Sometimes the only exercise I get is jumping to the wrong conclusion. Read last week’s article if you doubt me. This week we will look at a scriptural passage with repercussions far worse than mine.
First, some background. God’s chosen people, the Israelites, don’t act chosen. For 40 years Moses leads these slow-learning twelve tribes as they wander in the desert, sin, repent, sin, repent, etc. And now it’s time to enter the Promised Land. The leaders of Gad, Rueben and half of the tribe of Manassah ask to stay behind on the East side of the Jordan River. The land is rich with valleys for grazing their flocks and seems ideal. Moses agrees on the condition they first cross the Jordan with the other 9 ½ tribes to help conquer the land of Canaan. Five years later the war ends and the 2 ½ tribes return to their homes and families.
All is well.
Well, sort of.
Before even dipping their toes in the Jordan River, the Easterners build a massive altar, perceived by their Western brothers as a clear violation of the Law which mandates only one altar for sacrifices, thereby insuring that each tribe doesn’t do its own thing in its worship of Jehovah. One altar (already built on the Western side). One faith. One death, if disobeyed.
I can hear the 9 ½ tribes now.
“Seriously? Talk about one-upmanship!”
“Yeah. So much for teamwork.”
“Well, they’ve done it this time. First we have to fight the Canaanites and now we have to go to war against our brothers. And I was soooo looking forward to a nap.”
But then, a voice of reason. “Maybe first we should tell them why we’re going to slaughter them. You know, give them a heads-up.”
A delegation is sent to confront the offenders. Made up of Phinehas, a priest and 10 high officials of Israel, they waste no time for their come-to-Jesus meeting (except, of course, it really is more of a come-to-Yahweh meeting because Jesus hasn’t been born).
Let’s pick up in Joshua 22:16. “The whole community of the Lord demands to know why you are betraying the God of Israel. How could you turn away from the Lord and build an altar in rebellion against him?” The tirade continues as the 2 ½ tribes are given a nonstop tongue-lashing for building a second altar to the Lord. Now it is time for the accused to speak.
“The Lord alone is God! The Lord alone is God! We have not built the altar in rebellion against the LORD. If we have done so, do not spare our lives this day… We have built this altar because we fear that in the future your descendants will say to ours, ‘What right do you have to worship the Lord, the God of Israel? The Lord has placed the Jordan River as a barrier between our people and your people. You have no claim to the Lord.’ And your descendants may make our descendants stop worshiping the Lord.
“So we decided to build the altar, not for burnt sacrifices, but as a memorial…”
In other words, their motive is to unify, not divide, which always should be our goal when we don’t see eye-to-eye. So, what’s to learn from this story? First, even though it was far too accusatory, the opposition is given a chance to explain before the war trumpets are blown. Second, the response of the 2 ½ tribes, instead of igniting the fire (“How dare you talk to us like that!”), extinguishes it. We would do well to do likewise.
Phinehas and his now-happy-camper friends depart to tell the rest of the Israelites that there will be peace in the valley. (Someone should write a song with that title.)
All is well.
Well, sort of.