“Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!” (v. 29).
With the people of Israel substantially established west of the Jordan River such that they enjoyed a period of rest from war (Josh. 1–21), the time came for the Israelites to settle down more permanently. For Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh, this would mean journeying back to their territories east of the Jordan. In today’s passage, we read about their return and a misunderstanding that occurred between them and the rest of Israel shortly after they got back to their lands.
In Joshua 22, the central issue concerns the unity of God’s people under the true worship of God. Ever since Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh asked for land east of the Jordan, there was a concern that they might abandon the other tribes and not assist them in taking Canaan. In fact, Moses allowed them to settle east of the Jordan only when they pledged to act as one people with the rest of Israel and help in the conquest (Num. 32). Having secured a foothold in Canaan with the help of these two and a half tribes, Joshua sent them back home, encouraging them to remember to keep God’s law (Josh. 22:1–9). It was essential that they continue not only to support their brother tribes but also to do so in service to the God of Israel.
Once the two and a half tribes got home, however, trouble arose when they built an imposing altar. Shiloh had been established as the one site where sacrifices could be lawfully offered, and the tribes west of the Jordan gathered there to make war on the tribes east of the Jordan (vv. 10–12). We have to understand that they did this because they were concerned about false worship. In a message to the eastern tribes, they reminded the people in the east of the problems that arose when the worship of God was corrupted by Israel’s disobedience in the past (vv. 13–20; see Num. 25; Josh. 6). This was a commendable zeal. God had said sacrifices could be offered only at one location (Deut. 12), and building another altar was asking for trouble.
But the eastern tribes did not build the altar for sacrifices. It was built as a reminder to the people west of the Jordan that they had a share in Israel lest the descendants in the west convince the descendants in the east to go astray (Josh. 22:21–34). The eastern tribes were just as concerned about true worship as the western tribes were, and they wanted to show their unity with Israel under true worship of Yahweh. We should imitate this concern. Let us prize unity with other professing Christians but never at the expense of the truth.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
True unity can come only as believers come together to worship the one true God according to His truth. Like the tribes described in today’s passage, we should be concerned for the pure worship of God, for if we violate God’s Word in worship, corruption of doctrine will soon follow. Let us encourage our pastors and elders in our churches to continue designing worship according to the principles of Scripture.