Thursday, March 15, 2018

Religious Misunderstandings Ironed Out in Joshua 22

1 Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh,
2 And said unto them, Ye have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you:
3 Ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God.
4 And now the Lord your God hath given rest unto your brethren, as he promised them: therefore now return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side Jordan.
5 But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all 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.
6 So Joshua blessed them, and sent them away: and they went unto their tents.
7 Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given possession in Bashan: but unto the other half thereof gave Joshua among their brethren on this side Jordan westward. And when Joshua sent them away also unto their tents, then he blessed them,
8 And he spake unto them, saying, Return with much riches 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.
9 And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and 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 country of Gilead, to the land of their possession, whereof they were possessed, according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses.
10 And when they came unto the borders of Jordan, that are 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 Jordan, a great altar to see to.
11 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 over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel.
12 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 to war against them.
13 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,
14 And with him ten princes, of each chief house a prince throughout all the tribes of Israel; and each one was an head of the house of their fathers among the thousands of Israel.
15 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,
16 Thus saith the whole congregation of the Lord, What trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the Lord, in that ye have builded you an altar, that ye might rebel this day against the Lord?
17 Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord,
18 But that ye must turn away this day from following the Lord? and it will be, seeing ye rebel to day against the Lord, that to morrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel.
19 Notwithstanding, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the Lord, wherein the Lord’s tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the Lord, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar beside the altar of the Lord our God.
20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? and that man perished not alone in his iniquity.
21 Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh answered, and said unto the heads of the thousands of Israel,
22 The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord, (save us not this day,)
23 That we have built us an altar to turn from following the Lord, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the Lord himself require it;
24 And if we have not rather done it for fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel?
25 For the Lord hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the Lord: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord.
26 Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice:
27 But that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord 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 part in the Lord.
28 Therefore said we, that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say again, Behold the pattern of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between us and you.
29 God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord, and turn this day from following the Lord, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for meat offerings, or for sacrifices, beside the altar of the Lord our God that is before his tabernacle.
30 And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spake, it pleased them.
31 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 perceive that the Lord is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the Lord: now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord.
32 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.
33 And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt.
34 And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God. (Joshua 22)
This is an interesting story with details that are best understood with reference to earlier stories in the Old Testament.

The chapter starts as the children of Israel have finished conquering the land of Canaan (or as much as they could conquer). Joshua lets the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh go to their possessions on the east side of the Jordan river. (They had actually been the first ones to obtain inheritance, but on condition that they would continue to fight alongside the rest of the tribes until everyone had obtained land of inheritance.)

V1-8 is Joshua’s dismissal of these tribes with a charge that they remember to keep the commandments and love the Lord.
-Take diligent heed to the commandment and the law
-love the Lord
-walk in His ways
-keep the commandments
-cleave to Him
-serve Him with all heart and soul

I have to wonder if Joshua was worried these tribes would forget God on the margins of the land.

V9-10  The 2 ½ tribes build an altar by Jordan, and it is said to be a very great altar, perhaps very large, visible all over.

V11  Rumor of the great altar is spread all around, and it causes consternation and worry and indignation. Why? Because in Leviticus 17:8-9 is a commandments that those who don’t bring their sacrifices to the Tabernacle’s altar are to be cut off (excommunicated). The tribes on the west side of Jordan jump to the conclusion that the 2 ½ tribes on the east side built this altar for sacrifice in opposition to the commandment. They worry this altar is a sign of idolatry starting in the eastern tribes.

V 12-14  The news of the big altar at Jordan in defiance of the commandments causes the western 9 ½ tribes to get ready for battle. To them, this altar, if built by one man, wouldn’t have been permitted by the man’s neighbors, if they were righteous. Therefore, it was built by the whole people on the east, therefore that whole group must be corrupted and require an army to invade and put things right.  To make sure the evil is stamped out, they send Phineas, the son of Eleazar the priest.

Here’s some quick background on Phineas.  Phineas is the same guy who speared two idolaters in their tent for committing ritual prostitution with the Moabites (see Numbers 25:1-15). Phineas was commended for his zeal in that act, and so he is sent to make sure that no idolater escapes punishment.

Also with Phineas are sent 10 princes of the western tribes to talk with the eastern tribes, according to the commandment in Deut. 13:12-15, to inquire diligently and see if the whole place is given to idolatry and find out if the rumors are true or not. (If the rumors are true, then the army gets called in to destroy the people.) It is a fact-finding expedition before the boom is lowered.

V16-20  The fact-finding expedition lays out the accusations—that the eastern tribes have rebelled against God by building an altar. They express the general worries that the eastern tribes will bring a plague on the rest of Israel just like Peor and Achan did in their idolatry and greed, which caused others to die too. (Achan was a fellow who took spoils from the conquest of Jericho and hid them in his tent in defiance of the command that the spoil was to be consecrated to the Lord. Because of his disobedience, Israel lost badly in their next military engagement, and he had to be detected by lot.(Joshua 7))

It is notable that they temper the accusations against the 2 ½ tribes with the supposition that maybe the eastern tribes have built the big altar in an effort to sanctify their land (maybe they thought their land was unclean), but princes say if the eastern tribes think that, they can come back and live on the west side of Jordan so they can be in a holy land too. This shows the western tribes were trying to think about what honest, good motives the eastern tribes might have had for building that big altar. This would go a long way toward softening the confrontation. People always want to be thought of as doing what’s right, and expressing some sense of trying to understand others as having good motives helps keep peace.

V22-29 The eastern tribes are very strong in denial of idolatry. They call upon God to punish them if their hearts are wrong and they ask to die that day if they are false to God. This is very serious stuff.

Instead, they say they have built the altar to try to prevent future problems. They worry that the western tribes’ descendants would someday exclude the eastern tribes’ descendants from worshipping the God of Israel at the Tabernacle and thereby turn the easterners from following the Lord. Their solution was to build a big altar in the exact pattern of the Tabernacle’s altar of sacrifice to show both sides that the eastern tribes worshipped the same God, that they knew what was done in the temple, they knew how it looked, and their knowledge was their license to participate. The altar was not for sacrifice, but to look at.

V30-34 Phineas and the 10 other princes are pleased with the explanation, and they go back to tell everyone else. Phineas’s declaration is notable too:

“This day we perceive that the Lord is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the Lord: now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the Lord.” (v31)

In what way had the eastern tribes saved Israel from God?
1)    They had given a good explanation that saved everyone from a fratricidal war. Yay for peace!
2)    They had brought up an important issue—the dangers of disunity in the future that might arise from barriers of geography, in this case the river Jordan—and taken steps to avoid it, such that descendants of Israel would remember to not exclude some marginal groups, thinking they were unfaithful. Excluding the faithful with hasty judgments has eternal consequences and Israel didn’t want to make that mistake.

In what way did Phineas see that the Lord was among them?

He realized that the eastern tribes had acted to try to increase unity and faithfulness. Efforts to do that are inspired by God. Further, by trying to find out what was going on, the fact-finding group got to learn of those unification efforts, and thereby they learned how God was working among the margins to increase unity, as well as in the center.

Seeing it this way—as efforts to unify and prevent future error—is what pleased all the rest of Israel when they heard it. Efforts to unify in righteousness always please the faithful.

So what do we learn from this story?

--It is important to find out the facts before lowering the boom with punishment.
--For those who are tasked with confronting those who appear to have transgressed commandments, it is important to share how things look and also try to imagine how it might have been thought a good thing. Imputing good motives to people helps keep relationships constructive.
--Anticipating future problems and putting in place solutions to mitigate them is helpful.
--It would be wise to avoid thinking that members outside or far from major member population centers are any less faithful than those at the center.
--Willingness to explain one’s actions to others helps keep the peace. Sometimes we may think we don’t need to explain, but people want to understand and people be understood.
--Efforts to increase unity among the righteous are inspired by God.

I think this is a helpful story because today our church isn’t just a little area. It is a global church and we are spread out all over, speaking so many different languages. More than ever it is important to avoid making prideful assumptions that put down other members. The Lord wants us to be unified in faithfulness and righteousness in spite of the distances between congregations and language barriers, and His Spirit works to increase that unity. We strive for unity in doctrine, unity in worship, unity in faith, unity in good works.