What a great lesson this chapter conveys! As the tribes of Israel have conquered the land and are at peace, Joshua thanks the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh for fighting alongside their brothers, blesses them, and sends them back across the Jordan to the land Moses gave them. Along the way, they decide to build an altar near the Jordan. When Joshua and the Israelites hear of this, they immediately assume the worse: These two and a half tribes have turned away from God and are worshipping false gods. The plan to go to war against their kinsman.
Thankfully, before the fighting starts, they send a delegation comprised from each of their tribes to confront their relatives about the altar. They learn that the altar was not built to worship false gods but to bear witness for generations to come that they worship the same God as the larger body of Israelites.
So what lessons come to mind that are applicable to us today? First, we have a responsibility to one another to address heresy within the body. The Eastern tribes recognized and agreed with their brothers’ desire to come against them if they were turning away from God. They cried out to God who knew their hearts in the matter and then submitted themselves to their brothers, agreeing that if they were in rebellion in their actions, their brothers were right to confront them. Second, we also see the need to get the whole story and to confront in love. Their purpose in sending a delegation was not to destroy their kinsman, but to challenge them, to inquire about their motives, and to discern God’s will for the situation. They could have simply armed their troops and sent a massive army to wipe them out without asking any questions, but it was important to first understand the situation completely. Misunderstandings between believers often leave one side wounded, or maybe even both sides. Instead of immediately attacking or reflexively defending out position, we need to seek to understand the heart behind the actions. Sometimes things aren’t quite the way they seem at first glance.
Finally, the purpose of the altar was to remind both the Eastern and Western tribes that they all served the Most High God. Many churches are being boldly, but lovingly, confronted regarding behavior that suggests they have elevated politics, self-preservation, and cultural biases above the worship of God. Is our response to call upon the Lord, humble ourselves, and agree that if we have elevated anything above God we are in sin? Or do we insist that it isn’t what it seems, they are making it up, or their experience or perception isn’t valid? The Eastern tribes could have done that. They could have responded with indignation and anger. And the situation likely would have escalated. Instead, they valued unity within the family of God and valued the rebuke of a brother over their own pride.
Today, we need to be reminded that we who follow Christ all serve the Most High God regardless of our history or ethnicity. We need to recognize that each of us needs brothers and sisters willing to point out areas where we are turning away from God. Even Paul recognized that he was still learning, still growing in his understanding of God and urged the believers at Philippi, “Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this also to you.” (Philippians 3:15)