Sibble Saturday: One for you and one for me (Joshua 13–19)

Gah, I completely fell out of the swing. Some of it was life-complication, some of it was straight-up lameness. Sorry. It was hard also to build up much enthusiasm for this section of Joshua, which is pages on pages of tribal divisions.

The short, snarky summary: Canaan is conquered. Time to split it up among the tribes, preferably without too much squabbling.


Most of this text is a rather tedious recapitulation of the individual boundaries and cities in the tribal allocations. I’ve discussed the tribal structure before, and need to reiterate that I’m not too clear on exactly what sort of structure Israel had prior to the federation of the tribes into a single nation: were these actually sub-structures of an already loosely-governed overarching state? or were they of similar ethnicity but completely unrelated except for the myths about how they were all descended from one group? And where do the Levites, who clearly constitute a social class rather than an autonomous nation, fit in? Basically, what this all comes down to is that I really have no idea how the geography and culture here led to this particular group being designated as “Reubenites” and that group as “Gadites”, or whatever. But apparently these tribal designations were a Big Deal for those participating in them, so saying who is who was kind of important.

Now, as I mentioned, the actual specific delineations of borders and occasionally of specific cities goes on and on and on, and it refers to an awful lot of geographic markers which are vague or no longer extant, and there would be a lot of archaeological dithering about any given single line of this; for instance, verse 19:27 lists the boundaries of Asher as including Beth-dagon, bordering Zebulun at Iphtah-el, heading north to Beth-emek, Neiel, and Cabul. I have no idea where any of those things are, and get tired at the prospect of trying to find out. Good thing that better historians than me have already drawn up pictures of it all! The capsule version, looking at both the 1759 Lotter map and a more modern schematic is that we aren’t absolutely sure about the locations of everything, but basically can be certain about the general geography. Asher is the northern seacoast, Nafthali the inland north, Zebulon and Isschar are directly to the south thereof (possibly touching the sea of Galilee and/or Mediterranean, and south of there from the coast to the Jordan to the Mediterranean is Manassah’s Cisjordanian holdings. Next down is the triad of Dan, Ephraim, and Benjamin, with Dan vaguely westerly (with seacoast), Ephraim vaguely easterly, and Benjamin vaguely southernly (containing Jerusalem). South of that is Judah, which either completely or near-completely encircles Simeon. On the east bank of the Jordan, Manasseh is northmost, then Gad, and then Reuben.

Reading the text, I actually find the Lotter map a lot more believable than that whoever-the-hell-made it map, in spite of its greater antiquity (and thus dubiousness of its archaeological knowledge). There are a lot of bigdifferences between the two maps. The Transjordanian holdings stretch a lot further north according to Lotter, all the way up to the modern Lebanese border (the other map has it stopping well south of even the Sea of Galilee). The holding of Manasseh should be the region of Bashan, which according to Joshua 12:1 goes all the way up to Mount Hermon. So definitely the Lotter map’s a lot more accurate on the matter of the overall boundaries. It’s a bit fuzzier on some of the other disputes: for instance, I was of the understanding that Zebulon had maritime trade, which would require a seacoast as appears on the Lotter map, but nothing in Zebulon’s listed allocations (Joshua 19:10–16), to the best of our understanding of the locations of these vaguely-described cities, would suggest that it touched the Mediterranean.

Anyways, the specifics end up being somewhat moot, which is why I’m not trying to puzzle out every little description in these several chapters. I’d rather focus on the few human and narrative elements interspersed among the land division. Chapter 14 is actually mostly narrrative: They set up to divide up regions by lots (i.e., by random allocation) and Caleb arrives in a delagation of Judites (Caleb himself being of the tribe of Judah) and rehashes the story from Numbers 13–14, when God got angry with the pessimistic spies and favored Caleb and Joshua, the optimistic spies. Caleb embellishes the story a little, suggesting that Moses promised him a personal portion, and proposes that Joshua give him Hebron (which apparently still needed pacifying, so conquering it was part of the deal). Joshua agrees to this deal and gives Hebron to Caleb, where, conveniently, the rest of Judah also ends up.

This need for Caleb and his clan to pacify the current residents of Hebron turns into a miniature drama in Joshua 15:16–19. Debir (which I could swear was already conquered back in 11:39) remained recalcitrant, and Caleb promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to the conqueror. She was unhappy about this, not because she disliked being treated as chattel (alas, that is largely how women were and expected to be treated then), but that her position in her new household was actually weakened by being given without dowry, because to some extent a woman was judged by what she brought to her marriage, so Caleb carved a bit out of Hebron for her.

Very briefly in Joshua 17:3–6 anothr loose end is tied up: back in Numbers 27, the daughters of Tzelefochad, who had no male close kin, asked for and were promised land of their own, so they get a special mntion as having received property from the Cisjordanian section of Manasseh (their father’s tribe).

From Joshua 17:12 through 18:10 we fall back into narrative. The Mannassahites complain about their meager Cisjordanian holdings: they talk about how numerous they are, which seems kind of odd, because by the reckoning in Numbers 26, they’re not actually that large a tribe: Dan, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, and Judah are all larger, and some of those are squeezed into smaller teritories, without thwe Manassahites’ enormous Transjordanian holdings. Joshua’s response is basically “You want more land? Fine, there are still some Canaanite holdouts in the hill country. Liquidate them and they’re yours,” which seems fair enough, seeing as Manasseh already really has plenty of land. The beginning of Chapter 18, though, is just weird. Joshua bitches at the Israelites for sitting around and not dividing up the land. There’s no indication that a lot of time has passed since Chapter 12, so this seems premature, but he tells the seven tribes which haven’t been assigned their holdings to go scout out the remaining territory (presumably in the central region and far north, based on the tribes in question) and cut it into seven parts to be selected randomly (which I guess is another wrinkle on that old cake-cutting problem: you don’t want to make a tiny screwjob territory if there’s a 1-in-7 chance you’ll be stuck with it). They do, and then the description of tribal allotments continues.

And the division of territory, mercifully, is at an end. The rest of the Book of Joshua is mostly tying up loose ends and dealing with a bit of political fallout.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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