Joshua 13-21 – Distribution of the Land


Joshua 13-21


After capturing the land of Canaan, Joshua and the Israelites divide up the land as an inheritance for the twelve tribes.


A large portion of the book of Joshua is devoted to the detailed description of the territorial boundaries of the twelve tribes. A few things are of note here:

1. Most of the tribes settle west of the Jordan River, but Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh are given land by Moses east of the river. The writers of Joshua are careful to note that these eastern tribes are still a part of Israel (see Joshua 22).

2. The Levites are not given territory, because “the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance” (13:33). Instead, they are given cities and pasture lands distributed throughout the territories of the other tribes (chapter 21). Not counting Levi, then, the total of twelve tribes is reached by counting Ephraim and Manasseh (both descended from Joseph) as two different tribes (14:4; 17:14-18).

3. Throughout the description of the territorial divisions, it is noted that many of the Canaanites continued to live in the land alongside the Israelites (13:1-6; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13). These passages stand in contrast to the description of total Israelite victory in other parts of the book (see 11:16-20). The difference between the two sets of passages is the difference between a theological and military ideal, on the one hand, and a description of reality, on the other. The reality seems to have been that while the Israelites took over most of the land of Canaan, they never succeeded in completely pushing out the other people of the land. They therefore had to find a way to coexist with them. This reality should be duly noted by those from any religious tradition who would claim the “promised land” for themselves today.