A. The armies from the tribes east of the Jordan are sent home.
1. (1-4) Joshua thanks them for a job well done.
Then Joshua called the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh, and said to them: “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you. You have not left your brethren these many days, up 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 brethren, as He promised them; now therefore, return and go to your tents and to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan.”
a. You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you: In the seven years they had been with Joshua, helping the tribes west of the Jordan to conquer their enemies, they had been completely obedient and helpful to Joshua.
b. You have not left your brethren these many days: They had gone out and fought on behalf of their brethren, even though they already had their own inheritance - even as God commanded them to do.
c. Now therefore, return and go to your tents and to the land of your possession: Now that the land was conquered and fully distributed to the tribes, they could go back to their families and lands on the eastern side of the Jordan.
2. (5-6) Before they leave, Joshua gives them an exhortation and a blessing.
“But take careful heed to do the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to keep His commandments, to hold fast to Him, and to 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.
a. He tells them to take diligent heed to the word of God, probably here mostly in the sense of carefully hearing it and knowing it.
b. He tells them to love the Lord. This is a matter of the heart, but it can still be commanded.
c. He tells them to obey God with all they have, to keep His commandments, to hold fast to Him in a personal sense, and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.
i. We should not miss the order here. First we should take care to hear God. Then we give Him our love. Next comes a walk of obedience. To mix this order up is to get off into heresy (loving without hearing) or legalism (obeying before loving).
d. So Joshua blessed them and sent them away: Joshua will not send them away with a blessing; he knows that they cannot do or be what God wants without His blessing in their lives.
i. Perhaps he used the blessing from Numbers 6:23-27: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.’” So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.
3. (7-9) The armies of the two and a half tribes depart, with much spoil.
Now to half the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given a possession in Bashan, but to the other half of it Joshua gave a possession among their brethren on this side of the Jordan, westward. And indeed, when Joshua sent them away to their tents, he blessed them, and spoke to them, saying, “Return with much riches to your tents, with very much livestock, with silver, with gold, with bronze, with iron, and with very much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren.” So the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the country of Gilead, to the land of their possession, which they had obtained according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses.
a. Return with much riches to your tents: Their obedience to God and faithfulness to their brethren has been rewarded. God has allowed them to gain much plunder that they can take back home with them.
i. We believe that when we obey God, we will be gainers, not losers. Perhaps not always in this obvious material sense, but in real, wonderful gains none the less.
b. So the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel at Shiloh: We might imagine that this was a somewhat emotional departure of brothers who had known the closeness of fighting side-by-side. These were true veterans of the army of Israel.
B. The incident of the altar by the Jordan.
1. (10) The eastern tribes make an impressive altar.
And when they came to the region of the Jordan which is in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan; a great, impressive altar.
a. Before crossing over the Jordan, the soldiers from the two and a half tribes build a great, impressive altar near the Jordan River.
b. This was significant not only because of its size, but because of the meaning of an altar. An altar was a place of sacrifice, and both the Israelites and pagans had altars they used for sacrifice.
2. (11-12) The tribes west of the Jordan river learn of the great altar.
Now the children of Israel heard someone say, “Behold, the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh have built an altar on the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region of the Jordan; on the children of Israel’s side.” And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered together at Shiloh to go to war against them.
a. Behold, the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh have built an altar: When the news comes to the rest of Israel, their is no discussion, there is a simple reaction. They gathered to make war against their own brothers who built this altar.
i. Notice that Joshua does not need to gather them, they gather of own accord. It was an automatic reaction.
b. Why did they do this? Because they feared that this altar was a sign of allegiance to the pagan gods of the region.
c. Their readiness to fight this battle shows great courage to confront on behalf of God’s truth and holiness. This was a healthy “body,” able to purge itself of poisons.
i. Their later actions show that they are not happy about taking this action, nor will they do it rashly - but they will do it!
3. (13-15) Before action is taken, Phinehas the High Priest, and representatives from each tribe west of the Jordan personally confront the leaders of the tribes east of the Jordan.
Then the children of Israel sent Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest to the children of Reuben, to the children of Gad, and to half the tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, and with him ten rulers, one ruler each from the chief house of every tribe of Israel; and each one was the head of the house of his father among the divisions of Israel. Then they came to the children of Reuben, to the children of Gad, and to half the tribe of Manasseh, to the land of Gilead, and they spoke with them, saying,
a. Phinehas led the group, because he had the authority. He was High Priest over the whole nation, including the two and one-half tribes on the east side of the Jordan. He not only had the authority, he also had the heart of a wise shepherd. He wanted to correct the erring, to protect the nation, and to drive out the dangerous.
d. Israel reacts according to God’s character. Their assembling for war demonstrated God’s holiness, but their personal confrontation demonstrated God’s love.
4. (16-18) Phinehas brings the accusation against the eastern tribes.
Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord: “What treachery is this that you have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the Lord, in that you have built for yourselves an altar, that you might rebel this day against the Lord? Is the iniquity of Peor not enough for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord, but that you must turn away this day from following the Lord? And it shall be, if you rebel today against the Lord, that tomorrow He will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel.”
a. What treachery is this: Clearly, they thought that the altar at the Jordan represented a rival place of sacrifice and worship, to compete with God’s tabernacle, presently at Shiloh.
i. God had clearly commanded that there was one place of sacrifice and burnt offerings for Israel: Also you shall say to them: Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from among his people. (Leviticus 17:8-9)
ii. We understand from this that we cannot worship God any way we please, or justify a manner of worship just because we like it. First and always, our worship must be pleasing to God. We must worship Him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)
b. Is the iniquity of Peor not enough for us: Phinehas reminds the eastern tribes that Israel has been punished for rebellion against God before, using the rebellion at Peor as an example.
i. At Peor, Israel’s men had sex with Moabite women, and they gave themselves over to the worship of the Moabite gods. In judgment, God sent a plague that killed 24,000 people.
ii. This incident would be especially meaningful to Phinehas, because he was the one who stopped the plague by making a dramatic stand for righteousness in the midst of gross sin.
c. He will be angry with the whole congregation: Phinehas also knew that the sin of these tribes would reflect on the whole nation. He knew that no one really sins unto himself.
5. (19) A willingness to sacrifice to keep a brother from sin.
Nevertheless, if the land of your possession is unclean, then cross over to the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take possession among us; but do not rebel against the Lord, nor rebel against us, by building yourselves an altar besides the altar of the Lord our God.
a. Take possession among us: To Phinehas, anything was better than seeing these tribes go off in rebellion against God. If there was something unclean in their land, he invited them to come and live with the tribes on the western side of the Jordan.
b. This was an invitation made at great cost. It would have meant a must smaller area of land for the western tribes. But it didn’t matter, because they were willing to sacrifice to see their brothers free from this sin.
i. Too many of us lack this willingness; we tell people to stop sinning, but are not willing to help them if it costs us something.
6. (20) A second example of the price of sin: the sin of Achan and its affect on all of Israel is remembered.
Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.
7. (21-23) The eastern tribes respond.
Then the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh answered and said to the heads of the divisions of Israel: “The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, He knows, and let Israel itself know; if it is in rebellion, or if in treachery against the Lord, do not save us this day. If we have built ourselves an altar to turn from following the Lord, or if to offer on it burnt offerings or grain offerings, or if to offer peace offerings on it, let the Lord Himself require an account.”
a. The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, He knows: They first appeal to God, because He knows for certain their hearts, and they believe that their brothers in the western tribes have misunderstood them.
i. When we are misunderstood, our first refuge is God. He knows our heart, and we must be satisfied with being right before God even if it means we are wrong in the eyes of some others.
b. If it is in rebellion, or if in treachery against the Lord, do not save us this day: They also recognized the rightness of what the others were doing in coming against them.
i. The eastern tribes do what we should all do when we are misunderstood: put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and try to see what they see. If we saw what they saw, we might respond in the same way.
8. (24-29) The eastern tribes explain their true reason for building the altar: it was built as a memorial, not as a place of sacrifice.
“But in fact we have done it for fear, for a reason, saying, ‘In time to come your descendants may speak to our descendants, saying, “What have you to do with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between you and us, you children of Reuben and children of Gad. You have no part in the Lord.” So your descendants would make our descendants cease fearing the Lord.’ Therefore we said, ‘Let us now prepare to build ourselves an altar, not for burnt offering nor for sacrifice, but that it may be a witness between you and us and our generations after us, that we may perform the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt offerings, with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your descendants may not say to our descendants in time to come, “You have no part in the Lord.”’ Therefore we said that it will be, when they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say, ‘Here is the replica of the altar of the Lord which our fathers made, though not for burnt offerings nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between you and us.’ Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn from following the Lord this day, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for grain offerings, or for sacrifices, besides the altar of the Lord our God which is before His tabernacle.”
a. An altar, not for burnt offering nor for sacrifice, but that it may be a witness: The eastern tribes recognized their distance from the center of worship in Israel, and that there was a natural barrier (the Jordan River) between them and the rest of the nation. So they built the altar a memorial to link the two segments of the nation.
b. They built it so big and impressive so that it would last. They wanted it to stand as a memorial to future generations that the tribes on both sides of the Jordan worshipped the same God.
c. The eastern tribes again agree with the concern of the western tribes; but they explain that the western tribes have misunderstood the meaning of the great, impressive altar.
9. (30-31) The explanation of the eastern tribes is accepted by the western tribes.
Now when Phinehas the priest and the rulers of the congregation, the heads of the divisions of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the children of Manasseh spoke, it pleased them. Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the children of Reuben, the children of Gad, and the children of Manasseh, “This day we perceive that the Lord is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord. Now you have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord.”
a. Now when Phinehas the priest . . . heard the words . . . it pleased them: Obviously, Phinehas is pleased by this explanation; yet he deserves credit for being willing to believe his brothers. Phinehas puts himself in the shoes of the eastern tribes now, and so the explanation makes sense.
b. This day we perceive that the Lord is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord: Phinehas could see that the Lord was among us, because unity had been restored among the people of Israel. This fulfilled the passage from Psalm 133:1: Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
10. (32-34) Epilogue: the matter is resolved.
And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the rulers, returned from the children of Reuben and the children of Gad, from the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought back word to them. So the thing pleased the children of Israel, and the children of Israel blessed God; they spoke no more of going against them in battle, to destroy the land where the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt. The children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar, Witness, “For it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.”
a. So the thing pleased the children of Israel, and the children of Israel blessed God: Everyone is glad, and everyone enjoys the blessing of having peace among the people of God.
b. The children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar, Witness: The altar is given the name Witness, because it was a witness to the tribes on both the eastern side and the western side of the Jordan that the Lord is God.
11. We should respond to misunderstanding in the same manner, according to these same principles.
a. Respond with a concern for God’s holiness.
b. Respond with the courage to confront in love.
c. Respond with an attempt to reconcile before you fight.
d. Determine that you are willing to sacrifice to help them; don’t confront unless you are willing to help.
e. Determine that you will see the situation from the perspective of the other person.
f. Determine that you will believe the best of one another.
© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission