In this Parsha the Torah speaks briefly about how the Land of Israel is to be divided among the various tribes. Abarbanel explains that the commentators are unsure about the exact nature of this division. Does each tribe receive the same amount of land, determined by Divine lottery and regardless of population, or is the land divided by the people themselves according to population, with the more populous tribes receiving a larger portion of land? The confusion arises from the verses in this Parsha.
First it appears that G-d is instructing Moshe to divide the land according to the populations of the tribes. However, the Torah then immediately states that “only by lot shall the land be divided, according to the names of their fathers’ tribes shall they inherit. According to the lot shall one’s inheritance be divided, between the numerous and the few.” This lottery was conducted through a specific procedure involving a consultation of the Urim V’Tumim which Eliezer the Kohen Gadol wore on his breastplate. This Divinely-directed lottery seems to contradict a division based on population carried out by the people themselves.
After challenging the explanations of Rashi and Ramban, Abarbanel offers his own explanation. He says that there were two stages to the division of the land. First of all, the lottery determined which district within the Land of Israel would be assigned to each tribe. Since the lottery was Divinely-orchestrated, this would eliminate contention among the tribes. Even though some regions were more fertile or productive than others, everyone would have to recognize that the allotted areas were determined Divinely. However, the exact size of each tribe’s portion within that Divinely-allotted region was to be determined by Yehoshua, Eliezer HaKohen and princes from each of the twelve tribes. They would take into account how much area within each region was required for each of the tribes, based on population. The lottery also insured that each tribe’s area would be contiguous. Members of any one tribe could never be assigned to a region that was separated from the other members of his tribe.
This interpretation is supported by the verses in Parshat Massei further on in the Torah. First the Torah states, “…this is the land that you shall divide as an inheritance by lot which G-d has commanded to give….” The Torah then immediately states, “These are the names of the men who are to take possession of the land for you: Eliezer the Kohen, and Yehoshua son of Nun, and one leader from each tribe shall you take to possess the land.” After having commanded the division of the land by lottery the Torah mentions the individuals who will determine the exact boundaries based on population.