An Altared Relationship

Joshua 22 shows us that we need to be ready for conflict, if necessary, but we should work to avoid it, if at all possible.

Anson Kroeker on November 28, 2021
An Altared Relationship
November 28, 2021

An Altared Relationship

Passage: Joshua 22:1-6, 10-16, 32-34
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I heard a story once about a lady who had gotten her first cell phone, and was figuring out texting, and had seen people using this little acronym “LOL.” Which means “laughing out loud.” But she assumed it meant “lots of love.”

And so at some point thereafter there was a tragedy in the family and she had to pass it on everybody else. So she sent it out in a text, sharing the sad news, followed up by “LOL.” Someone replied and said that’s so sad and she replied and said something like “I know. Such a tragedy. Lol.”

She was trying to communicate her care and concern to her family and instead they thought she was just laughing out loud at this horrible tragedy that had taken place.

Have you ever been misunderstood like this before? Have you ever said or done one thing and had someone else understand the total opposite of what you meant?

Joshua 22 is about an epic misunderstanding between the 9 1/2 tribes on the west side of the Jordan River and the 2 1/2 tribes on the east side of the river. But this wasn’t just a misunderstanding to laugh about and get over. This misunderstanding threatened their unity as a nation and almost plunged them into a civil war.

And this misunderstanding is recorded here in Joshua because it had a lot to teach ancient Israel about their unity as a nation. And it’s recorded for us today because it has a lot to teach us about the right worship of God and how you and I should approach and handle conflict as the people of God today. So I’m really looking forward to what we’re going to learn together today in this third-last week in the book of Joshua.

Divided, Together

The whole question of the unity between the tribes on each side of the Jordan has been a big issue in Joshua from the beginning. If you’ll remember, back in chapter 1, one of Joshua’s first major acts upon taking leadership was to summon these two-and-a-half tribes and say to them, in 1:13, “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise” (Joshua 1:13–15).

That was the agreement. These two-and-a-half tribes wanted to live on the east side of the Jordan, but they agreed to go over and fight with their brothers for all the territory on the west side, and only after their brothers had taken possession of the land would they return back to their families.

And they did it. The led the way across the Jordan and they’ve been fighting with their brothers ever since. Remember how 11:18 said that “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings”? If we add up the dates available to us in the book of Joshua (esp. 14:10), our best guess is that this whole conquest took about seven years.

Seven years of being away from your family. Seven years of trusting that God was protecting their families and keeping them safe from enemies while the entire army was far away. Seven years of knowing that their wives were raising their children all by themselves and that your kids were growing up without you. Babies born as you left would be seven-year-old children now. Young teenagers would be adults. So much life has happened.

And now, finally, the time has come to go home, and chapter 22 opens with Joshua summoning those two-and-a-half Eastern tribes and saying to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:2–5).

You can hear a sense of affirmation in Joshua’s words here. He’s saying “well done” to them. But you can also here the concern, too. “You’ve fulfilled one duty to your brothers, but don’t forget about the ongoing need to stay faithful to the Lord.” And I think that concern makes sense, knowing that these tribes being on the other side of the Jordan, somewhat cut off from the life of the rest of the nation. it might be a little bit easier for them to drift away from the Lord.

Nevertheless, verse 6 says “So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.” And verse 9 says, “So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the Lord through Moses.”

I imagine if I had been there that day, it would have felt kind of like the emotions on the last day of camp, or maybe the last day of college. You had been together with these people in an intense way for all that time, and now it’s time to leave and go back to normal life. And it’s good but it’s also really hard.

The Altar

But don’t let your eyes get too teary, because we’re in for a shocker. Things do not go the way we expect or want them to go.

Because right away, verse 10 tells us that “And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.”

This was a big deal. And if you want to know how big of a deal this was, just read the next two verses. “And the people of Israel heard it said, ‘Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.’ And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them” (Joshua 22:11–12).

These tribes built an altar, and all of a sudden the people of Israel are on the brink of civil war. What is going on here?

The background here is that God has explicitly told His people, back in Deuteronomy 12, that when they got to the land, they were only allowed to use the one altar at the tabernacle. Verses 13-14 sum it up by saying, “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you” (Deuteronomy 12:13–14).

There were a number of reasons for this regulation. By having the people bring their offerings to one central location, it made sure that the priests would be there and that they’d be worshipping God in the way He prescribed to them. It also helped ensure the unity of the nation. Wherever they lived, whichever side of the Jordan River they were on, they’d all come together to worship in one spot.

And that spot, at this point, was in Shiloh. Joshua 18:1 says “Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there” (Joshua 18:1). Shiloh is where the tent of meeting or the tabernacle was, and that means it’s the one place where God’s people could offer sacrifices to Him.

And so can you imagine what was going through the people’s minds when they first heard that, after Reuben and Gad and East Manasseh left to go home, the first thing they did was build their own altar? This basically would have come across like a declaration of independence. “We are our own nation with our own place of worship and we’re not coming to Shiloh with the rest of you anymore.”

Beyond this, this would have seemed like a declaration of independence from God. It would have sounded like they were saying, “We don’t care what God told Moses. We’re doing our own thing now.”

And even more so, it could have even sounded like these eastern tribes weren’t even going to worship God anymore. After all, why would you build another altar to worship God when God had explicitly said only to use the one altar at the tabernacle? So maybe they built that altar so that they could worship other gods entirely.

And if that was the case—if these eastern tribes were going after other gods—then the response of the Western tribes here is 100% appropriate. In Deuteronomy 13, one chapter after the regulations about the altar, God told His people that if one of their cities was to go off and abandon Him and start to worship other Gods, the rest of the people were to treat them like the Canaanites and make war on them (Deuteronomy 13:12-18).

So when we read that “the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered as Shiloh to make war against them,” they were doing exactly what God had told them to do in that kind of a situation, if the eastern tribes really were in rebellion to the Lord. And the western tribes were ready to obey God in that way, even if it meant going to war against their brothers who had fought alongside of them so selflessly for the past seven years.

The Delegation

But thankfully, they don’t attack first. In verses 13-14, they send a delegation over to find out what’s going on here. “Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel” (Joshua 22:13–14).

Now this delegation was expertly chosen. Phinehas was a priest, son of the high priest, and would have been an expert in the matter of altars and sacrifices. He was the right guy to find out what was going on.

Phinehas also had a reputation which you can read about in Numbers 25. When Israel was all living on the East Side of the Jordan River, some of the Moabite and Midianite women came and seduced them into relationships with them and into serving the Baal of Peor, their false god. (That’s usually how it happened: they’d get involved with these women and then they’d start serving their gods.)

And in Numbers 25 there’s a climactic scene when the whole nation is weeping before the Lord, and this one Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into his tent in full view of the whole nation. He was so absorbed with lust that he didn’t even care anymore.

And verses 7-8 describe how Phinehas picked up a spear and followed them into their tent and ran the spear through the both of them, probably as they were right in the middle of their activities together. And that was a major turning point for Israel in that episode.

So Joshua appoints Phinehas as the leader of this delegation because, if you’re going to go after other gods, Phinehas is a guy that you’re going to be very, very afraid of.

And in Joshua 22:16, here’s the speech that he gives to the eastern tribes when they come to them: “Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord? Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God. Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity’” (Joshua 22:16–20).

Do you see the reminder of what happened with Peor? And then the reminder of what happened with Achan? They are pleading with these tribes to not quickly forget how destructive sin is to the whole nation.

And what I just love is that generous offer there in verse 19. If there’s something wrong with your land over here, you can come over into this land and share it with us if you want. It’ll be cozy, but we’ll share it with you! That’s how determined they are to help them stop their rebellion.

The Response

And what’s the response to this? Verse 21: “Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, ‘The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, do not spare us today for building an altar to turn away from following the Lord. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the Lord himself take vengeance. No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, “What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the Lord.” So your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord. Therefore we said, “Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the Lord in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, ‘You have no portion in the Lord.’”’” (Joshua 22:21-27).

Do you get the idea here? They didn’t build this altar for sacrifices. They didn’t build it so that they didn’t have to go to the tabernacle. They built it so that they could keep going to the tabernacle.

The were afraid that in the generations to come, their children would be told that because they didn’t really live in the Promised Land, then weren’t really Israelites, and then they weren’t allowed to go worship at the tabernacle. So they built this copy of the altar as proof, so that their kids could point to it and say, in the words of verse 28, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.”

The altar was proof that their parents had been there worshipping God at the tabernacle just like everybody else, and thus that they were true Israelites, no matter which side of the Jordan they lived on.

All’s Well that Ends Well

Well, that’s probably not what Phinehas and his crew expected to hear. But it does make sense. I’m sure Phinehas probably took a look at this copy altar to make sure that there weren’t any burn marks on it. But eventually he was satisfied. And verses 30-31 say that “When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, ‘Today we know that the Lord is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the Lord. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the Lord’” (Joshua 22:30–31).

And the chapter finishes off, in verse 32 and following, with Phinehas and the others returning to the people and bringing their report, and verse 33 and following say that “the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, ‘For,’ they said, ‘it is a witness between us that the Lord is God’” (Joshua 22:32–34).

Disaster averted. The war is called off. The sixth stone memorial in the Promised Land is established. And this chapter ends with the people of God unified and together committed to worshipping God together in the way that He told them to.

#1 Lesson for Us: Worship

So what can you and I learn from a chapter like this? What’s the instruction to be found for us here?

And there’s really two main areas we’ll consider here. One has to do with how we understand the worship of God. The other has to do with how we deal with conflict.

If we start with worship, we’ll see that everybody involved in this chapter was concerned for the way in which God was to be worshipped. Both groups knew that God had commanded His people to worship Him in a specific way in a specific place. And in their own way, both groups show a lot of concern to make sure that everybody involved keeps on worshipping God in this way.

Now you and I live at a different point in God’s plan of redemption. We don’t need to travel to a specific place to offer sacrifices to God. Jesus was our once-and-for-all sacrifice, and now, like Jesus said, it doesn’t matter where we worship Him so long as we worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

But that language of “truth” is important, because even though we don’t offer sacrifices and follow all of the temple regulations from the law of Moses, corporate worship is not just a free-for-all. We don’t get to do or say whatever we want. We need to worship God in truth, which means following the instructions the New Testament has given us for corporate worship. And that means, for example, actually gathering together as much as we can instead of just watching something on a screen.

Worshipping God in truth means saying accurate thing about Him when we worship. That’s why the lyrics to the songs we sing matter so much.

And Joshua 22 shows us that when the worship of God is being perverted, it’s appropriate to feel some zeal and passion like the various tribes of Israel show. Jesus turned over tables when His father’s house had been turned into a den of thieves, and I’ve been a part of some so-called “church services” where I’ve felt awfully tempted to do the same.

And Joshua 22 shows us that the way that we worship God really matters. And it all comes down to knowing and following what God has actually told us in His word. The study guide this week has some more material exploring this question, and I encourage you to check it out.

#2 Lesson for Us: Conflict

The second major area where we can learn from Joshua 22 has to do with how we handle conflict among the people of God.

And when we begin to look at a topic like conflict or confrontation, I know that many people tend to be inclined one way or another. I know there are some people who tend to run from conflict and controversy. They could never dream of “going to war” against their brothers, no matter how grievous their sin is. And when these people read Joshua 22, the biggest tragedy to them is how those Western tribes got all ready for war before they’d even spoken to anybody on the other side. How terrible is that?

On the other hand, I know there’s some Christians who tend to run towards conflict and controversy. They could never dream of not “going to war” against their brothers if that’s what they needed. And when they read Joshua 22, their biggest question is whether Phinehas let the eastern tribes off too easily. I mean, what if they weren’t being honest?

And I know I might be painting some extremes here, but I hope you get the picture that I’m getting at: many of us have a natural disposition or personality that orients us towards or away from conflict. And what I love about Joshua 22 is how it has a lot to say to all of us, whatever kind of personality we have.

To the Timid

So let’s start by speaking to those who tend to run from conflict. The kind of person who really, really struggles with the idea of confronting anybody because being on good terms with people is really, really important to them. If you’re that kind of person, then then Joshua 22 shows you three overlapping lessons.

1) First, it shows that there are times where conflict is necessary for the sake of the health of God’s people and the worship of His name.

If the Eastern tribes had built that altar to worship other gods, then the rest of Israel needed to go to war against them. That’s exactly what God told them to do in Deuteronomy 13. And for you and I today, like Josh reminded us just a few weeks ago, we’ve been instructed in the New Testament how to deal with sin among the people of God.

And if you struggle with that whole idea of confronting someone, and even putting them out of the church if they don’t repent, then you need to ask God to bring your thinking into alignment with His word. To help you understand that confronting a brother or sister in sin is one of the most loving things you can do for them. It is an act of unity.

Just like the western tribes in Joshua 22. When they heard about the altar, they didn’t say “Oh, those guys? Who cares. Are they even a part of Israel over there?” No, they got up and were ready to fight because they knew they were one nation, no matter what side of the Jordan they lived on, and they were willing to act that way.

So lesson one: sometimes conflict is necessary for the health and the unity of the people of God.

2) The second lesson for those who tend to avoid conflict is that we can’t be sentimental. It would have been so easy for the western tribes to day “Aww, these guys just fought beside us for seven years. We’ve been through so much together. How can we go to war against them? This will make things really awkward between us.” Nope, they were willing to do what was right, no matter how much history they had together. They didn’t let their sentiment make decisions for them.

3) The third lesson is that when God says something, He means it. If God says only one altar, then those western tribes were going to keep that instruction, even it it meant a civil war just as they were getting used to some measure of peace together. Because that’s what God said.

And this is important for us evangelicals to remember, because haven’t we been experts at finding all kinds of creative ways of getting around very clear statements in God’s word? I don’t know how many times I’ve been in conversations where people have said, “I know that’s what the Bible says, but if I do that, then this will happen, and I can’t let that happen, so I just can’t do what the Bible says.” As if we’re the first people to find a loophole that He somehow missed the first time around.

Or, one of my favourites, “We need to follow the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law,” which takes a phrase from 2 Corinthians 3 completely out of context. And I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people use that phrase as a clever way to avoid obeying God whenever it gets a little bit too uncomfortable.

And there’s some more on that question in the study guide as well. (See also this week's blog post.) But the big idea here is that if the Bible says something, that is the Spirit talking. And the lesson for us here from Joshua 22 is that we must do what the God, in His Word, tells us to do, even when it’s tough and comes and great personal cost. Even if it makes some relationships awkward.

To the Zealous

Now what if you’re a different kind of person? What if you’re the kind of person we talked about earlier who has no problem with confrontation and actually tends to move toward conflict and not away from it?

If that’s you, there’s some lessons for you in chapter 22 as well. First, I hope that this chapter shows you the value of patience. The western tribes did not go to war right away. They sent a delegation to ask questions. The took the time to figure things out before they plunged ahead.

Second, those western tribes were willing to be proven wrong. When they investigated, like Deuteronomy 13 told them to, when they listened, they found out their first impression was wrong. They had jumped to the wrong conclusion. And they were willing to admit that and back down.

So much conflict happens when people insist that their perspective is the only right perspective. So much conflict could be avoided if people were willing to ask questions instead of jumping to conclusions. So much conflict could be avoided if people were willing to admit that they had been wrong.

Now do you think it might have been a good idea to send that delegation and do that investigation before getting all of the people ready for war? I think so.

It seemed clear to them what this altar was all about, but that’s the problem about jumping to conclusions. They make so much sense and they’re so often flat-out wrong.

And that’s why we need to slow down and ask questions. That why Jesus gave us this long, four-step process in Matthew 18 to make sure that the church avoids unnecessary conflict. That’s why the New Testament speaks to us so many times about being “gentle.”

So if God has built you such that you can handle conflict, that can be a real gift. But it can also be a real weakness if you forget to be patient. If you forget to ask questions. If you forget that you can be wrong. If you forget to be gentle.

And so to sum up this whole section on conflict, the big idea for all of us is that we need to be ready for conflict, if necessary, but we should work to avoid it, if at all possible.

We should be willing to have the hard conversations and make the hard decisions, but we should be glad when those conversations have peaceful results.

And we should be 100% faithful to God’s word, including His instructions for worship, including His instructions for dealing with sin, and including His instructions for being reasonable and gentle.

And this kind of balance between conviction and compassion, between readiness and patience, is really hard to achieve on our own. In fact, in my experience, it’s impossible. This perfect balance can only be wrought in us by the Holy Spirit who comes to us who have trusted in Christ to make us like Christ.

Christ, who was gentle and lowly of heart and yet knew the time to turn over tables. Christ, who could rebuke and mourn over the Pharisees in the same speech. Christ, who will return one day to judge His enemies, and yet who first went to the cross where He was judged in the place of His people—who were all still His enemies at that time.

In Jesus we find the perfect balance and so we need the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus to us, making us like Him and together making us unified.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to pray for Him to do in this final song together.

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