“For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”-Romans 4:13
In the last three posts we’ve considered how to read genealogies, the law, and temple building narratives. When it comes to hard-to-read sections of the Bible perhaps none is more seemingly random than the lists of locations for the tribes of Israel. The OT equivalent of a zip code map seems irrelevant to modern living. What spiritual benefit should we glean from these lists, if any?
A Biblical Theology of Tribal Locations
We find tribal locations lists in two main sections of the Bible: Joshua 13-21 and Ezekiel 47-48. As we read these lists of cities and geographical boundaries we can easily lose spiritual focus. But note the conclusion to the long list of tribal allotments in Joshua 21:43,
“So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there.”
Roughly 1,000 years prior to these events God had promised Abraham he would give his descendants land in which to live. That promise came to realization in Joshua’s day when they settled the land of Canaan. Each tribe had an inheritance from the Lord. It wasn’t just a place to live, it was a place to live given to them by God.
At time passed, however, God’s people were exiled from the land as judgment for sin. They experienced the reversal of the blessing of the land; they were removed from it. They were warned about this in the law, but they did not heed the warning (e.g., Leviticus 18:28). The generation in exile told their children stories of their tribal inheritance, and wondered if their descendants would ever see that land again.
While Israel was in exile the prophet Ezekiel was given visions to help them understand why they were there and where they were headed. His prophesy culminates in a grand vision of Israel restored to the land, each tribe living in their allotted real estate. The locations are changed, but the point is clear: by God’s power and grace he will once again fulfill his promise to Abraham.
Israel’s return to the land in the 6th century BC was confirmation that God’s promises still stand. But that return fell short of the glory described by Ezekiel. There was more blessing to come as the Messiah, that promised descendant of Abraham, would bless all the families of the earth. But how?
The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 3:16 that the promises (plural) made to Abraham culminate in Jesus—the promise of the land included. Perhaps that’s why in Romans 4:13 Paul says Abraham and his descendants will inherit the world. Abraham’s true descendants are those who put their faith in Jesus, and by that faith we will literally inherit the land as God promised to Abraham. In this sense, the tribal locations in Scripture are a foreshadowing of our greater inheritance of the earth in Christ.
Tips for Reading Tribal Location Descriptions
Read Informed by God’s Promise to Abraham
Before you read a tribal location list take a minute to review God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. The promise of God helps us see why these details were so important to the first readers: they were evidence of God’s faithfulness.
Read the Complete List
I suggest reading these lists in one sitting, rather than breaking them up. While they encompass several chapters, their importance is in the cumulative effect. The locations themselves aren’t as important as the underlying reason the tribe has an allotment at all.
Focus on God’s Provision in Christ
Many days we struggle to feel at home. Because of sin often our home are not places of rest and provision. That experience won’t last forever. As you read these lists, don’t miss out on the ways they anticipate God’s provision for us in our eternal home. We will have a safe place to rest forever because of Christ. His death pays for our sin, and his power will provide us a home forever.
What About Israel Today?
People often remark that the existence of the nation of Israel today is a miracle, and I would agree. The historical circumstances that resulted in Israel occupying the land of her ancestors are evidence of God’s grace to physical descendants of Abraham. Even as we acknowledge that provision of God, we must also note that Israel’s existence today is not the ultimate fulfillment of the promises God made to Abraham. There is more to come, and it centers on Israel’s only eternal hope: the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.