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THE RETURN OF THE 2 ½ TRIBES
To their credit, the warriors from Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had continued faithfully with the other tribes in conflict with the enemy until all the power of the enemy was subdued. Joshua now speaks to them, commending them for their obedience to Moses and to him (v.2) in not leaving their brethren during these many days of warfare. Therefore he tells them that they are free to return to their homes on the east side of Jordan, the possession that God had granted them before the crossing of the Jordan (v.4).
However, he urgently admonished them to take careful heed to keep the commandment and the law that Moses had communicated to them, "to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to keep the commandments, to hold fast to them, and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul" (v.5). Joshua was particularly concerned about these tribes because they had chosen to take the territory east of Jordan, thus having a boundary that naturally separated them from the rest of Israel. In their returning, however, they do so with the blessing of Joshua (v.6).
Joshua approved of their taking with them much in the way of riches obtained as spoil from the enemies they had defeated (v.8). Similarly, if believers today, through conflict with spiritual enemies, are enriched with the knowledge of the truth of God, they have plenty to share with their loved ones and neighbors.
A GREAT ALTAR BY JORDAN
Returning to their land, these men of the two and one half tribes immediately erect a very large altar by the banks of the Jordan River (v.10). It is understandable that when the other tribes heard of this altar they were alarmed, for God's altar in Israel was to be in the place that He would choose. At that time it was at Shiloh because Israel did not have possession of Jerusalem, which was to be God's center. But God recognized only one altar on which Israel was to offer their sacrifices, for the altar typically speaks of Christ.
Israel gathered together at Shiloh prepared to go to war against the 2 ½ tribes (vs.11-12). However, they wisely waited to engage in warfare until they had sent a delegation headed by Phinehas the priest and composed also of a ruler from each of the ten tribes west of Jordan (vs.13-14). They would afterwards be thankful they did this, for they found the situation was not what it appeared to be. We too must remember that a consultation is better than a confrontation
These men speak as representing "the whole congregation of the Lord" (v.16), letting the 2 ½ tribes know that they considered it treachery against the Lord that these tribes had erected an altar for themselves, for it appeared to be rebellion against God's authority. They of course reasoned that a separate altar could not be God's altar, and therefore that these tribes were turning away from following the Lord. They remember "the iniquity of Peor" (v.17) and the plague God had sent on Israel because of the mixture of Israelites with Moab and their idols (Numbers 25:1-18; Numbers 9:1-23, and they want no repetition of such judgment. For if only these tribes turned away, then the Lord would be angry with the whole congregation of Israel (v.18). This is a solemn lesson for the Church of God too, and in some respects more deeply serious when there is departure on the part of some. For the Church is "one body", and "if one member suffers all the members suffer with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26). We may not see this result very plainly, but this is because of our sad lack of spiritual perception in realizing just how badly the testimony in the Church is affected by the disobedience of only a small part. But God is in perfect control even of this, and we shall in the glory see just how profoundly the Church has been affected by the actions of every member of the body.
Phinehas and the delegation with him thought that possibly the 2 ½ tribes considered their land unclean, and still under the domination of an idolatrous god, since they placed their great altar there, and told them if so they should come to the west side of Jordan. They give one example of God's anger against all Israel on account of the sin of only one man, Achan (v.20). The sin of Peor involved the guilt of many, but Achan's sin was only his, yet it affected all Israel.
However, those of the 2 ½ tribes had a different explanation of this than the rest of Israel had expected. They made it clear that they give every honor to "the Lord God of gods," and plead the fact of God's knowledge that understood what they were doing (vs.21-22). They say that, if this altar was raised in rebellion or treachery, then they would accept the judgment of not being saved that day. If they had built the altar to turn from following the Lord, or if in order to offer sacrifices on it, then let the Lord require this in judgment (v.23).
They explain therefore the real reason for the altar. They were apprehensive that in the future the children of Israel west of Jordan might question their right to any relationship with Israel because the Jordan came between them (vs.24-25). Therefore they decided to build the altar, not to offer sacrifices, but as a standing witness to their identification with the rest of Israel (vs.26-27). It was not an independent altar, but a replica of Israel's altar, but firmly declared as to be not for offering sacrifices (vs.28-29), but as a witness.
The wiser course in this case would have been to previously advise Israel of their intention to build such an altar, thus avoiding any misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the explanation was fully satisfactory to Phinehas and the other delegates of Israel, and Phinehas voiced their thankful approval of this, perceiving that this altar was really a confirmation of the unity of all Israel rather than a tragic declaration of division (vs.30-31).
When news of this was brought back to Israel, it was not only a relief, but a pleasure for them to realize that the 2 ½ tribes were concerned to maintain as close a unity with the other tribes as possible (vs.32-33). Then it is added that the altar was appropriately named "Witness."
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Joshua 22". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26