And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel out of Shiloh . . .
And when they came unto the borders of Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by Jordan, a great altar to see it.
Israel had entered its inheritance. The enemy had fallen before them wherever they met them in battle. They had received the land of Canaan just as it had been promised to their father Abraham many centuries before. God guided the lots that were cast so that each one received that portion of land God would have him and his children possess. Everything that had been promised them had graciously come to pass. And still there was uneasiness on the part of many people. They hesitated before leaving their nomadic way of life to which they had become accustomed for the work and responsibility which would be theirs in caring for set plots of land. This was exemplified in the complaint of the tribe of Ephraim and of the half tribe of Manasseh which had come over the Jordan. They had been given one of the richest portions of land in all of Canaan; but still they were not satisfied and wanted more. Their complaint was that the hills had not been cleared of trees for cultivation and there were still heathen peoples with chariots of iron which would have to be fought. This all would require too much effort for them. Almost sarcastically Joshua chided them, “If thou be a great people, then get thee up to the wood country, and cut down for thyself. . . . The mountain shall be thine; for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down: and the outgoings of it shall be thine: for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong.” Touched in their pride of their greatness as the sons of Joseph, they went on to do as Joshua said. So Joshua urged the people on until each tribe had entered and began to work its inheritance, until the cities of refuge had been appointed as commanded of God, and until the Levites had been given their cities in each tribe in which to dwell. So Joshua continued to work and fulfill the great task that had been given to him of God.
During this period one of the most important events in Israel’s inheritance of Canaan took place. God appointed Shiloh as the place in which His tabernacle should be pitched. This was important not so much because of the place, nor even of the time, but because of the importance of the tabernacle itself. This was the place in Israel’s midst in which God figuratively dwelt. Designed and built according to divine revelation, it was such that through it the believing child of Israel could enter into communion with the living God. In all the earth it was the only place in which the worship of the living God could be perfectly fulfilled. Henceforth for many years the strength of Israel as a nation would be determined by its faithfulness to Shiloh. Now on a designated day all of Israel came to this place for the first time to worship and pledge their faithfulness to God in this place.
It was sometime later, when the division of the land had been completed, that Joshua called the warriors together who had come from the tribes of Reuben, of Gad and of half the tribe of Manasseh. To them he said, “Ye have kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you: ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the LORD your God. And now the LORD your God hath given rest unto your brethren, as he promised them: therefore now return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you on the other side Jordan.” For many years these men had labored faithfully with their brethren and had been away from their own families until Canaan was captured. Now they might return to their homes. And still as Joshua spoke he feared for those tribes across the wide banks of the Jordan, so far removed from the rest of the nation and from the tabernacle of God. He felt compelled to add a warning, “But take diligent heed to the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the LORD charged you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Thereupon after blessing them and adding a few words of instruction, Joshua watched as these men who had battled so faithfully so long left for their homes beyond the river from the camp at Shiloh.
It came thereupon as a shock when a few days later the news was brought to Joshua that these men of Reuben, Gad, and Manassah before crossing over the Jordan had built a great altar, an extraordinarily large altar upon the border at the river. To Joshua it appeared to be an act of open defiance, for the law of God strictly forbade that sacrifices should be offered anywhere except at the tabernacle. Did these men who had fought so long and so faithfully for the nation mean to depart by expressing open defiance for the law of God and the commandments? The very thought anguished Joshua, but this action could not be passed by and ignored. If altars were to be multiplied in the land, it would not be long before the true worship of Jehovah at Shiloh would be all but lost. Nor was Joshua the only one with this thought. Soon representatives were come to Shiloh from all over the nation, determined that if the tribes over the Jordan were to begin building strange altars, they should go to war against them. They would stamp out this sin at its beginning.
Before they actually began to march against their brethren, however, they sent Phinehas, the son of the high priest, with ten princes of the tribes west of Jordan to talk to the men of Reuben, Gad and Manassah. Maybe the matter could be settled without the shedding of blood. But Phinehas was not one to mince words. He after all was the one who many years before in the matter of Baalpeor had gone into the tent of Zimri and thrust him through with a javelin together with the Midianitish princess. He was a man strong in the cause of righteousness. No sooner had they come to the Israelites over the river than he spoke out and said, “Thus saith the whole congregation of the LORD, what trespass is this that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from following the LORD, in that ye have builded you an altar, that ye might rebel this day against the LORD? Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed until this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the LORD, but that ye must turn away this day from following the LORD, that tomorrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel. Notwithstanding, if the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the LORD, wherein the LORD’s tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the LORD, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar beside the altar of the LORD our God. Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? and that man perished not alone in his iniquity.”
Now it was the turn of the men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to be astonished. Before them stood Phinehas the priest filled with righteous indignation and accusing them of committing a sin like that of the children of Israel in Baalpeor and that of Achan at Ai. But these were things that never crossed their minds. He evidently was sincere and actually thought that they might be already dissatisfied with their new homes so as to be willing to accept his offer and join the other tribes on the western bank of the river. Quickly they spoke out in their own defense. “The LORD God of gods, the LORD God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the LORD, that we have built us an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the LORD himself require it; and if we have not rather done it out of fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the LORD God of Israel? For the LORD hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben, and children of Gad; ye have no part in the LORD: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the LORD. Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice: but that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the LORD before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no part in the LORD. Therefore said we, that it shall be when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say again, Behold the pattern of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between us and you. God forbid that we should rebel against the LORD, and turn this day from following the LORD, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for meat offerings, or for sacrifices, beside the altar of the LORD our God that is before the tabernacle.”
Suddenly Phinehas and the ten princes with him came to realize how completely they had misjudged their brethren. They had jumped to a hasty conclusion without so much as asking guidance of Jehovah, and they had been terribly wrong. Perhaps it had been a matter of indiscretion on the part of these men to have built their altar without giving sufficient explanation for those who might see it. They had given occasion for offense. But now that they thought of it again, Phinehas and the princes could see that this altar was not built to be used for sacrifice. Its size and its location testified to the fact that it was meant for a memorial for all to see. This was the testimony of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh that they considered their worship to be the same as that of the tribes west of the river, the side upon which the altar was built. They wished everyone to know that they would maintain their right to the service of Jehovah.
Phinehas and the princes were satisfied. Turning to those who had just explained themselves so completely, Phinehas said, “This day we perceive that the LORD is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the LORD: now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the LORD.
“And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the Altar ED: for it shall be a witness between us that the LORD is God.”