With the Canaanites unable to prevent Israelite settlement, it was time to apportion the land to the tribes. The bifid structure of Joshua now becomes significant. We are familiar with the narratives of Conquest that make up the first half of the book. But most of the second half seems to be only uninteresting lists of territorial borders and cities. Yet these lists must be of great importance to be given so much space that their inclusion defines the literary structure of the book as a whole.
The tribal allotments give concrete expression to the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They represent a title deed to the land. It is one thing to say, “This land is ours.” It is much more convincing to have in an authoritative document a description of the land to lend credence to claims of ownership (under God).
The people of God in the Old Testament period were a people of the land. The covenant was given in the context of the land, and the land was a major part of the covenant. The word “land” (erets) occurs 6,400 times in the Hebrew Bible (though it does not always refer to the land of Israel). The lists of tribal allotments give geographical reality to the importance of the land for the people of Israel in covenant with God, who owns the land.
Because God does own the land, this apportionment to the tribes is spoken of consistently as a gift. God gave them the land to dwell in; its distribution was at God's direction. For this reason, we may question the appropriateness of the terminology and metaphor of “claim” and “claiming” as used sometimes in the church today. We do not flaunt God's covenant with his people as though it were a contract by which we can drag God into court and force him to live up to his obligations. We do not “claim” God's gifts to us, as though they were ours by some prior right. We accept them with thanks, remembering that they are gifts of grace.
In the discussion of the tribal allotments, proper names sometimes refer to the sons of Jacob from whom the tribes reckoned their ancestry. Sometimes they refer to the tribes, the descendants of these men. In considering the land as both part of, and shaper of, the spiritual inheritance of the tribes, the distinction between tribe and ancestor is not always a wide distinction. The character and destiny of the ancestor are reflected in the character and situation—spiritual, geographic, political, economic—of the tribe.