We begin today with the allotment to the tribe of Manasseh. The writer is sure to point out that Manasseh was the firstborn of Joseph (17:1). This is because the tribe is addressed second, after Ephraim, giving the younger the place of preeminence. This is a part of the fulfillment of Jacob’s blessing (Gen 48:19). We see in verses 3-6 the fulfillment of the command given by God in Numbers 27:6-7. Note in verses 12-13 the refrain of Israel’s failure to completely drive out the Canaanites. In verses 14-18 we see that the tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) feel that they need more territory, and so Joshua tells them to go and take more land. But we see that they are afraid of the Canaanites (v. 16). Joshua – himself an Ephraimite – invokes the promise of God and tells them to obey by taking the land (v. 18). In this moment of weakness by Ephraim, we see foreshadowed that though they will become preeminent in Israel for a time, that they will fail to become the faithful leader of Israel, even after the kingdom divides.
Chapter 18 begins with a brief mention of the fact that the Tabernacle was set up in Shiloh (18:1). This will be the temporary home of God’s presence. After the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh receive their allotment on the eastern shore of the Jordan, and after Judah, Ephraim, and the other half of Manasseh receive their inheritance in the land of Canaan, there remain seven tribes to receive their inheritance. These tribes are hesitant to take the land (v. 3). So Joshua sends spies to map out the remaining territory to be taken (v. 4), and lots will be cast for their territories (v. 6). Note in verse 5 that the tribes that already have their inheritance are Judah to the south, and the sons of Joseph to the north. Judah will become the southern kingdom, and Ephraim* will become the preeminent tribe of the northern kingdom. These are those who received the promise (Judah) and the blessing (Ephraim) of Jacob.
The rest of chapter 18 details the inheritance of Benjamin. Note that the city that would become Jerusalem falls within its borders (v. 28). Benjamin has a very interesting and troubled history, as we will see. The tribe is reduced to near extinction as punishment for sin (Judges 19-21). From it comes the first monarch of the united kingdom (1 Samuel 9-10). When the kingdom divides, Benjamin is so small that it is absorbed into Judah (see 1 Kings 11:13 and 12:21), allowing Jerusalem – the place where God chooses for His presence to dwell (Ps 132:13-14) – to remain in the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem will be central in redemptive history. No other place is mentioned nearly as many times as Jerusalem in the Bible. Ultimately, Jerusalem (or Zion) is revealed to be typological of the church of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 19 records the inheritance of the six remaining tribes. We see that Simeon is placed wholly within the borders of Judah (v. 9). This means that when the kingdom divides, Simeon also ceases to be. Levi not having a defined inheritance but having cities spread throughout Israel, and Simeon being completely land-locked in Judah and their eventual ceasing to be, are both fulfillments of Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:7. Simeon was divided from his brothers, and Levi was scattered among his brothers. They were skipped for the birthright (the promise of God) because of their sin and it was given to Judah. Ultimately, all they have is given to the tribe of Judah.
The chapter ends with a description of Joshua’s personal inheritance in the land. He was given the land he asked for based on the promise of God back in Numbers 14:30. We see in verse 51 that the lots that were drawn, and the territories given to each tribe, were really instruments of God’s providence. Chapter 20 briefly records the establishing of the cities of refuge, as commanded by God in Numbers 35. Note that we are once again told that the provision of God is for more than physical Israelites (20:9).
*In the Old Testament, once the kingdom is divided, “Israel,” “Joseph,” and “Ephraim” are often used interchangeably to refer to the Northern Kingdom.