Joshua 22
Joshua 22 Kingcomments Bible Studies


The two and a half tribes may return home after Israel has taken possession of the land. Joshua praises their loyalty and exhorts them to continue serving the LORD. Yet these two and a half tribes causes worry by the building of a large altar. The other tribes, led by Phinehas, are right to head out to it. Phinehas points out that there is only one altar: the altar in the tabernacle (Jos 22:19). That is the place where the people of God come together. By erecting this other altar, the unity of the people of God is broken.

This is still the case in professing Christianity. There the altar is called the Lord’s Table (1Cor 10:18-21). At the Table of the Lord the unity of the church is expressed in the celebration of the Supper (1Cor 10:16-17; 1Cor 11:23-25). But many churches and groups have built their own altar and thereby emphasized the division.

Phinehas and the people are satisfied with the answer of the two and a half tribes, because they are sincere. This does not mean that they acknowledge this altar. Nor do we need to condemn tables set up by men if there is sincerity in serving God. However, it is important that we know for ourselves at which ‘altar’ we are.

The basis of the two and a half tribes’ attitude is that they preferred the wilderness side of the Jordan over the land chosen by God. What they have chosen is no longer the wilderness. It belongs to the inheritance. It is their property, for God has given it to them. But it was not God’s intention that they should be content with it.

The part they have chosen does not speak of the blessings of the land, for which it is necessary to cross the Jordan. It represents the earthly blessings as a gift from Him. It is God’s purpose, however, that all tribes have a large part in the land and a small part outside the land, on the other side of the Jordan. This goal will be achieved in the realm of peace.

In the picture it is about real Christians who have also fought for and conquered the inheritance. They know the inheritance. Yet they never enjoyed it in reality. They don’t know how to deal with it. They only enjoy the earthly things. If we thank God every day only for things such as our health, our work, and our gaze does not go beyond these earthly blessings, then we are poor Christians.

Back to the Wilderness Side of the Jordan

The time has now come to send the two and a half tribes back to their families, who did not go with them through the Jordan. Although in fulfilling their promise they have done no more than their duty, Joshua praises their loyalty. All those who have been busy for the Lord will say: “We are unworthy slaves; we have done [only] that which we ought to have done” (Lk 17:10). But the Lord will praise and reward that service (Mt 25:21).

Regarding their mindset, they have always longed for this moment. After seeing so much of the land, they still give up its wealth, even though they receive an enormous amount of blessing from the land, all treasures they have captured from the enemy (Jos 22:8). Instead of calling their families to join them in the land, which is still possible (Jos 22:19), they choose to leave the land of the LORD. Those who were the first to receive their inheritances can now enjoy them as the last.

Their departure from the land of the LORD makes it clear that they have no real interest in it. Therefore they do not have to expect that their families, their children, will be interested in the inheritance of God’s people. The latter can only be so, if they notice that the inheritance means much to their parents, that this is the life of the soul of their parents. God does not force us if we do not want the inheritance and are content with the lesser. God allows them to go back for that reason.

Joshua gives them some insistent exhortations. They may have been released from their military obligations, but their spiritual obligations have not changed. To receive the blessing of the LORD it is necessary to hold fast to God’s commandments, to love and follow Him, and to serve Him with all their heart and soul. Joshua is like a worried father who gives good advice to his children who want to stand on their own two feet and who are therefore no longer under the protecting influence of home.

Joshua Blesses the Wilderness Side Tribes

Joshua blesses the tribes of the wilderness side of the Jordan and lets them go. They are allowed to return to their families through the Jordan. It is telling that this time the ark does not go out before them. It stays in the land. By going back they turn their backs on the ark, the symbol of God’s presence.

Joshua does not let them return empty-handed. He gives them much of the wealth they have conquered in the land. No one who works for the Lord and His people will remain unrewarded. They must divide the spoil with their brothers who have stayed behind. This is comparable to what Moses said earlier in another situation: “And divide the booty between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation” (Num 31:27; cf. 1Sam 30:24). Believers who stand in the front lines and make spiritual profits there will share them with the ‘home front’, these are those who have prayed for them (cf. Acts 14:26-27).

A Large Altar

The two and a half tribes move away from the Israelites and from Shiloh. It does not say that they are leaving the nine and a half tribes, but they “departed from the sons of Israel”. What lives in the land is Israel. The two and a half tribes remain part of God’s people. But those who live in the land are the expression of all the people. They experience this unity at the altar – for us this is the Lord’s Table – for there the LORD dwells.

They didn’t feel completely happy with it. It seems that they are aware that they are going down a dangerous road. They see the threat that a separation will take place among the people of God. To prevent this they make an altar. It is a large altar, something that impresses. This fake altar is larger than the real one. If one does not have the real thing, one wants an imitation that is exciting for the human eye.

They don’t mean anything wrong with it. They do not want an altar of idols, not even an altar to bring sacrifices to the LORD. They only want the altar as a picture of their unity with the whole people. But it happens in a human way. Something that is well meant is therefore not yet good. They want to show unity, but give the impression to want to go their own way, in independence from the people of God. The consequences are the opposite of what they meant by it.

Inquiry About the Altar

The people come together in Shiloh, by the LORD. What they have heard calls for disciplinary action. After all, there may be no other altar than the altar of the LORD (Deu 12:5). Evil must be stopped, otherwise it will soon gain the upper hand. They are willing to fight.

Yet they do not act in haste, but with reason. They first want to investigate the matter closely and not act upon impressions (Deu 13:14). God Himself shows in the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah that He works in this way (Gen 18:21). Therefore they decide to first send messengers to get acquainted with the matter. Phinehas is sent, of whom is known how he stands for the honor of the LORD. He has a feeling for the holiness of God (Num 25:6-15). He is accompanied by ten chiefs, one from each tribe.

The Impression the Altar Makes

Phinehas and the ten chiefs come to the two and a half tribes. They speak with them on behalf of the whole people. They address those who also belong to the people, but who in practical terms do not live up to it. The accusation is: acting unfaithfully against the LORD and His people, which will have bad consequences for all people. To underline their words, the delegation points to two examples that they also know and in which sin has also brought discipline over the whole people: the iniquity of Peor, and Achan who has seized of the things under the ban. These examples show two major dangers, also in the church, as to holiness.

At Peor, the terrible thing is the teaching of Balaam to destroy the people of God by mixing good and false religion, the service of God and that of the idols of Midian (Num 25:1-3; Num 31:16). Then the true religion is increasingly outstripped by idolatry. Therefore, God’s wrath has come upon the whole. Phinehas warns the two and a half tribes of this danger with the building of this altar. The construction may seem small in comparison with the iniquity of Peor, but if this iniquity is not nipped in the bud it will have the same terrible effect as the iniquity of Peor.

After mentioning the first danger, the second danger is not immediately mentioned. First comes, between the indications of the two dangers, the kind invitation to come to the LORD anyway, to His land and His altar (Jos 22:19). Here we hear that all who belong to God’s people – for the church this means: all believers – are invited. Phinehas appeals to their spiritual discernment. Only if they see their chosen inheritance as unclean – that is to say, not sanctified by God’s presence – will they want their place in God’s land and be allowed to possess it. But the two and a half tribes do not draw that conclusion.

As for the believers of the church, they are all but guests of the Lord at His altar, that is His Table. Those who are there may say to all believers that the Lord also invites them to His Table. It is His Table, not that of a group. It is about the place where the Lord Jesus is, not where such nice or oddly believers are. We must not say: ‘Come with us’, but: ‘Let us remember the Lord together at His Table’.

We can and must only be ‘exclusive’ to evil. In the face of the good, we must always be open and not closed. All believers are ‘free brethren’ when it comes to what they are in Christ and all are ‘closed brethren’ when it comes to their responsibility. Whoever wants to act according to the Lord’s will in this will avoid all sectarianism and likewise the freedom of the flesh.

Every Israelite is invited by Phinehas to come there. Later Hezekiah does the same (2Chr 30:1). It is about the whole people of God, that is now the church of God. The church is represented, among other things, by a body, because that picture aptly depicts the unity of the church, that is, the whole people of God. The Table of the Lord belongs to all the people. There God’s people can experience unity in a Scriptural way.

There God’s people also find a place of worship and priesthood, while in professing Christianity the emphasis is generally on preaching. Where can we still find the desire to give God what He is entitled to and less the question of what is in it for me? We must not make it more difficult for all who seek this place than Scripture indicates. For this it is necessary to possess and reveal the spirit of someone like Phinehas.

After this invitation follows the second warning example, which is Achan (Jos 7:1; 19-26). Achan did not bring false teaching, but was guided by the desire for the worldly things. In him we see how the flesh is given the opportunity to introduce the things of the world into God’s people, while they may have no place there. An example of this is the desire to be attractive to young people and therefore to introduce popular forms of worship by using compelling melodies and dance and drama.

Why the Altar Is Built

The two and a half tribes don’t get excited by the accusations. They answer calmly. Their responsibility reassures the other tribes. They do not want to introduce idolatry in any way. Nor do they in any way want to offer the LORD sacrifices on that altar. They understand that there is only one altar. By this visible sign, they only want to establish a testimony of unity for their children.

It is well-intentioned, but not correct. The intention to testify of unity is worked out according to a human model. Examples of this we see in confessions of faith. These are always set up to testify to the truth about falsehoods and to preserve the unity of God’s people. They originated from a desire to be appreciated in order to establish unity in doctrine for the whole people. But it is a human work.

History has shown that creeds have been placed on an equal footing with and even above Scripture. They play a decisive role in ecclesiastical circles; they must generally be signed in order to belong to that church. In so doing, they have brought division rather than unity. They are well-intentioned, yet human means to preserve unity. The worst false teachers sign the creeds and can continue with their false teachings. Every form of unity that is established by people and is used as a condition to experience unity, does not promote unity, but division.

It is not a seemingly altar that creates unity, but the altar in the place chosen by the Lord does. The altar of the two and a half tribes is a symbol of a fictional unity. The evangelical alliance is such a fictional unity. The joint organization of large evangelization campaigns by all kinds of churches and groups evokes the picture of the unity of all members involved. But after a campaign, everyone goes back to their own church to celebrate their own supper. For a moment there was an altar of a testimony of unity, but it disappeared soon afterward. At the altar of worship at the place where the Lord Jesus is, they have not appeared.

The fictional unity has not been preserved for long. The tribes of the wilderness side of the Jordan are the first to be deported in scattering (1Chr 5:26). We must learn from this that our unity as Christians is not formed by human means. The Lord has made clear in His Word how we can show the unity of the believers. We do show this unity by celebrating the Lord’s Supper at His Table: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:16-17).

Israel Accepts the Statement

Israel accepts the statement. The critical situation, where civil war is imminent, has turned for the better. A gentle answer has turned away wrath (Pro 15:1a). The report of the encounter works praise to God.

The Name of the Altar

Why should a book that describes the taking possession and distributing of the promised land cover this single history in such detail? This will be because it brings out important principles with a view to the unity of the people of God, in the event that part of that people appears to prefer another position. In the name of the altar is expressed that also the deviating part will maintain its relationship with the LORD as their God, in accordance with the part of the people living in the land.

© 2023 Author G. de Koning

All rights reserved. No part of the publications may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.

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