All that the Lord had promised to Israel were fulfilled. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord made failed (Joshua 21:43-45). Though all the Canaanites were not driven out because of the people’s lack of faith, the land has been conquered and settled by Israel. The work is complete and God’s promises were fulfilled. In Joshua 22 we see Joshua summon the two and a half tribes and commend them for obeying Moses and Joshua in all the commands given (22:1-5). Remember that in the book of Numbers these two and a half tribes desired the land on the east side of the Jordan River, not the land where God had promised. But they committed to leave their families and their land and fight side by side with their brethren for years in settling the land. Now that the Lord has given Israel rest, Joshua tells these two and a half tribes that they can go back to the other side of the Jordan River, back to their families and back to their lands. Joshua leaves them with a critical instruction as they leave: be very careful to keep the commandment and the law given by Moses. Love to Lord your God, walk in all his ways, keep his commandments, cling to the Lord, and serve him with all your heart and soul (22:5). Joshua sends these tribes back with a blessing and with the spoils of victory that were gained through the conquest of the land. All the tribes are treated equally as belonging to the Lord though these two and a half tribes will go back to the east side of the Jordan River.
These two and a half tribes make their journey back to their land on the east side of the Jordan. Before they cross over the Jordan, they build a large, imposing altar. The people of Israel hear about it and the whole assembly gathers for war to go fight these two and a half tribes. The building of the altar has led Israel to the brink of civil war. So Israel sends Phinehas and leader from each tribe out ahead to these two and a half tribes. The message they deliver to these two and a half tribes is found in verses 16-20.
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.’” (Joshua 22:16–20 ESV)
The charge is made in verse 16. You have broken faith with the Lord by building an altar for yourselves in rebellion against the Lord. Then they remind these tribes about what happens when we rebel. Remember what happened at Peor. This is referring to Numbers 25 when Balaam led Israel into sexual sin and a plague breaks out, killing the people of Israel. They then tell these tribes that the anger of the Lord will fall against all of us if you rebel against the Lord. If the problem is your land, then come back to our side and we will give you land here in the promised land (22:19). Finally, they remind the tribes about what happened to Achan when he broke faith and God’s wrath fell on all of Israel. He did not perish alone for his sin. The plea is very simple. We cannot allow your rebellion because God’s wrath will fall on all of us. We have solutions for you but you must not rebel.
So how will the two and a half tribes respond? Their answer is recorded in verses 22-29. First, they agree with the conditions. If we are rebelling against the Lord or breaking faith with him, then we deserve to be killed for building an altar. If we built this altar to rebel against God’s law and offer our own sacrifices, then you are right to send the army to wipe us out. They agree that rebellion against the Lord is worthy of destruction. God does not accept rebellion. But then they explain that what they did was not out of rebellion but for another purpose. They feared that in the future the Jordan River would become a dividing line between Israel and the tribes on the east side, thinking that these eastern tribes do not belong with Israel. They did not want the future generations of Israel to exclude the future generations of the eastern tribes from being able to come to the tabernacle and worship the Lord. So they wanted to build this altar, not for worship or sacrifice, but to be a witness so that future generations would know that they are one people. In verse 28 we see that the altar that they built was a copy of the altar of the Lord which would be proof that they belong with Israel.
Phinehas and the heads of the tribes accept this response. They believe what they said and they realize that these tribes have not rebelled against the Lord. Phinehas returns to Israel and tells them the reasoning and they did not speak of war again but the altar stood as a witness between them all that the Lord is God. Now why is this event recorded for all time? Why was this kept for the future generations of Israel as well as future Christians to read? What is God teaching us through this?
Have a passion against rebellion.
First, we see Israel having a passion against rebellion. They have a passionate faith. This second generation learned the lesson God was teaching in the wilderness. Stand against rebellion with all our might. They learned this in the wilderness and they were reminded of this when it came to Achan’s sin. Friends, we cannot be okay with rebellion against the Lord. In particular, to keep to the picture we are seeing in this text, we cannot be okay with rebellion of people who claim to be God’s people. This is what we see in many places in the New Testament. A great example of this is found at 1 Corinthians 5 where sexual immorality is not only allowed in the church but it being praised by all. Paul writes to these Christians in Corinth and gives them directions for needing to withdraw from this person because they are willfully rebelling against God’s law and will. We must have a passion against rebellion as a church. Now it is important to qualify that this is not the same as those who are struggling against sin. The difference is one person is still struggling against sin for the glory of God and the other person stopped struggling against sin for their own pleasures. That person has decided that they will do what they want to do. This was evident with Achan and it was evident with the sexual sin in Numbers 25. While everyone was wailing over their sins, one man takes a foreign woman and is having sex with her instead of being cut to the heart. This is an important definition for us to know where we are at. Do we care about our sin or not? We are all self-confessed sinners. To pretend that we are not is to be completely false. But when we willfully choose to go directly against God’s command, then we must have a passion to do something about that. As a church we have needed to do this in the past and we must have the courage to do it in the future. There must be a passion against rebellion.
But rather than pointing the fingers at others, we need to think about ourselves. Are we passionate about our obedience to God? We must never allow the love and grace of God to cause us to not be passionate about our obedience and submission to him. We must have such a passion against sin that we will want to root it out of our lives and hearts. Paul used this kind of imagery in Colossians 3:5-11. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” We must encourage others to put sin to death. As a church, we are people who have been cleansed by the Lord who are continuing to fight against sin.
Second, we learn from this account the need to ask first. If we have a problem with someone, we need to ask them about it first. You will notice that Israel does not just go to war without asking what these two and a half tribes are doing. They are ready to go to war and they will go to war if these tribes are rebelling. But they first ask. We need to ask first before we draw conclusions. It could be that we misunderstood what someone was saying or doing. It could be that we said something poorly and we did not mean something the way that those words came off. It could be, like these tribes, that we did something that was misunderstood. We need to ask first. This is as simple as applying the golden rule. Do you want someone to ask you first about what you have said or done rather than assuming? Of course you do. For me personally, I have to say many things each week as a teacher of the word. I have to come from a particular perspective. As much as I try to clarify that perspective, it is easy to be misunderstood. I probably will not say it very well. You may not know where I am coming from or what common thinking of culture I am addressing. So it is important that we ask each other and not assume something about each other. Think about how all of our relationships would be so greatly improved if we simply asked first. If someone comes off harsh or uncaring, ask about first. This would help in our marriages, in our families, at our work, and in the church. Let us always ask first for clarity regarding anything that we find questionable, hurtful, or offensive.
We can be doing wrong, even when we think we are doing right, because we do not have all the information. It is probably pretty easy to think about things we have said and done that we wrong, but we thought we were right, because we did not have all the information. We should not be people who “shoot first and ask questions later.” We need to be those who want all the information and are slow to action as we try to determine what is the truth so that the right response can be made. I have learned this over the years in preaching. Do not react to the first information that is given to you. Get all the information. Ask questions. Get the facts. Information is not typically neutral but colored in such a way to get us to act without all the information. So be careful. Ask before you act.
Believe what we are told.
Finally, we need to believe what we are told. We see Phinehas and the leaders believe what the two and a half tribes said. The rest of Israel also believed the report they received. We need to believe each other. This is true love. The apostle Paul said that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). It is so hurtful to explain yourself about something and the person not believe what you are saying. I experienced this in the training program. As a church, the elders changed the sign out front from “Church of Christ” to “a church of Christ meets here.” The reason this was done was because there was such a negative reputation regarding the church of Christ name and people in the community were associating us with things we do not practice or believe. So we wanted a way to separate ourselves for this misconception. We had a catastrophic fall out with other preachers and churches in the area because of this change. One preacher took pictures of the sign so as to write articles against us in magazines without ever asking why we made the change. One preacher did sit down with us about why we changed the sign. We explained the reasoning but he did not believe us. He charged us with wanting to be a community church, willing to do anything to get people in the seats. He actually asked us if the next step was to put money under the pews to get people to come in. Many did not ask us what we were doing and most did not believe us when the few did ask.
This shows the importance of humility. We need humility if we are going to believe what others are telling us. We cannot be right in our own eyes. We must be willing to accept that we are wrong. We had the wrong idea and we will believe what the other person says. So we need a passionate faith. We need to be passionate against rebellion and against sin in our lives. We need to be passionate about asking each other before allowing ourselves to be hurt or confused by others. We need to be passionate in our love for each other that we will believe what we are told regarding a person’s motives.