The Word Made Fresh
1Joshua sent for the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and that part of Manasseh that had been given land east of the Jordan. 2He said to them, “You have done everything Moses demanded of you, and you have done my bidding as well. 3From that time until this day you have not shirked your duty but have been steadfast to the LORD your God. 4Now the LORD has settled your kindred as promised, so you are free to return to your tents in the land Moses gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5Make sure you keep all the laws and lessons Moses the LORD’s servant gave you. Love the LORD your God; walk in the LORD’s ways; keep the LORD’s commandments; stay close to the LORD and serve the LORD with all your heart and soul.” 6Then Joshua sent them away with his blessing, and they went to their homes.
7So, half the tribe of Manasseh lived in Bashan on land Moses had given them. The other half had received land from Joshua beside the Israelite tribes west of the Jordan. When Joshua sent the eastern branch home, 8he told them, “Go back to your homes. Take with you everything you have gained – wealth, livestock, gold, silver, bronze and iron, and lots of clothing, and share it with your families. 9So, Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh returned to their home and left the rest of their Israelite kin at Shiloh in Canaan. They headed back to Gilead, to their own land the LORD had told Moses to give them.
10When they arrived at Geliloth, still in Canaan near the Jordan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh built an enormous altar there. 11The other Israelites heard of it, 12and when the word got out, they gathered in assembly at Shiloh and planned to go to war against their kindred. 13They sent Phinehas the priest, the son of Eleazar, to the land of Gilead to the three tribes gathered there. 14Ten chiefs, heads of families from each of the ten tribes west of the Jordan, went with him. 15They came to their kinsmen in Gilead and said, “All the other tribes tell us that you have committed an act of treason against the LORD God of Israel; that you have turned away from following the LORD and have built yourselves an altar in defiance against the LORD. 17We have yet to recover from the sins at Peor that sent a plague upon us all, 18and already you turn away from following the LORD? 19If you forsake the LORD today the LORD will be angry with all of us tomorrow! 19If your own land is cursed, come back to us in the land where the LORD’s sanctuary now stands and take land for yourselves here. Don’t turn against the LORD or against us by building an altar for yourselves apart from the LORD’s altar. 20Don’t you remember how Achan son of Zerah took things devoted to the LORD so that God’s anger fell on all of us? And Zerah didn’t die alone for his mistakes!”
21Then Reuben, Gad, and East Manasseh answered them, 22“The LORD is the God of all Gods, who knows the truth! If we are rebelling against or being unfaithful to the LORD, don’t spare our lives 23for building an altar to turn away from the LORD! Or, if you think we did it to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or thanksgiving offerings on it, the LORD should take vengeance on us! 24But, no! We did this for fear that in time your children might say to our children, ‘What do you know about the LORD, the God of Israel? 25The LORD put the Jordan between us to separate us from you Reubenites and Gadites. The LORD owes you nothing!’ Then your children might make our children stop worshiping the LORD. 26So we decided to make an altar – not for offerings or sacrifices, 27but as a witness between us, and between the generations that will come after us that we always bring our burnt offerings and sacrifices and thanksgiving offerings to the LORD so that your children will never tell our children that they have nothing to do with the LORD. 28We thought that if such things should ever be said to us or our children after us we would be able to say, ‘Look at this replica of the LORD’s altar that our ancestors built, not for burning offerings and sacrifices but to serve as a witness between us.’ 29We will never turn against the LORD by building any altar for the purpose of making burnt offerings or grain offerings or sacrifices other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands in front of the LORD’s sanctuary!”
30When Phinehas son of Eleazar and the others heard what they had to say, they were satisfied. 31Phinehas said to them, “Now we know that the LORD is with us because you have not done this in defiance. You have saved all the Israelites from the LORD’s anger.
32Then Phineas and the chiefs returned to the Israelites and reported to them. 33They were pleased, and thanked the LORD, and said no more about going to war with their kinfolk or destroying the land they had settled. 34The Reubenites and Gadites named the altar The Witness. “It is a witness between us,” they said, “that the LORD is God.”
1-6: Joshua summons the warriors of the three trans-Jordan (east of the Jordan River) tribes – Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh – and thanks them for helping the other tribes settle their territories (although they haven’t finished subduing all the land yet). He gives them leave to return to their families across the river.
7-9: Joshua also grants that they keep their share of the spoils gathered during the campaigns to take over Canaan for the other tribes. So far everything seems to be just fine.
10-12: But that doesn’t last long. The easterners decide to build a huge altar beside the Jordan River! The other tribes apparently see this as evidence that the eastern tribes have turned to the worship of other gods and suit up for battle. So much for tribal harmony!
13-20: To their credit, though, they don’t rush into battle, but send Phinehas, son of the High Priest, to confront the other tribes. Phinehas is the High-Priest-in-waiting; his high status indicates the seriousness of the conflict. He reminds the eastern tribal leaders of the tragedy at Peor when thousands died because of exactly this kind of apostasy (see Joshua 7, where Achan and his family were executed, but not thousands, and the “Baal of Peor” is not mentioned. Perhaps Phinehas is confusing Achan’s sin with a story in Numbers 25 where many of the Israelites had worshiped the Baal of Peor and died). He begs them to bring their sacrifices to Shiloh, where the tabernacle is currently located, and worship God there.
21-29: It turns out that the altar is not an altar: it is a monument to remind later generations that the three tribes on the east side of the river are part of Israel, too. The easterners promise not to use it as an altar, and to bring their sacrifices only to the tabernacle, currently at Shiloh.
30-34: Phinehas and the westerners are satisfied and return home, and everybody is happy. For now.
Many of us are familiar with church fights, where part of a congregation breaks off and starts another congregation on the other side of town – or sometimes on the other side of the street! Of course, the story here is much more serious, with the threat of bloodshed and excommunication from God’s people. The lesson here is obvious, though; before we start slinging accusations at one another, we should have some honest conversations where both sides hear each other and seek a common understanding.