(Originally published February 2, 2017)
In last week’s study, we followed along as Joshua and the Israelites began dividing the promised land between the tribes of Israel. This week we will see them finish the process. As we re-join them in chapter 18, it seems that the seven remaining tribes have lost their momentum and need some encouragement to finish the task ahead. Before we consider why they have stalled, we are asked why it is that they are commanded to divide the land before it is entirely conquered; how are they able to “count their chickens before they hatch,” and what does this say about God? For help, we are referred to God’s promise to Abraham, as expounded by Paul in Romans 4:17:“as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he (Abraham) believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
This does not mean that as believers we must pretend to believe things that aren’t true, as many outside the faith accuse. It means that we believe the Lord will be faithful to bring about in ways real, tangible, and true, those things which he has promised us. When the Israelites stood on the border to the land which the Lord promised was theirs to occupy—even when they could see the smoke of hearth fires rising in the distance and hear the whisper of the clamor of distant cities on the wind—they believed it was theirs.
“…certainly, as the distribution by lot was a sign of confidence, so each district which fell out to each was a sure and faithful pledge of future possession; for the Lord was by no means deluding them in assigning to each his portion.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]
We are then encouraged to read through a portion of Hebrews chapter 11, where the author has written at length about many Old Testament saints who, in faith, envisioned future realities as if they were present.
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.
By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” (Hebrews 11:7-31)
All of these accounts are an explanation of the definition for faith given in the opening verse of Hebrews 11:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
How, then, is the Christian life unique?
The Christian life is unique because we live by faith, not by sight, because our sight is dim and unable to pierce the realities of heaven. We must hope in the promises of Christ. And yet that hope is not wishy-washy or ephemeral, it is under-girded by the foundation of the apostles and the prophets and animated by the Spirit who enlivens us. We have obtained an inheritance, and the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of that inheritance until we acquire possession of it.
“The idea of possessing what has already been given to us by God is a theme many commentators on Joshua develop, particularly those who treat the book as an allegory of the Christian life. They point out, quite rightly, that just as the Jewish people had been given Canaan but nevertheless needed to possess it mile by mile and person by person, Christians have been given an inheritance that likewise must be possessed through individual attainment. These commentators speak of knowledge, holiness, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Clearly these are all ours. But we enter into them only to the extent that we come to understand and appropriate the Bible, draw close to and obey the Lord Jesus Christ, and actually serve others with the gifts we are given.” [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice, Published 1989 by Baker Books]
As we move into chapter 18 of Joshua we once again encounter a lot of place names and detailed descriptions of the land. What does all this detail reveal about God? According to Matthew 10:30, “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” Which means that for our great and mighty God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, no detail is too small to escape his notice. Should you read this and think that it is no surprise that an omniscient God should know how many hairs are on one’s head, but what difference does it make? I would add the following passage from the Psalms:
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8)
Here David is crying out in an hour of distress and reminding himself and God in his prayer, that God’s omniscience means more than academic knowledge. God knows every time we roll over in bed in anxious insomnia. He keeps record of our tears. Reading further we can see—and feel—what difference this makes to David in his distress:
“This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Psalm 56:9b-11)
The details matter, because, to God, we matter.
In verse 1 of chapter 18 we read that the Tent of Meeting is moved to Shiloh. This will be where the Tabernacle stays for the next several generations (until David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem). Once the tribe of Ephraim had been given their inheritance, it seems that the area designated for the tabernacle was now secure enough to move into. Looking at the map, Shiloh is located right in the center of the promised land, giving the Israelites a central location for their appointed times of feasting and worship as a congregation. Keil and Delitzsch cite a more symbolic reason for the choice of Shiloh for the Tabernacle:
“…the reason (for the suitability of the location) is rather to be found in the name of the place, viz., Shiloh, i.e., rest, which called to mind the promised Shiloh (Gen 49:10), and therefore appeared to be pre-eminently suitable to be the resting-place of the sanctuary of the Lord, where his name was to dwell in Israel, until He should come who was to give true rest to His people as the Prince of Peace.” [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]
We now come to the scolding that Joshua gives to the seven tribes who have not yet claimed their share of the promised land. It appears that they were dragging their feet and needed a bit of a push to get moving (Joshua 18:2-4). We ought to examine our own hearts from time to time to determine if we might be dragging our feet in claiming the good gifts God gives us. As the author of Hebrews encourages us:
“For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:10-12)
Weariness is not the same thing as sluggishness. We all grow weary and need to be lifted up and helped along by the fellowship of the saints. Sluggishness is different. Sluggishness must be nipped in the bud before it gains the upper hand and pulls us down into numb unfruitfulness. This same author elsewhere encourages us with the stirring words:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
We have every reason to strive for the finish line: the great cloud of witnesses, made up of all the saints who have gone before and are cheering us on; our Savior, Jesus, who bore the weight of our sin for us, thereby removing the shackles from our feet and allowing us to run after him; and the assurance that is ours that we will indeed reach the finish line because he already has, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God! If you can’t run, my friend, then walk, hobble, limp, or crawl. If all you can manage is to fall facing the right direction, then do, and Jesus himself will lift you up and carry you the rest of the way home. Don’t give up.
As we read deeper into chapter 18 we see that Joshua sends out three representatives from each of the remaining seven tribes to survey the land remaining to be parceled out among them. They are to bring back a description of the lands with a view to their inheritances and the needs of their tribes. The method for allotting the territories will still be casting the lot to determine God’s will for each tribe, but this time they begin with having a good look at the land they are preparing to divide.
Benjamin’s allotment is a small, but lovely tract, settled between Ephraim and Judah, and touching Judah’s territory at Jerusalem. How does this accord with the prophecy in Deuteronomy 33:12?
“Of Benjamin he (Moses) said, “The Beloved of the LORD dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders.”
Benjamin’s territory is prime real estate, and is nestled in between two strong tribes, one of which will be the royal tribe once David is anointed king of the nation.
In the case of Simeon’s allotment, no boundaries are drawn, only a list of scattered cities within Judah are assigned. This sounds rather like what Jacob prophesied when he blessed his sons at the end of his life:
“Cursed be their (Simeon & Levi’s) anger, for it is fierce, And their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:7)
Simeon’s lot is a mark of disgrace, held over from the ancient prophecy for the founder of their tribe. And yet, the prophecy dealt with both Simeon and Levi. John Calvin comments:
“The punishment of Levi, indeed, was not only mitigated, but converted into an excellent dignity, inasmuch as his posterity were placed on a kind of watch-towers to keep the people in the paths of piety. In regard to Simeon, the dispersion of which Jacob prophesied, manifestly took place when certain cities within the territory of Judah were assigned to his posterity for their inheritance. For although they were not sent off to great distance, yet they dwelt dispersed… In this way the guilt of the father was visited upon his children, and the Lord ratified in fact that sentence which he had dictated to his servant.”
The territories for Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan are each dealt out in turn without incident, which completes the division of the promised land to the tribes of Israel. Now that this monumental task is complete, the people of Israel give an inheritance to Joshua (Joshua 19:45-51). After decades of faithful service to the Lord and the people of Israel, with his job completed, Joshua receives this spontaneous reward from those he has served. John Calvin’s description of the event is fitting:
“We have here, at length, an account of the gratitude of the people towards Joshua. For although the partition of the land of Canaan, among the posterity of Abraham, behooved to be equitable, yet Joshua, by his excellent virtues, deserved some honorary reward…. He does not give any heed to his own interest till the commonweal has been secured…. In the reward itself … temperance and frugality are conspicuous. The city he asks to be given to himself and his family was a mere heap of stones… Joshua liberally obeyed the divine call, and had no mercenary feelings in undergoing so many labors, dangers, and troubles…”
Joshua earned his reward. This is not to say that he earned his salvation by an obedient life, but that his obedient life was a result of his faith in the Lord and believing his promises.
Should we expect to remembered and blessed for acts of obedience that we perform?
I would say that this episode recorded in Scripture is one of many reasons to answer that question with an unequivocal, “Yes.” We want to be careful, though, to distinguish between rewards and blessings for obedience, and earning one’s salvation by meritorious acts. Salvation is a gift: not earned, but given by God (Eph. 2:8). Once one has received this gift of grace, however, obedience based in faith is rewarded by the same God who gives the grace to obey.
But don’t take my word for it. A few examples from Scripture:
“And the Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” (2 Kings 10:30)
“Everyone who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29)
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21)
“Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)
These verses speak of blessings, gifts, and rewards for those who believe and follow Christ. The blessings aren’t always tangible. Who can quantify the “peace that passes understanding,” or measure the “fullness of joy” found only in God’s presence? Is there a basket which can contain the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? When Paul speaks of “knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” he is describing a knowledge which makes virtually no sense to those who are not in Christ—but for those who are it is immeasurably precious indeed.
Our question also asked whether our acts of obedience would be remembered. I give you an act of obedient love which has been remembered for 2000 years:
“And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)
My own poor, faltering obedience may not be written down to be remembered a millennium from now, but my Lord will remember, and that will be enough.
We now turn to chapter 20 and the establishment of the cities of refuge. The purpose for these cities is stated briefly in verse 3, “that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood.” (For more background on cities of refuge, see Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19.) These cities were protection for someone who was guilty of manslaughter, but innocent of murder.
“Thus God assisted the unfortunate, and prevented their suffering the punishment of an atrocious deed, when they had not been guilty of it. Meanwhile respect was so far paid to the feelings of the brethren and kindred of the deceased that their sorrow was not increased by the constant presence of the persons who had caused their bereavement. Lastly, the people were accustomed to detest murder, since homicide, even when not culpable, was followed by exile from country and home, till the death of the high priest. For that temporary exile clearly showed how precious human blood is in the sight of God. Thus the law was just, equitable, and useful…” John Calvin
The command to establish cities of refuge reveals God’s character as we see in it his goodness and grace, as well as his holiness and justice. To understand better the justice of God, I pulled another book off the shelf and turned to the doctrine of God.
“God is the Supreme Lawgiver, and the entire order of justice undergirding every domain of life is rooted in him… by the grace of God a complete order of justice was established, in the realms both of nature and of grace… in Scripture, however, these ordinances and laws are not derived from God’s justice… but from his holiness and grace. All laws and rights, whatever they may be, have their ultimate ground, not in a social contract, nor in a self- existent natural law, nor in history, but in the will of God, viewed not as “absolute dominion” but as a will of goodness and grace. God’s grace is the fountainhead of all laws and rights.” Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2: God and Creation, published by Baker Academic, 2004
When we speak of God’s justice we are not speaking of a cold measurement of facts and retribution, but of goodness and grace which sets limits on the passions of men which, as we well know, are liable to overrun the limits of equity if given a leash long enough.
Our last three questions are answered in a (long) single passage which I will quote below from James Boice’s commentary on Joshua, so we will address them all together. What do the cities of refuge say about God’s concern for heart motives as well as external behavior; who besides the Israelites could avail themselves of the cities of refuge; and how is the city of refuge a picture of Christ? [I tried, really, I did, to trim the following quote down to manageable size, but I simply could not leave another word of it out.]
“(Cities of refuge) say much as an illustration of the value of the work of Christ for sinners… The illustration is not perfect, of course. For one thing, the cities of refuge were for people who were innocent of real crime. We are not innocent; on the contrary, we are woefully guilty in God’s sight. Again, though they were carefully spaced throughout the land, the cities of refuge would nevertheless often be far from the poor fugitive, and it would only be at the end of a desperate race that he might find safety. Christ is always at hand. Still, in spite of these obvious differences, many have noted that Christ is indeed a refuge for us, like the refuge cities of Israel, and that many characteristics of these cities have spiritual parallels.
First, it was the duty of the Jews to clearly indicate the way to the cities of refuge. Deuteronomy 19:3 says that roads were to be built to these cities. Nonbiblical sources tell us that the aid to these fugitives was even more extensive. Bridges were built over ravines, so the fugitive could take the shortest route possible. The roads were carefully repaired each spring. At every crossroads special signs read, “Refuge! Refuge!” No one wanted a fugitive to take the wrong road. Moreover the signs were made large, so that even a man who was running hard could read them without stopping. This is a good parallel to our responsibility to make the way to Christ easily accessible to the lost. Apart from Christ, the sinner is a dead man. Who will help him find the way to that city? We must build bridges, repair roads, and erect signs leading to Jesus. Moreover, we must stand in the way and point this refuge out. We must shout, “This is the way! There alone is safety!”
Second, the doors of the cities of refuge were always unlocked. That was an important and unusual feature for an ancient town. In those days, towns locked their gates at night to protect those within them from robbers, vandals, or any who would do the residents harm. In times of war, the gates would always be locked; not so the cities of refuge. The gates of these cities were always to be open, just as the arms of Christ are always open to receive any who will come to him. Jesus said, “Whoever will come to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). The last chapter of the Bible reads, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17).
Third, the cities of refuge were not only for Jews but for people of all races. Similarly, the salvation available in Jesus Christ is for all. It does not matter who you are…. It does not matter, for the way of salvation is available. You need only give up whatever illusions of safety you may now have, acknowledge your danger, and flee to Jesus.
Finally, if an ancient manslayer did not flee to one of the cities of refuge, there was no hope for him; there was no other provision in the law of Israel by which he might be saved. If he did not flee there, the avenger of blood would overtake him, and he would be slain. You too are pursued by an untiring and inescapable avenger: death. You may live long, but though you outlast even Methuselah, you will eventually be stricken down by this dread enemy…. How are you to escape this enemy? There is only one way: Jesus. You must flee to him. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).” [James Montgomery Boice, Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, Baker Books, 1989]
One who was innocent of murder, though another had died at his hand, no matter who he was—Jew or Gentile—had a refuge of safety. The bloodshed could end and a cycle of revenge-killings stopped before it began. In a culture of “eye-for an eye” justice, the cities of refuge were a gracious gift from the God who saw the hearts of all men.
Praise be to God, who has provided us with a merciful Great High Priest who will never die, in whom we can take refuge eternally, if we only flee to him.