To the people of Joshua's time, they knew what they were talking about. They should write accordingly, not as if writing to us 3,500 years later. So, this passage goes into my library of references that prove the authentic nature of the Bible. It was obviously written by an ancient people because they make the assumptions of an ancient people.
Ambiguities like this occur in the text all the time. It doesn't prove that the text was invented or made up. Actually, it proves that the text was realistic because history rarely makes perfect sense to those who weren't there to witness it themselves.
That stated, I still want to understand as much as I can. When I run across things like this, I often run to consult:
- figures of speech
- substitute meaning (Sometimes Judah and Ephraim and Jacob all refer to the twelve tribes.)
- possible error in that copy of the text (not the original, all we have are copies; AKA 'lower criticism')
- historical/archeological evidence
Application to the Question here
I will keep this passage in mind when studying other passages that include territories north of the Sea of Galilee. I will come back to this passage and keep it ready for cross-references, as a tool to understand other Bible passages.
Important: The border of Naphtali is not in question, only the meaning of "Judah" at the Jordan. So, we know what we need to know about the thing we need to know about: Naphtali.
Honestly, I like Mac's answer, mainly that reference to "Judah" could mean that there was a shared border of "Judah" or "Israel"—that it meant "to the national boundary of Israel". The commentary's answer also seems attractive, that an offshoot of Judah had a satellite territory across the Jordan from Naphtali. The "shared border" was my initial thought on the text, even without reading Mac's answer.
But, as much as I like those answers, the meaning is not cut and dry. I have to keep this one as an "open case, not yet closed". I have a "likely" answer or two, not finality.
I take away three ideas:
I've learned the description manners and culture of Joshua's time. This is how the Bible will likely describe borders here and elsewhere—either the edge of the national boundary or that an adopted territory may be presumed and described this way. So, I'll expect and recognize more talk like this in the future: vague, presumptive, maybe 'Judah = Israel', don't expect much detail beyond the main object being described (Naphtali).
Stay on topic. Naphtali is the topic, the object being described. I shouldn't expect a passage about Naphtali's border to describe all of its surroundings. The border is the Jordan, period. It's good practice and self-discipline to remember to stay on topic. The purpose of this passage has indeed been achieved without question. Whatever "Judah" is at the Jordan is interesting, but technically non sequitur.
What a wonderful passage to revisit to challenge myself! ...
It's one thing to talk about the Socratic virtue of "remembering that we don't know what we don't know" in hermeneutics. Having a passage, like this, where we must actually employ that hermeneutic and have "I don't yet know" as part of the interpretation is a good habit.
Appended several years later:
From Biblia.work Exegetical and Hermeneutical Commentary of Joshua 19:34
Judah upon Jordan ] So our Version renders it, following the Vulgate, Et in Juda ad Jordanem. Others, following the Masoretic punctuation, would put a colon at Judah, so that it would run, “and Judah; the Jordan was toward the sunrising” i.e. the eastern boundary of the tribe. The word Judah here has been explained by the fact that the sixty cities, Havoth-jair (Num 32:41), which were on the eastern side of Jordan opposite to Naphtali, were reckoned as belonging to Judah, because Jair their founder was descended on the father’s side from Judah through Hezron. Comp. 1Ch 2:21-24. Others would identify it with a village el-Jehidijeh, marked on Dr Smith’s map, north of Tibrin, but this is not satisfactory.
To Judah upon Jordan – i. e. to the Havoth-jair Num 32:41, which were on the opposite side of Jordan. Jair, from whom these towns or villages were named, traced his ancestry in the male line through Hezron to Judah Num 27:1; and it is likely that he was assisted by large numbers of his kinsmen of that tribe in his rapid conquest of Bashan. Hence, the Havoth-jair were, in all likelihood, largely colonised by Judahites, especially perhaps that portion of them nearest the Jordan. Thus, that part of the river and its valley adjacent to these settlements was spoken of as Judah upon Jordan, or more literally Judah of the Jordan (compare Num 22:1).
So, with a deeper dive into the language and history, we get two good explanations:
- It indicates Judah as a separate list item, based on Masoretic pronunciation.
- The "Judah" which Naphtali supposedly touches may have been cities populated by descendants of Judah, but not in the actual proper tribal territory.
Note, it still stands that my long-worded answer above from a few years ago is a matter that many Bible scholars have also considered during the long history in which this text has posed the same problem to the brilliant minds who have gone before us.