Joshua 22 contains the first of three farewell speeches Joshua makes to Israel (Dallaire). He’s addressing the 2 ½ tribes who are to take up residence on the eastern side of the Jordan—away from the rest of Israel. If you remember the story, these people had decided during the time of Moses that they wanted to settle in this area. When they approached Moses about it he was not happy (Numbers 32). He thought they were abdicating their responsibility to the rest of the tribes and weren’t going to help them secure the land of Canaan. Once they reassured Moses that was not the case, everything was all right.
The 2 ½ tribes faithfully discharged their duties, Israel secured to land, and now Joshua is honorably discharging them from their military duties so they can return to their families. He praises them for their service (v. 2-3), urges them to be careful to remember the covenant God has made with them (v. 5), and sends them off after blessing them (v. 6).
But something happens as they head home.
We don’t have a record of the conversation that took place but it must have gone something like this: “God is great and has surely blessed our nation! He has brought us out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into this land. He has given us victory and now we have peace. But we live on the other side of the Jordan—away from the rest of our people. We are concerned that as the years go by, this natural boundary will cause them and others to think that we’re not part of Israel. What can we do to prevent this?”
We don’t know how long they traveled before someone (probably from the corps of engineers) suggested this idea—they would build a huge replica of the altar Israel used and place it at their border. This altar wouldn’t be to use—it would be a witness to everyone that the people living east of the Jordan shared in the altar of Israel. So when they arrived at the border, they built an “imposing altar” (v. 10).
But things didn’t work out exactly as they planned.
Someone posted pictures on Shalombook and soon everyone in Israel had heard about the altar and like Moses years before, they weren’t happy at all. They took this turn of events to mean that the tribes west of the Jordan were breaking faith with God and they assembled at Shiloh (where the real altar was) to make war against them (v. 11).
Well, it’s just a good rule of thumb that before you throw someone under the bus or go off to war against them (especially against your brothers and sisters), you make sure you have all of your facts in order. And in the case of these people, it turns out they didn’t. In fact, they were coming apart at the “seems.” But the good news is that before they marched off to war, they decided to send a delegation over to check things out. They met with the western tribes and they talked and they listened. When the western tribes explained that the purpose of the altar was to witness that they belonged to Israel and would worship at the altar in Shiloh—well, there was probably more than few cheeks flushing in embarrassment and people looking down at the ground before Phineas said, “The Lord is with us” (v. 31). Then they went back home and told everyone the good news and they “praised God” (v. 33).
Stories like this in the biblical witness that took place thousands of years ago—they sure are entertaining but it’s too bad they don’t have anything to say to us today.