Occupying the Land – Joshua 13–22

Read the Passage: Joshua 13-22

Division of the Land (13:1–19:51)

The contents of Joshua 13–19 may seem boring to some readers, as they report—in a monotonous fashion—the division of the land among the tribes of Israel. Yet, these chapters are very important in the unfolding narrative of Scripture, for they contain details about God’s fulfillment of a promise He had made to Abraham more the 500 years before the events recorded in these chapters. In reference to the land of Canaan, at Gen. 12:7 God told Abraham, “To your descendants, I will give this land.” This promise is fulfilled in Joshua 13–19 as these chapters give a detailed account of the division of the Promise Land among the twelve tribes of Israel. This passage also records God’s fulfillment of the promise of land to the two faithful Hebrew spies: Caleb (14:6–15; 15:13–19) and Joshua (19:49–51). Note that this promise to the spies was made by the Lord at Num. 14:24.

As we read through the verses in these chapters and read the lists of boundary markers and cities, it is easy to forget the big picture being revealed here. While the tribes of Israel were God’s people and they literally occupied land in Palestine, where they could enjoy rest, they were also an object lesson that depicted God’s people—that is, the church—being able to rest in the presence of Jesus Christ through salvation. As the writer of Hebrews would later write concerning the events in Josh. 13–19, “For if Joshua had given [the tribes of Israel] rest, then God would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:8–9). God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 was not just a promise of land for Abraham’s descendants, but also it was a promise of a future Messiah who would come from Abraham’s lineage.

Special Cities (20:1–21:45)

Joshua 20:1–9 describes what are called “cities of refuge.” The concept of these cities first occurs at Exod. 21:13, and they are also mentioned at Num. 35:9–28; Deut. 4:41–43; 19:1–7. Essentially, the cities of refuge were cities to which a person could flee for protection in the event that they accidentally killed another person. Under Old Testament civil law, in the case of an intentional killing, the murderer was legally pursued by one whom Scripture calls “an avenger of blood,” who was the nearest relative to the murdered person (cf. Gen. 9:5–6). However, in the case of an accidental killing, the killer was not viewed as being guilty of murder. Yet, because “an avenger of blood” may illegally seek the killer’s life out of vengeance or grief, Joshua 20 specified that six cites of refuge were to be set up. These cities served to protect the life of the unintentional killer and/or to allow time to establish guilt or innocence in regard to the death.

Joshua 21:1–45 describes cities of the Levites. The forty-eight cities listed in this chapter were special cities in which the priests from the tribe of Levi dwelt. From reading Joshua 13–19 we know that the Levites did not receive any property to be used as farmland when the Promise Land was divided among the other tribes of Israel. This is because the priest served God in the Temple and performed other priestly functions among the people. As such, they were not involved full-time in agriculture, which was the foundation of the Israelite economy. The design of having the Levites dwell in cites scattered throughout the land of Israel also served to ensure that there would be a continual priestly presence among all the tribes. In the modern context God has likewise scattered priests—namely, the church (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9–10)—around the world as a spiritual presence among all people.

An Altar by the Jordan (22:1–34)

Josh. 22:10–21 reports an occasion on which the eastern and western tribes of Israel came to the brink of civil war. The issue was that as the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, they “built an altar . . . by the Jordan, a great impressive altar” (Josh. 22:10). Taken at face value, it seemed that upon leaving their brethren, the very first thing that these tribes did was to erect an altar so that they could begin to engage in their own worship away from Shiloh, where God’s Tabernacle dwelt. Yet, as the narrative of Josh. 22:22–34 records, after a tense confrontation with the other tribes of Israel, the eastern tribes explained that their altar was not built for the purpose of engaging in false worship, but rather it was designed to be a sign or a witness between them and those who dwelt on the western side of the Jordan. This altar was to be a reminder that the twelve tribes were one nation. Although a river divided the nation geographically, they were one people spiritually.

Application Questions:

  1. Josh. 11:23 says that “Joshua took the whole land,” but Josh. 13:1 says that there was “land yet to be possessed.” How can we explain this paradox?
  2. How can God’s fulfillment of an ancient promise made to Abraham encourage us in regard to other promises God has made in Scripture?
  3. In writing of the events in Joshua 13–19, the author of Hebrews says, “The gospel was preached to us as well as to them” (Heb. 4:2). What does this mean?
  4. What are the differences between the biblical practice of cities of refuge for the innocent, and the modern practice of incarceration of the guilty?
  5. Joshua 20:6 specified that the unintentional killer was to reside in a city of refuge until the death of the high priest. Why was this so?