I am continuing here my commentary on the book Joshua. It suggests that we should understand the events as natural not supernatural events.

Chapter 16 and 17 describe the land Joshua apportioned to the two Joseph tribes Ephraim (16:5-10) and Manasseh (17:1-13). Two allotments are given to the Joseph tribes because their ancestor the patriarch Jacob[1]stated on his death bed that Joseph’s two sons should be treated as two tribes.

We read that the Ephraimites had cities in the land of Manasseh and they were unable to dislodge all Canaanites from their land. However, they were successful in making them subject to forced labor.

The listing of their boundaries presents problems. One is that its land cuts into the territory assigned to Dan in 19:40-48.  

While chapters 14-19 are essentially listings of boundaries and cities within them, the editor of Joshua includes a short tale in each chapter adding interesting material to these listings.[2]


While mentioning the territory of Manasseh, Joshua 17 adds that Manasseh was Joseph’s oldest son. It lists some of the men of the tribe and tells the story of the daughters of Zelophehad[3]who being women received no portion in Canaan despite their father leaving no sons. The daughters petition Eleazar the priest,[4] Joshua, and tribal chiefs, to fulfill what God revealed to Moses, that they should receive land just as males.

The chapter also tells that the Manassites joined the tribes of Dan and Asher in some battles against Canaanites and acquired cities in the territory of the two tribes, but were “unable to occupy these cities for the Canaanites retained their hold on that area.” This is another of the many indications that despite God’s promises, the Israelites were unable to conquer all of Canaan or to drive the pagans from the land.

Abrabanel states that Manasseh had more Canaanite cities within their border than any other tribe; however, the book Joshua states “when the Israelites became stronger, they made the Canaanites perform forced labor.” Because of the large size of the Manasseh and the Canaanites living among them, the chapter concludes with the Joseph tribes[5] complaining to Joshua that they need more land.[6]


Discrepancies in chapter 17

 There are some apparent discrepancies in the short tale of the Joseph tribes requesting additional land.

 First, how can a tribe have insufficient land? According to some Bible commentators, portions were allotted by divine decree through lots or the Urim and Thummim?[7] Surely, God does not err.

Second, why does a verse describe the two tribes as a single entity – “you have given us one lot” – when earlier parts of chapters 16 and 17 indicate they received two portions? It appears that the author of this section did not know what was stated previously and the editor inserted two different traditions.[8]

Third, the story seems to have two distinct traditions. In verses 14-15 Joshua tells “the sons of Joseph” to better utilize the territory apportioned to them by clearing the forests. However, in 16-18, he advises them to solve their expansion problem by conquering new land north of their territory. In this latter section, they complain that conquest is difficult because the Canaanites have iron chariots.

Fourth, why didn’t Joshua mobilize tribal forces to aid Joseph’s battles? Is this another indication, as with Caleb and Othniel leading the Judah tribe in battle, rather than a joint Israelite force, that all of the conquests were by individual tribes or a few that worked together?

Fifth, according to verse 13 “when the Israelites became strong, they put the Canaanites to tribute, but did not drive them out” of Canaan. Why didn’t they observe God’s repeated Torah command to rid the land of Canaanites lest they lead the Israelites to worship idols?


After assigning territory to the tribes of Judah and Joseph while he was in Gilgal, Joshua begins to apportion land to the remaining seven tribes while he is in Shiloh where the Israelites set the ohel moed, called tabernacle and the Tent of the Presence in English, and where it would remain for centuries.[9] The distribution details are in chapters 18 and 19.  

Joshua sent three[10] men from each of the seven tribes to travel through the country, survey the land, and determine the patrimony suitable for each tribe. He instructed them that after they made a decision, he would cast lots to see if God agrees.

Benjamin received a very small share sandwiched between Judah and Joseph. According to this chapter, Jerusalem was part of Benjamin territory, although chapter 15 seems to indicate the city belonged to Judah which was unable to conquer it.[11]


Question on chapter 18

 The chapter states that Joshua had to urge the seven tribes to divide the land and possess their portion: “How long are you slack to go in to possess the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, gave you?” Why didn’t they obey the divine command to possess Canaan? Weren’t they impressed by seeing the divine miracle of the lottery? Perhaps we should view the history in natural, and not a supernatural event. The Israelites did not consider the lottery as divine decisions. They did not believe that God was aiding them. As the text reveals, they were not successful in conquering the land as God directed, and many Canaanites lived among them. So they were not impressed. Abarbanel, who would probably reject this view, nevertheless states that the seven criticized tribes did not want to split off from the nation and need to fight the Canaanites without the aid of the other tribes.


Chapter 19 describes the portions assigned to the seven tribes as well as a special allotment given to Joshua.

Simeon receives only cities within Judah’s territory. No reason is given to this curiously restricted portion. It seems that this tribe disappeared at an early period of Israelite history and was absorbed into Judah.

Zebulun was a small tribe and was located at the southern branch of the Galilean mountains. Issachar’s cities occupied land just south-east of Zebulun. As with many assigned cities, it is difficult to identify them today. Asher acquired a large territory west of Zebulun and Naphtali. As happened to other tribes, Asher was unable to expel all the Canaanites in its area (Judges 1:31-32). Naphtali’s land is also difficult to identify today because its sites are no longer identifiable and verse 34 is corrupt. Dan was unable to secure any parts of the land assigned to it, lost their territory, marched north, attacked the people of Leshem, captured it, renamed it Dan, and settled there.

The report of the distribution of land ends with notice that a city was given to Joshua. “He rebuilt the city and settled in it.”     


Simeon receives cities within the Judah tribal territory

 Kimchi suggests that the Simeon tribe received land within Judah’s allotment because they helped Judah conquer the territory, as indicated in Judges 1:3, 17. Elijah Gaon of Vilna opined that both Simeon and Levi received no territory of their own because of Jacob’s curse,[12] as punishment for their ancestors attack against the city of Shechem when they killed its inhabitants in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah.[13] Simeon received only cities and Levi was scattered in many towns throughout Canaan.[14] The scholarly view is much different.[15] Simeon and Levi were militant tribes who were located in northern Canaan. They were successful in early battles but were soon defeated with the remnants of the tribe Levi being scattered throughout Canaan and those of Simeon settling in the far south in Judean territory.


Dan was apparently located in the Gaza area by the Mediterranean Sea. This southern coast was successfully invaded by the Philistines and Dan relocated to northern Canaan.[16] However, Radak opines that Dan was dissatisfied with its small location and sought a larger territory.[17] Abarbanel recognizes that Dan did not move from its coastal area until long after Joshua’s death, but the book Joshua was edited many years after Joshua’s distribution and the editor felt that it was proper to tell what happened to Dan at the later time.

End of land distribution

 The anchor Bible sees two endings to the tale of the distribution of land among the tribes. “In verses 49-50 the focus is on Joshua and the legitimation of his personal fief.” This conclusion highlights the figure of Joshua. It states: “They completed the distribution of the land in fief to the boundaries. And the Bene Israel gave a fief to Joshua ben Nun in their midst” as a reward for his service.

In contrast, the Anchor Bible states: “In the second ending (verse 51). Joshua takes second place, between Eleazar the priest and the patriarchal chiefs.” It reads: “These are the fiefs which Eleazar the priest and Joshua be Nun and the patriarchal chiefs assigned by lot to the tribes of Israel at Shiloh.”

Thus the Anchor Bible is seeing here further evidence of at least two sources for the history of the conquests and division of Canaan which an editor combined.




[1] In Genesis 48. The Bible does not reveal why Jacob gave Joseph a double portion or why he gave preference to Ephraim, Joseph’s younger son, over his older brother Manasseh. It may be that he was stating that he considered Joseph, his eleventh son, as his first born who, according to custom, received a double portion of one’s inheritance, or he simply wanted to show Joseph his love, as he did in the past. The preference of the younger son over his older brother is a common oft-repeated theme in Genesis and may reflect the Israelite dislike of the pagan practice of primogenitor; however, the Israelites continued giving first-borns a double portion. It is also possible that the preference given to Ephraim reflects the future success of this tribe generations after Jacob and Joshua.

[2] Such as the story of Caleb’s conquest of Hebron, the cryptic tale of Achsah, land given to women, the complaint of Manasseh, and Dan’s need to relocate.

[3] Contained in Numbers 26:33-34; 27:1-11; and 36:1-12.

[4] Eleazar is always before Joshua when both names are mentioned, as in 14:1 and 21:1.

[5] While Ephraim did not need more land, the tribe joined their brother tribe Manasseh in their request to Joshua to show support (Abarbanel).

[6] In verses 14-18. Manasseh was very prolific. It increase from 32,000 in Numbers 1:35 to 52,700 in Numbers 26:34, while Ephraim decreased from 40,500 in Numbers 1:33 to 32,500 in Numbers 26:34.

[7] Such as Rashi and Abarbanel. Kimchi attempts to answer by saying Joshua could not alter the divinely given share allotted to Manasseh, so he advised the two Joseph tribes to join in developing the forest and by driving out Canaanites from their homes. But this does not answer why the divine allotment was too small. Perhaps the solution is that the portion was not too small, but it required tribes to fight for their land.

[8] Nachmanides suggests, contrary to the texts plain meaning, that the two Joseph tribes were given one lot which was divided equally between them, but Manasseh complained that an equal division did not take into account that it was far larger than its brother tribe, and it needed more land.

[9] Until the Philistines conquered Shiloh as indicated in I Samuel 4. According to Tosephta Zevachim 13:6, the tabernacle remained in Shiloh for 369 years. This calculation is seemingly based on supposing that each of the judges mentioned in the biblical book Judges led the tribes one after another and did not overlap. Scholars think there was overlapping and suggest that the period of the judges lasted between 200 and 250 years. The Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 118a and other sources say the distribution of the land lasted 14 years, but there is no biblical source for this number. The Talmud describes the Shiloh tabernacle as having stone walls and a curtained roof. Abarbanel adds that the tabernacle remained in Gilgal and did not move to Shiloh until the 14 years ended.

[10] As I noted in the past, the Bible uses the number three over two dozen times to describe the number of people and the length of events. It does not have to be understood as a precise number, but as a somewhat long period or somewhat large group, but not too long or large.

[11] As I wrote in chapter 15, the mention of Jerusalem, which had no relevance to Israel until centuries later, when King David conquered it and made it his capital, indicates the book was composed after the life of King David.

[12] In Genesis 49:7.

[13] Genesis 34.

[14] Joshua 21.

[15] Joshua, The Anchor Bible.

[16] Joshua, The Anchor Bible.

[17] As I asked previously, how is this possible if we believe that God chose the land for the tribes and indicated so through the lottery? Gersonides raises this question in his commentary on chapter 15. He suggests that God ordained Judah’s boundary and intended all along that Simeon should only have cities within Judah’s land to fulfill Jacob’s curse in Genesis 49:7.