“And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt.”
No matter where we find ourselves in sacred history, we see a strong vein of authenticity running through the biblical narratives. We know from direct introspection, and from our experiences in interacting with others, that we are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. We all jump to the wrong conclusions from time to time. We’re all guilty of being inconsistent and even a bit irrational at times. We see these kinds of things even in God’s covenant nation not long after the exodus. Recall that as the Israelites headed towards the land of promise, they did so from the east. When the territory east of the Jordan was conquered, the tribes of Reuben and Gad determined to settle there and live in peace. As far as they were concerned, the rest of Israel could continue west across the Jordan River to take their possession on their own (Numbers 32:1-5). After a serious attitude adjustment by Moses (Numbers 32:6-27), Reuben and Gad not only agreed to help Israel acquire her inheritance, they volunteered to take the lead! (Numbers 32:17). Once settled in the land in the days of Joshua, however, these tribes began to worry they would be forgotten by the rest of Israel in the Promised Land. They feared that future generations would view the Jordan River as a God-ordained barrier between the two groups (Joshua 22:24-25). To show religious continuity with the rest of Israel, they decided to build an impressive altar at the shore of the Jordan River. This altar was a replica of that which attended the Tabernacle (Joshua 22:28). When word reached the rest of Israel, however, the people immediately jumped to the conclusion that the tribes east of the Jordan had gone apostate, creating an alternative, competing religious system. The nation was so incensed by this apparent treachery they prepared to go to war with them (Joshua 22:12). Fortunately, they first sent a delegation to the eastern tribes and learned the truth. The eastern tribes had no intention of actually sacrificing on the altar they had built. It was intended to be a sign of their common religious commitment and nothing more. The episode teaches us important lessons. First, worrying about things that might never happen can make us do stupid things. Let’s try to do better than they did. Second, let’s not jump to conclusions without first asking some important questions. Lastly, the bloodless altar was a source of trouble not blessing. This is like liberal “Christianity” in the present hour, with its denial of Christ’s blood atonement. Let us do as Paul did, consistently teaching and preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:12). May the Lord and His Gospel stand as our unifying, purifying, and living hope today.