Work Through Conflict

The Point:  Leaders handle conflict with clear communication.

The People’s Unity Preserved:  Joshua 22:10-34.

[10]  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. [11]  And the people of Israel heard it said, "Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel." [12]  And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them. [13]  Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, [14]  and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. [15]  And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, [16]  "Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD? [17]  Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, [18]  that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. [19]  But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD’s land where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. [20]  Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.’" [21]  Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, [22]  "The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today [23]  for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself take vengeance. [24]  No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? [25]  For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the LORD.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. [26]  Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, [27]  but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, "You have no portion in the LORD."’ [28]  And we thought, If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, ‘Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.’ [29]  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!" [30]  When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. [31]  And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, "Today we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD." [32]  Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. [33]  And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. [34]  The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, "For," they said, "it is a witness between us that the LORD is God."  [ESV]

A Crisis of Loyalties. [9-12]  The Crisis Develops.  This section [9-12] sets the stage for the crisis in bare outline. Several critical details that explain the crisis do not emerge until later. We do not know, for example, the reason that the Transjordan tribes built their altar [11]. We are not told what was wrong with this and why the rest of the Israelites gathered for war against them [12]. However, something clearly was wrong. The Transjordan tribes left their fellow Israelites at Shiloh, where the climactic gathering had been held and the final land distributions had been made [18:1], to return to their own lands. The references in verse 9 to the land of Canaan and the land of Gilead, their own land emphasize the fact that the two portions of Israel were going to different places, one portion remaining in Canaan proper and the other leaving, to go to a land (Gilead) that was not, strictly speaking, in Canaan. This anticipates the problem of a divided nation that is addressed in the remainder of this chapter. The tribes arrived at Geliloth, near the Jordan, which appears to have been the site of Gilgal, the place where they had first entered the land and set up a pillar of memorial stones and circumcised the nation [4:19-20; 5:9-10]. At this place significant in the nation’s history, the Transjordan tribes built a large altar. Its imposing size, visible from afar, explains the significance of this altar west of the Jordan. In the first place, its erection west of the Jordan by the tribes living east of the Jordan emphasized something the Transjordan tribes wanted to affirm: the nation’s unity and their own loyalty to the God who gave Canaan to His people. However, for a people living east of the Jordan, its position across the river could potentially have caused it to have been forgotten. Thus, its imposing size would have allowed it to be seen from vantage points across the river and thus remembered. Verse 11 reports in direct speech the Israelite tribes’ surprised reaction to the altar’s presence. Three times the location of the altar is mentioned: at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel. The tribes west of the Jordan reacted strongly to this altar by assembling to go to war [12]. The reason for their reaction is not revealed until later [16-20], as is the motivation for the Transjordan tribes’ having built the altar in the first place [21-29]. The basis for the Israelite tribes’ reaction is found in the law against offering a burnt offering or sacrifice at any location other than the tabernacle [Lev. 17:8-9] and in the more general law in Deuteronomy 13:12-15 against worshiping other gods. In both instances, the Israelites were authorized to kill the offenders, and this was why they now prepared to go to war against their fellow Israelites. It is striking to notice one of the terms used for the Israelite tribes here. Even though they were only nine and one-half tribes, they are called by an inclusive term in verse 12: the whole assembly of the people of Israel (see also verse 16,  the whole congregation of the Lord and verses 18 and 20). The two and one-half Transjordan tribes are clearly not included in this designation, that is, they were not considered to be part of the Israelite assembly, at least at this point. A survey of the rest of the chapter reveals that the narrator and the speakers consistently maintain such a distinction until the misunderstanding about the altar has been explained in a satisfactory manner. Beginning with verse 30, there is no reference again to such all-inclusive terms as all Israel or the whole community, only to the more general terms, the Israelites or the community. The significance of these careful distinctions is that the story is being presented in order to highlight two facts about the altar: (1) the grave danger posed by its existence and (2) its potential for irreparably dividing the nation. [13-20]  The Accusation.  The Israelite tribes confronted their fellow Israelites across the Jordan, raising the specter of terrible punishment on the entire nation resulting from what they regarded as their fellows’ sin. They pointed to two cases: the Israelites’ sin at Peor in the wilderness [Num. 25] and, more immediately, Achan’s sin at Jericho [Joshua 7]. Verses 13-14 reflect the emphasis on unity from another vantage point: they show ten carefully chosen representatives, leaders of the nine and one half tribes west of the Jordan. The representatives were each heads of family divisions, each representing a tribe. The presence of Phinehas, the priest, shows the emphasis on true or correct ritual. It especially recalls his own actions in the incident at Peor, when he had taken drastic measures to stop a plague that had broken out because of Israel’s disobedience [Num. 25:7-13]. That incident is specifically recalled in verse 17. Thus, the seriousness of the potential problem is underscored by Phinehas’ role and by the reference to the Peor incident. Joshua is not mentioned in this chapter after verse 7. Rather, Phinehas and the Israelite tribes are the characters who raised their concerns about all Israelites remaining loyal to God. Perhaps Phinehas’ priestly role is emphasized because the laws forming the backdrop to the incident here are given in the Pentateuchal legislation falling under the priest’s concerns [Lev. 17:8-9; Deut. 13:12-15] and because of Phinehas’ earlier role at Peor. Phinehas and the ten representatives crossed the Jordan themselves into Gilead in order to confront their fellow Israelites with what they saw as a great offense [15]. These representatives are called the whole congregation of Israel, that is, they stood as representatives of the entire godly portion of the nation. At this juncture, the faithfulness of the Transjordan tribes is still in doubt. The seriousness with which the Israelite delegation regarded the Transjordan tribes’ action in building the altar is seen in the term they used for it, found twice here in verse 16 (as a verb, breach of faith, and as a noun, rebellion). It is the same term used of Achan’s sin in verse 20 (break faith) and in 7:1 (broke faith). They understood the altar to have been a major breach in relationship with the Lord. They equated the offense of this altar not only with Achan’s sin, but also with the sin committed at Peor. The sin at Peor had occurred many years earlier in the wilderness. It had involved the Israelites’ prostituting themselves by bowing to the Moabite gods – specifically, the Baal of Peor – seduced by the women of Moab to do so. A plague had broken out in the Israelite camp as an expression of the Lord’s displeasure, and twenty-four thousand people had died before Phinehas had intervened and caused the Lord’s anger to abate [Num. 25:6-9]. The Israelite tribes’ fear was that such a horror could happen again. Indeed, they claimed that the stain of this sin remained with them: even yet we have not cleansed ourselves [17]. The plague itself was not still raging because Numbers 25:8 states that it had stopped. Nevertheless, its effects were still being felt in a very real way. The implication is that Israel had never truly rid itself of this sin, that it always flirted with – if not participated in – idolatry and the allure of pagan religious systems. Achan’s case was proof positive of this, and the Israelite tribes feared that this altar represented another such case. The Israelite representatives accused their fellow tribes of having turned back from following after the Lord [18]. They also stated their belief in a domino effect of sorts: their rebellion would result in the Lord’s anger against the rest of the nation (just as had happened with the case of Achan). The stain of sin was infectious, and it effects were catching. Following their accusations, the Israelite representatives urged their Transjordanian brothers to take drastic action [19], to abandon their inheritance east of the Jordan and settle west of the river if the land of their possession was unclean. The tabernacle resided there, symbolizing God’s presence and standing as the fulfillment of God’s instructions about setting His name in the place where He would choose. From their perspective, it was better that the Transjordan tribes abandon their possession and pursue true worship than to keep their land and engage in apostasy. The land of your possession east of the Jordan is contrasted with the Lord’s land west of the Jordan in verse 19. Implied is the idea that perhaps the land east of the Jordan was not actually to be considered the Lord’s possession, certainly not so if its Israelite inhabitants were to succumb to pagan worship. In the same sense in which Achan made himself a Canaanite by his actions, so also here the question arises: Were the Transjordan tribes truly Israelites, or were they becoming Canaanites? The crucial difference from Achan, however (as we learn in the next section), was that the Transjordan tribes were not guilty at all of what they were accused of. A certain self-interest reveals itself in the Israelite tribes’ comments in that they feared for their own lives [20]. They feared that their fellow Israelites’ “sin” would result in the entire nation’s being punished, just as it had in Achan’s case. [21-29]  The Defense.  The Transjordan tribes responded passionately that they were innocent of any rebellion or breach of faith. The entire paragraph shows them to have been innocent of anything malicious: they never intended to use this altar for sacrifices to God Himself, let along to other gods. Rather, they intended it only as a memorial or witness for their children [26-27]. Their concern was the same as that of the tribes west of the Jordan: that the unity of Israel be maintained and that their loyalty be to the Lord alone [25,27]. The defense is the climax of the passage in terms of the plot’s unfolding because the Transjordan tribes’ motivations in building the altar are not revealed until now [27-28]. We learn that their intentions, previously suspected to be sinful, were entirely honorable. The defense is passionate, and this is reflected in the syntax. It is choppy in places, and much repetition is found in these verses. It reflects the agitated state of mind in which the Transjordan tribes found themselves, and we can easily imagine them stumbling breathlessly over their words in order to clarify the matter and justify themselves. Structurally as well, this section represents the heart of the passage. The Transjordan tribes began their defense in verse 22 by calling God as their witness in the strongest possible terms: three terms for God are used, each set repeated twice: The Mighty One, God, the Lord. The piling up of the terms for God here, and their repetition, is unique in the Old Testament, and it indicates the agitated state of mind of the Transjordan tribes and their eagerness to have their position vindicated. They affirmed as forcefully as possible their loyalty to this God. After the string of terms for God is ended, we find an interesting sequence in which the idea of knowing is important: the tribes affirmed that, as for God, He knows. Then, they stated that, as for Israel, it will know or let Israel itself know. In affirming God as they did, these tribes were also appealing to Him as their witness to vindicate them. Then their Israelite brethren would know the truth. Following their opening exclamations, the Transjordan tribes cast themselves on the mercy of their fellow tribes [22] and on God Himself [23]. They were willing to suffer whatever consequences would be meted out, if indeed they were guilty of what they were being accused of. They had nothing to hide, and they were anxious to prove it. Their attitude demonstrated a refreshing transparency, which came from their certainty of their innocence. The representatives of the Israelites had not mentioned sacrifices or offerings of any kind, but the Transjordan tribes did in their response, five times: verses 23,26,27,28,29. They were well aware of the prohibitions against false worship and sacrifice, and they took care to show that this was not their intent. Turning the argument away from asserting their innocence, the Transjordan tribes now gave the reason for what they did: it was rooted in their fear of being cut off from their fellow Israelites sometime in the future [24-25]. The Jordan River formed a natural boundary between them and their brethren, and they feared that their descendants might be rejected by their brothers’ descendants. Worse than that, however, they feared that the Israelite descendants might cause the Transjordanian’s descendants to cease their worship of God [25]. They would do this by referring to the obvious boundary between them – the Jordan River – and then claiming, by extension, that only those living west of the Jordan, in the Lord’s land, had a legitimate portion in the Lord [19]. In this way, their descendants might be completely cut off from the blessings promised to all Israel. The Transjordan tribes’ urgency and sincerity is indicated in many ways, including the content of their words, their insistence in uttering them, and even in the way in which they vowed their innocence. Following the insistent appeal to God in verse 22, their words at the beginning of verse 24 take on the nature of an oath and can be translated as “Now surely, on account of anxiety did we do this!” In verse 25, only the Reubenites and the Gadites are mentioned as targets of the Transjordan tribes’ rejection (i.e., eastern Manasseh was not included with them). This was because eastern Manasseh would have still been considered to have had roots west of the Jordan, by virtue of the Manassites who settled there. Note that ten representatives from Transjordan had been sent [14]; these represented all ten of the landed tribes there, including western Manasseh. The climax of the passage is now reached in verses 26-29. After heightening the suspense yet again, restating what the altar was not intended for, the author reveals the Transjordan tribes’ motivation for building the altar. The altar was to be a witness between the two parts of Israel. It would represent the unity of eastern and western tribes in the proper worship of the Lord at His true sanctuary. They would offer the sacrifices and offerings there, not at the altar they had built. The use of the term witness for the first time in the book reveals the legal status of the altar in the minds of the Transjordan tribes. The altar that the Transjordan tribes had built is revealed in verse 28 not to have been a true altar at all, but only a copy of the altar of the Lord. True worship was in no jeopardy; this imitation altar was merely to serve as a reminder to the Transjordan tribes of the true altar at which they would offer their true worship of God and as a reminder and a witness to all the tribes of the unity between them. The altar’s location should have been a clue from the beginning as to its purpose. Significantly, the Transjordan tribes did not build it on their side of the Jordan, but across the river from where they would live. It served little useful purpose to them there; for it to have been used regularly to offer sacrifices, it would need to have been east of the river. Here, its imposing size comes into play [see v. 10]. There it would stand, west of the Jordan, out of practical reach for regular offerings, yet functioning as a silent reminder of the true altar at the Lord’s sanctuary. It beckoned the Transjordan tribes to cross the Jordan to offer their sacrifices at the altar of which it was only a copy. And when these tribes reached the climactic point in their defense where they revealed the altar’s nature as a copy, they told their brethren to look at its imposing appearance to see what the Transjordan tribes would see in years to come. The reason for its imposing size is thus revealed. The Transjordan tribes’ final words are another emphatic denial that they would ever contemplate offering sacrifices of any type except at the true altar at the tabernacle [29]. They again used the vocabulary that had been used against them: they would not rebel against the Lord nor turn away from Him. Thus, their denial of any wrongdoing comes to a close. Their innocence and proper intentions could not be doubted. [30-34]  The Crisis Resolved.  The Transjordan tribes’ impassioned defense quickly defused the crisis, satisfying the people’s representatives. The response of Phinehas and the leaders occupies only one verse [30], an abrupt ending to a crisis that has been described in twenty verses [10-29]. The passage concludes with assurances and peace on all sides and a formalizing of the altar’s purpose with a name for it [31-34]. The unity of the nation is preserved, the place of the Transjordan tribes assured, and a civil war and the Lord’s punishment is avoided. The threat of the Lord’s wrath being poured out on the entire nation, which was a very read fear [18,20], was now averted. The Israelites were now assured that their eastern brothers had not been acting faithlessly. In a very real sense, then, they has rescued the nation from catastrophe. The conclusion of the episode is signaled by the leaders’ return home in verse 32. Things came to a happy conclusion, with the western tribes rejoicing and praising God when they heard the news [33]. The climax of the chapter reveals the full meaning of the altar: it was to testify to God Himself. Previously, the account had revealed that it was to be a witness [27,28], but the earlier verses do not reveal the precise nature or function of the witness. Now we see that it was to affirm that Yahweh was God. It was a symbol of Israel’s national unity, and this symbol was to testify to Israel’s God: it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.”  [Howard, pp. 405-416]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe the events of this passage. What was the concern of the people of Israel? What was their initial response? What did they do wrong in forming this initial response? What saved the people of Israel from going to war with the Transjordan tribes?

2.         Describe the Transjordan tribes’ defense. What motivated them to build the altar? What is significant about the way they appeal to God? What terms do they use for God?

3.         What can we learn from this event about our consideration for the actions of others? What do we learn about our attitude toward those who have misunderstood our actions? Note the importance of not jumping to conclusions without first obtaining all the facts.


Joshua: An Expositional Commentary, James Boice, Baker (Kindle eBook).

The Book of Joshua, Marten Woudstra, Eerdmans.

Joshua, David Howard, Jr., NAC, B & H Publishing.

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