The time had now arrived for the various families of the Israelites to go home and enjoy the possession of the cities and lands which had been assigned to them. First, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the eastern half of the tribe of Manasseh were called together and dismissed by Joshua. He gave them words of commendation for their faithful military service during the conquest, as well as words of counsel in reference to their future faithfulness. But in light of their natural isolation from their kinsmen on the western side of the Jordan River, he especially urged them to not forget their allegiance to Him from Whom their success and prosperity had proceeded.
The counsel that Joshua gave to these tribes is good advice that ought to be heeded by all people. We must pray for grace to love the Lord our God as the best of beings and the best of friends; and as far as that principle rules in our hearts, we will constantly endeavor to walk in His ways and keep His commandments. May His grace enable us – at all times and in all conditions – to cling to Him and serve Him and His Kingdom with all our heart and soul!
On their way homeward, the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites desired some tangible memorial of their unity in religious belief with the western tribes, and of their claim to a full participation in the worship of Jehovah. So they resolved to build a stone altar on some conspicuous spot, before they crossed over the Jordan River. On the summit of a lofty peak – towering above the Jordan Valley, some 20 miles north of Jericho – they set up their memorial, and then proceeded to their homes on the eastern side of the river.
This action was innocent in its intent, but it was especially liable to be misunderstood. It was speedily reported to the Israelite leaders at Shiloh, where it awakened the utmost indignation and alarm. The armed men of the western tribes were hastily reassembled. Preparations were made, in accordance with the Divine law, for swiftly punishing this act of apparently bold rebellion against Jehovah. But first – in accordance with the same law – a deputation consisting of Phinehas (the high priest’s son) and 10 leaders from the western tribes was commissioned to cross the Jordan River and demand an explanation of the deed.
At first sight, the actions of the eastern tribes seemed to be a plot to set up another altar in opposition to the Lord’s altar at Shiloh. This reminds us that we ought to take heed of everything that leads to or even looks like sin. Nevertheless, the western tribes are to be commended for wisely investigating the matter before rushing headlong into war. What a great example to be followed by all who profess the pure and lovely Gospel of Jesus!
The deputation addressed the eastern tribes in words of stern and pathetic remonstrance. They even lovingly offered to reduce the size of the shares of their own inheritance, if the eastern tribes desired to come and live closer to the Tabernacle – instead of being compelled to set up altars of their own, which would be in competition with the Lord’s true altar in Shiloh. But the eastern tribes solemnly and earnestly disclaimed all intention of building an altar for idolatrous purposes, and they explained the real objective that they had in mind. Even though they were currently welcomed, as brothers and sisters, to come and join in the worship of the Lord at Shiloh; they were afraid that their children and subsequent generations (being separated from the rest of Israel by the natural division caused by the Jordan River) would be looked upon as foreigners to the commonwealth of Israel, and disowned from participating in the worship of God. Therefore, this altar that they had built by the river was not a symbol of idolatry; for it was actually intended to be a pledge of their communion with their brethren, as well as of their fellowship at the true altar of God.
This frank avowal immediately pacified the deputation from Shiloh, who – with much emotion – expressed their gratitude to God that He had not permitted the crime of idolatry to be committed in their midst. A reconciliation ended the conference, and the altar (called “Ed”) became a witness between the two parties – in a wider and fuller sense than what was originally intended. It would be a blessing if all the controversies between Christians, which have had their source in pure misunderstanding, would be dealt with as wisely as this one! Sadly, the men of the Old Testament herein contrast favorably with many of the professing followers of Jesus today! It is good that there was an inclination to peace, as well as a zeal for God, on both sides of this issue concerning the altar; for quarrels about religion – due to a lack of wisdom and love – often prove to be the most fierce and difficult to be made up. Happy will it be when all Christ’s people learn to copy the example of Israel – uniting zeal and steady adherence to the cause of truth with candor, meekness, and readiness to understand each other and be satisfied with one another’s explanations!
Lord, we beseech You to increase the number of those who endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace! May increasing grace and consolation be with all who love Jesus Christ in sincerity! Cause all Your people to unite together peacefully, and to invite one another (Ps. 122:1) to join together in Your worship at Your house! Amen.
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photo by Drahnier | Wikimedia Commons