Joshua 21-22: Witness

Joshua 21

Cities and Pasturelands Allotted to Levi

1Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came(AF) to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. 2And they said to them(AG) at Shiloh in the land of Canaan,(AH) “The LORD commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” 3So by command of the LORD the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance.

Again, Joshua 21 opens with the focus on the decisions being made at Shiloh (v.2) and now focusing on the promises waiting to be fulfilled as mentioned by Moses, with respect to the allotment to the tribe of Levi.  Their allotment is unlike any other, just like the allotment made to Joshua.

Before we continue with looking at these three sub-tribes of the Levites, let us remind ourselves of their roles first mentioned in the book of Numbers (chapter 3):

Levites and Tabernacle

As the image suggests, the Kohathites stood on the south side with Reuben Simeon and Gad; the Gershonites stood on the back (west) side with Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; the Merarites on the north side with Dan Asher and Naphtali and finally Moses, Aaron and his sons on the east side, towards the sunrise (where the tabernacle entrance also faces) with Judah, Issachar and Zebulun.

However, the groups of Levites are not so aligned in Joshua 21 as they were in Numbers 3.  What is interesting though is that the choices of the tribes are clockwise; so while the allotment is different from what is shown in Numbers 3, the choices are logically clockwise.  Thus, with the Kohathite priests (the sons of Aaron), they choose Judah, Simeon and Benjamin, all on the east, south and west side of the Tabernacle.  Then, with the Kohathites were land from Ephraim, Dan and Manasseh (west and north).  Next is the Gershonites, including Manasseh, Issachar, Asher and Naphtali (west, north, east).  Finally the Merarites, unsurprisingly taking the remaining tribes clockwise on east and south – Reuben, Gad and Zebulun.  It is unexplained by these specific choices were made, but it is in his providence that there is just mathematical logic and order behind the allotment for the Levites in a different way shown for the aforementioned 12 tribes of Israel.

Groups of Levites Verse Specific cities allotted Inheritance (summary)
Kohathite Priests (sons of Aaron) 4 11(AP) They gave them(AQ) Kiriath-arba (Arba being the father of Anak), that is Hebron,(AR) in the hill country of Judah, along with the pasturelands around it. 12But the fields of the city and its villages had been given to Caleb the son of Jephunneh as his possession.  13And to the descendants of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron,(AS) the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands,(AT) Libnah with its pasturelands, 14Jattir with its pasturelands, Eshtemoa with its pasturelands, 15Holon with its pasturelands, Debir with its pasturelands, 16Ain with its pasturelands, Juttah with its pasturelands, Beth-shemesh with its pasturelands—nine cities out of these two tribes; 17then out of the tribe of Benjamin,(AU) Gibeon with its pasturelands, Geba with its pasturelands, 18Anathoth with its pasturelands, and Almon with its pasturelands—four cities. 19The cities of the descendants of Aaron, the priests, were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands. 13 cities out of the tribes of Judah, Simeon (v.8-16) and Benjamin (v.17-19)
Kohathite Levites 5 20(AV) As to the rest of the Kohathites belonging to the Kohathite clans of the Levites, the cities allotted to them were out of the tribe of Ephraim. 21To them were given Shechem,(AW) the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands in the hill country of Ephraim, Gezer with its pasturelands, 22Kibzaim with its pasturelands, Beth-horon with its pasturelands—four cities; 23and out of the tribe of Dan, Elteke with its pasturelands, Gibbethon with its pasturelands, 24Aijalon with its pasturelands, Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—four cities; 25and out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Taanach with its pasturelands, and Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—two cities. 26The cities of the clans of the rest of the Kohathites were ten in all with their pasturelands. 10 cities out of the tribes of Ephraim (v.20-22), Dan (v.23-24) and the half-tribe of Manasseh (v.25-27))
Gershonites 6 27(AX) And to the Gershonites, one of the clans of the Levites, were given out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Golan in Bashan with its pasturelands,(AY) the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Beeshterah with its pasturelands—two cities; 28and out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishion with its pasturelands, Daberath with its pasturelands, 29Jarmuth with its pasturelands, En-gannim with its pasturelands—four cities; 30and out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with its pasturelands, Abdon with its pasturelands, 31Helkath with its pasturelands, and Rehob with its pasturelands—four cities; 32and out of the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee with its pasturelands,(AZ) the city of refuge for the manslayer, Hammoth-dor with its pasturelands, and Kartan with its pasturelands—three cities. 33The cities of the several clans of the Gershonites were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands. 13 cities out of the other half tribe of Manasseh (v.25-27), and the tribes of Issachar (v.28-29), Asher (v.30-31) and Naphtali (v.32-33)
Merarites 7 34(BA) And to the rest of the Levites, the Merarite clans, were given out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with its pasturelands, Kartah with its pasturelands, 35Dimnah with its pasturelands, Nahalal with its pasturelands—four cities; 36and out of the tribe of Reuben,(BB) Bezer with its pasturelands, Jahaz with its pasturelands, 37Kedemoth with its pasturelands, and Mephaath with its pasturelands—four cities; 38and out of the tribe of Gad,(BC) Ramoth in Gilead with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer,(BD) Mahanaim with its pasturelands, 39(BE) Heshbon with its pasturelands, Jazer with its pasturelands—four cities in all. 40As for the cities of the several Merarite clans, that is, the remainder of the clans of the Levites, those allotted to them were in all twelve cities. 12 cities out of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun (v.34-40)
All Levites 41-45 48 cities

43(BG) Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44(BH) And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers.(BI) Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for(BJ) the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. 45(BK) Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

It should be noted in the final two verses of Joshua 21 that this allotment to the Levites is an exact fulfillment of all of God’s promises (v.8 and 43-35).  It goes without question that the land is equally distributed: 48 cities out of 12 tribes to all the Levites, on average four cities per tribe.   The half-tribes of Manasseh each gave two cities, and every city except for Naphtali (which gave three cities) each gave four cities (Judah and Simeon are excepted because they both give nine cities, meaning one gave five while the other gave four).  The inadequacy of Naphtali was made up by the adequacy of Judah.

Again, the text here seems sparse on the indication why there is an unequal treatment concerning Naphtali and Judah, perhaps indicative of the refuge being found in the south rather than the north; perhaps indicative of the southern kingdom coming through after the Babylonian captivity as redefining Israel through Judah; or whether this is a basic theology of the church, where the church body manifested in the expression of the 12 tribes support and make up one another where one part of the body needs to be supplemented by another part.  The intermingling of the different tribes of the Levites are important, but one must not simply glean them over, for they stick largely to their respective tribes as in Numbers 3.

Ultimately, the macro-message provided here is the fulfillment of the promisese as indicated in v.43-45, especially the true rest which is eschatologically implied in Deuteronomy.  The Levites are the best example of such, alongside Joshua, both understanding deeply that the land itself is but a shadow, and that the refuge cities, the names of the land and even the allocation itself is a revelation of the gospel of Christ and the nature and detail of his first coming – from his birth in Bethlehem, Judah, to his journey throughout the land of the 12 tribes from south to north of Israel, to south again, his important fulfillment of the meaning of the wilderness when he was tempted there for 40 days and 40 nights and his important return to Jerusalem, its ancient name (Salem) bearing truth to Melchizedek who is also a shadow pointing to Who Christ truly is.

Joshua 22

The Eastern Tribes Return Home

1At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2and said to them, “You have kept(BL) all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you(BM) and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the LORD your God. 4(BN) And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies,(BO) which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5(BP) Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you,(BQ) to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6So Joshua(BR) blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

As soon as chapter 21 comes to fruition, chapter 22 immediately opens with v.6 and 8 both focusing on the tents.  V.8 in particular is a recalling of the liquidation of assets in Acts 2:45-47 where Joshua commands that the spoils of Israel’s enemies shall be divided among the brothers – not so different from Acts 2:45’s “distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need“.  This therefore continues in the theme of the parallel between the book of Acts and Joshua, whereupon the first 21 chapters have considered the redemption of land and possessions from non-Christians to the LORD, reflective of the consequences of evangelism in the book of Acts as more are added to the body of Christ and thus their possessions are under their stewardship to be offered to Christ.

It is for this reason that the wealth of the tribes do not detract our attention from their tent-like life; the comparison is made again between Abraham and Lot – the former living in a tent (c.f. Hebrews 11), the latter living in a city; the former preaching the gospel after receiving it, travelling as the LORD commanded and tracing the steps which Israel has been taking since the book of Exodus, and the latter being stuck in one place, not heeding the LORD’s calling and bringing the gospel to no-one, not even to his wife who died as an unbeliever.

7Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given a possession in Bashan,(BS) but to the other half Joshua had given a possession beside their brothers in the land west of the Jordan. And when Joshua sent them away to their homes and blessed them, 8he said to them, “Go back to your tents with much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing.(BT) Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers.” 9So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go(BU) to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the LORD through Moses.

And so the people of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned to their new home parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh in Canaan to the land of Gilead, from Shiloh in Canaan – both names respectively typifying Christ and the low-land (“lowland, or possibly also meaning to be humbled“) – compared with Gilead which is named as the mound of witnesses.  It is thus not coincidental that the narrator decides to use the word “Gilead” just before v.10-12 when the tribes on the east of Jordan allegedly build a pagan altar of witness.

The Eastern Tribes’ Altar of Witness

10And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size. 11And the people of Israel(BV) heard it said, “Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.” 12And when the people of Israel heard of it,(BW) the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.

To begin with is the language used by the narrator between v.10-12: the “altar of imposing size”, the side that “belongs to the people of Israel” and finally the gathering at Shiloh to “make war against” the tribes on the east of the Jordan which have seemingly defected.

Here is a taste of what some commentators have said concerning the reaction of Israel and the illegality of what the eastern tribes have done:

“We know how strictly the Law prohibited two altars, (Exo_20:24) for the Lord wished to be worshipped in one place only. Therefore, when on the very first blush of the case, all were at once led to think that they were building a second altar, who would not have judged them guilty of sacrilege in framing a ritual of a degenerate description, at variance with the Law of God? Seeing, then, that the work might be deemed vicious, they ought, at least, in so great and so serious a matter, to have made their brethren sharers in their counsel; more especially were they in the wrong in neglecting to consult the high priest, from whose lips the divine will was to be ascertained. They were, therefore, deserving of blame, because, as if they had been alone in the world, they considered not what offence might arise from the novelty of the example. Wherefore, let us learn to attempt nothing rashly, even should it be free from blame, and let us always give due heed to the admonition of St. Paul, (1Co_6:12; 1Co_10:23) that it is necessary to attend not only to what is lawful, but to what is expedient; more especially let us sedulously beware of disturbing pious minds182 by the introduction of any kind of novelty.” (John Calvin)

What Calvin focuses on is absolutely true; there is no legal reason to set up an altar of ‘imposing size’ to seemingly vary from what the LORD had already required through the one High Priest and the one altar in the tabernacle.  However, I believe the focus is more on the seeming failure of Israel in accepting their brethren which seems to be the tone which the narrator is setting.  There is nothing to suggest that the brethren have taken time to send messengers to the eastern tribes; instead, their response is impulsive and reactionary to what they have ‘heard’.  They are not slow to anger and abounding in compassion; they are quick to war and slow to forgive.  Instead of the onus being on the eastern tribes to prove that they have not broken God’s law because of their pure intentions (as we shall later see), instead we have already seen the Israelites on the west side breaking God’s law of being merciful and peaceful (underlined in Deuteronomy 20:10).  This seeming failure to be graceful is included in the tone of v.11 – the altar on the side that “belongs to the people of Israel”, as if indicating that the altar should be on the eastern side even if the altar is legitimated.  Have the Israelites already forgotten the deeper truth of the Levites, that all land is but a shadow?  That even the edge of the land shall not be reaped so that the hungry and the strangers may benefit from God’s grace through the owner of the land (Leviticus 19:9).   However, that is not the case as we shall see from v.13 onwards.

13Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead,(BX) Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel,(BY) every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. 15And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16“Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day(BZ) in rebellion against the LORD? 17Have we not had enough of(CA) the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, 18that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if(CB) you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow(CC) he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD’s land(CD) where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us.(CE) Only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. 20(CF) Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and(CG) wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.'”

The onslaught of the accusation is theologically precise between v.16-20 – the memory of Achan and the sin at Peor (Numbers 25:3) are still fresh in their minds.  The sin of Achan especially had induced fear into the heart of the Israelites on the west of Jordan: “only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God“, immediately recognizing that as church of Christ they must rebuke the other parts of the Body lest those parts be thrown into Sheol.  The zest and fervour in keeping the whole congregation in tune with God’s commands is commendable, and as Adam Clarke says, we must not be “unconcerned spectators of [one’s] transgression, [as] we may all be implicated in its criminality”.

It is noticeable that the tone immediately shifts between v.12 and v.13; the opening verses of this chapter indicating that the eastern tribes have definitively sinned, as if no terms of peace or negotiation was necessary; and v.13 immediately recognizing the need for representatives to speak to the eastern tribes.  If one was to look at v.12 alone, Israel has failed; but v.13 has justified their potential act of war as necessitated in Deuteronomy (and as exampled in Peor and Achan), displaying their rigour in wanting to get things right despite their initial over-reaction.  The disciplines of God have not had their mark in the hearts of the Israelites, and for the first time we see that they have begun to grasp truly the likelihood of the sins in their hearts to lead them astray to other gods.  Such is the model for the church, that we understand just how deep our sins are so that in turning to Christ for desperation we are mutually and truly made brothers in Him.  As Glen Scrivener eloquently puts it on “Nice and Christian”:

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  (Col 3:13)”

Natural communities don’t have this.  At the first hint of nastiness, natural community fractures.  But for Christians nastiness is an opportunity.  Here’s where we truly show ourselves to be the people of Jesus.  We forgive.

Many people think nastiness ends Christian community.  The gospel says nastiness is where Christian community begins…

…We must bear with each other.  Forgive.  Show mercy towards opponents.  Die to self.  Crucify our own need to prove ourselves.  Answer harsh words with gentleness (Prov 15:1).  That’s where Christian community begins.”

21Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, 22“The Mighty One,(CH) God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD!(CI) He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today 23for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself(CJ) take vengeance. 24No, but we did it from fear that(CK) in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? 25For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the LORD.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. 26Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27but to be(CL) a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we(CM) do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the LORD.”‘ 28And we thought, If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, ‘Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be(CN) a witness between us and you.’ 29Far be it from us that we should(CO) rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!”

We see here that the tribes on the east do not wish to be immediately labeled as heretics, and given the sensitivity of Israel and their immediate procurement of the land of Canaan it is highly understandable.  Their particular proclamation in v.22 arouses great interest – “El Elohim YHVH” – using the three principal names by which the Trinity was known among the Hebrews, El simply meaning God, Elohim used commonly in God’s creative  and triune expressions (c.f. Genesis 1:1) and YHVH, the seemingly mystical name which the Christians have been calling on since before the days of Abraham (c.f. Genesis 4:26).  This proclamation shows their deep respect for God manifested in their immediate need to express everything and anything which defines him – and interestingly, it comes first in the form of proclaiming Him by his Name and character (v.21-22).  Then follows the expression of their understanding of the place of worship (the tabernacle and its mediatorial function) and the theology of offerings in Israel (v.23); then the need to exclaim this truth of God’s triunity and the deep meaning of the sacrificial offerings to the next generation (v.25; c.f. Deuteronomy 6) – and finally a return to the focus on the altar not for sacrifice but merely as a witness, fitting to the land of Gilead the mount of witnesses (v.26-29, a doctrinal repetition of truth laid down in Leviticus 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 12).

What is interesting is that it is, in a certain sense, the most ancient of all systematic theologies laid down – long before Irenaeus’ “Against All Heresies”, even longer because Peter Lombard’s “The Four Books of Sentences”.  Instead, we have here a curt summary of who God is – defined in his name, in his people (the generations to come), and in his sacrifice – and these are the things necessary to define whether the eastern tribes are truly persisting in faith, or have become apostates.

How often in present Christianity that we begin to create our own ‘core truths’ contrary to the short but insightful exclamation of the eastern tribes!  As if ‘faith alone’ is a sufficient doctrinal statement!  As if calling Jesus our “God” is a sufficient description of Who He is!  As if calling him our “sacrifice” is a true understanding of what He has done for us!  Each word is loaded with misconceptions, each capable of being misconstrued, respectively, as cheap faith and cheap grace; the Unitarian God of the Greeks and Arabs; the sacrifice which is neither penal nor substitutionary.  No – the eastern tribes have gotten it right – and they stand humbly before their second altar as witnesses to the truth which lies on the west of the Jordan; the truth and shadow which lies in Canaan; the central focus of the Old Testament which lies in the tabernacle (later to become the temple), and still the central focus of Christians today as we partake in Christ and too, our bodies become a holy temple housing His Holy Spirit.  They dare not take people’s eyes away from God, as if this is an implication of the iconoclastic controversy to come in the early church – because even those things in the proto-Roman Catholic theology are witnesses to the reality of Christ found only in the church, in the Word, leading us back to the Unseen Father.  This statement is good – and so good in their eyes (the refrain in v.30 and v.33) that it is almost a reflection of what God had stated about the six of the seven days of creation (except for day 2).

30When(CP) Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke,(CQ) it was good in their eyes. 31And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, “Today we know that(CR) the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD.”  32Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad(CS) in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33And the report(CT) was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel(CU) blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said,(CV) “it is a witness between us that the LORD is God.”

In the KJV we find v.34 to be translated “Ed” as investigated by Adam Clarke:

“The word עד  Ed, which signifies witness or testimony, is not found in the common editions of the Hebrew Bible, and is supplied in Italics by our translators, at least in our modern copies; for in the first edition of this translation it stands in the text without any note of this kind; and it is found in several of Kennicott’s and De Rossi’s MSS., and also in the Syriac and Arabic. Several also of the early printed editions of the Hebrew Bible have the word עד, either in the text or in the margin, and it must be allowed to be necessary to complete the sense. It is very probable that an inscription was put on this altar, which pointed out the purposes for which it was erected.”

Despite the importance of this word being omitted from the ESV, the translation maintains the substance of the entire chapter – that the eastern tribes, and the western tribes, are all witnesses to the truth laid down in the one altar.  The one altar is the crux of their theology; the one form of offerings and sacrifices the central aspect moving Israel; the location, though mobile, still focuses on the God-ordained pattern according to heaven – the tabernacle.  However, like the second altar in the east, everything up to the incarnation of Christ is still a huge shadow, a huge Witness.  To this day, we also are witnesses – and the book of Joshua thematically carries with it the eschatological undertone which the book of Acts carries.  Both describe the firstfruits of creation, both describe the witness of redemption, and both describe that there are still greater and better things to come when the Day of Resurrection rises to full noon.

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Joshua 21-22: Witness

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