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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 22

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The third and final major division of the Book of Joshua begins here. The Trans-Jordanic tribes, having discharged their duty, are sent home, with the compliments and encouragement of their great commander, who also gave a solemn warning against apostasy (Joshua 22:1-9). On the way home, the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh constructed an impressive altar near the Jordan (Joshua 22:10-12); the remainder of Israel were greatly disturbed and demanded an explanation (Joshua 22:13-20); the eastern tribes responded with a full explanation (Joshua 22:21-29); western Israel was pleased and satisfied with the explanation, and perfect unity was restored (Joshua 22:30-34).

There is no reason whatever for excising this chapter from the Word of God and for labeling it a “late priestly addition.” No textual evidence whatever warrants such a scissors job on the Holy Bible. The only reason for the critical attacks against this chapter is that it destroys one of their darling THEORIES, namely, that, “God’s command to worship at the central sanctuary was NOT VALID from the very beginning, but that such a law came into being only after the construction of Solomon’s Temple.”(F1)

This theory is incorrect; it is founded upon two tremendous errors, namely: (1) that, “A plurality of sanctuaries does not seem to be frowned upon in the O.T. prior to Josiah’s reforms (about 621 B.C.).”(F2) Woudstra based that rather timid statement of the theory on Deuteronomy 12:1-5, but that passage forbids worship anywhere except, “The place which Jehovah your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come.” The critical canard that the ONLY PLACE God ever selected was Jerusalem is a gross mistake. Right here in Joshua, God chose to place his name at Shiloh, where the tabernacle rested for three centuries, and, throughout the history of Israel from the beginning to the end of it, the idea of the one central sanctuary where God would dwell among his people and where their sacrifices should be offered is the dominating theme.

(The first half dozen pages of my commentary on Deuteronomy 12, are devoted to the refutation of this irresponsible and ridiculous theory. Also, see my further comments in Vol. 2, Exodus, of the Pentateuchal series of commentaries, pp. 299,300.)

(2) The other prime mistake underlying this critical theory is that “Solomon’s Temple” was the one and only goal of Almighty God throughout Israel’s history! Preposterous! (Read our elaborate discussions of that “Den of Thieves and Robbers” known as Solomon’s Temple in the N.T. series.) It was “the Tabernacle” that God gave Israel, not the Temple. The Temple was David’s idea (2 Samuel 7), and, although God accommodated to it, God Almighty twice destroyed it. Why? From its beginning it proved to be a hindrance and a roadblock to the true will of God. It was that Temple, really, that crucified the Son of God!

This chapter, of course, is the death of that pivotal theory of the critics, and, therefore, they must get rid of the chapter! If they don’t, they lose the war on that theory! We are thankful indeed that Samuel Holmes has told us exactly how they try to get rid of it. Here it is:

“This narrative is Midrash… Midrash conveys doctrine, not in the form of abstract discourse, but in a mode appealing to the imagination. The teaching is embodied in a story, whether parable, or allegory, or seeming historical narrative; and the last thing such teachers would have thought of was the question of whether the selected persons, events, and circumstances, which so vividly suggest the doctrine are in themselves real or fictitious. The doctrine is everything; the mode of expression has no independent value. This narrative (Joshua 22) is clearly unhistorical. It is Midrash!”(F3)

Is there any truth or value in such an “analysis” of God’s Word? The answer is NO! It is on a parity with what Satan told Eve, “Ye shall not surely die.” Such statements are not based upon any evidence at all, but merely upon the prior necessity of destroying a portion of God’s Word that is hostile and contradictory regarding their false theories.

The big thing in this chapter is, of course, the near-civil war that was threatened by the building of that altar near the Jordan. It is amazing that a translator of the ability of Boling would declare this chapter to be the record of, “The comic squabbling of the people over an internal (or was it external?) boundary.”(F4) There is no boundary dispute at all in this chapter.

Verses 1-6

“Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gaddites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and said unto them, Ye have kept all that Moses the servant of Jehovah commanded you, and have hearkened unto my voice in all that I commanded you: ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of Jehovah your God. And now Jehovah your God hath given rest unto your brethren, as he spake unto them: therefore now turn ye, and get ye unto your tents, unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of Jehovah gave you beyond Jordan. Only take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of Jehovah commanded you, to love Jehovah your God, and to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto 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 unto their tents.”

This first paragraph of the chapter is “essential to the story of the invasion, showing that God kept faith with those who kept faith with Him, answering, as it does to Joshua 1:12-18.”(F5) Far from being a late addition by unscrupulous priests desiring to change God’s law, as the critics allege, “The events of this chapter, without doubt, are recorded in their proper historical order.”(F6)

“These many days” (Joshua 22:3). Plummer says that the Hebrew in this passage actually means “a great many days.”(F7) Surely, those Trans-Jordanic troops served long and diligently in the conquest; and it is a remarkable tribute to Joshua’s leadership that there is never a hint of any murmuring or dissatisfaction on the part of those soldiers. In fact, Plummer pointed out that the whole record of Israel under Joshua’s leadership was one of strict obedience and continuity in God’s law, forming a dramatic contrast with the endless bickerings and murmurings that marked Israel’s conduct in the wilderness, and also immediately following the death of Joshua. He cited this as a significant indication of the historicity of the narrative.” Any writer who was inventing his details (as would have been done in Midrash) could hardly have thought of making his history such a contrast with the rest of the history of Israel.”(F8)

“Do… Love… Walk… Keep… Cleave… Serve… with all your heart, and with all your souls” (Joshua 22:5). Here we have six one-syllable words, dramatic imperatives that can lead the soul into a state of being well pleasing to God. The message here is founded upon the “first and great commandment” (Mark 12:29-30). Throughout the Scriptures, the “love of God” is equated with keeping God’s Word and doing His will. Christ said, “If ye love me, ye will keep my word; if ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; John 14:23).

Verses 7-9

“Now, to the one-half tribe of Manasseh Moses had given inheritance in Bashan; but unto the other half gave Joshua among their brethren beyond the Jordan westward. Moreover when Joshua sent them away unto their tents, he blessed them, and spake unto them, saying, Return with much wealth unto your tents, and with very much cattle, with silver, and with gold, and with brass, and with iron, and with very much raiment: divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren. And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of the half-tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel out of Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go unto the land of Gilead, to the land of their possession, whereof they were possessed, according to the commandment of Jehovah by Moses.”

Here we have another instance of the constant repetition that characterizes so much of the O.T. Here in Joshua 22:7 is the fourth time since Joshua 13 that we have been told that the half-tribe of Manasseh had been settled east of Jordan through the commandment of God by Moses, and that the other half received their portion west of Jordan! See Joshua 13:8; Joshua 14:3, and Joshua 18:7. That this salient feature of the O.T. is found here in this chapter is an important evidence that the chapter is not spurious, that it belongs, that it lies here in the usual style of Joshua, and that we can count on it as true history.

Despite the fact that the eastern tribes already held vast possessions beyond Jordan, they were not denied their portion of the spoils of conquest. Consequently, they were loaded down with great wealth at the time Joshua sent them away.

Now, the next portion of this chapter deals with what those returnees decided on the way home to do. This whole story is synchronized together and dove-tailed with all of the known facts pertinent to those times, giving us the kind of narrative of which even the critics have said, “The story is skillfully composed, and the time skillfully chosen for the purpose.”(F9) It is simply impossible that some imaginative creator of Midrash could have produced a narrative like this.

Verses 10-12

“And when they came unto the region about the Jordan, that is in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, a great altar to look upon. And the children of Israel heard say, Behold the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar in the forefront of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that pertaineth to the children of Israel. And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up against them to war.”

Now, what was so wrong about those eastern tribes building an altar near the Jordan that it precipitated a reaction in the rest of Israel that brought the threat of a war of extermination against them? There can be but one answer to that question, namely, that from the very beginning of the Mosaic religion, the principle of “only one sanctuary” for the entire nation had been understood and enforced among the Israelites. That “one sanctuary,” of course, had been moved no less than forty-two times during the wilderness wanderings, and the removal of it to Shiloh from Gilgal here in the Book of Joshua does not mean that it had not, at one time or another, been located elsewhere. The “one sanctuary,” therefore, was not tied to any place; but it was moveable. God had made that plain enough in the words, “Unto the place (any place) that Jehovah shall choose to put his name there” (Deuteronomy 12:1). (See the discussion of this under that reference.) The ridiculous notion that this means Jerusalem is frustrated and denied by the fact that the word “Jerusalem” is not even found in Deuteronomy. It was God’s presence that identified the sanctuary, not some physical landmark.

As for the motivation of those eastern tribes that led to this near-disaster, “There was a sense of separation on the East Bank, and fear that the westerners might reject and disown them; also there was awareness that holy religion was not a characteristic of that eastern land.”(F10) “They erected this altar to keep alive their claim of having the same interest as the other tribes in the sanctuary of God, located at that time, in Shiloh.”(F11)

Regardless of all their good intentions, however, “This was a needless and presumptuous deed.”(F12) It almost plunged Israel into civil war; and, under slightly different circumstances, that war might have been impossible to avoid.

We should be aware of the part that public gossip, or rumor, had in this episode. It would have been quite easy for the leaders to have declared war on the basis of the gossip, rather than launching an investigation.

That such an altar was actually built has been long ago verified by the discovery of the site.(F13) And, couldn’t you have guessed it? “Lieutenant Conder denied it!”(F14)

Verses 13-16

“And the children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten princes, one prince of a fathers’ house for each of the tribes of Israel; and they were every one of them heads of their fathers’ houses among the thousands of Israel. And they came unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, unto the land of Gilead, and they spake with them saying, Thus saith the whole congregation of Jehovah, What trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following after Jehovah, in that ye have builded you an altar, to rebel this day against Jehovah?”

From this it is clear that all Israel accepted the principle of “only one sanctuary”; and as we have pointed out, that was the true meaning of God’s instructions from Mount Sinai and ever afterward. That the breach of this was indeed serious is apparent in the dignity and importance of the delegation Israel sent to inquire into the matter.

Note that Phinehas was “sent” by the children of Israel. Who sent him? The central government, of which Joshua, of course, was the chief executive. Why did not Joshua go himself? For the same reason that the High Priest Eleazar did not go. Eleazar and Joshua were the ones doing the sending. In this light the error of Longacre’s assumption here is apparent. He spoke of the, “Suppression of Joshua the civil leader in the interest of the religious leader Phinehas,”(F15) offering this as evidence of the “late date of this Midrash.”(F16) Now, Phinehas was not the religious leader, Eleazar was! Joshua, the civil leader, was not suppressed here at all; he was an arm of the central government was in charge all the way. Phinehas, like the ten princes, was merely a delegate, albeit, the leader of the delegation, which was appropriate enough, since Phinehas was an expert in religious affairs. So, if someone wants to make a seventh century B.C. Midrash out of this, he will have to come up with something a lot better than that!

“Apart from certain entrenched theories regarding a Priestly document dating from post-exilic times, there seems to be no reason to think of the figure of Phinehas as representing a priestly influence upon this account.”(F17)

In the speech of Phinehas, next reported, below, there are repeated references to many of the events in the then-recent history of Israel; and, when all of this is taken collectively into consideration, `There is no way to avoid the conclusion that Deuteronomy, as well as all the other books of the Pentateuch, were in existence when these events occurred.”(F18)

The punishment for such a sin as making another altar, as well as the designation of that offense as sinful, is found in Leviticus 17:4; Leviticus 17:8-9, in Deuteronomy 12:4-14, and in Deuteronomy 13:12-16.

Verses 17-20

“Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we have not cleansed ourselves unto this day, although there came a plague upon the congregation of Jehovah, that ye must turn away this day from following Jehovah? and it will be, seeing ye rebel today against Jehovah, that tomorrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel. Howbeit, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of Jehovah, wherein Jehovah’s tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against Jehovah, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar besides the altar of Jehovah our God. Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the devoted thing, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? and that man perished not alone in his iniquity.”

“The iniquity of Peor” (Joshua 22:17). The full account of this is in Numbers 25, all of which is presupposed by Phinehas’ statement here.

“From which we have not cleansed ourselves unto this day” (Joshua 22:17). This indicates the long-lasting influence of the events at Baal-Peor. What Phinehas said here, is that there were a lot of people in Israel still around who were hankering after the sinful and sensuous worship of Baal.

“Jehovah will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel” (Joshua 22:18). This truth is the key to Israel’s fear, and their determination to root out the evil they supposed to have occurred. They feared that God would be angry with all Israel. Phinehas reinforced that argument, by pointing out that although only one man had sinned in the instance of Achan and the devoted thing, yet God was angry with all Israel, and that Achan did not perish alone. Others also died because of his sin. This also presupposes all of the events regarding the repulse of Israel at Ai and the execution of Achan. In fact every line of the preceding Five Books of Moses cast their long shadow over Joshua from the first verse of it to the last.

“If the land of your possession be unclean” (Joshua 22:19). Phinehas in this, apparently, was seeking to give the Trans-Jordanic group some kind of an excuse.

If their erecting an altar had been due to their fear that the eastern Jordan tribes did not share in the promises concerning the “land of Canaan,” due to their not being, in fact, in the land of Canaan, then, very well, Phinehas suggested, it would be better for them to abandon the Trans-Jordanic territories and come over to the western side and inherit with all the others. The meaning of this verse is considered to be somewhat ambiguous.

Verses 21-29


“Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered, and spake unto the heads of the thousands of Israel, The Mighty One, God, Jehovah, the Mighty One, God, Jehovah, he knoweth; and Israel he shall know: if it be in rebellion, or if in trespass against Jehovah, save us not this day, that we have built us an altar to turn away from following Jehovah; or if to offer thereon burnt-offering or meal-offering, or if to offer sacrifices of peace-offerings thereon, let Jehovah himself require it; and if we have not rather out of carefulness done this, and of purpose, saying, in time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with Jehovah the God of Israel? for Jehovah hath made the Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no portion in Jehovah: so might your children make our children cease from fearing Jehovah. Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice: but it shall be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we may do the service of Jehovah before him with our burnt-offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace-offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no portion in Jehovah. Therefore said we, It shall be, when they so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we shall say, Behold the pattern of the altar of Jehovah, which our fathers made, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice; but its a witness between us and you. Far be it from us that we should rebel against Jehovah, and turn away this day from following Jehovah, to build an altar for burnt-offering, for meal-offering, or for sacrifice, besides the altar of Jehovah our God that is before his tabernacle.”

There are here a number of exceedingly interesting things:

(1) Note that the Trans-Jordanic group waited patiently until the full extent of Phinehas’ charges were made and understood by the accused. There were no interruptions and no display of resentment.

(2) The accused tribes professed total innocence on the charge of rebelling against God.

(3) They patiently explained why they had built this great altar.

(4) Incidentally, we learn here that it was a giant replica of the one actually in the tabernacle.

(5) Notice that even the accused tribes accepted fully the Word of God that there could be but one altar (one at a time, that is).

(6) Also, notice that the location of that sacred altar was given in Joshua 22:19. It was the one before the tabernacle! How does the Jerusalem temple stack up against that requirement? This is EXCEEDINGLY important. If post-exilic priests wrote this alleged Midrash to defend the one sanctuary in Jerusalem, which was in the temple, why should this line have been put in about the true altar being the one before “God’s tabernacle”? Any careful study of that theory will show that it is a worthless error!

Joshua 22:22 is of particular interest. “The Hebrew most impressively combines the names of God, [~’El] [~’Elohiym] [~Yahweh]!”(F19) The same combination appears in Psalms 50:1, where it is translated, “The Mighty One, God, Jehovah.” “No translation can do justice to the original. The three names of God, [~’El], [~’Elohiym], and [~Yahweh], are each twice repeated in that order!”(F20) Most of the critical commentators make no reference at all to these three names in one breath. Could it be that this does NOT fit their theories?

Philbeck properly discerned the importance of the doctrine of having one central sanctuary for all Israel, saying:

“It was of pivotal importance. It served as the focal point of Israel’s government. Only in their worship of the Lord were the independent tribes of Israel united in any real sense. To build a rival altar was to violate the covenant by seceding from the nation.”(F21)

Morton commented fully upon the exemplary conduct of the Israelites in a number of instances during this episode: (1) The western tribes did not begin a disastrous war without investigating the rumors upon which they were tempted to declare it. (2) They placed the investigation in the hands of competent and fair-minded people. (3) They went straight to the persons accused of sin, confronting them with what they had heard. (4) They listened patiently to the explanations offered. (5) They accepted them as true, and unity was at once restored. He summarized these views thus: “Rumor was supplanted by reason; reason led to understanding; understanding averted war; God was in their midst.”(F22) It would be wonderful today if brethren would exercise such basic precautions before receiving charges against one another.

Verses 30-34

“And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation, even the heads of the thousands of Israel that were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh spake, it pleased them well. And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the children of Manasseh, This day we know that Jehovah is in the midst of us, because ye have not committed this trespass against Jehovah: now have ye delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of Jehovah. And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the princes returned from the children of Reuben, and from the children of Gad, out of the land of Gilead, unto the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought them word again. And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and spake no more of going up against them to war, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and the children of Gad dwelt. And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed, said they, it is a witness between us that Jehovah is God.”

Manasseh is dropped out of the last few repetitions of the names of the Trans-Jordanic tribes; and, from this, some have supposed that perhaps Reuben and Gad were the principals in the building of that altar.

“Gilead” as used here is applied to all of the Trans-Jordanic area.

Note that Phinehas dutifully reported to his superiors in Shiloh and that he thus properly fulfilled his mission as one sent on a task that was then accomplished.

It was the plan of God outlined fully in the Pentateuch that three times in the year: (1) at Passover; (2) at Pentecost; and (3) at the feast of Tabernacles, all of Israel was to report at the one and only general sanctuary for the purpose of observing those special national feasts. This, of course, was designed to cultivate and preserve the unity of all Israel. The need for this unity existed a thousand times more urgently in the times of the wilderness wanderings and during the conquest and afterward, than it did, either in the times of the monarchy or in post-exilic times. How UNTENABLE, therefore, is the notion that this conception of “only one sanctuary” did not happen in Israel until centuries after the need for such unity no longer existed. As stated earlier, this noble chapter buries forever the false theories whose advocates have tried so diligently to silence it by their denials. But the chapter lives on. We have never seen a Bible that did not include it.

We rejoice in the unity of Israel under Joshua, a unity they never again fully achieved. Unity of God’s people is the crying need of all generations. As Unger stated it, “How desperately the Lord’s people need to exemplify that unity before men in a genuine testimony of the power of the gospel, not by a man-made monument, but by the outshining of genuine faith in God’s Word exemplifying spiritual vitality from within the heart.”(F23)

We conclude this chapter with the following comment from Jamieson:

“This episode reflects honour upon all parties, and shows that piety and zeal for the honour and worship of God animated the people that entered Canaan to an extent far beyond what was exemplified in many other periods of Israel’s history”(F24)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 22". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-22.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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