Joshua 13:1-33

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We come to Joshua 13, reading vv. 1-23 and then 32 and 33 at the end of the chapter. Chapter 13 begins the third major section of the book of Joshua. The first section, in which the key word was the Hebrew verb “to cross,” concerned Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River and entrance into the Promised Land. The second section, whose key word was the Hebrew verb “to take,” concerned Israel’s taking of the land by military conquest. This third section has two key words, the Hebrew verb halak, “to divide” or “to allot,” which occurs some six times in this third section, and the Hebrew verb yarash, “to inherit” or “to occupy or possess” which occurs more than a dozen times between 13:1 and 21:45. This third section, as the key words indicate, concerns the division of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel.

A very large portion of this third section of the book amounts to the delineation of the geographical boundaries of each tribe’s allotment. We will not read all of that material. But this morning we will read a representative selection.

Text Comment

v.1       The years of war are passed and it is time for the occupation of the land; for Israel to overspread the land and settle in all its parts. Joshua is now an old man. By most standards he would have been pretty old when he led Israel into Canaan, but he was older still by this time. [He wasn’t as old as Bob Rogland, but then who is? By the way, Bob, welcome back.]

v.6       Although in chapters 10 and 11 the general impression is one of total victory, that was a generality. There was still a good bit of territory yet to be taken. This included the land of the Philistines along the coast and some territory to their southeast, the coastland to the north, and the territory of modern day Lebanon. Some of this territory would not be brought under Israel’s control until the time of David. The Lord once again promised to give Israel success in taking those territories as he had all the territory so far conquered.

v.7       It would not be Joshua’s task to take the remaining territory. He was too old for that work. But he was responsible for the distribution of the land.

The allotment of the land begins, as did the list of the conquered kings in chapter 12, with the two and a half tribes that would settle in the conquered lands of the Trans-Jordan.

v.8       As we will read later, the particular apportionment of each tribe’s inheritance was determined by lot (e.g. 14:2), though exactly how it was determined by lot we are not told.

v.11     Gilead is mentioned more than 100 times in the Old Testament. It was a particularly fertile region of forests, grape vines, olive trees, and fields of grain.

v.13     We have here the first indication of trouble to come. Some of the pagan peoples who lived in these conquered territories had not been dispossessed of their land. Nothing is said here in explanation of that fact but we will read of still more Canaanite peoples who remained in the land later in the book and then again in Judges. The implication seems to be that the Israelites didn’t bother to follow up their great military conquests as they should have. It seems they wanted to get down to the business of living, of enjoying their new home. They were tired of fighting.

In any case the geographical description so far given covers the entire area that would be allotted to the two and a half tribes east of the Jordan. The specific portion of it allotted to the tribe of Reuben comes next. Reuben will be first because, as you remember, he was the eldest of Jacob’s sons and so the first tribe of Israel.

Now, we are not told how the land allotted to each tribe was then further divided among the various clans and families that made up that tribe. No doubt a somewhat similar process of casting lots was employed. Apparently only Caleb and Joshua, whose allotments we will read about subsequently, were allowed to request and receive a particular property.

v.14     We will return in a later sermon to the fact that Levi was not given an inheritance in the land, a fact that will be mentioned again. The Levites were to live not off the produce of their own land but from the sacrifices of the Lord brought to the temple.

v.20     Beth-peor was notorious in Israel’s history as the place where, at the encouragement of Balaam, she had consorted with Moabite women and had worshipped their idol, the Baal of Peor (Num. 21:1-3; 31:16). It was from the top of Pisgah that Moses had surveyed the Promised Land before his death.

v.23     So the tribe of Reuben occupied the land east of the Dead Sea, or, at least, east of the northern half of the Dead Sea, as you can see if you consult the map in the back of your Bible. We’ll skip the geographical description of the territories of the tribes of Gad and Manasseh — which move from south to north east of the Jordan River — and skip to the concluding statement in v. 32.

Now, perhaps even more so than with the list of conquered kings in chapter 12, these detailed descriptions of boundaries and the cities to be found within them may seem to the modern reader of the Bible not only tedious but of doubtful value. Perhaps biblical scholars and those interested in the geography of Palestine would be interested, but what is here for the ordinary reader who opens his or her Bible to find help for living? But, once again, all that is required is some imagination to appreciate how little this material would have struck the Israelites as tedious or unimportant.  In a very real sense this is the most important part of the book of Joshua.

It is this comprehensive description of the territory that now belonged to each of Israel’s tribes that demonstrated that Yahweh had been as good as his word; that he had kept his promise and the land was now theirs. What all of this detail was meant to emphasize was that it belonged — Canaan and all of its parts and actually more of it east of the Jordan — all of this land now belonged to Israel. Every tribe had a portion of it. And it was that person’s, that family’s, that clan’s, that tribe’s to keep and to pass on to the next generation. She had been given an immense and immeasurably valuable gift! As every thoughtful Christian knows very well, if only we fully appreciated what heaven is really going to be like and that the only reason we will eventually get there — when so many will not — is because God loved us and gave us a place there as a gift, we would have chills passing up and down our spine every waking moment of every single day of our lives! But as every thoughtful Christian also knows, we have this intolerable, this damned — and I use the term advisedly — capacity to take anything, even the most precious and wonderful things — for granted. It is our worst failing, yours and mine, and the mother of so many of our other failings! And it is the failing we should make the greatest effort to remedy. This material in Joshua 13 and the following chapters will help us do that.

The most important business transaction that most Americans make, that most of you have ever made, is the purchase of a home. That patch of ground and the house that sits on it becomes much more to you than simply a financial asset. It becomes over time the context of much of your life. All the sacred associations of home and hearth gather around it. Your children know it and ever after remember it as their home. It is the repository of so many memories precious and painful alike. Your newborns slept in that room; your mother or father, ill and dying, slept in that room; you first met the fellow who was to marry your daughter in that very living room; and so on. Some homes are even given names, but even when they aren’t, we refer to them by name: that house is the Pfefferles’ or the Stipeks’ or the Jacks’, as if the building itself had taken on the life of its owners.

But, while we may speak of a home by the name of its owners or by its street address, that is not its official identification. The description of the house that you find on the deed is much more complicated and precise, in language virtually unintelligible to anyone but a surveyor or the officer of a title company. I have a deep affection for our summer home in the Colorado mountains; a place that holds for me many precious memories. But I can tell you I never think about it as

“A tract of land in Township south, Range 68 west of the 6th principal meridian, according to the United States General Land Survey, beginning at the southeast corner of Section 19, thence 90 feet north 40 degrees west to a point, being corner no. 1, thence 150 feet north, 10 degrees west to corner no. 2,” and so on.

But that is the legal description of that precious place that has meant so much to me and my family, that place of beauty, of love, and of happiness. [cf. Howard, 321]

Well, it is something like all of that that we have before us here in this section of Joshua. The Israelites who first heard Joshua being read were very likely several generations removed from the actual distribution of the land. It would have been their grandparents or great grandparents who first settled in those towns and on those farms that lay within the boundaries so precisely laid down in this section of Joshua.

But there would have been no disinterest on their part as those boundaries were read out. All who were hearing the geography being described, the names of cities, the mountains and valleys would have been listening for their place. And when the reader came to that description they would have thought, or, perhaps even said in a loud stage whisper, “that’s my home! That’s where I live.”

Remember, in the typology of the Bible Canaan, the Promised Land, is an enacted prophecy of heaven. Human nature being what it is and “home” being what it is to us, I suppose there will be something like this in heaven itself. In John 14 the Lord speaks of the “many rooms” or the many “dwelling places” in his Father’s house and of his going to prepare a place for each of his disciples so that where he is they may be also.  We’ll be asking one another, “Where do you live? On what particular street of gold may I find your townhouse?” And we’ll visit one another and admire one another’s homes. When Paul refers to being in heaven as “going home,” as he does in 2 Cor. 5:6-9, he is trading on the precious associations we all have with the very idea of a home. Heaven is like a perfect home! And if Jesus is preparing those homes for us, we can be sure they will be wonderful beyond words! Brothers and sisters, in a short while we are going home! That’s the burden of this material in Joshua 13 and the chapters that follow. All of this geographical description identifies what was finally somebody’s home.

But there is another dimension to all of this that is highlighted in our text and throughout this section of Joshua. The two verbs that I mentioned at the outset, the Hebrew verbs “to allot” and “to inherit” both convey the idea of inheritance, of the land coming to Israel, and each of its sections to various families of various tribes, by bequest. That is, the vocabulary of “taking possession” and “inheritance” reinforces the fact that the transfer of this real estate and Israel’s possession of it was a bequest from God; Israel inherited it, as it were, from her Father. Yahweh owned the land, as he owns the entire world that he made, and he bequeathed it to Israel. It was a portion of his estate and Israel inherited it as God’s children.

That makes a difference doesn’t it: that the land is an inheritance, part of our family heritage? All of us who are somewhat older have had experience of this to some degree or another: how possessions take on a deeper meaning and how we attach greater significance to them because they were owned first by our parents or grand-parents or, perhaps, our great grand-parents.

I have a few books in my library that were owned by my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister who died in 1952, two years after I was born. I have no active memory of him, but I have long loved and admired him for his life and ministry because he was my grandfather. I have, as it were, his blood in my veins, Christian blood and a Presbyterian minister’s blood. I have a copy of W.G.T. Shedd’s A History of Christian Doctrine, a fourteenth edition published in 1902. On the first inside page it has my grandfather’s signature and a date: “James Rayburn; September 16, 08.” Shedd’s History is still a book of some value though I rarely consult it. But the value of those two volumes to me is out of all proportion to the value of their contents. Shedd is still in print. If I needed a copy I could secure a new one with a glossy paper cover over the boards. But it wouldn’t have my grandfather’s name in his own hand on the first inside page! I can’t pick up a new copy and experience the kinship that comes from realizing that my grandfather opened this book and read from this book and used it in his ministry more than a century ago. My library will eventually belong to my son. And in that library will be several books that were owned and used by his great-grandfather as well as a much larger number of books that were once in the library of his grandfather, my father. The books will be of use to him, but they will mean more than their usefulness by itself can account for. Indeed, learning from God himself, when I buy books for my library I find that much of my pleasure is found in the fact that those books will someday be in my son’s library.

I also have in my library a three volume folio edition of the works, the Opera Omnia, of Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monk of whom Martin Luther said, “He loved Jesus as much as anyone can.” These volumes were published in 1726. They are dusty and worn with age. I could get a newer edition with valuable notes and commentary and it wouldn’t be in Latin, I could get it in English. But this edition happens to have on the inside front board the bookplate of J.B. Lightfoot, Anglican Bishop of Durham, one of, if not the most consequential biblical scholar of the 19th century. Lightfoot was a true Christian hero whose scholarship was vital to the defense of the Bible against the skepticism coming out of Germany in those days. It was Lightfoot whose magisterial classical scholarship, his intimate knowledge of Greek and Latin, fixed the date of the writings we know as the Apostolic Fathers — Clement of Rome, The Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, and so on — to the early years of the second century and, since these writers cite the various books of the New Testament, in so doing he established that the books of the New Testament were written in the first century. Before Lightfoot it was a commonplace of German scholarship to believe that the Gospels, for example, were written as much as a century and a half after the events they purport to describe. Now wonder, then, they couldn’t be relied on as real history. After Lightfoot, no one thought that any longer. The New Testament was written within the lifetime of those who were eyewitnesses of the Lord’s ministry, his death, and his resurrection. And three volumes that the great man handled and read now sit on my shelf! The fact that they belonged to him, makes all the difference to me!

Well, so with the Promised Land. It was not mere real estate; it was not a home that they simply bought or took from someone else. This was land they inherited from their father. And for those who heard Joshua being read for the first time and then for generations afterward even up to our own time, this has been a powerful reminder that the ultimate Promised Land is our inheritance too. It has been bequeathed to us by our heavenly father and it has come down to us through the generations of our forefathers.

Well, you say, my parents or grandparents weren’t even Christians. How could they have bequeathed the Promised Land to me? But, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10, when talking about the Promised Land, about heaven, it is not physical but spiritual ancestry that counts. These Israelites who took the Promised Land under Joshua, Paul tells the Gentile Christians in Corinth, those Israelites were your forefathers.

You know how often this idea of salvation and of heaven as our inheritance surfaces in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, because he is the Son of God who is the creator of all things and the owner of all things, is the heir of all things, we read in Hebrews 1, but, for that reason, Paul writes in Romans 8:17:

“The Spirit himself bears witness that we are children of God, and if children then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

In Matthew 19:29 the Lord said to his disciples that they will inherit eternal life. It is a remarkable thing to say when you think about it. We won’t earn it, certainly, but we’re not just given it either; we inherit it. Again and again this language of inheritance reappears in the New Testament’s account of salvation.

It conveys many precious truths at once: that we have an estate that is promised to us, guaranteed, as it were, in our Father’s will; that we will come into our possession because of a death — that of Jesus on the cross (a point made by the author of the letter to the Hebrews in 9:15-17) –; that the Holy Spirit meantime is the guarantee of our inheritance, since we do not take full possession of it until later; and, supremely, that what we are to receive is nothing less than our Father’s family home and his possession, because we are, as Israel was before us, the children of God. We are not simply the followers of Jesus or the servants of God: we are his children! And being his children, we are his heirs. It is a metaphor, to be sure; but one with impossibly rich meaning.

In Psalm 16:5-6 we find some of the most beautiful verses in the entire Bible. You are familiar with them, I’m sure, many of you in the stately cadences of the King James Bible. In the ESV David writes:

“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.”

That language, or much of it, you will immediately recognize, comes from this part of the book of Joshua. “Portion” harks back, as it usually does in the Old Testament, to the allotment of a particular portion of Canaan to David’s family. “My lot” is again a reference to the allotted parcel of land; the lines that have fallen for me in pleasant places are the boundaries of his property and, of course, he says all of that again when he refers to his beautiful inheritance. But David got the larger point. He was not really talking about a piece of ground, of real estate, about a piece of property somewhere in Canaan. All of that was the picture and the sign and the seal of something else, something higher, something still more wonderful.

The Lord is my chosen portion…”

But that thought is also here in Joshua 13, in the remark at the end. In explanation of the fact that the Levites received no inheritance in Canaan, we read that “the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance.”

What Canaan ultimately stood for in the life of all believers, the Levites symbolized in their life. It is the Lord who at last is our home; it is the Lord who is our possession; it is the Lord who is all that is wonderful in our future. As the ancients used to say, the one who has the one who has everything has everything! Or, as the Apostle Paul put it, if we have Christ,

“All things are yours, whether…the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” [1 Cor. 3:21-23]

Canaan or the Promised Land as the inheritance of God’s people serves to depict both the glory of salvation — a happy, prosperous life in a beautiful and fertile land — and the way of it — as the bequest of our loving heavenly Father in his will, as it were. It is also the conquest of our warrior King, our brother, Jesus Christ with whom we are fellow heirs, a mixture of metaphors to be sure. We have hard hearts, you and I, but surely we know that we ought to be feeling chills about now, and, for that matter, always. If you learned today that you were heir to an extraordinary fortune, you’d think about it alright; you’d have a hard time thinking about anything else; you’d love thinking about it, you’d think about what it was going to be like when that extraordinarily large amount of money came under your possession; what you were going to do with it, how you were going to serve the Lord with it. Well our inheritance in Christ makes a Bill Gates sort of fortune — as temporary as it is — mere peanuts; the penny or the nickel you see on the pavement but don’t bother to stoop to pick up.

When my mother died a year and a half ago, we had a family meeting the night before the funeral. Most of the immediate relatives were physically present, all of her children who were still alive and some of her grandchildren; another grandchild as present by phone. We didn’t cast lots, but we distributed her assets among her heirs, her children and grandchildren in the case of my late sister who has been with the Lord since 1996. There were four children in the family, though the second child, my sister Bronywn, has been with the Lord since 1996, and so we simply took turns, each family making a choice in turn starting with the eldest, like Reuben, and when the youngest had chosen, starting over again. Some of the things Mother had she had herself inherited and many of them came with a story known to the family (where it was bought, how it came into her possession, and so on). Her inheritance now can be found in New York City, in Baltimore, in Cleveland, Tennessee, in Vidalia, Georgia, in Florida, in Minneapolis, in St. Louis, in Colorado Springs and Denver, and in Seattle and Tacoma.

By and large, especially at the beginning, people chose the things they loved the most, around which swirled the most memories, the things that were especially precious to them. Sometimes two people wanted the same thing, as would invariably be the case — as must have been the case with the Israelites as wellimagine them admiring that valley and farm waiting for the lot to be cast, wondering if it would fall to them but knowing that their cousin wanted the same piece of property — but these were Christians and there was a lot of grace and humility on display. Choosing in order removed competition in the same way casting lots did for the Israelites. And mother had so many beautiful things that no one could complain afterward that her or she had not done very, very well.

But every piece was the more valuable because it had been my mother’s, because it was being inherited, because it was part of the heritage of our family. I can tell you also that some significant part of the pleasure we all felt in laying claim to those possessions as our inheritance was knowing that they would belong in turn to our children and then to their children.

Faith in Jesus Christ makes you a member of the family, not a family, the family, and, like every other son or daughter, you are in the will. And what a will! What an inheritance! Not a piece of furniture, not a set of china or sterling silver, however beautiful; not even a whole land such as Canaan, but the heavenly land, the everlasting city, the life that is the dream of every human being, and the one whom to know is life eternal, whose love will make you happier and holier than you have ever imagined  possible. The Lord is your inheritance!

 No tranquil joy on earth I know,

No peaceful, shelt’ring dome,

This world’s a wilderness of woe,

This world is not my home.


Our tears shall all be wiped away

When we have ceased to roam.

And we shall hear our Father say,

‘Come dwell with me at home.’