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III. JOSHUA’S LAST ACTS AND DEATH CHS. 22-24
The main part of the second half of the Book of Joshua, dealing with the division of the land, ends with the appointment of the Levitical cities (chs. 13-21). The rest of the book deals with settlement in the land (chs. 22-24). There is much emphasis in these chapters on the importance of remaining faithful to God (Joshua 22:5; Joshua 22:16; Joshua 22:18-19; Joshua 22:25; Joshua 22:29; Joshua 22:31; Joshua 23:6; Joshua 23:8; Joshua 23:11; Joshua 24:14-16; Joshua 24:18; Joshua 24:21; Joshua 24:23-24). This emphasis grows out of the record of God’s faithfulness that Joshua 21:43-45 affirms.
"Each of the final three chapters describes a single event. At first glance, these events seem to be a random collection of leftovers: a dispute between the tribes about an altar, a farewell address, and another covenant ceremony. However, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that they all focus on a single matter, the proper worship of Israel’s God-how to offer it and what will happen if Israel does not do so." [Note: Hess, p. 287.]
Joshua commended these Israelites for their faithfulness to their promise to go to war with their brothers (Joshua 22:2-3; cf. Joshua 1:16-18). He also charged them to remain faithful to the Mosaic Law (Joshua 22:5). Obedience included complete devotion to Yahweh.
"This [Joshua 22:5] is the key verse in this chapter. It is another statement of the theme of the book that the people must be faithful to the Lord and obey his laws if they wish to be blessed and live in the land." [Note: Madvig, p. 355.]
Joshua then dismissed these Israelites with his blessing (Joshua 22:6-8).
A. The return of the two and one-half tribes to their inheritances ch. 22
Joshua’s preparations for the conquest of Canaan began with his summoning the two and one-half tribes to join their brethren to help them in the battles ahead (Joshua 1:12-18). Now Joshua dismissed the two and a half tribes and allowed them to return to their tribal inheritances east of the Jordan River. This ended the task of conquering and dividing the land.
The writer used the terms "the land of Canaan" and "the land of Gilead" to refer to the land west and east of the Jordan River respectively in this section, Cisjordan and Transjordan. The altar, then, stood on the west side of the Jordan.
These tribes evidently intended the altar they built to be a replica of the brazen altar in the tabernacle courtyard at Shiloh (cf. Joshua 22:28). If they did, it is easy to understand why the other tribes reacted to its construction so violently. God had prohibited the building of altars in the land apart from the ones He ordained (Deuteronomy 12:1-14). [Note: Woudstra, p. 320.] The Canaanites built many altars, but this was not to be Israel’s practice.
When the other Israelites learned what the two and one-half tribes had done, they prepared to go to war against them (Joshua 22:12). This is what God had commanded the Israelites to do if any of their brethren sought to lead others in Israel away from God and His law (Deuteronomy 13:12-18).
To their credit the main body of Israelites did not attack and then ask questions later. Instead these Israelites sent a delegation of their leading men to persuade their brethren to take a different course of action.
"A noble example of moderation, forbearance, and charity, shines forth in this conduct. How many an unhappy strife might be prevented by similar precaution, by simply staying to inquire calmly into that which constitutes the avowed matter of offence! How often would a few words of candid explanation smother in embryo the most angry controversies, violent quarrels, and embittered persecutions! By barely adopting the prudent conduct of Israel on this occasion, individuals, families, churches, and communities, might, in a thousand instances, be saved a world of jealousy, enmity, discord, war and bloodshed." [Note: Bush, p. 194.]
Phinehas accompanied this group (Joshua 22:13). His presence would have impressed the two and one-half tribes with the importance of the delegation. It also would have reminded them of the war with the Midianites in which Phinehas figured as a prominent person (Numbers 25; Numbers 31). The Israelites referred to that war here (Joshua 22:17). They also mentioned Achan’s transgression (Joshua 22:20) to warn the Gileadite (transjordanian) tribes that God would punish disobedience to the law. The western Israelites believed that the whole nation would experience God’s discipline if this act of rebellion went unpunished.
The leaders of the Gileadites explained that their motive was not to use the altar to promote departure from Yahweh or the tabernacle. It was to memorialize the unity of the 12 tribes for future generations. The Israelites had, of course, erected other memorials for this purpose in the Jordan, at Gilgal (ch. 4), and on Mt. Ebal (Joshua 8:30-35). However, God had not ordered the building of this altar as He had the other monuments. He had made provision for preserving the unity of the nation by calling all the males in Israel back to the tabernacle three times each year. He had also done so through the stone memorials and altars that He had ordained.
"The combination of the three names of God-El, the strong one; Elohim, the Supreme Being to be feared; and Jehovah, the truly existing One, the covenant God (Joshua 22:22)-serves to strengthen the invocation of God, as in Psalms 1:1; and this is strengthened still further by the repetition of these three names." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 220.]
The Gileadites’ explanation relieved and satisfied Phinehas and his companions. They were glad to discover that their brethren were not apostatizing and that the nation would not therefore fall under God’s discipline. They allowed this altar to remain in place and apparently felt its presence would do more good than harm.
Probably the Israelites should not have allowed this altar to stand. God had not ordained it. In the future, other people would misunderstand its existence as some had already done. Though there is no record in Scripture that this particular altar became a snare to the Israelites, the practice of building altars continued in Israel. It resulted in the weakening of tribal ties and allegiance to Yahweh rather than strengthening them (e.g., Judges 17:5).
This incident illustrates the fact that sometimes, action taken with the best of motives and for worthy purposes, can result in worse rather than better conditions. This can be the outcome if people do not clearly understand and carefully obey the whole revealed will of God. This kind of mistake often results from enthusiasm over a previous blessing, as was true here.
Nevertheless, the major lessons of this chapter are positive. The zeal of the two and one-half tribes for the unity of their nation and the purity of their faith was commendable. The other Israelites’ unwillingness to judge their brethren’s motive on the basis of circumstantial evidence is also admirable. Furthermore, we learn that gentle confrontation and candid discussion of problems can often result in the resolution of misunderstandings (cf. Proverbs 15:1). [Note: Campbell, No Time . . ., p. 131.] The Israelites dealt wisely with a situation that could have split the people of God. Instead they were able to continue to follow God faithfully in unity.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 22". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany