Joshua 16-17: The Complaint

February 27, 2011 Series: Joshua: Lord's Army

Topic: Old Testament Passage: Joshua 16:1–17:18



Today we continue with the distribution of the land to the twelve tribes ofIsrael. So far we have learned a few things through the breaking up of the Promised Land:


1. We learned that God assigns different lots based on His will. It is not our part to fully know or understand the whys, but to use what we have been given for His glory.


2. We learned about Caleb, a man with a different spirit. And we see through him how to take a stand without a promise of benefit or success.


3. Last week we sawJudahget their portion, and we learned about the boundaries that God sets vs. the boundaries that we tend to loosely draw.


Today we see continue with all of these themes, but we add one more.  We see a focus on the promises of God. We see God continuing to bless His people in ways that they do not deserve, and we see His people responding to this faithfulness in different ways.


Just to clarify: there were twelve sons of Jacob, and twelve tribes of Israel, but the these two lists are not exactly the same. Out of the twelve sons of Jacob, two did not receive distinguished lots like the other ten. The first of these was Levi. The reason that Levi did not receive a portion was because the tribe of Levi had been set apart as Priests. They were given 42 cities scattered throughout the inheritance of the other tribes for their use. We also see that there is no tribe of Joseph. Joseph’s inheritance is given to his two sons Manessah and Ephriam. These are the two portions of the land that we are discussing today. 


They were added to the inheritance in Genesis 48, when they were blessed by Jacob in thelandofEgypt. In v.5, Jacob states:


And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.


So Jacob ‘adopts’ the two sons of Joseph as his own, to receive a portion along with his sons. Joseph brings his sons before his father to receive the blessing which was done with the laying on of hands. As is the custom, Joseph brought his sons forward to his father. Manessah, the older, on Jacob’s right side, and Ephriam on the left. As Jacob reached out to bless them, he crossed his hands and placed his right hand, which is the hand of greater blessing, on the head of the younger. Joseph, noticing his father’s mistake, attempted to correct it, but Jacob assured him that this was as it was intended. And he said to Joseph,


“I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying,
‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.


As a fulfillment of this promise we see in this chapter, the allotment of Ephriam listed before Manasseh. Ephriam is listed as more important than Manessah, the firstborn. And this should not come as a huge surprise to us, because as we look through the history ofIsrael, specifically the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we see that God’s plan for blessing does not ever match the established norm. As a matter of fact, it is so blatant that up to this point, not one firstborn in the line of Abraham had actually received the blessing.


The firstborn of Abraham was not Isaac, but Ishmael. He had been born because Abraham did not believe the promise of God that he would have a child with Sarah. So, he took things into his own, er, hands and had a child with Hagar, a servant. Now this may all seem a bit strange, but that was part of the established custom of extending the family line. If your wife could not provide a child, then another was found. But God’s plan was to establish His people through Isaac, the child of Sarah. So it was Isaac, not Ishmael, who received the blessing of God.


Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the older, and had the right of birth. This he sold for a bowl of soup. The blessing that was supposed to be his was stolen from him in deceit by Jacob. If you don’t know that story, you can read it in Genesis 27, it’s a good read. Again the older will serve the younger.


Jacob grows up to have 12 sons. His oldest is Rueben, but as we saw last week, the most important, and thus listed first, was Judah, the fourth born. And it was not because of anything he had done, but simply because it was through him that God would bless the whole world. In Genesis 49.8, Jacob blessesJudah, saying:


Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
your father's sons shall bow down before you.


The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh echoes the pattern of God’s blessing, and reminds us that God is very different than us. He is not bound by human convention. He is not FAIR in the sense that we understand it, but this does not mean that He is unfair. He is just. He is other. And it is this otherness that makes God so difficult to pin down. It is this otherness that makes Him so offensive to us.  God’s ways are not only other, but they are far better. Isaiah 55. states,


For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.


We prefer a God who thinks like us and works by our standards. But as God continually reminds us, His ways are other. And this is true of the actual blessing as it is of the way in which He blesses. His ways are other and so are the actual blessings He gives. When we look down this line, from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, we do not necessarily see physical blessings greater than that of their brothers. THE BLESSING IS THAT THEY WOULD HAVE A GREATER ROLE IN GOD’S BIGGER PLAN. Their blessing is that it would be through their family line that Jesus would enter into human history. This is important to remember, because as we read God’s promises in the Bible, it is easy to simply transfer them over to an account that we can measure. This is why we find people judging each other’s faith by physical blessings. But God’s blessings are not always seen by us right away, or even in our lifetime.  If we look at the breakup of the Promised Land, Ephriam does not look like the recipient of the greater blessing.  

Tribes 3

It will take some time for their greater role inIsrael’s history to play out. They have to trust the promise, and the promiser, more than what their limited perception is telling them. And we struggle with the same thing. This makes it hard for us to be faithful, doesn’t it? We don’t see the promises fulfilled, so we begin to doubt the promises themselves?


The truth is that while we cannot fully understand the ways of God, He has chosen to pull back the curtains and give us a glimpse into how He works. He gives us His Word. And just as a friend gives us his word as a guarantee, God’s Word contains promises, as well as a record of faithfulness to His promises. Sometimes generations and generations later.


As we read the through the breakdown of the Promised Land into its twelve tribes, we are reminded of the promises that God made long ago. We are reminded of the original promise to Abraham:


And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

Genesis 17.7-8




We remember the promises to Isaac:


Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you.  Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.

Genesis 26.2-3




We remember the promise to Jacob:

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.



So that which we can easily dismiss as a land survey is God proclaiming the fulfillment of His promises. It is God reminding the people of His faithfulness. And buried in this specific land survey is yet another example of God’s promised blessings. In vs.3-4 of chapter 17, we read this quick interlude:


Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, had no sons, but only daughters, and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They approached Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the leaders and said, “The Lord commanded Moses to give us an inheritance along with our brothers.” So according to the mouth of the Lord he gave them an inheritance among the brothers of their father.


Reading that you might wonder if there is more to the story, and there is. This is inserted to remind us of a previous promise made in Numbers 27. If you turn there you will find the story of the five daughters of Zelophahad. In Numbers, we read that the five daughters came to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and requested that their fathers allotment be given to them because he had no sons. They appeal to the promise of inheritance and the right of their father. Moses takes the issue to God and He agreed that their father’s right should not dissolve.  


These sisters are concerned with the fulfillment of God’s promise. They know the promise. This is before they have entered thelandofCanaan, but they trust that possession of the land will happen just as God has said it would. They are not asking for that which is outside of the promise of God, but for that which has already been promised.


We hear about these sisters again in the last chapter of Numbers, this time in relation to the purity of the inheritance. There is concern that if they marry men outside of their tribe, that it will confuse the division of the lands. The decision from God through Moses is simple; they must marry within their tribe to maintain the promise. They could definetly take objection to this, as their pool of potential suitors has been diminished, but there is no objection from the sisters, it simply states:


The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses. (10)


It should be no surprise to us then, to find these five bold sisters reminding Joshua of the promises of God. Much like Caleb a few weeks ago, we see them stepping up to remind Joshua of God’s promise. THEY KNOW THE PROMISE, THEY TRUST IN THE PROMISER, AND THEY ARE WILLING TO ACT TOWARD THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROMISE.


Then in chapter 17, we are treated with a contrast of bold faithfulness in the reaction of the people of Joseph to their inheritance. In verse 14, we pick up on this narrative:


Then the people of Joseph spoke to Joshua, saying, “Why have you given me but one lot and one portion as an inheritance, although I am a numerous people, since all along the Lord has blessed me?”


The people of Joseph are not happy with their portion of the Promised Land. They come forward to Joshua and lay out their discontentment with what they have been given. Before we move on to the answer of Joshua, let’s look at their original complaint. Their complaint is that they have been given just one lot, and the reason for believing that this is less then they deserve is that are numerous, and that they are a people who are in God’s good grace. Or to rephrase this, what they are saying is, God has blessed us mightily and made us great in number, and because of His numerous blessings we feel that we are entitled to more blessings than everyone else in the future.  As we have seen over and over, God gives not out of obligation or democracy. God gives of His own grace as He sees fit. As they appeal to Joshua, they show that they view God as on their side rather than them being on God’s side. They take for granted what they have already been given and expect more from God than that which he originally promised.


Joshua brings them back to earth. He answers them (v.15):


And Joshua said to them, “If you are a numerous people, go up by yourselves to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” 


In his reply, he mentions their great number as a blessing from God rather than a burden. He then explains how this blessing should encourage them to act. Their great size allows them to clear land (as a portion of their land is currently forested) and people in order to possess ALL of their allotment. God has given them great numbers so that they can use this to accomplish what He has commanded, not for them to use it as a bargaining chip for more land. Or, as we often do, to use it as an excuse for our lack of action. And I wonder, how often those excuses are built upon the blessings of God. For years, I didn’t take part in the church because I was critical of its ineffectiveness. I could see the problems clearly. It never dawned on me that God had blessed me with the gift of discernment to use for His kingdom, not to keep me from being part of it. Think about that, what is stopping you from employing what God has given you for His glory? Is it the blessing itself that is getting in the way? Are you afraid that the sacrifice might affect the perfect life that GOD HAS BLESSED YOU WITH?


The people of Joseph reveal what is holding them back (v.16):

The people of Joseph said, “The hill country is not enough for us. Yet all the Canaanites who dwell in the plain have chariots of iron, both those in Beth-shean and its villages and those in the Valley of Jezreel.”


The people of Joseph aren’t quite done yet. They do not just ridicule the gift, but they refuse to do the work required to extend their possession. Joshua tells them to clear the wooded land and clear the Canaanites. It is here that they show that they not only don’t appreciate the gift of God, but they don’t actually believe His promises. God promised the Israelites this land, and He promised them that no army could stand against them. In Deuteronomy 7.17-21, God makes it clear to them that no army will stand against them:


“If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. Moreover, the Lord your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God.


And yet, they here they are complaining about how overwhelming the chariots of iron are. Their eyes are once again focused on what they see rather than what they have seen. God not only made this statement, but time and time again He has backed it up. Joshua seems to have heard enough from his people (Joshua is an Ephriamite) (v. 17-18):


Then Joshua said to the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and Manasseh, “You are a numerous people and have great power. You shall not have one allotment only, but the hill country shall be yours, for though it is a forest, you shall clear it and possess it to its farthest borders. For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.”


Joshua’s answer to them shows his steadfastness; it shows exactly where his faith lies. He basically tells them that they will take what the Lord has given them and cleanse it in exactly the way that God has told them to. They WILL drive out the Canaanites and they WILL clear the forest. And this is how the chapter ends, leaving us to ask, did they do what Joshua commanded? Did they follow through on their part in possessing the land?


We know the answer to these questions because both chapters 16 and 17 tell us what happened years later (remember that this whole book is written later, so it may not read in chronological order). V. 10 of chapter 16 lets us know that the Ephriamites:


did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor.


And likewise the people of Manessah in v.13 of chapter 17:


Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.


And here’s the thing that I have been sitting on: those five sisters who showed their belief in God’s faithfulness, who stood up and claimed the rightful inheritance for their father, who followed through on God’s command to marry within their tribe, and who here in Joshua 17 stand up to remind Joshua of the promises of God. They are not only a contrast to the people of Joseph, but they are part of it. They are included in this group of faithless complainers. In the same way, the people of Joseph are not wimps. They have been fighting their way through Canaan, and the allotment given to the half tribe of Manasseh on the West side of theJordanwas given specifically for their prowess in battle. How and why are these people who know what God has said well enough to quote Him, now unwilling to do exactly what He told them to do?


The problem is the blessing. Before when they had been faithful, it was when the promise was still to come, now that they have it, they are content with laziness. They are sitting on their inheritance and letting IT be their satisfaction. They don’t realize that all of the promises, the fulfillment, the faithfulness, are all given to help strengthen our love and reliance on Him. NOT TO TAKE THE PLACE OF HIM. And we are the same. Too often, we ask God to keep blessing us, without realizing that He has already given us the one thing that we really need. He has given us Himself. Realizing that we were steeped in sin and helpless to find our way back to Him, He sent Jesus to be the fulfillment of all of the promises. He was the one from the nation ofIsraelthrough whom the whole world would be blessed. Because it is through His death, burial, and resurrection that we not only have knowledge of God, but that we can receive the ultimate inheritance: eternal life WITH HIM.


Through Jesus we receive the promise of new life, but the expectation is that we use this new life to live.  We have been given the Holy Spirit in our hearts, not so that we just carry Him around with us, but so that we continue to do the things that God has commanded.


We too often want to rest on our justification without doing our part in sanctification. Much like the call for the people of Joseph to keep working to clear the land, we are a people called on mission to never be done proclaiming God. To never be done working on the health of our marriages. To never be done teaching our children about who God is. To never stop talking about the inheritance we have been given. To never stop planting churches. We are called to work out of our inheritance. When Jesus saves us, we are not just saved from the depths of hell, we are also saved to a new purpose. The new life in Jesus is continuous worship. 1 Thessalonians 4 puts it like this:


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.


To rest on the promises of God, we must believe that His way is better. Even though His ways are obviously other, we must trust that they are better. And we display this trust in God’s promises by actually choosing His ways over our own. By seeking first His kingdom. By relying on His wisdom. BY KNOWING THE PROMISE, TRUSTING IN THE PROMISER, AND ACTING TOWARD THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROMISE. And the acting out of this faith in His promises is both a walking toward God, but also a fight against our own sinful flesh.


The people of Joseph refused to purge the land of the Canaanites and it comes back to haunt them over and over again. God actually knows what is best, He isn’t just messing with us. The people of Joseph knew what God’s Word said, but killing seemed too extreme. It seemed like an overreaction. It is probably good enough to just make them slaves. In the same way, eradicating the sin in our life seems harsh. It’s not that bad. It’s not hurting anyone. I’m a lot better than I used to be. It doesn’t really affect me. I don’t have to fight that anymore. These are all lies that cause you to get comfortable in your inheritance, so comfortable that you forget God’s warnings. The warnings that tell us that the lure of sin is sweet. That Satan is prowling and ready to attack. That sin is always ready to enslave you. If you are not fighting sin, you are losing the battle. And don’t think for a second that ignoring the problem is going to make it go away, but take the words of Joshua to heart. You WILL defeat your enemies. God has promised the Israelites that they will succeed, but only if they are willing to fight. He has given us all manner of power and promise, let’s not forget to do our part.


Please take stock of your life. Ask yourself:


1. What are my excuses for avoiding God’s call?

2. Am I using God’s blessing as an excuse rather than an asset?

3. Where have I simply avoided God’s commands because I don’t think I need them?

4. What do you need to do get yourself up off the couch and into the fight?


2 Peter 1 reminds us that we must keep going; keep fighting; keep pursuing God:


His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


This is why we come together every week. This is not just a club. We come together to remember the promises of God. Sitting all around you are God’s people. People that God has given a great inheritance to. A people that God has given to help remind you to fight. A people that you are tasked to help encourage, support, and fight with.


And we come together every week to remember specifically what Jesus Christ has done to earn for us this inheritance. We come forward to take communion, identifying ourselves with Him. Recognizing His work is the only reason that we have hope. The only reason we have anything at all. And it is in Him that we have the power and the privilege to work toward holiness.

Ephesians 1.7-11


More in Joshua: Lord's Army

April 3, 2011

Joshua 24: The Choice

March 27, 2011

Joshua 23: The Charge

March 20, 2011

Joshua 22: The Breach