An Altar of Witness
In Joshua 22:12 the whole assembly of Israel were gathered at Shiloh ready to make war. They weren’t there to make war with the Philistines. They weren’t there to make war with the Ammonites. They weren’t under siege by another nation. The whole assembly of the people of Israel had gathered at Shiloh ready to make war against their own people, Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
The people of Gad, Reuben, and half of the tribe of Manasseh had asked Moses, back in Numbers 32, that they be given the land on the east side of the Jordan because it was well suited for livestock. After making a vow to send their fighting men into the land of Canaan and fight alongside the other tribes until the conquest was complete Moses agreed.
When it came time for Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to return home with their share in the spoils of war they decided to build an altar. “So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the LORD through Moses. And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.” (Jos 22:9-10)
It’s when the people of Israel heard of this being done they gathered at Shiloh to make war with them. They send Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest and with him ten chiefs. Phinehas leads the charge and sharply rebukes them in Joshua 22:16-20. The people perceived it to be a gross breach of faith and a great sin. The people of Gad, Reuben, and half-tribe of Manasseh realize the misunderstanding and explain in Joshua 22:21-29 that they had not built the altar to offer worship on but merely as a memorial and sign to future generations that though they dwell east of the Jordan they still “perform the service of the Lord.”
They Were Determined To Deal With Sin
The people of Israel had every right to be upset and were determined to deal with this apparent sin. In Deuteronomy 12:5-14 the Lord made it very clear that the place of collective worship would be at the place that the Lord decided. The people of Israel had heard and experienced all too well the consequences of these types of breaches of faith with the Lord. Phinehas recalls the sin at Peor in Numbers 25 when some 24,000 people are killed as a result of breaking faith. Achan, in Joshua 7, causes the death of 36 men and then the death of his entire family.
You have to admire their determination at this point in their history to readily and boldly deal with sin. The church in Corinth didn’t deal with it and Paul had to rebuke them in 1 Corinthians 5-6. Jesus gave the same admonition and strong warning in Revelation 2-3 to some of the churches of Asia. If we don’t have the same perspective today where will that leave us? While I don’t believe that in dealing with sin we need to immediately gather the whole assembly to make war, but we must be people who are committed to following God’s will and the pattern He has given us and be ready and willing to deal with it immediately.
They Went To the Source
It’s a good thing that they sent Phineas and the other chiefs before they just went in and annihilated them because what they perceived was not in fact reality. Joshua 22:11 says “And the people of Israel heard it said…” I couldn’t help but think of two passages. Proverbs 11:13 “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.” and Matthew 18:15 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Sometimes what we perceive we understand or know about our brethren is not reality. We've all experienced this with our children, spouses, and others. There is and always will be a lot of things that are attacking the church from the outside but if there is one thing that causes so much damage from within it is gossip and slander. This has always been an issue but modern social media has multiplied the problem. Let’s be people who are committed to God’s way and avoid gossip and slander and simply go to the source. It may be that you are mistaken and because you followed God's way you haven't marred the reputation by spreading those assumptions. It may also be that you are correct and that they need to change. If they listen to you and repent then because you've followed God's way you haven't marred their reputation among others by spreading those assumptions.
Build Something Different
I couldn't help but think maybe Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh thought to themselves, after this was all over, "Maybe we should have picked something different to build." It turned out that their reasoning and motives were in the right place. Instead of breaching faith with the Lord they were striving to preserve it but what they decided to build to show that caused this heart ache and trouble. I think we know what this means practically today as well. While this falls in the area of personal judgment and liberty that Paul discusses in Romans 14 there are times when we're insistent on our own way that it causes others to wonder and think things that may not be true. Maybe our activities or associations or decisions are technically not sinful but constantly have people wondering. Our goal is to draw others closer to Christ and glorify God in everything we do. While somethings in and of themselves may not be sinful for me, if it is always causing questions not only in my brethren's eyes but in the eyes of those I’m trying to influence in Christ, maybe I should seek to build those influences and relationships with other things.
Let's learn from this account that the Lord has given us some great wisdom and practical application in dealing with these things and for us to follow the pattern. There is a time for snatching someone out of the fire (Jude 23), there is a time for the whole assembly to gather, but it starts with us going to one another out of love and true concern for one another and correcting one another in gentleness. "God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will." (2 Tim. 2:25-26)