Good morning my beloved! What a joy it is to be here in God’s house with you today. We have come to worship the LORD and to hear His word proclaimed. It is my prayer that He will speak to us profoundly through today’s message.
We find ourselves in Joshua chapter 22, nearing the end of this great book. In this chapter, we will read about a conflict that arose between the tribes. Having just defeated the Canaanites, would the tribes of Israel now turn on one another?
I. THE TRANSJORDAN TRIBES RETURN (Joshua 22:1-9)
After several long years of war, the conquest of Canaan was ended and the land was finally at rest. The fighting men of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh (also called the Eastern tribes or the Transjordan tribes) had fulfilled their commitment to fight alongside their brothers until the Promised Land was secured. When Joshua finished dividing the land among the remaining 9 ½ tribes and designating the special cities for the Levites, he summoned the Reubenites, Gadites, and ½ tribe of Manasseh. He urged them to remain obedient to the LORD’s commandments, to love God and walk in His ways, and to serve Him wholeheartedly. Joshua thanked them for their valiant military service, blessed them, and released them to return to their homes beyond the Jordan River.
Apparently the tribe of Manasseh had fought together in unity during the conquest. They, like the other tribes, had accumulated a great amount of spoil taken from the many battles they’d won. This included riches such as livestock, gold, silver, iron, bronze, and clothes. However, because their inheritance was split into 2 parts, the tribe of Manasseh had to further divide these spoils amongst themselves so that each of the ½ tribes (those on the East and those on the West) got their own share. After this had been done, the Transjordan tribes departed from Shiloh and returned to their homes in the land of Gilead.
The Reubenites, Gadites, and ½ tribe of Manasseh should be recognized for keeping their promise. In exchange for receiving their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan, they had sworn to fight alongside their brothers on the west side of the Jordan during the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 32:16-22). When the time came, they bravely honored their commitment. In this respect, the Transjordan tribes set an example that we should follow.
II. THE OFFENSIVE ALTAR (Joshua 22:10-20)
On their journey home, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh stopped near the Jordan River and built a large altar. Its exact location is unknown and disputed. When the Western tribes (called “the sons of Israel”) found out about it, they reassembled at Shiloh and prepared to go up against their brethren in battle. The Law of Moses strictly prohibited the use of any altars for making offerings to God other than the altar in the tabernacle (Deuteronomy 12:10-14). The Western tribes feared that perhaps the Eastern tribes had erected this altar to practice idolatry, so they began readying themselves for civil war.
The Western tribes sent a delegation of their leaders led by Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, to investigate the situation. This approach was plainly set forth in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 13:12-16). The delegation came to the Transjordan tribes in Gilead and spoke with them. They asked the Reubenites, Gadites, and ½ tribe of Manassah why they had sinned against God by building an unsanctioned altar as an alternative to the true altar at Shiloh. They expressed concern that God’s wrath would fall upon all of the 12 tribes (including them) as the result of this grave sin, just as it had done previously at both Peor and Ai (Numbers 25 and Joshua 7). The delegation kindly invited the Eastern tribes to join them on the west side of Jordan River (rather than rebelling against God) if they believed their land was unclean.
The children of Israel perceived that a blatant, egregious sin had taken place within their own ranks. They reasoned that the entire congregation would suffer under God’s judgment if the sin was left unchecked. Therefore, they took immediate action to deal with it. In much the same way, we as the New Testament believers are instructed to enforce church discipline within the body of Christ (Matthew 18:15-20) when serious sin arises in our midst. Church discipline is often unpleasant and uncomfortable, yet is absolutely critical to maintain the purity and health of the congregation. It should always be administered with the intent to protect the church while also restoring the sinner(s).
III. A SIMPLE MISUNDERSTANDING (Joshua 22:21-34)
The sons of Reuben, Gad, and the ½ tribe of Manasseh explained that the altar they’d built wasn’t for making offerings to the LORD or to any other gods. In fact, they had no intention of using it as a functional altar at all. Rather, it was built as a monument from generations to come of their solidarity with their brethren in Canaan. It was fashioned to look like the altar at Shiloh to reflect their allegiance to the same God. It was built to bear witness of the ongoing unity between the Eastern and Western tribes.
When Phinehas the priest and the rest of the delegation heard this explanation, they were greatly relieved and satisfied. Phinehas actually commended the Transjordan tribes for not acting unfaithfully against God. He now recognized that their motives for building the altar had been pure and righteous all along. They had no intention of sinning against the LORD or alienating their brothers. In fact, they were trying to do just the opposite!
Thus, Phinehas and his companions returned to Shiloh. They explained to the tribes of Canaan why the Transjordan tribes had built the altar. Upon hearing this report, the sons of Israel rejoiced and their hostility subsided. Each tribe returned peacefully to their own inheritance and a major crisis was averted. For many years thereafter the Eastern tribes referred to the altar, which was actually a symbolic monument, simply as “Witness”.
This story highlights the importance of determining someone’s true intentions before acting out against them. The Western tribes initially presumed that the Eastern tribes were behaving in a sinful and potentially harmful manner. Based on these presumptions, they began preparing themselves for war. Fortunately, they took time to investigate the situation before resorting to bitterness and violence. Lo and behold, it turned out that the Eastern tribes had no sinful or ill intentions at all! It was all a big misunderstanding.
Many people have the tendency of jumping to conclusions without knowing all the facts. We are often quick to criticize and condemn others, without giving them an opportunity to explain or defend themselves. In some cases, this causes unnecessary strife and conflict. Perhaps if we’d take a moment to discover their intentions or motivations we’d think differently about their behaviors. We should be careful about making rash and impulsive judgments.
Next week we will discuss Joshua’s farewell address to the children of Israel. It will likely be our final message in the book of Joshua. Until then, may God bless and keep you. And may we all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and extremely careful about making assumptions…