A Witness that Yahweh is God: Joshua 22

  This is the third post in a multi-post series on the 7 Memorials found in the Book of Joshua. See part 1 and part 2.

Have you ever seen a monument built not as a reminder for the people who built it, but as a reminder for someone else?

Some of the tribes of Israel decided to build an altar as a witness to God and to the other tribes of Israel in Joshua 22. It was a memorial to hold another group accountable. Yet, a major misunderstanding arose between the two groups of tribes, almost inciting a war based on accusations that the other was wrong about the worship of God.

Joshua 22 is difficult to understand because of many cultural nuances lost to us today. The passage is not presented in the actual historical order, but is presented in the progression of thought. It is highly ironic in that each group desires faithfulness to God but perceives the other as theologically erroneous.

The text does not critique one or the other but presents a simple lesson–we should not put barriers in place to those who worship God genuinely; the worship of God is for everyone.

Charge for Obedience

It is important to understand the backdrop to this passage—the initial phases of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites had been completed. In Numbers 23, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh decided not to claim land in the promised land but opted for land on the other side of the Jordan. Now that the fighting was winding down (but not permanently over), the “transjordanian” tribes were ready to go to their land. So Joshua gives them a solemn charge to follow God, 
“Only keep very much to do the commands of the law which Moses, the servant of Yahweh, commanded you all: to love Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commandments to cleave to him and  to serve him with all your hearts and with all your being.” – Joshua 22:5, my translation

 Since these tribes would be separated by the Jordan River, Joshua felt it necessary they received an extra reminder to follow God; they were to follow Yahweh just as much as those who lived in the promised land.

Future Concern

The irony is that the transjordanian tribes believed the ten tribes would need the reminder, not to follow God; but that they had a right to worship God as much as the ten tribes did.During ancient times, people often thought their god was only to be worshiped by a certain people group or within a geographical boundary.

“In time to come your sons may say to our sons, 'What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you sons of Reuben and sons of Gad; you have no portion in the Lord.' So your sons may make our sons stop fearing the Lord.' " – 24, NASB

 We can’t know if this concern was legitimate or unfounded as it never happens, nor does the text critique this. In this scenario, the blame is placed on the ten tribes for causing the transjordanian tribes to stop fearing God. If the transjordanian tribes stopped fearing God, it would be the ten tribes' fault. Its unclear if this is seen as a total abandonment of Yahweh by the transjordanian tribes, or just a deviation from worshiping him at his altar.

With good intentions, the transjordanian tribes sought to mitigate this potential future by building an altar as a reminder for the ten tribes.
“If they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, then we shall say, “See the copy of the altar of Yahweh which our fathers made, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; rather, it is a witness between us and you.” – 28

 Israel's Misunderstanding

However, the ten tribes thought the transjordanian tribes were rebelling against proper worship of Yahweh. So they assembled an army to attack and sent a delegation of 11–the high priest Phinehas along with a representative from each tribe.
They confronted the transjordanian tribes out of concern that they were erring–this is highly ironic given that the two-and-half-tribes thought the ten tribes were the ones who would err!
“What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the God of Israel, turning away from following the Lord this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against the Lord this day? … The land of your possession is unclean, then cross into the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Yahweh’s dwelling place stands, and dwell among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord, or rebel against us, by building an altar for yourselves besides the altar of the Lord our God.” – 16

 They missed the entire point of the other tribe’s altar. They too were aware of the contemporary thinking about deity worship and thought the other tribes were creating their own place to worship God. They drive the point home further by referring back to two major sins that affected all of Israel,

“Is the wrongdoing of Peor not enough for us, from which we have not cleansed ourselves to this day, although a plague came on the congregation of the Lord.” – 17

 This refers back to Numbers 25 where Israelites became sexually involved with Moabite women who led them to worship Ba’al of Peor. The sin false god worship was still affecting Israel. By building another altar, the other tribes were adding insult to injury against God.

“If you rebel against Yahweh today, he will be angry with the entire congregation of Israel tomorrow….Did Achan the son of Zerah not act unfaithfully in the things designated for destruction, and wrath fall on the entire congregation of Israel? So that man did not perish alone in his guilt.” – 18, 20
They refer back to Achan’s sin in Joshua 7 to highlight how one person’s sin brought God’s wrath on everyone. In the same way, the transjordanian tribes’ sin would affect the ten guitless tribes too.

Crisis Resolved

The misunderstanding finally comes to a resolution when Reuben, Gad and Manasseh explain why they built their altar.

“Let us build an altar, not for burn offering for for sacrifice, rather it shall be a witness between us and you and between our generations after us, that we are to perform the service of Yahweh before him with our burnt offerings, our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings so that your sons will not say to your sons in the time to come, ‘You have no portion in Yahweh’ “ .. . Far be it from us that we should rebel against Yahweh… by building an altar…. Besides the altar of Yahweh our God which is before his Tabernacle.” – 26, 29

 They swear by God that they had good intentions and if they didn’t, God could destroy them (v. 22-23)! This is a bold statement that would certainly invoke God’s wrath if they had an evil intent.

As verse 28 makes clear, the altar was built as visual representation that all the tribes of Israel on both sides of the Jordan should have access to the Lord’s altar to worship him.
When the ten tribes realize they were mistaken, they declare,
“We know Yahweh is among us,whom you have not committed this trespass against, you have delivered the sons of Israel from the hand of God.” – 31, my translation

 Therefore, they called the altar a witness between them that Yahweh is God. However long that altar stood near the border of the Promised Land, it served as an ever-present reminder that all the Israelites could worship God. Cultural beliefs about gods did not apply to the one true God.


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