The Hebrew word gevulʹ means “boundary.” It may also mean the territory or land enclosed within a border or boundary. Thus, Joshua 13:23 states: “And the boundary [Heb., gevulʹ] of the sons of Reuben came to be the Jordan; and this as a territory [u·ghevulʹ] was the inheritance.”
Boundaries Set by Jehovah. Prior to the global Flood, God had expelled the first human pair from the garden of Eden, obliging them to live outside of it (Ge 3:23, 24), had banished Cain from the immediate “ground” from which Abel’s blood was “crying out” (Ge 4:10, 11), and later had set a limit of “a hundred and twenty years” (Ge 6:3) in which the pre-Flood population could continue dwelling upon the earth before the destruction of the vast majority of them. (Ge 6:13) He decreed that the Flood survivors should “fill the earth,” and when an attempt was made to hold back from spreading abroad in the earth, God overruled such action and compelled men to carry out that decree.—Ge 9:1, 19; 11:1-9.
Centuries later, to Abraham and his seed God promised a certain land with definitely stated boundaries. (Ge 15:18-21; Ex 23:31) God permitted the resident Canaanites to continue dwelling in that Promised Land for a foretold period of “four hundred years” more before he would enforce an eviction decree when “the error of the Amorites” came to its completion. (Ge 15:13-16) On the other hand, Jehovah God also decreed that the Israelites should not encroach on the boundaries of the nations of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, anciently descended from relatives of the Israelites’ forefathers. (De 2:4, 5, 18, 19) The words of Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 32:8 are to be understood in the light of these facts. That text says: “When the Most High gave the nations an inheritance, when he parted the sons of Adam from one another, he proceeded to fix the boundary of the peoples with regard for the number of the sons of Israel.”
It was on the basis of Jehovah’s sovereign right to decree such boundaries that Judge Jephthah later defended Israel’s right to its God-given land. (Jg 11:12-15, 23-27) However, due to Israel’s failure to adhere devotedly to God’s commands, Jehovah allowed some of the enemy peoples to remain within Israel’s borders (Nu 33:55; Jg 2:20-23), and it was not until King David’s reign, some four centuries from the nation’s entry into Canaan, that Israel gained dominion over all the territory within the promised boundaries.—2Sa 8:1-15.
Eventually, in accord with his earlier warning pronouncement, Jehovah allowed the pagan nations to overrun the boundaries of the Promised Land and lead Israel into exile, as a punishment upon an apostate people. (De 28:36, 37, 49-53; Jer 25:8-11) By his prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, God foretold the rise and fall of the world powers from Babylon forward and the order of their appearance. (Isa 13:1–14:4; 44:28–45:5; Jer 25:12-29; Eze 21:18-27; Da chaps 2, 7, 8, and 11:1–12:4) Though tolerating the existence and domination of the earth by the political nations for an ‘appointed season,’ Jehovah also foretold their ultimate destruction and the wiping out of the boundaries of their political dominion, this by the Kingdom of the Messiah.—Da 2:44; compare Re 11:17, 18; 19:11-16.
“The Set Limits” of Men’s Dwelling. Paul told his Athenian listeners that God “decreed the appointed times and the set limits [Gr., ho·ro·the·siʹas, literally, “settings of bounds”] of the dwelling of men.” (Ac 17:26) A similar thought is expressed in Psalm 74:17 with reference to the Creator: “It was you that set up all the boundaries of the earth; summer and winter—you yourself formed them.” The Most High is responsible for the existence of natural boundaries such as rivers, lakes, seas, and mountains, which determine where people live.—Compare Jer 5:22.
Israel’s Tribal Boundaries. (MAP, Vol. 1, p. 744) At the time of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh had been granted the right to receive their inheritance of land “from the side of the Jordan toward the sunrising.” (Nu 32:1-5, 19, 33-42; 34:14, 15; Jos 13:8-13, 15-32) Following six years of warfare in subduing the Canaanites, the time came for determining the tribal boundaries W of the Jordan for the other nine tribes and the remaining half tribe of Manasseh. Joshua, Eleazar the priest, and one chieftain out of each tribe were appointed by Jehovah to serve as a land committee overseeing the distribution. (Nu 34:13-29; Jos 14:1) The procedure followed was according to God’s earlier command to Moses: “According to the great number you should increase one’s inheritance, and according to the fewness you should reduce one’s inheritance. Each one’s inheritance should be given in proportion to his registered ones. Only by the lot should the land be apportioned.”—Nu 26:52-56; 33:53, 54.
It thus appears that the distribution of the land among the tribes was governed by two factors: the result of the casting of the lot, and the size of the tribe. The lot may have established only the approximate location of the land inheritance each tribe would have, thus designating an inheritance in one section or another of the land, such as to the N or S, E or W, along the coastal plain, or in the mountainous region. The decision of the lot proceeded from Jehovah and hence would serve to prevent jealousy or quarreling among the tribes. (Pr 16:33) By this means God would also guide matters so that the situation of each tribe would fall in accordance with the inspired deathbed prophecy of the patriarch Jacob recorded at Genesis 49:1-33.
After the casting of the lot had determined the geographic location of a tribe, it would then be necessary to determine the extent of its territory on the basis of the second factor: its proportionate size. “You must apportion the land to yourselves as a possession by lot according to your families. To the populous one you should increase his inheritance, and to the sparse one you should reduce his inheritance. To where the lot will come out for him, there it will become his.” (Nu 33:54) The decision of the lot as to the basic geographic location would stand, but adjustment could be made as to the size of the inheritance. Thus, when Judah’s territory was found to be too large, its land area was reduced by assigning portions of it to the tribe of Simeon.—Jos 19:9.
The increasing or decreasing of the inheritance does not seem to have been merely on the basis of land area, for the tribe of Dan, though second most populous, received one of the smaller portions as to actual dimensions. Other factors, such as the number of cities, the type of land, and the quality of the soil, may have been considered.—Compare Jos 17:14-18.
When the more precise boundaries of the tribal divisions had been worked out, then the individual family holdings could be assigned, and this appears to have been done, not by lot, but by the direction of the appointed committee, composed of Eleazar, Joshua, and the chieftains. (Jos 17:3, 4) So, Deuteronomy 19:14 states that “when the ancestors will have set the boundaries in your inheritance” they should not be moved back.—See BOUNDARY MARK.
The account of the division of the territory W of the Jordan shows that first the lots for Judah (Jos 15:1-63), Joseph (Ephraim) (Jos 16:1-10), and the half tribe of Manasseh settling W of the Jordan (Jos 17:1-13) were determined, their boundaries and cities being enumerated. After this, there appears to have been an interruption of the dividing of the land, since the camp of Israel is shown to have moved from Gilgal to Shiloh. (Jos 14:6; 18:1) The length of time involved is not stated, but Joshua eventually reprimanded the remaining seven tribes for their dilatory attitude as to settling the rest of the land. (Jos 18:2, 3) Various explanations have been offered as to the cause of this attitude on the part of the seven tribes, some commentators reasoning that the abundance of spoil obtained during the conquest and the relative freedom from any immediate threat of attack by the Canaanites may have caused these tribes to feel no particular urgency about taking possession of the remaining portion of the territory. A reluctance to face up to the problem of dealing with the pockets of strong enemy resistance there may have contributed to this tardiness. (Jos 13:1-7) Also, their knowledge of this portion of the Promised Land may have been considerably more limited than of those sections already allotted.
To expedite the matter, Joshua sent out a delegation of 21 men, 3 from each of the 7 tribes, to “map out the land into seven shares,” and after the men had “mapped it out by cities,” Joshua drew lots for them in order to obtain Jehovah’s decision. (Jos 18:4-10) The individual inheritances allotted are discussed in Joshua 18:11–19:49.
The priestly tribe of Levi was not given a particular region as its allotment but was granted 48 scattered cities and pasture grounds located within the boundaries of other tribes.—Jos 13:14, 33; 21:1-42.
Other Boundaries. By the Law covenant God ‘divided Israel off’ as his chosen people for 1,545 years (Le 20:26), but by the sacrificial death of his Son he destroyed the figurative “wall in between” that fenced off the Gentile peoples from the Jews, abolishing the Law of commandments. At Ephesians 2:12-16, Paul alluded to the barrier, or wall (soreg), in the temple area. Under penalty of death, Gentiles were prohibited beyond that boundary, such wall serving the apostle as an apt illustration of the division created by the Law covenant.
Under the new covenant mediated by Christ Jesus, a spiritual demarcation, far more impressive than any geographic boundary, was made, separating off the spiritual nation of the Christian congregation from the rest of the world of mankind. (Joh 17:6, 14-19; 1Pe 2:9-11) Jehovah had long before prophesied that he would build Zion with precious gems and make all her boundaries of “delightsome stones,” and Jesus quoted from this prophecy applying the succeeding verse to those becoming his disciples. (Isa 54:12, 13; Joh 6:45; compare Re 21:9-11, 18-21.) These spiritual boundaries are to be held inviolate, for God warns that those invading them will meet with destruction.—Compare Isa 54:14, 15; 60:18 with 1Co 3:16, 17.
Conversely, those forming that spiritual nation are required to remain within its confines, recognizing the moral limitations set forth (1Co 5:9-13; 6:9, 10; 1Th 4:3-6) and the spiritual boundaries separating them from false worship and worldly systems (2Co 6:14-18; Jas 4:4; Re 18:4), as well as the regulations governing proper relationships between Christians and “the superior authorities” of the existing governments (Ro 13:1, 5; 1Pe 2:13-16; Ac 4:19, 20; 5:29), between husband and wife (1Co 7:39; 1Pe 3:1, 7), and in many other aspects of life.
Paul also shows there were boundaries governing the territory assigned for ministerial activity.—2Co 10:13-16.