Joshua Chapter 13


Chapter 13 reveals that, like Moses, Joshua was unable to fulfill all of his life missions. He is now old and weak. Others will assume his job as military leader and divider of conquered Canaanite territories among the nine and a half Israelite tribes who would be settling in Canaan. Moses had allotted land to two and a half of the twelve tribes in Trans-Jordan.

This second part of the biblical book Joshua begins with chapter 13 by giving us details of Moses’ division of land in Trans-Jordan.

The chapter discloses things people do not know and once they realize these things they may make the people uncomfortable.


Joshua’s physical condition

            Our chapter emphasizes that Joshua was an aged and weak leader four times in verse 1: “Joshua was old and well stricken in years and the Lord said to him, ‘You are old and well stricken in years, and very much land remains to be possessed.’”

            This emphasis on Joshua’s weakness, a biblical leader we would have expected would show strength and accomplish significant acts, is contrasted with his that of Caleb, who accompanied Joshua to spy on Canaan some thirty-eight years previously. Caleb steps forward to conquer Canaanite land and states[1] that he is as strong today as he was when he joined Joshua four decades previously as a spy.

Why repeat?

            Chapter 12 had already related Moses’s division of Trans-Jordan. The repetition in chapter 13 may reflect the frequently used Scriptural style is to mention a subject generally and offer details later. This happens here. Repetition occurs also in verse 7, which states that the Canaanite land should be divided but does not reveal until 14:1 who divided it.

            The mention of Moses’ division of Trans-Jordan seems to have no relevance to the allotments in Canaan. Abarbanel explains:[2] verse 7 should be understood to say that Moses, remarkably, assigned not-yet-conquered lands to two and a half tribes with the result that the Israelites dwelt together with the occupying pagan inhabitants. The intent was therefore to instruct Joshua to do the same with the land he failed to conquer. That decision by Moses and Joshua to allow Israelites to live together with pagans seems to be a clear violation of God’s repeated decree[3] to kill all the Canaanites lest they entice the Israelites to worship their idols. We may be prompted to ask: Is it possible that Moses and Joshua did not know God’s decree?

Three land distributions

            Land was distributed among the twelve tribes in three different times and three places. Moses assigned land to two and a half tribes, mentioned in Numbers and chapter 13. Land was allotted to Judah, Ephraim, and half tribe of Manasseh in chapters 14-17. This special assignment, discussed in four chapters, reflects the later significance of the tribe of Judah and Ephraim in later Jewish history and may be anachronistic.[4] The remaining seven received land as described in chapters 18 and 19.

            The Philistines are mentioned in verse 2 as a nation that Joshua did not conquer. These were sea people; scholars think they came to western Canaan around the time of Joshua. The book narrates no encounter of Joshua with them. When the Romans defeated the Jewish rebellion by Bar Kokhba (132-136 CE), they decided to erase all memory of the Jewish State. The seeded Israel’s ground with salt hoping nothing would grow, and they changed the names of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina and Israel to Palestine, suggesting that Israel did not belong to Jews but to Philistines.

            Olam Hatanakh points out[5] that Scripture and non-biblical sources testify that the tribe of Gad, whom the Bible states settled in Trans-Jordan, resided in many sites other than those enumerated in chapter 13. Olam Hatanakh also discloses that the description of Gad’s land is of property the tribe secured years after the death of Joshua.

            I Chronicles 6 and 26 and II Chronicles 28:20 relate that the two and a half tribes who dwelt in trans-Jordan were conquered and expelled from its land by Assyrian king Tillegath-pilnesser who ruled from 747 to 727 BCE.

            Interestingly, along with other lands Moses and Joshua failed to conquer, verse 5 as well as Deuteronomy 3:25 include Lebanon as part of the divine promise of the Israelite inheritance, but the Israelites never settled in Lebanon. Additionally, most of the Canaanite lands that Joshua did not conquer but apportioned to the various tribes were never secured by them.[6] How can we understand the failure of that prophecy, namely, that God promised to the Israelites land that they never received? Biblical prophecies; however, were often not fulfilled. Tosaphot and Malbim[7] explain that prophecies are not predictions of what will occur, such as the successful conquest of Canaan, but what should happen.[8]


Our chapter reminds us[10] that the Torah states that when the Israelites fought against and defeated the Midianites, they killed Balaam[11] who in Numbers 22-24 advised the kings of Moab and Midian how to harm Israel. Numbers 24:25 states Balaam returned to his homeland after giving the advice. How then could the Israelites found him in Midian and kill him? Is this a contradiction?

Radak’s answer[12] is that Balaam returned home after giving advice to the Midianites on how to seduce the Israelites with Midianite women who would also lead them to worship idols. After reaching home, he heard that his plan was successful. God killed 24,000 Israelites for worshipping idols. He returned to Midian for payment.[13] Radak includes the legend that Balaam magically flew in the air to escape the Israeli military, but Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the priest, who led the assault against Midian, used the magic of God’s name to make him fall, and killed him.

The rabbis enjoyed developing tales about Balaam. For example, the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a, tells what is not even hinted in the Torah. Before enslaving the Israelites, Pharaoh asked Balaam, Job, and Jethro whether it is advisable to do so. Jethro, according to this story, protested, and God rewarded him by having Moses become his son-in-law. Job was silent, and God punished him with many physical and mental inflictions, loss of his wealth, and death of his children. Balaam told Pharaoh that he thought his plan was good, and God punished him by having him killed after the Israelites exited Egypt. This imaginary tale, as most Midrashim, presents many problems. For example, the story implies that Balaam lived an extraordinary long life. He was a mature man before the Israelite enslavement and lived for some years after the Israelites were freed. That story doesn’t seem reasonable. More significantly, why would God force Moses to marry the daughter of a pagan priest because the priest protested the enslavement? Why would God inflict such a dire punishment on Job; it doesn’t seem to fit the crime of silence? Furthermore, this Midrash conflicts with the biblical book Job which gives a totally different reason for Job’s afflictions; namely, God was testing Job. Also, that Midrash conflicts with one in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b, which states that Balaam was about 33 years old when he was killed.


Ambiguities and different views

            There are a number of ambiguous statements in this chapter. Why, for example, is Balaam called a soothsayer here and a prophet in Numbers? Abrabanel answers that he was only a soothsayer, but God elevated him to be a prophet in Numbers to cause him to bless the Israelites. However, the Talmud[14] contrarily states that he was originally a prophet and was demoted because he tried to curse Israel.

Verse 22 states that Balaam died al chalaleihem which could mean together with all the dead Midianites or because of the 24,000 Israelites he caused to die with his advice. Different sages offer different views.

[1] In 14:10 and 11. The description of the aged and weak Joshua is similar to the description of King David in I Kings 1, who in his old age was so frail and cold he needed a warm young girl to lay beside him. The description of these two contrast not only with Caleb but with the patriarch Abraham who in his old age in Genesis 25:8 experienced “good old age, an old man and full of years.”

In comparing of Joshua to Caleb we should recognize that Joshua had a much tougher job than Caleb and Joshua’s accomplishments were significant even though he didn’t succeed in everything he would have like to accomplish; no one is able to do everything he or she wants.

[2] In his commentary on verse 7.

[3] See, for example, Deuteronomy 7:1-5.

[4] See the tale of the split of kingdoms between Rehoboam of Judah and ten tribes under Jeroboam of Ephraim in I Kings 11 and 12.

[5] In the commentary to verse 24.

[6] For example, the half tribe of Manasseh never secured the land allotted to them in Canaan. The author of Midrash Genesis Rabba believed that God controls people and causes them to perform acts that God wants them to do. Thus in 84:20, the Midrash states that God caused the tribe of Manasseh to decide to split and that half should remain in Trans-Jordan as punishment for the act of their ancestor Manasseh, son of Joseph, who in the imaginative telling of the biblical story, caused Joseph’s brothers grief when he accused their brother Benjamin of stealing Joseph’s goblet. This notion that children are punished for their parents’ misdeeds is actually not a Jewish, but a Christian belief. Additionally, why were the descendants of Manasseh punished, he was doing what his father Joseph told him to do? Joseph should have also been punished.

[7] Tosaphot Yevamot 50a, s.v. teda, and Malbim on Isaiah 11.

[8] Among other lands that the Israelites did not capture was the Gaza strip and the Sinai desert.

[9] The Hebrew of this man’s name is pronounced Bil’am. Why do we use the strange Balaam? The spelling is based on the Greek Bible translation.

[10] In verse 22.

[11] In Numbers 31:8.

[12] In his commentary to verse 22.

[13] See also Babylonian Talmud 106a and b which has many legends about Balaam.

[14] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a. This is also the view of Rashi.