These chapters describe the tribal allotment of ‘the sons of Joseph’ (16:1, 4), Ephraim and Manasseh. In spite of some disputed site identifications, their southern boundary (in particular, the southern boundary of Ephraim) can be roughly traced from Jericho up to Bethel, over to lower Beth-Horon, down to Gezer, and on to the Mediterranean (16:2–3.) Michmethah, near Shechem, serves as anchor-point for Ephraim’s northern boundary, from which the border ‘descended on a sharp diagonal line in each direction, southeast to Jericho and westward along the Wadi Qanah which runs into the Yarkon’ (16:6–8). Manasseh’s plot was north of Ephraim’s; here Ephraim’s northern boundary coincided with Manasseh’s southern border (17:7–9). Manasseh’s northern limits are not sharply defined; they touch Asher’s inheritance on the north and Issachar’s on the east (17:10).
Again, this is not merely another careful land survey. Certain notations, anecdotes, and repetitions in these chapters call for attention. Some of these items augur ill for Israel’s future.
A Reminder of Yahweh’s Ways (16:1–4)
We receive a reminder of Yahweh’s ways in the first verses of chapter 16. In verses 1–4 a reference to the sons of Joseph opens and closes the section; in the latter instance, they are defined as Manasseh and Ephraim (v. 4). This was the order of birth; Manasseh was the older of Joseph’s sons. However, the writer proceeds to describe Ephraim’s territory before Manasseh’s allotment. ‘He then (v. 5) calls attention, implicitly to be sure, to God’s sovereign arrangement which had given Ephraim the priority.’
Someone may object that this is too subtle. But I doubt it. Not if one senses that Genesis 48 is the baggage behind Joshua 16–17. In fact God’s arrangement is very subtle in Genesis 48—at least at first. Joseph brings his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 48:1; note the order of birth) before his aged father Jacob. But when Jacob first refers to them he vows that ‘Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are’ (v. 5). This is a subtle switch, but deliberate. For when Joseph presents the lads for Jacob’s blessing he places Manasseh, the older, opposite Jacob’s right hand—naturally, and Ephraim opposite Jacob’s left (v. 14). But blind, old Jacob crossed his arms and placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, giving him priority! Joseph knew that was not right, so he tried to straighten out his father’s tangle (vv. 17–18), but Jacob assured his son that his hands knew what they were doing (v. 19). Jacob’s blessing ran: ‘When a blessing is pronounced in Israel, men shall use your names and say, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ (v. 20, NEB). To this the writer appends the note: ‘So he put Ephraim before Manasseh.’
That is what Joshua 16–17 does. The writer knows their order of birth (16:4) but he puts Ephraim (16:5–10) before Manasseh (17:1–13). He doesn’t ring any bells about it; it’s just a reminder, another hint of Yahweh’s strange ways. How often the divine way reverses the conventions of men, overthrows the human canon of what ought to be. That’s why the God of the Bible is so stimulating and refreshing. He is never the prisoner of what fallen man regards as normal. Again and again he turns human standards on their heads, causing us to wonder and cheer. Without this God who ignores our proprieties, most of us would have no hope.
My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order. And so there is no place for human pride in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26–29, NEB)
Listen, my dear brothers: it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him. (James 2:5, JB)
The same motive may also explain why Judah’s lot (ch. 15) is mentioned before those of the other tribes, even Ephraim and Manasseh. It may well be a reflection of Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:8–12, especially that the ruler’s staff was to be planted between Judah’s feet. Yet that, too, seems to be one of the Lord’s twists. Judah was not the oldest (Gen. 29:31–35), nor the one favored with the birthright (see 1 Chron. 5:1–2). If you have a warm spot for him because he protected Benjamin (Gen. 43:8–10; 44:16–34), you must realize he is the same fellow who didn’t mind bedding down with a Canaanite harlot (for all he knew; Gen. 38). So Judah will have the royal primacy—not because of birth, favoritism, or virtue—simply by sovereignty because God is not imprisoned either by Roberts’ or our ‘Rules of Order’. And that is the reason to adore him.
A Pleading of Yahweh’s Word (17:3–6)
Secondly, in the case of Zelophedad’s daughters, we observe a pleading of Yahweh’s word. The background for the incident comes from Numbers 27:1–11 (and 36:1–12). Zelophedad died having no sons. So his five daughters appeal to Moses, asking that what would have been their father’s land inheritance not be diverted to the nearest male relative but that they, his daughters, be granted his inheritance, uncustomary as this might seem.4 Moses referred the matter to Yahweh, who decided in their favor. In this request Zelophedad’s girls declared their faith. As John Calvin put it:
Inasmuch as they would not have been so anxious about the succession, if God’s promise had not been just as much a matter of certainty to them as if they were at this moment demanding to be put in possession of it. They had not yet entered the land, nor were their enemies conquered; yet, relying on the testimony of Moses, they prosecute their suit as if the tranquil possession of their rights were to be accorded them that very day.
Their follow-up here in Joshua 17 indicates the same sort of implicit faith. They remind Eleazar and Joshua that ‘Yahweh commanded Moses to give us an inheritance among our brothers.’ As with Caleb (14:6–12) there is boldness to request what Yahweh had already promised, a forthrightness to plead Yahweh’s past word.
It is here that Mahlah and her sisters may be our school mistresses to bring us to Christ. Numerous Christians lack the boldness, assurance, and confidence to lay hold of God’s provisions. We are like folk who enter a shop or store, gather what we need, and find no one minding the cash register at the moment. However, there is a bell at the counter and a sign, ‘Ring bell for service.’ Frequently we are hesitant to ring the bell for all sorts of foolish reasons: for example, they will think I’m impatient; I hate to appear demanding; it will probably irritate the clerk if I interrupt whatever he or she is doing. Somehow we can hardly imagine that the shopkeeper provided the bell because he actually wants his customers to use it!
That is precisely the point the writer of Hebrews seeks to make. If Jesus, the Son of God, is our great and sympathetic high priest at the right hand of God, what ought we to do? ‘Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may … find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). If Jesus the Tempted One is God’s provision for us in our temptations, what should we do? Why, come to him, use him, claim what God has supplied. If God has provided a throne of grace, then let us by all means draw near so that we may find grace for help at just the right time. But let the daughters of Zelophedad teach you not to waver bashfully about laying hold of God’s promised provisions.
A Deviation from Yahweh’s Program (17:7–13)
We do not need to wait until Judges 1 to hear a degree of failure in regard to the conquest. We have it already in Joshua. Indeed these chapters show that Israel permitted themselves a deviation from Yahweh’s program relating to the conquest. Such is clear from the repeated notes of failure. If we cheat for a moment and go back to include chapter 15, then we find three notes of failure, each appearing at the end of accounts of the tribal allotments.
As for the Jebusites, the residents of Jerusalem, the sons of Judah were not able to dispossess; so the Jebusites continue to live with the sons of Judah in Jerusalem to this day [15:63].
But they did not dispossess the Canaanites who live in Gezer; so the Canaanites live among Ephraim to this day; then they were put to forced labor [16:10].
But the sons of Manasseh were not able to possess these cities; the Canaanites were determined to live in this land. Yet when the sons of Israel became strong they put the Canaanites to forced labor and did not thoroughly dispossess them [17:12–13].
The reader will see an intensification of blame in these notes. First, Judah’s inability; then Ephraim’s failure in regard to one city and, evidently, settling for the Canaanites’ subservience rather than expulsion; finally, Manasseh’s massive inability or failure to control a number of strategic locations, along with their preference (even when they became strong) for resident Canaanite slaves than for vanquished enemies.
Such accommodation and laxity plainly contradicted Yahweh’s clear directions (Exod. 23:23–33; 34:11–16; Deut. 7:1–6). He had told Israel that the residents of Canaan ‘must not live in your land’ (Exod. 23:33); he had commanded Israel to destroy them completely and to show them no grace (Deut. 7:2). Spiritual emergency required violent holiness (see. Deut. 7:6 in context). The cancer of Baal worship would surely infect Israel unless the most radical surgery removed it (Exod. 23:32–33; Deut. 7:4). There was something strangely catching in Canaan’s credo that the world moved by the sexual prowess of Baal (and his disciples) rather than by the almighty hand of Yahweh.
True, Yahweh had informed Israel that there would be a gradual aspect to the conquest:
I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you are increased and possess the land [Exod. 23:29–30, RSV; see also Deut. 7:22–23].
But here in Joshua, Ephraim and Manasseh show that by their compromise they have already begun to lose this vision (16:10; 17:12–13); for the failure notes clearly reveal that, after a period of inability or unwillingness, the time came when Israel became dominant, since they made forced labourers out of the Canaanites. They had power to expel them at Yahweh’s direction but chose to retain them for their own advantage. As Calvin saw:
But another crime still less pardonable was committed when, having it in their power easily to destroy all, they not only were slothful in executing the command of God, but, induced by filthy lucre, they preserved those alive whom God had doomed to destruction.
Here was the deviation from Yahweh’s program. Let the contemporary Christian, however, be slow to pick up the first stone. For we frequently repeat Israel’s pattern. Israel evidently had functioned fairly well in the initial onslaught of the conquest, in the united push under Joshua. With the major crisis past, the time came for tribes to complete the conquest, remaining faithful in Yahweh’s little-by-little work (Exod. 23:30). Somehow, we relish the call for heroism but not that for durability. We find being faithful in little more annoying than satisfying. No wonder Jesus warns us that those who at first are most ecstatic over him may only ‘endure for a while’ (Mark 4:16–17). The Christian’s faith is not so much proved by his courage in a sudden crisis as by his faithfulness in daily plodding. (See the exposition of my second point on Joshua 13.)
In Joshua 16–17 Ephraim and Manasseh’s failure brings no immediate dire consequences. We must wait for the Book of Judges for that. Here it is mere obedience, if there is such a thing.
A Discontent with Yahweh’s Gift (17:14–18)
Finally, there appears in 17:14–18 a discontent with Yahweh’s gift. Though there are some obscure details in this passage, the primary point is clear. The Joseph tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh) complain that they have been given but ‘one lot and one portion’ though they are a ‘numerous people’. (This last phrase is used three times in these verses, once by the tribes and twice by Joshua, who picked it up.) Naturally, they piously attribute their numerical strength to the fact that ‘Yahweh has blessed me’ (v. 14).
Joshua’s first reply (v. 15) directs them to go up to ‘the forest area and clear out a place for yourselves there in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim’. Since, as you say, the hill country of Ephraim is too confined for you, and since, as you say, you are a numerous people, then nothing should stop you from clearing out more living space in that enemy territory.
The Josephites’ response discloses their true attitude. They may be saying that the hill country, whether cleared or not, ‘is not enough for us’ (lit., ‘it will not be found for us’). Most construe the clause in this way.10 A case can be made, however, for ‘will (can-) not be acquired by us’. If so, they are even despairing of an extensive hold on the hill country, let alone the plain so ably patrolled by Canaanite chariots. Joshua’s retort in verse 18 fits better with the latter view: ‘For the hill country will be yours; sure, it’s forest—and you’ll clear it.…’ He seems to respond to a ‘can’t’ rather than a ‘not enough’. So Joseph’s sons don’t push into the Plain of Esdraelon to the north where the Canaanites could use their ‘tanks’ against mere tribal infantry. Yet they are a numerous people—and ‘one lot’ is hardly enough (v. 14). So there is discontent with Yahweh’s gift.
We may think that Joshua’s answer in verses 17–18 is just so much shallow pep talk. It is as if he says, ‘Sure, the Canaanites have a meat grinder in the Plain of Esdraelon (Jezreel); but that’s all right; run into it and see what you can do.’ But that misreads Joshua.
It is difficult to translate Joshua’s words in verses 17–18, primarily because he uses the Hebrew particle ki five times in verse 18, and it is hard to know just how to construe some of these. If allowed a colloquial corruption or two I would suggest: ‘You are a numerous people; you have great power; you will not have (only) one lot; for the hill country will be yours; sure, it’s forest—and you’ll clear it out and its borders will be yours; indeed, you will dispossess the Canaanites; sure, they have iron chariots; sure, they’re strong.’ Joshua’s answer is not a piece of theology that refuses to look at or empathise with the obstacles God’s people face. It is rather a theology informed by a word of God that had already addressed precisely this situation:
You may say in your heart, ‘These nations outnumber me; how shall I be able to dispossess them?’ Do not be afraid of them; remember how Yahweh your God dealt with Pharaoh and all Egypt, the great ordeals your own eyes have seen, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm with which Yahweh your God has brought you out. So will Yahweh your God deal with all the peoples whom you fear to face.… Do not be afraid of them, for Yahweh your God is among you, a God who is great and terrible. Little by little Yahweh your God will destroy these nations before you [Deut. 7:17–22, JB].
When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, you must not be afraid of them; Yahweh your God is with you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt [Deut. 20:1, JB].
Ephraim and Manasseh’s complaint began with discontent for Yahweh’s gift; but our passage shows a deeper problem: distrust of Yahweh’s adequacy. Not that God did not know their fears; Deuteronomy 7 and 20 show he knew them well. But Ephraim and Manasseh must remember who Yahweh is! He is the God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, who bludgeoned Pharaoh to his knees, the great and terrible God who is in the midst of you. Once you see Yahweh, Perizzite swords and Canaanite chariots lose their dread. This is not merely the problem of two tribes but of God’s people in all ages. In spite of our professions, we are in fact barely supernaturalists. Again and again our Lord has to remind us that God is not the prisoner of human odds, that his promises are at least as real as the iron plating on Canaanite chariots, but that we will see little of his power until we venture out into the way of obedience, until we trust his promise enough to walk in it.
Taken from Davis, D. R. (2000). Joshua: No Falling Words (pp. 127–135). Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.