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The LORD makes a promise of land to Abraham:

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:7)

He repeats this promise to both Isaac and Jacob:

2 And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. 3 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)
And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “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. (Genesis 28:13)

After bringing the nation out of Egypt, the promise is fulfilled, but the land was divided among Jacob's descendants:

Land Allotment

Why was the inheritance divided as if to restrict one group of descendants from living with another?

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  • It was simply a way to fairly distribute land. No limitations about travel were imposed. Therefore, the underlying assumption of the question is invalid. There were many marriages between families of different tribes.
    – Dottard
    Dec 9, 2022 at 20:49
  • @Dottard Perhaps my wording is poor. Obviously travel was permitted but I think it is fair to say the expectation was residence was intended to be in the land designated. Dec 9, 2022 at 23:07
  • When settling the promised land there were several option: (1) allocate land by families (2) divide families and allocate land (3) allow a free-for all - strongest takes the most (4) do nothing. Obviously, option (1) was chosen as the most amicable and peaceful and fair. What other option did God really have?
    – Dottard
    Dec 9, 2022 at 23:12

2 Answers 2

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Traditional view

The biblical explanation for the division of the land into tribes is that it was God's will. The tribal characters are first mentioned in the prophecy that Jacob made on his deathbed in Gen. 49. A few of his predictions are geographically are specific:

13 Zebulun will dwell at the seashore; And he shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall be toward Sidon. 14 Issachar is a strong donkey, Lying down between the sheepfolds.

Thus Zebulun was assigned to lands close to the coastal city of Sidon in fulfillment of Jacob's prediction, and Issachar settled in the pastoral country watered by the Jordan valley. Jacob prophesied the destinies of the other tribes in ways that could not be fulfilled if they did not have distinct identities. So it may be said that distinct tribal divisions were necessary in fulfillment of prophecy.

In addition, we may point to the story of Joshua and Moses assigning lands to each tribe as instructed by God in Joshua chapters 13-22.

Now these are the territories which the sons of Israel inherited in the land of Canaan, which Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the households of the tribes of the sons of Israel apportioned to them for an inheritance, 2 by the lot of their inheritance, as the Lord commanded through Moses, for the nine tribes and the half-tribe. (Joshua 14:1-2) [Other tribal allotments are described in the following chapters.]

To summarize, the division of Israel separate tribal areas, according to the Bible, was God's will, prophesied by Jacob and commanded by God through Moses and Joshua.

The Critical View

Another view, however, places the egg of prophecy after the chicken of history. Critical scholars hold that the prophecies about the tribes--and even their assignment to tribal areas during the time of Joshua--are mythical origin stories. Typical of this view is that of Paul Davidson who is quoted as saying:

The stories of Jacob and his children are not accounts of historical Bronze Age people. Rather, they tell us how much later Jews and Israelites understood themselves, their origins, and their relationship to the land, within the context of folktales that had evolved over time...

In reality, according to this view, most or all of the tribes were not literal descendants of Jacob, but were already living in the land of Canaan when the Israelites arrived. They then federated in the nation of Israel and were adopted into "Jacob," each of then described as his lineal descendants.

In conclusion, if the Israelites were indeed divided into tribes upon entering Canaan, it was because this was God's will, as indicated for example in Gen. 49 and Joshua 13-22. Alternatively, the tribes were in fact separate peoples who united as the nation of "Israel" and became part of mythic history as Jacob's sons.

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  • Thank you for the two explanations both of which have merit. Obviously God’s will is the “reason.” But one might ask why was His will evidenced in this particular manner? For example, one can see a foreshadowing of the division in the manner in which God organized the entire nation in the wilderness: each tribe was to travel and camp in a certain way. Helter skelter, so to speak was wrong. Doesn’t give a reason but at least we see a pattern of God acting consistently. Based on the literal text and the actual number (75) there is no reason tribal separation was necessary or present in Egypt. Jun 11, 2023 at 15:14
  • So we see an initial separation was caused by Joseph’s brothers when they sold him into slavery. Then we see Joseph reuniting the family in Goshen. Then we see God dividing the family (as the brothers first did) when they leave Egypt, and God preserves the nation as both reunited and divided as a reflection of His will, unity, and a response to the human action, the brothers desire to live apart from Joseph. So in a sense both explanations are correct, but the critical theory attempts to replace the Biblical truth with a distorted explanation of actual history. Jun 11, 2023 at 15:19
  • I upvoted your answer, but if the maps are correct, the initial allotment for Zebulun didn’t happen as predicted. Zebulun was landlocked in Joshua’s division. So the concept is correct but the initial application was not completely accurate. Jun 11, 2023 at 15:25
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I guess the OP was asking why the land had to be divided by tribes, and not just let the Israelites tribes mixed and live together.

In modern day, we emphasize multicultural, that encourage immigrants from various nations live together and share each value. The idea is to achieve harmony from mutual understanding. If tribes were separated, as time goes by, each of their culture, economy, population, social form keep differential, eventually become the source of conflict.

So why would the Lord required each tribe to keep their own identity and lived separated, while He always see them as one, His chosen people?

First of all, the Lord is never expecting Israelites to have a king, for He is their king. Israel should be a holy nation belongs to God. Our modern day government management, social security norm does not apply to the ancient Israel. They were separated by tribes for this was the most stable norm developed at their time, a trust based on tribe recognition.

We saw from Bible the later development of Israel history, their tribal internal conflicts, division, civil wars, and oppression successively by strong nations, all happened according to the Lord's prophesy;

20 When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their ancestors, and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant.

21 And when many disasters and calamities come on them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.”

22 So Moses wrote down this song that day and taught it to the Israelites.

Conclusion

If Israel remained holy, the separation of land by tribes was the most ideal method at their time, preserved the social security norm, i.e. their tribal recognition.

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