SynopsisThis is a very interesting passage. (In my opinion.)
Now that the LORD has given the Israelites peace, Joshua summons the tribes who live on the other side of the Jordan—the ones who promised not to return home until all of the fighting was done—and tells them they can go back home. In fact, he thanks them for their work:
[Joshua] said to them, “You have done all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded, and you have obeyed me in everything I commanded. For a long time now—to this very day—you have not deserted your brothers but have carried out the mission the LORD your God gave you.” (verses 2–3)
So Joshua lets them return, with a warning to keep the law and to walk in the LORD’s commandments but also with a blessing.
So they do. But once they get across the Jordan River, they build an “imposing” altar (verse 10). (I think they build the altar on their side of the river; the text just says that it’s “by” the Jordan, but without knowing the place names better, I can’t determine if it’s on their side or the other side.)
When the rest of the Israelites hear about this, they’re furious. (Remember that all of the Israelites are to worship the LORD at the designated altar; they are not to be building their own altars.) They muster up their troops, and get ready to go to war against the tribes that they believe are disobeying God. However, they show a little bit of restraint; before they start fighting, they send Phinehas the priest and some of the chiefs of the different Israelite tribes, to reason with the Trans-Jordan tribes.
When they went to Gilead—to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh—they said to them: “The whole assembly of the LORD says: ‘How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the LORD and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now? Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the LORD! And are you now turning away from the LORD?
“‘If you rebel against the LORD today, tomorrow he will be angry with the whole community of Israel. If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the LORD’s land, where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and share the land with us. But do not rebel against the LORD or against us by building an altar for yourselves, other than the altar of the LORD our God. When Achan son of Zerah acted unfaithfully regarding the devoted things, did not wrath come upon the whole community of Israel? He was not the only one who died for his sin.’”
However, all is not as it appears:
Then Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh replied to the heads of the clans of Israel: “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows! And let Israel know! If this has been in rebellion or disobedience to the LORD, do not spare us this day. If we have built our own altar to turn away from the LORD and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the LORD himself call us to account.
“No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, ‘What do you have to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? The LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you—you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the LORD.’ So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the LORD.
“That is why we said, ‘Let us get ready and build an altar—but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.’ On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the LORD at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices and fellowship offerings. Then in the future your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no share in the LORD.’
“And we said, ‘If they ever say this to us, or to our descendants, we will answer: Look at the replica of the LORD’s altar, which our fathers built, not for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but as a witness between us and you.’
“Far be it from us to rebel against the LORD and turn away from him today by building an altar for burnt offerings, grain offerings and sacrifices, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle.”
When the priests and chiefs hear this, they are not only placated, they’re “pleased” (verse 30). In fact, they take these actions as proof that the LORD is with them. They return back to their homes, content that everything is well.
The Reubenites and Gadites give the altar a name: “A Witness Between Us that the LORD is God” (verse 34).
ThoughtsThe Israelites caused trouble for themselves by not consulting the LORD, when dealing with the Gibeonites. I think a similar thing is happening here; if the Israelites have the means of consulting with the LORD, they should really do so, before jumping to a conclusion that will cause not just ill-will, but war.
This chapter also shows a little bit about human nature. Not just that the Israelites assume the worst about their brothers, but about the fact that the Trans-Jordan tribes feel they have to have this altar, to remind the other Israelites that they really do worship the LORD.