Joshua 21 KJV Explained, Highlights, Meaning

And that’s chapter 20. The cities of refuge. Next is chapter 21 where we see the Levites getting their cities and pasture lands. We’ll start by reading the first 3 verses of chapter 21.

Joshua 21:1-3

[21:1 ¶ 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; 2 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. 3 And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the LORD, these cities and their suburbs.]

So even though the Levites didn’t get a large contiguous portion of land they did receive some land. They were supposed to be given cities among the tribes of Israel. And not just cities, but suburbs as well. You probably didn’t know that suburbs existed back then. Well, maybe not in the form we think of them. What that word translated “suburbs” (migrash) means is something like open land or pasture land. So the Levites needed a place to stay – the cities – and they needed a place to keep their livestock – the pasture lands. And this is interesting. I mentioned that the tribe of Simeon was given its land within the tribe of Judah. I also mentioned that this seems to fulfill the prophecy that Jacob gave concerning his children in Genesis 49. In verse 7 of that chapter he said – “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” But did you know there was another tribe Jacob was talking about besides Simeon? Yeah, Jacob was actually addressing both Simeon and his brother… Levi. Levi was going to be divided and scattered in Israel. And what do we see happening here? The tribe of Levi was certainly scattered, wasn’t it?

Now, in verses 4 through 7 we see lots being drawn for the sons of Levi to determine which cities they would receive. Let’s read about that.

Joshua 21:4-8

[4 ¶ 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. 5 ¶ 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. 6 ¶ 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. 7 ¶ 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. 8 ¶ 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.]

How many sons did Levi have? He had three. And yet here we see four lots being drawn. Why? Well, one son of Levi was Merari. Another was Gershon. And a third was Kohath. But did you notice Kohath was divided up into two groups? One was Aaron’s descendants. The other was the rest of the Kohathites who were not sons of Kohath. That’s why we have four lots rather than three.

And here’s another interesting fact. I have to try to keep this section interesting, right? This section just told us which tribes gave some of their cities to the Levites. And at first glance it looks like 13 tribes are mentioned, where of course there are only 12 tribes of Israel. How do you account for that? Look — in verse four it mentions Judah (1), Simeon (2), and Benjamin (3). Verse 5 – Ephraim (4), Dan (5), and the western ½ tribe of Manasseh (6). Verse 6 – Issachar (7), Asher (8), Naphtali (9), and the eastern ½ tribe of Manasseh (10). And verse 7 – Reuben (11), Gad (12), and Zebulun (13). How do we get 13 tribes? Just wanting to make sure we’re following. We don’t have 13 tribes. We actually have one tribe split across the Jordan River – Manasseh. But both halves of that tribe have their own land with their own cities which they give to the Levites. OK, moving on…

We’ll read verses 9 through 19 making comments as we go. In this section we’re going to see the cities given to sons of Aaron. And there are two main sections in these verses – verses 9 through 16 are the cities that Judah and Simeon gave to the sons of Aaron. And verses 17 and 18 list the cities that Benjamin gave to them. Then verse 19 is just a summary. Let’s start reading verse 9.

Joshua 21:9-19

[9 ¶ 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, 10 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. 11 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. 12 But the fields of the city, and the villages thereof, gave they to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for his possession. 13 ¶ Thus they gave to the children of Aaron the priest Hebron [1] with her suburbs, to be a city of refuge for the slayer; and Libnah [2] with her suburbs, 14 And Jattir [3] with her suburbs, and Eshtemoa [4] with her suburbs, 15 And Holon [5] with her suburbs, and Debir [6] with her suburbs, 16 And Ain [7] with her suburbs, and Juttah [8] with her suburbs, and Bethshemesh [9] with her suburbs; nine cities out of those two tribes. 17 And out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon [1/10] with her suburbs, Geba [2/11] with her suburbs, 18 Anathoth [3/12] with her suburbs, and Almon [4/13] with her suburbs; four cities. 19 All the cities of the children of Aaron, the priests, were thirteen cities with their suburbs.]

So that’s the land given to the sons of Aaron. High priests came only from Aaron and his sons, so it’s interesting that their allotment of cities fell right near Jerusalem, which was in the tribe of Benjamin. And which city wasn’t at that point even the place where the Tabernacle stood.

Alright, so, Aaron was a son of Kohath. And so now in verses 20 through 26 we see the cities given to the rest of the sons of Kohath — Aaron’s sons excluded, of course. Again, I’ll point out the main sections in these verses before we read them. Verses 20 through 22 list the cities given to the sons of Kohath by the tribe of Ephraim. There are four of them. Verses 23 and 24 show us four more cities this time given by the tribe of Dan. And last in verse 25 we see the ½ tribe of Manasseh giving 2 cities. Verse 26 tells us this is a total of 10 cities given to the other sons of Kohath. Let’s start reading in verse 20.

Joshua 21:20-26

[20 ¶ 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. 21 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, 22 And Kibzaim with her suburbs, and Bethhoron with her suburbs; four cities. 23 And out of the tribe of Dan, Eltekeh with her suburbs, Gibbethon with her suburbs, 24 Aijalon with her suburbs, Gathrimmon with her suburbs; four cities. 25 And out of the half tribe of Manasseh, Tanach with her suburbs, and Gathrimmon with her suburbs; two cities. 26 All the cities were ten with their suburbs for the families of the children of Kohath that remained.]

Next in verses 27 through 33 we have a list of the cities given to the children of Gershon, the second son of Levi after Kohath. Verse 27 shows the cities given by the ½ tribe of Manasseh. They give two cities. Next in verses 28 and 29 we see the cities from Issachar – 4 of them. Verses 30 and 31 tell us which cities Asher gave Gershon – 4 cities. And lastly we see in verse 32 that Naphtali gave 3 cities. Verse 33 tells us the total number of cities given to the sons of Gershon – 13.

And by this point something becomes apparent. Remember how the cities of refuge were given? They started in the northwest of Israel, went down south, crossed the Jordan, and came back up north again to the east of the Jordan. But now the way that these cities are given to the sons of Levi is a bit different. We actually start in the southwest, move north, jump over the Jordan River generally and come down south to end up in the southeast of Israel. Hopefully that helps us visualize what’s being described here.

Alright, let’s now start reading with verse 27.

Joshua 21:27-33

[27 ¶ 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. 28 And out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishon with her suburbs, Dabareh with her suburbs, 29 Jarmuth with her suburbs, Engannim with her suburbs; four cities. 30 And out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with her suburbs, Abdon with her suburbs, 31 Helkath with her suburbs, and Rehob with her suburbs; four cities. 32 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. 33 All the cities of the Gershonites according to their families were thirteen cities with their suburbs.]

And lastly but not leastly, we have the cities given to the sons of Merari, the last of the three sons of Levi, in verses 34 through 40. Zebulun gives them some cities in verses 34 and 35 – 4 to be exact. Reuben gives Merari four cities in verses 36 and 37. And finally, Gad gives them four cities in verses 38 and 39. And verse 40 reveals that this equals twelve cities!

Joshua 21:34-40

[34 ¶ 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, 35 Dimnah with her suburbs, Nahalal with her suburbs; four cities. 36 And out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with her suburbs, and Jahazah with her suburbs, 37 Kedemoth with her suburbs, and Mephaath with her suburbs; four cities. 38 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, 39 Heshbon with her suburbs, Jazer with her suburbs; four cities in all. 40 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.]

Then finally verses 41 and 42 put some closure on this chapter regarding this matter of the Levites receiving their cities. Let’s read the verses.

Joshua 21:41-42

[41 ¶ All the cities of the Levites within the possession of the children of Israel were forty and eight cities with their suburbs. 42 These cities were every one with their suburbs round about them: thus were all these cities.]

Aaron got 13 cities, the other Kohathites got 10, Gershon had 13, and Merari has 12. 13 + 10 + 13 + 12 = 48 cities. So that works out right.

I want to point out one other thing before we leave the discussion of the Levitical cities. Did you notice how many of the cities of refuge became Levitical cities? Aaron received Hebron. The other Kohathites received Shechem. Gershon got Golan and Kedesh. And Merari received Ramoth. That’s how many cities of refuge? 5. But how many cities of refuge were designated? 6. Which one are we missing? Bezer in Reuben wasn’t given to the Levites. Or was it? Actually, it was. Look at verse 36. Bezer is mentioned there, but for whatever reason it’s not given the title “city of refuge” in that verse. So, actually all six cities of refuge ended up in the Levites’ hands.

So now, we come to the end of what was started in chapter 13. Chapters 13 through 19 dealt with the twelve tribes possessing their land in Canaan and to the east of the Jordan River. Then we saw today that chapters 20 and 21 are still focused on the land – land for the cities of refuge and land for the Levites. And then we have verses 43 through 45. Let’s read.

Joshua 21:43-45

[43 And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. 44 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. 45 There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.]

We really need to work at keeping certain things in tension here. We have verses 43 through 45 telling us in very positive terms how the land was taken and possessed and dwelt in by Israel. We’re told that God gave Israel rest from their enemies. The Lord delivered these folks into Israel’s hands. None of God’s promises failed. Not a single one. But then we also have the fact that in our last lesson we kept seeing that Israel couldn’t or wouldn’t drive out the rest of the Canaanites from their land. How do you hold these two facts at the same time? I think here’s how we need to think about it. Both facts are true. God did indeed deliver over all Israel’s enemies to them. None of them could stand before Israel. God fulfilled all of his good promises to them. God was completely faithful in all of his promises to Israel. God kept his end of the bargain, if you will. But Israel at the same time was guilty of not completely driving out the Canaanites. God brought the Canaanites to their knees in terms of weakening them and destroying them before Israel. And all Israel had to do was to finish the process by driving the remnant of Canaanites out of their land. Did Israel do it? No.

It really does remind me of a pattern we have in the New Testament. How does the New Testament present our flesh? Our sin nature? Is it alive and well? Is it still the master of the believer? Actually, the flesh is presented as having been given a knock-out blow. You know – in boxing where one guy knocks the other guy so hard in the head that they declare it a knock-out? That’s what God did to your flesh through Christ. He’s an old landlord to whom – as Jim Berg puts it – you don’t need to pay rent anymore. It’s as if you moved residencies. You used to pay rent to the flesh. But you moved into the household of faith and you don’t need to pay rent anymore to the flesh. He can come by and ask you for money, but you have no obligation to him. He can even trick you into paying him, but you really don’t have to. Why would you want to?

So, to bring it back to Joshua – the Canaanites were severely weakened. They just needed to be given the final heave-ho out of the land! Did they get that heave-ho? No. Again, we saw last week and we’ll see next week Lord-willing that at least some of the people still had idols in their possession. Some, no doubt, were getting friendly with the Canaanites. Most of the people I think end up not really trusting God. And as a result of all these things, God refused to drive the remnant of the Canaanites out of the land. How tragic. But who can blame God? If we’re thinking right, we won’t blame him.

I had originally intended to go into the story of how the 2 ½ tribes return to their possession in chapter 22. But I decided we can end on this note: “There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.” And you and I can be certain that God’s promises are “yes” and “amen” in Christ. He’ll bring them to pass for us just as he did for Israel. Can you think of some promises God has given to us as New Testament believers? [give some time] One thing I thought of was that promise in Romans to the effect that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There’s no condemnation for us. No death penalty, which we deserve because we sin against God. And there’s no separation from God either. Even when trials of various sorts seem to indicate God has abandoned us, he hasn’t. He won’t. Ever. No condemnation. No separation. These are good promises from God. His promises didn’t fail for Joshua and Israel. They surely won’t fail for us.

Next week I hope to look at the return of the 2 ½ tribes to their land – and the civil war that was barely averted! As well as Joshua’s farewell speeches. I hope to finish the book next week. We’ll see what happens.

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