Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

 

A Spirit of Spiritual Syncretism

29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived. 30 The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.

34 To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the Lord, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 35 The Lord made a covenant with them and commanded them, “You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, 36 but you shall fear the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. 37 And the statutes and the rules and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to do. You shall not fear other gods, 38 and you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not fear other gods, 39 but you shall fear the Lord your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.” 40 However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner.

41 So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day. 2 Kings 17:29-41 ESV

So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods.”

That phrase appears twice in the closing verses of chapter 17, and it aptly summarizes the spiritual state of the nation of Israel after its fall to the Assyrians. Many of its citizens had been captured and exiled to various locations in Assyria. Their vacancies were filled by people from other conquered nations who were forced to relocate to Israel and start new lives. This sudden influx of refugees from foreign countries turned Israel into a veritable melting pot and, ultimately, resulted in intermarriage between the Jews and their new neighbors.

These newly transplanted inhabitants found themselves living in a foreign land where they didn’t understand the language or customs. They were strangers living in a strange land, but they found some comfort in the fact that many of their gods already had shrines dedicated to them in Israel. The ten northern tribes had been assimilating the gods of other nations for years. Under Jeroboam’s leadership, they had created their own gods, complete with temples and priesthood. Under Ahab and Jezebel, they had adopted and promoted the worship of Baal and Asherah. And along the way, other kings of Israel had been embracing the false gods of their foreign allies. So, the new arrivals to Israel found an atmosphere of religious tolerance and ecumenism.

If you recall, immediately after these foreign refugees had arrived in Israel and taken up residence in the abandoned cities of Samaria, they began worshiping their false gods. The land on which they lived belonged to Yahwah, and He took offense at their actions. They were living on land that He had set apart as holy and given to the descendants of Abraham as their inheritance. It was to have been a place where they lived in obedience to His will and where they worshiped Him alone. Their failure to do so had resulted in their defeat and deportation. But their departure had not changed the sanctity of the land or voided the covenant commitment God had made with His people. There was still a remnant of Jews living in the land of Israel and He expected them to keep their end of the agreement they had made with Him.

So, when these foreigners began to worship their false gods on land that belonged to the one true God, they found themselves experiencing divine judgment.

But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. – 2 Kings 17:25 NLT

As a result, the king of Assyria ordered that one of the exiled Israelite priests be sent back so that he might instruct the immigrants in the proper worship of Yahweh.

So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord. – 2 Kings 17:28 NLT

This highly pragmatic plan implemented by the king of Assyria was evidently successful. But while many of the new arrivals eagerly adopted Yahweh as their God, they simply added Him to their growing list of deities. He became just one more god to whom they offered their sacrifices in order to win favor and good fortune.

These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came. – 2 Kings 17:32-33 NLT

With the sudden arrival of these various people groups, the religious landscape of Israel became ever more crowded and confused. Almost overnight, the idolatrous state of Israel exploded with new options and opportunities as the number of false gods continued to increase. The already tolerant and easily tempted Israelites found themselves surrounded by a virtual sea of new gods from which to chose.

Those from Babylon worshiped idols of their god Succoth-benoth. Those from Cuthah worshiped their god Nergal. And those from Hamath worshiped Ashima. The Avvites worshiped their gods Nibhaz and Tartak. And the people from Sepharvaim even burned their own children as sacrifices to their gods Adrammelech and Anammelech. – 2 Kings 17:30-31 ESV

The worship of Yahweh became increasingly more diluted and defused as a spirit of syncretism and religious pluralism spread over the land. The fall of Israel did not result in a spirit of repentance and religious reform among God’s people. His judgment of them was met by indifference and continued apostasy.

They continue to follow their former practices instead of truly worshiping the Lord and obeying the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands he gave the descendants of Jacob, whose name he changed to Israel. – 2 Kings 17:34 NLT

There appears to be no remorse or repentance on the part of God’s people. Their neighbors had been taken captive and exiled to Assyria, but they remain just as committed to living in disobedience to God’s laws. And it seems that those who found themselves living as captives in Assyria were no less stubborn and unwilling to return to Yahweh. And yet, when King Solomon had dedicated the newly constructed temple, he had asked God to show mercy on His disobedient people, should they find themselves in exile and call out for help.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors.” – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

But they hadn’t turned and acknowledged God’s name. They had not prayed and asked for God’s forgiveness. Both those in exile and those living in the land of Israel had continued to disobey God’s commands and violate His covenant agreement. And the author makes it clear that God was serious about His commands and His covenant.

For the Lord had made a covenant with the descendants of Jacob and commanded them: “Do not worship any other gods or bow before them or serve them or offer sacrifices to them. But worship only the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt with great strength and a powerful arm. Bow down to him alone, and offer sacrifices only to him. Be careful at all times to obey the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands that he wrote for you. You must not worship other gods. Do not forget the covenant I made with you, and do not worship other gods. You must worship only the Lord your God. He is the one who will rescue you from all your enemies.” – 2 Kings 17:35-39 NLT

They had no excuse. The remnant of Israelites still living in the land knew exactly what God expected of them, but they continued to reject His word and refused to repent. And while the new residents were given instruction in the proper worship of Yahweh, they simply added Him to their long and growing list of god options.

So while these new residents worshiped the Lord, they also worshiped their idols. And to this day their descendants do the same. – 2 Kings 17:41 NLT

This last verse is meant to convey a sense of inevitability and determinism. Nothing was going to change. They were fully committed to doing things their way, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. And we know that by the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the long-term implications of this syncretistic and overly tolerant religious mindset had resulted in the division between the Jews and the Samaritans. The foreigners who were transplanted into Israel by the king of Assyria, ended up intermarrying with the remaining Jewish population. These mixed marriages brought about an assimilation of cultures and religions that produced a population that became known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds by the Jews of Jesus’ day and were treated as second-class citizens. They practiced a religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with aspects of paganism and idolatry. As the Samaritan confessed to Jesus, they even had their own place of worship, outside the confines of Jerusalem (John 4:20).

Chapter 17 of 2 Kings brings the story of the northern kingdom to a dramatic and somber close. Part of the nation is living in exile in Assyria. The rest remain in the land but are marked by a spirit of spiritual syncretism and moral compromise. There will be no more kings to rule over the ten tribes. They will remain under God’s judgment and experience the curses He had warned would come should they choose to disobey. But now, the author turns his attention back to the southern kingdom Judah. As of now, they remain free to follow the commands of God. But will they? The author provides a not-so-subtle hint as to what lies in store of the people of Judah.

Because the Lord was very angry with Israel, he swept them away from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah remained in the land. But even the people of Judah refused to obey the commands of the Lord their God, for they followed the evil practices that Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:18-19 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

A King Whom God Will Choose

14 “When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. – Deuteronomy 17:14-25 ESV

In yesterday’s post, we saw that a day would come when the people of Israel would reject God as their rightful King and demand that He provide them with a human king. They would make their request known to Samuel, the prophet of God.

“…you are now old, and your sons are not like you. Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” – 1 Samuel 8:5 NLT

Samuel would find their demands offensive, but God would command him to do exactly as they had requested.

“Do everything they say to you,” the LORD replied, “for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:8-10 NLT

It would be easy to assume that God was simply acceding to their demands and giving them just what they had asked for: A king to judge us like all the other nations have. But that would be a false assumption. As today’s passage indicates, God knew that the day would come when the people would ask for a king.

When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, ‘I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me…’” – Deuteronomy 17:14 NLT

God knew in advance what the Israelites were going to do and he had already planned for it. In fact, God let them know the kind of king they should select.

“…you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king.” – Deuteronomy 17:15 NLT

Notice God’s stipulation. He was more than willing for them to select a king for themselves, but it was going to have to be the man He chose. This man would have to have God’s blessing, and he would have to meet God’s standards, which included Israelite citizenship. No non-Jew was to rule over God’s people. And, while they would demand a king just like all the other nations, God was not going to allow this man to emulate the ways of these foreign potentates.

“…he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so…” – Deuteronomy 17:16 NLT

Stables filled with fine horses might characterize the kingdoms of other rulers, but God was going to expect His king to remain set apart, wholly distinct from all other human-appointed rulers. This would include a ban on accumulating wives and concubines, a typical manifestation of royal power and privilege.

“…he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold.” – Deuteronomy 17:17 NLT

The people were going to demand that they be given a king who looked like every other king. They would be thinking in terms of power, position, and prominence. The kind of king they had in mind would have all the familiar trappings of kingship, much like Pharaoh had enjoyed.

But God was not interested in placing the care of His chosen people in the hands of just any king. There would be rules and requirements involved. This man would have to rule and reign according to God’s will. He would have to obey God’s commands. But to do so, he would have to be intimately familiar with those commands, which is why God commanded:

“When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this law on a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this law and these statutes and carry them out.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-19 NLT

A godly king would need to know God’s law. And he would have to rule over God’s people in a way that reflected his knowledge of God’s will. There was no place for pride or arrogance. God’s chosen king would serve as His representative, treating the people of God with the same care and concern He would. And if he did, God promised that “he and his descendants will enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:20 NLT).

But years later, when the people of Israel would bring their demand for a king to Samuel, God would warn them that He was going to give them exactly what they were asking for. He would give them a king just like all the other nations.

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said. “The king will draft your sons and assign them to his chariots and his charioteers, making them run before his chariots. Some will be generals and captains in his army, some will be forced to plow in his fields and harvest his crops, and some will make his weapons and chariot equipment. The king will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the LORD will not help you.” – 1 Samuel 8:11-18 NLT

Their preferred version of a king would end up coming back to haunt them. God warned them that He would give them exactly what they demanded. He would give them their hearts desire, even though it would not turn out well for them in the long-run. But, in spite of God’s warning, they would refuse to relent on their demands.

“Even so, we still want a king,” they said. “We want to be like the nations around us. Our king will judge us and lead us into battle.” – 1 Samuel 8:19-20 NLT

God was not opposed to Israel having a king. In fact, He would eventually give them David as their king, a man after His own heart. But before David reigned over Israel, they would suffer under the lousy leadership of Saul, a man who would end up being a king just all the other nations had. And David’s own son, Solomon, would end up disobeying God’s commands, eventually amassing a harem consisting of “700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines” (1 Kings 11:3 NLT). And most of his wives would be foreign-born and idolaters. They would eventually lead him astray, causing him to forsake God and set up idols all throughout his kingdom. And for this indescretion, God would split his kingdom in half, forming the two nations of Israel and Judah.

It was not that God was against Israel having a king, it was that He preferred a king who shared His heart. He wanted a man who would rule and reign as God’s representative, shepherding His sheep as David would eventually do.

With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:72 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

That Didn’t Take Long.

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.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lack of Light.

But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood. As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy. In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing; Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled. For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed, when I restore the fortunes of my people. – Hosea 6:7-11 ESV

At the heart of Israel’s sin was their failure to keep their covenant with God. When He had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, God had given them His law and made a bilateral covenant with them at the base of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. That remarkable event was accompanied by thunder, lightning, smoke and fire. After seeing this dramatic display of God’s power and hearing the holy requirements of God, the people were petrified. “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin’” (Exodus 20:18-20 ESV).

God had chosen the people of Israel as His own. They were to be His representatives on earth, living according to His holy law and revealing to the world the blessings that come with obedience to His will. But God had warned them that there were going to be consequences to their disobedience. “The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me” (Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV). Over the years, the nation of Israel proved remarkably unfaithful, even before the kingdom was split in two. And after God had divided the kingdom, the ten northern tribes, known as Israel, took their unfaithfulness to a whole new level. And as a result, God was forced to keep His word. He was going to bring about their destruction.

Forsaking God always has dire ramifications. You cannot ignore God and hope that all will go well for you. Failure to honor and worship Him as God always leads to devastating consequences. In the case of Israel, their sinfulness spread like a plague among the people. Murder and robbery became common place, even in those cities that had once been known as sacred sites. The priests and religious leaders, rather than being icons of spiritual virtue, were fully complicit in the immoral and unethical acts of the nation. They were guilty of leading the nation astray, not only by advocating the worship of idols, but in committing acts in direct defiance of God’s commandments. God had made His will crystal clear. His commands were non-negotiable and free from interpretation.

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods … You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name. Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy … Honor your father and motherYou must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely against your neighbor. You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. – Exodus 20:3-17 NLT

And Israel had violated them all. Just as Adam, the first man, had broken God’s covenant in the garden, disobeying His command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Israelites had willingly and persistently broken God’s covenant with them. They had failed to take God seriously. They had doubted His word and ignored His warning about curses and promise of blessings. It is interesting to note that their failure to love God as expressed in their disobedience of His law, manifested itself in a lack of love for one another. Murder and robbery are relational crimes committed by one individual against another. Just as murder followed the initial sin of Adam and Eve, the Israelites’ forsaking of God was followed by a hatred for one another. The great Shema, based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, was a required daily prayer for all Israelites, learned at an early age. It reads:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

The law of God and a love for God were to be inseparable. God’s commands contained both vertical (God-focused) and horizontal (man-focused) elements. If someone obeyed God’s law out of love for Him, they would automatically express love for those around them. Obedience to God would manifest itself in mutual respect and love for others. But notice that the Shema contains the admonition to teach God’s commands to the next generation. They were to be a constant part of everyday life, dictating and determining behavior and influencing every aspect of life. But failure to keep God’s laws always follows failure to keep God as the center of your life. Disobedience is a byproduct of disbelief and distrust. Adam and Eve sinned because they listened to Satan and doubted God’s word. The people of Israel had sinned because they had forsaken God. Just as darkness is an absence of light, so sin is an absence of God. Walking away from God is like walking away from a light. You will eventually find yourself stumbling around in the dark, incapable of knowing where you are going and what you are doing.

The apostle John wrote, “God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (John 3:19-21 NLT). Israel had walked out of the light and into darkness. Their behavior was a result of their failure to honor and esteem God. And we can experience the same tragic outcome if we fail to keep God as the central focus in our lives, honoring Him for who He is and lovingly obeying His will because we know He loves us.