The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh had been as good as their word. Because of their impressive livestock holdings and the lushness of the land taken by the Israelites in the beginning of their occupation of Canaan, these two-and-a-half tribes out of the twelve tribes of Israel asked for and received permission to take their allotment of land on the east side of the Jordan. The deal they made was that they would take time to build dwellings for their families and corrals for their livestock, and would then join the other nine-and-a-half tribes in conquering the land across the Jordan. (Numbers 32) Obviously, this arrangement left their loved ones exposed to danger, yet they followed through, even leading the way when the people began the conquest of Canaan proper under Joshua's leadership. (Joshua 4:12)
When the conquest of the land was complete. The east of the Jordan contingent of Israel's army headed home. As they were getting ready to leave, Joshua told them:
You have kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, and have listened to my voice in all that I commanded you.At this point it appears to be one those rare good-news moments. Things worked out the way they were supposed to. People, in particular leaders, did what they said they would do. I can picture the men marching back to the homes they had never really had opportunity to live in, in an upbeat mood. The words of Joshua were still ringing in their ears. The booty of their successful campaigns were in wagons and carts and traveling in flocks and herds with them. (Joshua 22:8) As they walked the men talked of longed for reunions with families and plans for developing the homesteads they had recently been given, As they passed people in the field, or came near a village of fellow Jews, they probably straightened their back and quickened their step, taking on more of a martial air. They would politely, but modestly acknowledge the cheers and the "Thank-you"s that came from their grateful countrymen.
You have not forsaken your brothers these many days to this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the LORD your God.
And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan.
Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God and walk in all His ways and keep His commandments and hold fast to Him and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.
So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. (Joshua 22:2-6)
But then the great misunderstanding, or "almost misunderstanding" kicked in:
Joshua 22:10 records that they "built an altar there by the Jordan, a large altar in appearance."
Their motives, which will see in a moment, were entirely good.
But, "When the sons of Israel [that is the other nine-and-a-half tribes] heard of it, the whole congregation of the sons of Israel gathered themselves at Shiloh to go up against them in war." (Joshua 22:12)
The people on the west side of the Jordan fell into a pattern of thinking that I observe in me and in others way too often. They saw not only what their brethren to the east had done, they concluded that they knew why they had done it. Read verse 16 of Joshua 22. Note the accusation. "What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the God of Israel, turning away from following the LORD this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against the LORD this day?"
Especially those words "to rebel," speak of motive. Other translations put it "in rebellion," or "that ye might rebel." "This is an act of rebellion, a willful act against the will of God." (my paraphrase) All other explanations--ignorance, stupidity, misinformation, that this was really a monument that had no relation to the worship of Jehovah at Shiloh, etc.--were brushed aside. This, the indignant army said, is an act of rebellion. It must be dealt with for their good, and to prevent it from spreading.
I have noticed how often the Lord Jesus answered the thoughts of people's hearts, thoughts they didn't speak out loud. John 2:25 says about Jesus that "He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man." I don't. I may think I do, I may claim I do, I may flatter myself at being very adept at reading between the lines (or the ears), but the fact is that I, like these people in Joshua, often get it wrong. I need to hear the counsel of 1 Corinthians 4:5, "[D]o not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God."
The Jews in Canaan proper saw what was done--an altar had been built. They were right to be concerned. God had clearly spoken that at that time worship was to centralized. (Deuteronomy 12:5>>). Their zeal, especially when you consider their war-weariness was commendable. But, they had it wrong.
Wisely a delegation was sent to make inquiries before the army was sent to make war. (Joshua 22:13>>) After the necessary (so it seems) outrage and bluster, they let the east-side folk actually tell why they had done what they had done. I would love to have been there to see the changes that came over the faces of the delegation of the righteous, who had just been making such vociferous, bellicose statements, when they heard the real reasons the two-and-a-half tribes had built their altar by the Jordan.
“The Mighty One, God, the Lord, the Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows, and may Israel itself know. If it was in rebellion, or if in an unfaithful act against the Lord do not save us this day! 23 “If we have built us an altar to turn away from following the Lord, or if to offer a burnt offering or grain offering on it, or if to offer sacrifices of peace offerings on it, may the Lord Himself require it. 24 “But truly we have done this out of concern, for a reason, saying, ‘In time to come your sons may say to our sons, “What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? 25 “For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you sons of Reuben and sons of Gad; you have no portion in the Lord.” So your sons may make our sons stop fearing the Lord.’ 26 “Therefore we said, ‘Let us build an altar, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; 27 rather it shall be a witness between us and you and between our generations after us, that we are to perform the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices and with our peace offerings, so that your sons will not say to our sons in time to come, “You have no portion in the Lord.” ’ 28 “Therefore we said, ‘It shall also come about if they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, then we shall say, “See the copy of the altar of the Lord which our fathers made, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; rather it is a witness between us and you.” ’ 29 “Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away from following the Lord this day, by building an altar for burnt offering, for grain offering or for sacrifice, besides the altar of the Lord our God which is before His tabernacle.” (Joshua 22:22–29)It turns out that the reasons the east-side Jews had for building the altar were exactly the opposite from the reasons assumed by their outraged brethren, to the west. In eloquent understatement the text says when they heard the explanation, "It pleased them."
I've battled this on two fronts lately.
I find myself creating elaborate scenarios, much like the mobilization of armies in Joshua 22, based on motives that I assign to the actions of others. Truth be told, I often don't even know why I do what I do. Lord, help me to realize that generally I don't know why others do what they do. Amen.
On the other hand, words that I have spoken have been taken in the precise opposite way from the way they were intended, and I recently heard that I had taken a position on a matter, concerning which I am mostly ignorant, and, concerning which, as I can remember, I have never spoken at all.
Would that folk would send a delegation to investigate before they declare war. Lord, help me to remember that I don't know, and to inquire first, even when--especially when--I, in my arrogance, think I know why . . .
If we would talk more, and in particular listen more perhaps we would see more results like this from the end of Joshua 22.
[T]he sons of Israel blessed God; and they did not speak of going up against them in war to destroy the land in which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad were living.
The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad called the altar Witness; “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the LORD is God.” (33-34, see also John 13:35)