Joshua 22 – The Altar at the Jordan
1. The two‑and‑a‑half tribes return (22:1‑9)
Joshua allows the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half‑tribe of Manasseh to return to the land they had received as an inheritance.
Question 1: At what point in time did Joshua tell them this? (See 21:43‑45.) Where was their inheritance? (See v.4.) (A part of that land was called Gilead; this name sometimes refers to the whole inheritance on the other side of the Jordan (v.9).) Why does Joshua allow them to return at this point in time? (Read vv.2 and 3.)
Joshua urges them to maintain very carefully the law of the LORD. This is the key issue in the remainder of this chapter. Thus, what are they to do (v.5)? They have to live in obedience, as Joshua had done (1:7). A great reward lies in store for those who keep God's commandments. (See Ps 19:12; outline 13, section 1.) They themselves would experience the receipt of that reward.
After this, Joshua blessed them and let them depart (v.6).
It had been their calling to join their brethren in the conquest of Canaan, and to maintain communion with them. (See outline 1 section 5.) The two-and-a-half tribes could also have seen it as their right. They had received the right to the land and to communion with their brethren. They belonged to God's people also. For these reasons, they had to see their joining the rest of Israel as a gift, even though they, possibly, may have had to act contrary to their own thoughts and feelings.
Question 2: Why may they have had to act contrary to their own thoughts and feelings? (See 1:14.)
Faith and obedience was required of them. Whoever lives like that may also expect to receive great treasures in the communion of saints; Joshua did not allow these tribes to return empty‑handed (v.8).
Question 3: In this context, we need to reflect on what we confess in Question and Answer 55, LD 21, of our Heidelberg Catechism about the treasures and gifts we receive in the communion of saints. From whom do we receive these treasures and gifts?
2. The accusation of Israel (22:10‑20)
On their way backhome, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half‑tribe of Manasseh build an altar when they arrive at the Jordan. Not just a little one. It is an altar of great proportions (v.10). We do not know exactly where it was located, but we know it was east of the Jordan. (See v.11: "...at the frontier of the land of Canaan..."; "...on the side that belongs to the people of Israel." could be translated more appropriately as "...toward the side of the Israelites.")
The other tribes perceive that the construction of the altar was an act of apostasy. They gather at Shiloh to make war against the two‑and‑a‑half tribes (v.12).
Question 4: Why did they gather at Shiloh instead of somewhere else? (See 18:1,8.) Why did the Israelites intend to make war against them? (See v.16‑20.)
Prior to engaging the two‑and‑a‑half tribes in battle, the Israelites first talk with them. They send Phinehas son of Eleazar, and ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel (v.14).
Question 5: Before judging someone else's action, it is prudent, even imperative, to ask him for the motivation of his action. Only then can justice be rendered. (Read Deut 13:14.)
Notice how they refer to themselves (v.16a).
Question 6: Thus, what is the issue at stake here? Notice the name of God that is used in v.16a.
Did the two‑and‑a‑half tribe commit apostasy? The Israelites regard this as the inevitable conclusion.
Question 7: Why did the Israelites regard the building of the altar as an act of apostasy? (See v.19b.)
The Israelites remind the other tribes of the terrible events that followed the blessing from the mouth of Balaam (Num 25:1‑9). Phinehas clearly remembered the apostasy committed by Israel (Num 25:7,11,12). Phinehas and the chiefs say that they should not suppose that the LORD has forgotten the terrible sin at Peor, which Israel committed (v.17).
Question 8: At this point, the tribes who received Canaan regard Israel as one whole. What do they say to indicate that? (See v.18.)
If you read v.18, you will understand why they want to wage war against the two‑and‑a‑ half tribes.
Question 9: Why did they even want to destroy the land east of the Jordan (v.33)? See Deut 13:12‑ 18.
They also remind the two‑and‑a‑half tribes of the ban under which Israel was placed after Achan took of the devoted things (7:1‑26). They had profaned God's covenant. Because of what Achan did, the wrath of God was kindled against all of Israel (7:20). (See chapter 7 and outline 6 sections 1, 2 and 4.)
The tribes of Canaan suggest another reason, besides the profaning of God's covenant, why the other tribes built an altar: maybe it has something to do with the land on the other side of the Jordan (Gilead) where they will settle (v.19).
Question 10: According to some Israelites, what is the difference between Canaan and Gilead? (See v.19 and the section in the previous outline that deals with the cities of refuge.)
There was, however, no reason for them to live in Gilead (v.19).
3. The answer of the two‑and‑a‑half tribes (22:21‑29,34)
Notice how the two‑and‑a‑half tribes start their response: they start with the LORD!
Question 11: How do they begin their response? Why may they have started in that way? (See following paragraph.)
One could say that they swear an oath. This also appears from the fact that they pronounce judgment over themselves (v. 22 and again in v.23).
At the same time, they explain in no uncertain terms that it was not at all their intention to use it to serve the LORD or to offer sacrifices on it (vv.23,29).
They built an altar out of concern.
Question 12: What was their concern? (See vv.24 and 25.) Remember section 2, second last paragraph.
Thus, for what reason did they build the altar? (See v.26.) For what reason did they build an altar? (See vv.27 and 28.)
Question 13: The altar was to be a daily, visible witness for always. To what was the altar to bear witness? What is the difference between the reason for building this altar and the reasons for which Jeroboam built his altars in Bethel and Dan? (1 Kings 12:26,27.) What do the two‑and‑a‑ half tribes mean when they say that "...we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence..."? (See 22:27.) Where will they perform that service?
Again, they express that it is precisely their desire to continue to serve the LORD that prompted the building of the altar (v.29). Building the altar had not been an act of faithlessness but of faithfulness.
That it had been an act of faithfulness is also clear from the name that they give to the altar (v.34).
4. The explanation is accepted (22:30‑33)
What had been the fear of the other Israelites? (See especially v.31.)
They now feel relieved of the enormous threat coming from the LORD: his terrible wrath (v.31b).
Question 14: Is this reaction of the LORD typical of the Old Testament, or does he still get angry with the whole congregation if only a few live in sin? (See HC, Q&A 82.)
Israel heaved a sigh of relief when the answer reached their ears. They accept the explanation of the two‑and‑a‑half tribes as to the intention of the altar, namely that it forms a 'speaking' testimony. (See v.30, and especially 32 and 33.) The LORD is and remains their God (v.34)!
Why was Israel relieved? They were relieved because they understood that the tribes, whose inheritance was on the other side of the Jordan, wanted to maintain their communion with the LORD. In that way, the communion of the twelve tribes with each other was maintained as well.
Question 15: Are you able to show this from vv.26,28, and especially v.34? Today we may phrase it in this way: You must serve the LORD where he wants to be served.