The allotment of the Promised Land in Joshua 12-19 synthesizes the flow of Scripture from Genesis 12 onward. Jacob’s departure to Egypt (Genesis 46), the exodus (Exodus 12-15), the giving of the law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-31), the failure of faith at the report of the twelve spies at the southern edge of Canaan (Numbers 13-14), and the conquest recorded in Joshua 1-11 lead to the distribution of the Promised Land in Joshua 12-19.
The list of defeated kings in Joshua 12 was arranged not only as an historical record for Israel but also as a basis for future generations to praise the Lord. The psalmist wrote, “He [the Lord] has shown His people the power of His works by giving them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps 111:6; see also Psalm 117). Nonetheless, the Lord’s words to Joshua, “You have become old, advanced in years, but a great deal of the land remains to be possessed” (Josh 13:1), underscore the fact that while Israel had secured the boundaries of the Promised Land, many foreign peoples still occupied its territories. In the meantime, Joshua was to “distribute the land as an inheritance for Israel” (Josh 13:6).
The bulk of Joshua 12-19 records this process of distribution. Two phases are evident. First, Joshua allotted land east of the Jordan to the two-and-a-half tribes, Rueben, Gad, and East Manasseh (Josh 13:8-32). Their inheritance fulfilled the agreement that Moses had made with them in Numbers 32 (see also Deut 3:8-20), which said that after they helped their brothers take the land west of the Jordan, they could return to the east of the Jordan and settle there.
Joshua then distributed the land west of the Jordan to the remaining tribes (Josh 14:1-19:51). Because of his faithfulness in scouting out Canaan from the south (Numbers 13-14), Caleb was the first to receive any inheritance, even though he was not one of Jacob’s sons (Josh 16:6-15). Caleb’s faithfulness was matched by that of his future son-in-law, Othniel, who captured Debir (Josh 15:13-19). The tribes of Judah (Josh 15:63), Ephraim (Josh 16:10), West Manasseh (Josh 17:12-13), and Joseph (Josh 17:16-17) received a portion of the land but had yet to drive out the Canaanites from around them.
Despite the celebratory tone of Joshua 12-19, the goal of the Promised Land was never realized. God wished for His people to have rest and fellowship with Him in Canaan, demonstrating His greatness to the surrounding nations. But Israel failed to drive out the remaining Canaanites, disobeying the commands of Deuteronomy 7. In the storyline of Scripture, the Promised Land would not function as the second Eden. Only in an entirely new creation—inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ—would God’s people finally have uninhibited fellowship with Him. In the New Testament, this new creation is depicted by a new city, the new Jerusalem. The author of Hebrews reminded his audience that “here we do not have an enduring city; instead, we seek the one to come” (Heb 13:14). John noted that though the new Jerusalem was heavenly and eternal and distinct in Christ, it yet reflected God’s promise to the tribes of Israel. In Rev 21:9-14, John wrote that the heavenly Jerusalem had twelve gates, each inscribed with a name of the twelve tribes of Israel.