10 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. 11 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.” 12 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.
13 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, 14 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. 15 And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16 “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? 17 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, 18 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. 19 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. 20 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.’”
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, 22 “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 23 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. 24 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? 25 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. 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 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.”’ 28 And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “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.”’ 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away this day from following the Lord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle!”
30 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. 31 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.”
32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And 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. 34 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 22:10-34 ESV
Now that the major portion of the fighting was over and the tribes of Israel had been awarded their respective land allotments, Joshua blessed and dismissed the three tribes that had been given land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with half the tribe of Manasseh, had requested to settle in the land of Gilead. But they had agreed to help the rest of the tribes conquer and possess the land of Canaan, and now that they had kept their commitment, Joshua was allowing them to return home. But not without a warning to remain faithful to Yahweh.
“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 22:5 ESV
But almost immediately after returning to their side of the Jordan River, the natural boundary that separated them from the rest of the tribes of Israel, the trouble began. They made a fateful decision to build an altar to God, “an altar of imposing size” according to the text. But when the rest of the tribes heard about it, they jumped to a very wrong conclusion. They assumed that the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had decided to abandon Yahweh for the gods of the Canaanites, in direct violation of God’s command given to Moses.
10 But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord. – Deuteronomy 12:10-11 ESV
God had made it clear that they were to offer sacrifices to Him in one place only – a place that He alone would designate. And that place was Shiloh. There, the tabernacle had been set up and the altar erected. And only there were the people of Israel to offer sacrifices to God. That point had been made perfectly clear by Moses.
13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, 14 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 ESV
So, the tribes west of the Jordan jumped to the conclusion that their three fellow tribes had broken faith with God and had erected an altar to a false god. Either that, or they had built an altar other than the one in Shiloh and were planning on making their own offerings and sacrifices, in direct violation of God’s prohibition against doing so. This was a communications disaster that was quickly turning into a potential civil war. Those tribes west of the Jordan assumed the worst and assembled to do battle with their brothers on the other side of the river. They were driven by the fear of what God would do if they allowed this sin to take place without taking steps to deal with it. They could still recall the sin of Achan and how his decision to disobey the command of God had brought defeat to the entire nation. They knew that God took disobedience to His law quite seriously and that individual sin had corporate consequences. And if three out of the 12 tribes chose to disobey God’s command, they would all end up suffering for it. So, they acted – probably a bit hastily and without getting their facts straight.
Again, they were operating in fear, based on what they knew to be God’s will regarding idolatry and His hatred for it. Moses had given them specific instructions about how to handle those who worshiped false gods.
12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, 13 that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. 16 You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. – Deuteronomy 13:12-16 ESV
So, when they heard that the three tribes west of the Jordan had built an impressive altar, they wasted no time, gathering all the people together at Shiloh in preparation for an assault on their unfaithful brothers. But prior to marching into Gilead, they sent a delegation, made up of “Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel” (Joshua 22:13-14 ESV). And, upon arrival in Gilead, these men wasted no time in stating their accusation against the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.
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? – Joshua 22:16 ESV
They made it clear that they saw the actions of the three tribes as a breach of faith and an act of sin worthy of death. They assumed their brothers had been tempted by the unclean practices of the pagans living in the land of Gilead and begged them to consider moving over the Jordan and finding land among the rest of the tribes. They were asking them to repent and return to the Lord.
But the people of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh were shocked and appalled at what they heard. They were dumbstruck by the accusations of Phinehas and his fellow delegates. It was all a huge misunderstanding. They had not erected an altar to false gods. And the altar they had built was not for the purpose of offering sacrifices. It had been constructed as a memorial or reminder or, as they put it, as “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” (Joshua 22:27 ESV). They feared that the natural boundary of the Jordan would end up becoming a relational barrier between themselves and the other tribes. In time, they speculated, their brothers west of the Jordan would see them as outsiders and bar them from worship at the tabernacle in Shiloh. So, they constructed the altar as a reminder to the generations to come, that they too were Yahweh worshipers. They had never intended to offer sacrifices on this altar. Their clearly articulated their purpose behind building the altar.
“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.” – Joshua 22:28 ESV
A civil war was avoided and a disaster averted. The truth was revealed and all were able to rejoice in the fact that they worshiped the same God. The three tribes ended up calling the altar, “Witness” because “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” They shared a common love for and faith in God. The river may have separated them physically, but they were linked by their belief in Yahweh. And while idolatry would remain a constant threat for each of the tribes of Israel, on this occasion, it had been a huge misunderstanding. People jumped to conclusions. Fear got the best of Joshua and the people of Israel. They assumed the worst, but thankfully, they were prevented from acting on their false assumptions and sought the truth.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.