Joshua 21
Pulpit Commentary
Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel;
Verse 1. - Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites. We are not to suppose, with Calvin, that the Levites had been overlooked. Such a supposition is little in keeping with the devout spirit of him who now directed the affairs of the Israelites, who had been minister to Moses the Levite, and had but lately been concerned with Eleazar, the high priest, in making a public recognition of that God to whose service the Levites had been specially set apart. The delay in appointing to the Levites their cities arose from the nature of the arrangement which had to be made for the Levitical cities. The prophecy which threatened (Genesis 49:7) to "scatter them in Israel" was to be fulfilled for the benefit of the whole people. Instead of a portion for himself, Levi, as we have been repeatedly informed (Joshua 13:33; Joshua 14:3; Joshua 18:7), was to have "the Lord God of Israel for his inheritance." Since, therefore, their cities were to be assigned them within the limits of the other tribes, it was impossible to apportion them until the other tribes had been provided for. Unto Eleazar the priest. The close connection between the military and the sacerdotal power is kept up throughout the book. Warned by his one act of neglect in the case of the Gibeonites, Joshua never again appears to have neglected to have recourse to the high priest, that he might ask counsel of God for him, as had been prescribed in Numbers 27:21. Eleazar is placed first here, because, as the acknowledged head of the tribe, he was the proper person to prefer its request to the leader. But the whole history shows how entirely Joshua and Eleazar acted in concert. And unto Joshua the son of Nun. In a matter of ecclesiastical organisation the ecclesiastical took precedence of the civil leader. And unto the heads. The position of Joshua was that of a chief magistrate ruling by constitutional methods. The representatives of the tribes were invariably consulted in all matters of moment. Such appear to have been the original constitution of all early communities, whether Aryan or Semitic. We find it in existence among Homer's heroes. It meets us in the early history of Germanic peoples. It took a form precisely analogous to the Jewish in the old English Witan where the chief men in Church and State took counsel with the monarch on all matters affecting the commonweal of the realm; and the remains of this aristocratic system still meet us in our own House of Lords.
And they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, The LORD commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle.
Verse 2. - At Shiloh. Another instance of exact accuracy. Shiloh was now the place of assembly in Israel (see Joshua 18:1). The Lord commanded. The command is given in Numbers 35. We have here, therefore, another quotation from the books of Moses. If we refer to it we find how exactly the precepts were carried out. First, the six cities of refuge were to be appointed, and then forty-two more were to be added to them. Calvin, not noticing this, has complained that this narrative is not in its proper place, and that it should have been inserted before the details in ch. 20. The very reverse is the fact. These cities of refuge are included, in what follows, among the number of forty-eight cities in all, assigned to the Levites. Suburbs. See Joshua 14:4. And so throughout the chapter.
And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the LORD, these cities and their suburbs.
Verse 3. - Out of their inheritance. Out of that of Israel (see note on ver. 1). These cities. The number was forty-eight, i.e., four times twelve. Bahr ('Symbolik des Alten Testaments,' 1:221) remarks on the symbolical meaning of this number. He compares it, first, to the twelve tribes marching in four detachments, the ark of God and its guard in the centre (see Numbers 2.). Four, he says, is the number of the world, and three the sign of God, and twelve of the combination of the two. Thus we are reminded of the heavenly city which "lieth four-square," which has "twelve foundations of precious stones," "twelve gates of pearls, and at the gates twelve angels," and the names of "the twelve tribes of Israel" written thereupon, and wherein was "the tree of life," with its "twelve manner of fruits," which were "yielded every month" (Revelation 21:12, 14, 16, 19, 21; Revelation 22:2).
And the lot came out for the families of the Kohathites: and the children of Aaron the priest, which were of the Levites, had by lot out of the tribe of Judah, and out of the tribe of Simeon, and out of the tribe of Benjamin, thirteen cities.
Verse 4. - And the lot came out. As in the distribution of the land among the tribes, so in the division of the cities among the tribes of Levi, the whole matter was referred to the judgment of God. Thus solemnly placed in His hands, the division would not afterwards become the occasion of jealousy or dispute. The division was first made between the descendants of the three sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (see Exodus 6:16-25), and then, as regards the Kohathites, between the priests, the descendants of Aaron, and the rest of the Levites. We have remarked above (Joshua 19:50) on the disinterestedness of Joshua. We have now to remark on the same characteristic as displayed by Moses. There was no attempt on the part of Moses to "found a family," the object of ambition with most men, whether kings or private persons possessed of wealth. No special privileges belonged to his descendants. They merged in the undistinguished herd of the Levites generally. In this Moses contrasts favourably with most public men in our own day; he stands out prominently before nearly all the great leaders and conquerors before or even after the Christian era. The same may be said of Joshua, his successor. Cincinnatus may be in some measure compared with them, but as a dictator simply in time of danger, his power was by no means so absolute, nor were his temptations so great as those of the two successive leaders of the Israelites. Thirteen cities. It has been contended by Maurer and others that this number of cities was largely in excess of what could possibly be required for the descendants of Aaron in so short a time. But we have to consider

(1) that the cities were probably not, at least at first, inhabited exclusively by the priests;

(2) that the Israelites multiplied rapidly, and that the number of descendants in the fourth generation would probably be nearly a thousand, and in the fifth, above five thousand;

(3) that all the cities were not, as yet, actually taken from the Canaanites at all, and so therefore were in all probability only intended as an eventual possession of the priests, and

(4) that the cities themselves were probably not of any very great size. It may be worthy of remark, as a proof of the accuracy of the writers of the Old Testament, and as a means of approximately ascertaining the date of the Book of Joshua, that Nob, mentioned as a priestly city in 1 Samuel 22:11, 19, is not found in the list given here. For the number of priests being sure to increase, it is not surprising that in the course of time additional cities should be assigned to them. And since Nob is not mentioned here, we have good grounds for concluding that the Book of Joshua was not a compilation put together after the reign of Saul Calvin does not fail to remark on the prescience of God here demonstrated. He had fixed upon Jerusalem as the place where he would "put His Name." He therefore directed that the lot of the priests should fall within the limits of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, on whose borders Jerusalem stood. Simeon is also mentioned, but the territory of that tribe (Joshua 19:1, 9), was contained within the borders of Judah. For theirs was the first lot. Not because Kohath was the firstborn, for this Gershon appears to have been, but because to Aaron and his sons had the priesthood been reserved.
And the rest of the children of Kohath had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Ephraim, and out of the tribe of Dan, and out of the half tribe of Manasseh, ten cities.
And the children of Gershon had by lot out of the families of the tribe of Issachar, and out of the tribe of Asher, and out of the tribe of Naphtali, and out of the half tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen cities.
The children of Merari by their families had out of the tribe of Reuben, and out of the tribe of Gad, and out of the tribe of Zebulun, twelve cities.
And the children of Israel gave by lot unto the Levites these cities with their suburbs, as the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.
And they gave out of the tribe of the children of Judah, and out of the tribe of the children of Simeon, these cities which are here mentioned by name,
Which the children of Aaron, being of the families of the Kohathites, who were of the children of Levi, had: for theirs was the first lot.
And they gave them the city of Arba the father of Anak, which city is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah, with the suburbs thereof round about it.
Verse 11. - In the hill country of Judah. The word in the original is הַר, mountain, the title which is consistently applied to the highlands of Palestine in the Bible, while our version translates indiscriminately by "mountain" and "hill."
But the fields of the city, and the villages thereof, gave they to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for his possession.
Verse 12. - The fields. The original is in the singular. We are not necessarily, therefore, to suppose that the land was mapped out into divisions analogous to our fields. Our word "land" would more accurately represent the meaning of the original, which refers to the arable and pasture land in the neighbourhood of the city, with the agricultural villages or homesteads dotted about it. Keil contends that the Levites only received as many houses within the city as they needed, and that the rest belonged to Caleb. Bahr, moreover ('Symbolik,' 2:49), supposed that the Levites dwelt with the other inhabitants of the city, and that the pasture land within the distance of 2,000 paces from the city was reserved for them, the rest of the land belonging to the inhabitants of the tribe (see note on Gezer, ch. 10:33). This seems the most probable explanation. The land in general was owned by the descendants of Caleb. But the Levites had certain pastures reserved for them, whither they drove their cattle (see note on suburbs, Joshua 14:4). The special information about Hebron here again is worthy of notice. It is copied by the author of 1 Chronicles in ch. 6.
Thus they gave to the children of Aaron the priest Hebron with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Libnah with her suburbs,
Verse 13. - Hebron with her suburbs to be a city of refuge for the slayer. Rather, the city of refuge for the slayer, Hebron and her cattle drives (see note above on ver. 2). The translation in our version obscures the meaning, which is clearly that the cities of refuge were first fixed on, and then assigned to the Levites. Most of the cities in the following list have been noticed already.
And Jattir with her suburbs, and Eshtemoa with her suburbs,
And Holon with her suburbs, and Debir with her suburbs,
And Ain with her suburbs, and Juttah with her suburbs, and Bethshemesh with her suburbs; nine cities out of those two tribes.
Verse 16. - Ain with her suburbs. We have "Ashan" in 1 Chronicles 6:59. If the view taken above of Ain (see note on Joshua 15:32, and Joshua 19:7) be correct, Ashen is the true reading here.
And out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with her suburbs, Geba with her suburbs,
Anathoth with her suburbs, and Almon with her suburbs; four cities.
Verse 18. - Anathoth. The birthplace of Jeremiah, where we find that Anathoth was still a priestly city (Joshua 1:1). No doubt it was for this reason that it was chosen (1 Kings 2:26) as the place of Abiathar's banishment. Here again we see to how close an examination the writers of the Old Testament may be submitted without in the least degree shaking their testimony. Observe, too, the geographical accuracy of Isaiah's mention of Geba and Anathoth in his description of an Assyrian invasion through the passes at Ai or Aiath and Michmash (Isaiah 10:29, 30).
All the cities of the children of Aaron, the priests, were thirteen cities with their suburbs.
And the families of the children of Kohath, the Levites which remained of the children of Kohath, even they had the cities of their lot out of the tribe of Ephraim.
For they gave them Shechem with her suburbs in mount Ephraim, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Gezer with her suburbs,
Verse 21. - To be a refuge for the slayer (see above ver. 13). This order is observed in every case but one, which is explained in the note on ver. 36.
And Kibzaim with her suburbs, and Bethhoron with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the tribe of Dan, Eltekeh with her suburbs, Gibbethon with her suburbs,
Aijalon with her suburbs, Gathrimmon with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the half tribe of Manasseh, Tanach with her suburbs, and Gathrimmon with her suburbs; two cities.
Verse 25. - Tanach. The same as the Taanach before mentioned, Joshua 12:21. In 1 Chronicles 6:70 (56 Hebrews text) we have Eth-aner, an obvious blunder, as the Hebrew shows, Resh having been read for Hheth, and Aleph having been inserted to form the Eth of the accusative ease. This reading existed, however, as far back as the LXX. version. Gath-rimmon. There is a blunder also here, where Gath-rimmon has crept in by the mistake of a copyist from the last verse. The true reading is preserved in 1 Chronicles 6:70, where we find Ibleam (see Joshua 17:11), or as it is there written Bileam; no doubt by mistake; the Hebrew letters (omitting the Jod, which has dropped out), being those that compose the familiar name of Balaam the prophet. The LXX. reads Jebath here.
All the cities were ten with their suburbs for the families of the children of Kohath that remained.
And unto the children of Gershon, of the families of the Levites, out of the other half tribe of Manasseh they gave Golan in Bashan with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Beeshterah with her suburbs; two cities.
Verse 27. - To be a city of refuge (see above, ver. 13). Be-eshterah. Thus printed by the Masorites, and thus translated by the LXX., but no doubt the same as Og's city Ashtaroth (see Joshua 12:4, and 1 Chronicles 6:71).
And out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishon with her suburbs, Dabareh with her suburbs,
Jarmuth with her suburbs, Engannim with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with her suburbs, Abdon with her suburbs,
Verse 30. - Abdon (see note on Joshua 19:28).
Helkath with her suburbs, and Rehob with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Hammothdor with her suburbs, and Kartan with her suburbs; three cities.
Verse 32. - Galilee (see above, Joshua 20:7).
All the cities of the Gershonites according to their families were thirteen cities with their suburbs.
And unto the families of the children of Merari, the rest of the Levites, out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with her suburbs, and Kartah with her suburbs,
Dimnah with her suburbs, Nahalal with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with her suburbs, and Jahazah with her suburbs,
Verse 36. - And out of the tribe of Reuben. This verse and the succeeding have the Masoretic note appended that they are not found in the Masora or true tradition. Kimchi therefore rejects them. But they are found in the LXX. and the rest of the ancient versions, and they are necessary to make up the number of forty-eight cities. Dr. Kennicott, as well as Michaelis, Rosenmuller, and Maurer defended their genuineness. So does Knobel, who complains that Rabbi Jacob Ben Chajim, in his Rabbinical Bible of 1525, has very improperly omitted these towns on the authority of the Masora, and that many editors have foolishly imitated him They have no doubt been omitted by the mistake of a copyist, who passed on from the אַרְבָע (four) of ver. 35 to that of ver. 37, omitting all that lay between. The LXX. adds here "the city of refuge for the slayer," words which may have possibly formed part of the original text, as they do in every other instance. Jahazah. It is worthy of remark that this city, with Heshbon and Jazer and Mephaath, fell into the hands of the Moabites in later times, a sad indication of religious declension (see Isaiah 15, 16; Jeremiah 48:21, 34).
Kedemoth with her suburbs, and Mephaath with her suburbs; four cities.
And out of the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Mahanaim with her suburbs,
Verse 38. - To be a city of refuge (see above, ver. 13). Mahanaim (see Joshua 13:26). Perhaps the unquestionable entente cordiale between David and the sacerdotal party may have determined him to fix on this as his refuge when fleeing from Absalom, in addition to its situation beyond Jordan, and near the fords (2 Samuel 17:22, 24).
Heshbon with her suburbs, Jazer with her suburbs; four cities in all.
So all the cities for the children of Merari by their families, which were remaining of the families of the Levites, were by their lot twelve cities.
All the cities of the Levites within the possession of the children of Israel were forty and eight cities with their suburbs.
These cities were every one with their suburbs round about them: thus were all these cities.
Verse 42. - These cities. Rather, perhaps, these cities were, (i.e., "have been enumerated," or "were given"), city by city, and their cattle drives surrounding them, thus was it with all these cities.
And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.
Verse 43. - And the Lord gave. The LXX. adds before this passage: "And Joshua completed the division of the land in its boundaries, and the children gave a portion to Joshua, by the commandment of the Lord. They gave to him the city for which he asked, Thamnath Sarach gave they him in Mount Ephraim, and Joshua built the city, and dwelt in it. And Joshua took the stone knives, with which he had circumcised the children of Israel, which were in the way in the wilderness, and he placed them in Tamnath Sarach." The repetition is very much in the manner of the sacred historian, and it is possible that we have here an authentic passage, which some copyist has omitted in the Hebrew text. All the land. As has been before remarked, the Hebrew כל must not be pressed to mean literally "all." Yet, in a sense, the word is true here. The land had been put in their power. They had only to exert themselves to complete its conquest. This they failed to do, and not only so, but violated the conditions under which the land was granted them. Thus they soon fell under the dominion of those who had been their own vassals. Ritter thinks (vol. 3. 187-189) that the Asherites and Danites submitted to the inhabitants of the land in consequence of being allowed equal citizen rights with them. He draws this inference from Judges 5:17, supposing that these tribes addicted themselves to the commercial and maritime life for which the Phoenicians were so famous.
And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.
Verse 44. - And the Lord gave them rest. LXX. κατέπαυσεν. The student of Scripture will not fail to recall the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Joshua 4:8) in which reference is made to this passage, and especially to the LXX. version of it. The word signifies rather rest from wandering than rest from toil, though in some passages (e.g. Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14) it has the latter signification (cf. Deuteronomy 12:10). Round about. Or, from round about, i.e., from the assaults of the surrounding nations. According to all that he sware (Exodus 33:14). There stood not a man of all their enemies before them. This was true, as far as the present history is concerned. We read that the Ephraimites did not, or "could not," drive out their enemies, and that the other tribes also failed to obtain complete possession of the land. But

(1) we are not told that this was in the time of Joshua, and

(2) it is intimated that this was their own fault.

How could it be otherwise? Had the same faith been theirs which caused the Jordan to dry up, and the towers of Jericho to fall down at their march, which discomfited one vast confederacy at Beth-horon, and annihilated another vast confederacy, even better supplied with munitions of war at Lake Merom, they could not have failed to root out the scanty remnant of their humiliated and disheartened foes. As has already been remarked (see Joshua 11:23, note), it was from no neglect on Joshua's part that this was not done at once, for it had been God's own command that it should not be done, lest the country should become a desert (Deuteronomy 7:22). Calvin concludes a similar argument with the words, "nothing but their own cowardice prevented them from enjoying the blessings of God in all their fulness."
There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.
Verse 45. - Ought of any good thing. Literally, a word from all the good word. This Keil regards as the "sum of all the gracious promises that God had made." But he should have added that דָבָר, beside signifying, as it does, "word," is also the word for "thing" in Hebrew (see, for instance, Genesis 15:1; Genesis 20:10), and innumerable other passages, as well as the use of לֹא דָבָר for "nothing." The translation "thing" makes the best sense, and is more agreeable to the Hebrew idiom. All came to pass. The Hebrew is singular, the whole came, the word translated "came to pass "in our version being a different one from that usually so translated.

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