Joshua 18:3). For all this, no good word of God had failed. The promise was that the Canaanites should be driven out gradually (Exodus 23:30), and that if the Israelites did not persist in driving them out, till all were gone, those that remained should be as “pricks in their eyes, and thorns in their sides” (Numbers 33:55). These conditions had not been forgotten (chap. Joshua 23:11-14). Thus, this is no heedless exaggeration, as Maurer recklessly asserted. On God’s part, every good thing had been made to come to pass.

III. The good things of the Lord fulfilled to some men, and thus becoming the heritage of all men. The moral effect of these predictions, and their scrupulous fulfilment, no one can calculate. Sceptical critics have spent their small animosities on the records in vain. The influence on contemporary nations must have been great. The influence on the generations of men who followed is past finding out. It is to-day as marvellous as ever. An old couplet ascribed to James

1. tells us—

“Crowns have their compass, length of days their date,
Triumphs their tomb, felicities their fate.”

So all the outward circumstances of this ancient heritage have changed. The pageantry of the old Judæan royalty was limited; the days of the national glory have spent themselves, long since; every victory won on these ancient battlefields has found its grave; and the joy and glory of this ancient people have alike passed away. On all that is outward, the “Ichabod,” expressive of the national decadence, has long been written. But the good things of the Lord, thus fulfilled to this departed people, are as good as ever. The real inheritance of God’s fulfilled word came not so much to a few Israelites as to men; it was not nearly so much a thing of acres and cities and houses, as of reverence and faith and prayer and love, through many generations. This part of the inheritance, also, was one of the good things of which the Lord had spoken when He said repeatedly, “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”

Joshua 21:44.—GOD’S GREAT GIFT OF REST.

I. Rest as the necessity of men.

II. Rest as the gift of the Lord.

III. Rest as becoming complete only through faith and labour.

Joshua 21:45.—THE UNFAILING WORDS OF THE LORD.

I. The unfailing words of the Lord in contrast with the failing words of men. Man’s words fail

(1) because of thoughtlessness in utterance,
(2) by reason of fickleness of regard,
(3) and through feebleness in execution. The Lord’s words are ever glorious, like the unfading stars of the firmament: “For that He is strong in power, not one faileth.” Man’s words are in many ways, and for various reasons, a fruitful source of shame.

II. The words of the Lord on “good things” in contrast with the Lord’s words on “evil things.” Divine words not only stand in contrast with words that are human, but with themselves. God never allows words to fail which tell of blessing and prosperity; it is only of things which bring to men suffering and loss that we ever find it written, “God repented of the evil that He said He would do unto them, and He did it not” (Jonah 3:10; cf. also Deuteronomy 32:36; Jeremiah 18:10; Amos 7:3; Amos 7:6). Words like these are never written of God’s “good things.” He who speaks to men from above is slow to anger and swift to bless.

Joshua 21:45.—RETROSPECT.

I. The retrospect of the godly.

1. Provoking admiration of God. (a) Great purposes. (b) Glorious promises. (c) Patient working.

2. Awakening praise to God. Admiration should not be silent. It should resolve itself into speech. The rapt admiration of the silent beholder is good for the individual; the praise when spoken, or written, helps men.

II. The retrospect of the ungodly. While the Israelites were looking back on the way in which Jehovah had led them, the Canaanites must have been very similarly engaged. The God of the Israelites, who had warned them through Ham and Canaan, their fathers, who had punished them at Sodom, and given them occasion for repentance in many solemn rumours of their coming overthrow, had spoken to these idolaters also. And here, too, not one thing had failed. A few short years before, and the Canaanites were in untroubled possession of the land. Now a few survivors looked out with awe from some of the fortified cities upon the graves of their comrades and the ruins of their nation. How did the retrospect affect these? It seems to have brought no penitence, and thus could work no praise. The surviving idolaters presently tempted the Israelites to idolatry. The retrospect of the godless man can only lead to true happiness and praise as it begins in sincere repentance.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Joshua 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/joshua-21.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.