A witness between us that the Lord is God
I reckon (not that I am a big history buff) that most wars are the result of a long standing tension between two rivals, suddenly triggered by an event that pushes one side too far, resulting in quick escalation and all out war.
In chapter 23 of the book of Joshua we have a situation where an all out war almost broke out – but not between two rivals with long standing issues, but rather between tribes of the same nation with no previous history of tension. The story bothered me a bit. Actually it bothered me a lot. That the people of God could be prepared to go to war and destroy each other, where just moments previous they were brothers in arms. Let me highlight the main points of the story:
The nation of Israel had just conquered the inhabitants of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Each tribe would receive land as part of their inheritance. Moses had previously agreed that the two tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, would receive their land on the other side of the Jordan. (Not part of Canaan). But the deal was that the 2.5 tribes would fight for the other tribes first to receive their inheritance. Once they finished helping their brothers, they would be allowed to return to the land they wanted on the other side of the Jordan (called Gilead).
The 2.5 tribes kept their end of the bargain. Joshua commends them for doing all that Moses commanded, and obeying him in everything he commanded. He tells them that it has been a long time since the promise of their land was made, but commends them for not deserting their brothers and carrying out the mission as agreed. (Pats on backs all round at this point). Joshua sends them off with his blessing; but not before telling them to be very careful to keep the commandments of the law; that is, to love the Lord their God, walk in all his ways, obey his commands, hold fast to him and to serve him with all their heart and with all their soul. (Quite a list. I imagine them nodding agreeably).
And they all lived happily ever after. Not quite.
Shortly after moving into their new land outside Canaan, the 2.5 tribes were a little worried that being on the other side of the Jordan could estrange them from the rest of Israel. That one day, a future generation would consider them to not be a part of Israel. It was a fair viewpoint. And so the 2.5 tribes decided of their own accord to build another alter near the Jordan river. Not to replace the one alter all of Israel was required to offer sacrifices on at the Tabernacle – no, no, no. They knew that the law forbade the offering of sacrifices on any other alter other than the one designated. No, this was just a token alter – kind of like flying the same flag – a visual reminder to all that they too were part of Israel. No harm done, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not how the rest of Israel saw it. They freaked out. Memories of what happened as recorded in Joshua 7 haunted them. A single mans sin by stealing devoted things resulted in judgement on the whole nation. And now reports had come in that the 2.5 tribes had forsaken the law and built another alter! What a wicked thing for them to do. If Achan’s sin, the actions of just one man meant judgement for the nation, how much more could this abominable act bring the wrath of God? Like an unwelcome flame of fire in a dry forest, this wicked act needed to be snuffed out, put out, extinguished – ASAP. No time for chit chat. Call in the army. Actually, no. That’s not enough. Assemble the entire nation to go to war. Wipe out the 2.5 tribes. Yes, your enemy over that side of the Jordan. Your brothers. Destroy them. The brothers who have just fought with you side by side to help you get your inheritance. The brothers who risked their lives for you and didn’t desert you. The people of your own nation.
Fortunately, as the army stood with weapons in hand and awaiting the order to charge, someone had an idea. Let’s try talking first. The son of the high priest and the heads of the tribes go to speak to the 2.5 tribes. Turns out there was a simple misunderstanding! Reuben, Gad and Manasseh explain their reasoning for the alter; that it wasn’t to be an actual alter to offer sacrifices on, but simply a replica. Ok, so it wasn’t exactly ‘by the book’. Strictly speaking, they shouldn’t have built another alter at all. But they knew that God knew their hearts, crying out “The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows!”
Everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief. The weapons are lowered, the army is disbanded. Everyone is glad and praises God. I love the ending of the chapter: ‘And they talked no more about going to war against them to devastate the country where the Reubenites and the Gadites lived’. Ah well, that’s good then (!)
Having understood each other’s intentions and realising that they all still loved and worshipped God foremost, the Reubenites and Gadites call the alter: ‘A Witness between us that the Lord is God’.
What do I learn from this fascinating chapter?
Both sides reacted in fear.
The 2.5 tribes were fearful that they would be estranged from Israel in the future. They thought about it, and came up with a solution that was ‘out the box’. It was risky. It was a bit naïve. They had no intention of offering sacrifices on it. They knew God knew their hearts! However with some wisdom they might have thought to let Israel know what they were planning.
What of the rest of Israel? Well, their rash decision to rally the army and destroy their brothers was also based on fear. Fear that God would judge them all like he did because of Achan. One could say their reaction was over the top, uncalled for. You could say they were sticklers for the truth, the upholding of the law. Highly sensitive to any deviation from obedience to the law which could result in judgement. Obeying God and serving Him was clear in Joshua’s parting words.
At the very least there is a strong warning and lessons in this story for the church today. God’s chosen people, his holy nation was almost torn apart through a simple misunderstanding. The importance of unity against a spirit of divisiveness. Of trusting one another. Of communication. Of the danger of the church being polarised and fighting over differences of opinion. Of listening deeply to the other side before jumping to fearful conclusions.
And perhaps that’s where the lesson ends. Except that as these thoughts permeated through my mind I wondered if there is a further lesson in what some may perceive to be the conflict in the church today between Grace and Truth. How did I come to that conclusion?
Israel’s reaction was because of their sensitivity to the truth, the commands of Moses which they pledged themselves to obey. Their ‘senses to sin’ were on high alert! They were not wrong in their concern for the second alter, being against the law. But they were in danger of so upholding the truth that they were prepared to destroy their own brothers. That would be bad enough; but their assumptions were wrong. You cannot fault Israel for wanting to be rid of sin and maintain truth. I tick that box. Right. But their way of going about it and fearful response? Wrong.
What then of the actions of the 2.5 tribes? Yes it was against protocol and risky. They took the view that the scriptures had not forbidden them to build a replica alter for the purpose of being known as part of Israel. They loved God and knew that He knew their hearts and their intentions. So they were also Right. But their way of going about it by not checking with Joshua first? I think it was at worst, wrong. At best, naïve.
Both sides were not so polarised after all. It was just actions that were unwise, naïve, fearful, reactionary and in knee jerk fashion that really caused the conflict.
The church should be full of Grace and Truth. Some may view these two truths as somehow pulling in different directions. The church is under pressure to accept cultural norms and worldly ways of viewing things. Truth is under fire. The church should be the pillars that hold the truth up. (1 Tim 3:15). For issues such as homosexuality, gender and abortion, the church is under pressure to change truth to suit what the world wants. But it is not only fear of upholding TRUTH that the church faces. It also must fight the fear of embracing and engaging a world that is broken and earnestly needs love, the kindness of our Saviour, GRACE.
John 1:14 says that Jesus Christ came full of Grace AND Truth. Here there is no conflict. Jesus who embodied truth, and who never sinned or compromised truth, was also the generous giver of grace and mercy and forgiveness to those who fell far short of truth and living God’s way. It is such an incredible thing – not only that Jesus Christ touched and loved a broken world, but that a broken and unloved world touched Him! If I can get that right – then I think I will be closer to the heart of God and pleasing Him in the way I live and reach this world for Christ.
We must not let the issues of our day destroy unity in the church, by dividing and polarising us into camps of ‘Truth’ and ‘Grace’, warring against one another. Rather, let’s strive to be one community of Grace AND Truth. Let’s lay down our pride on the alter and recognise in each other the same desire to love, serve and represent our Lord who is both full of Grace and truth.
After all, we are all on the same side and with a shared witness between us that the Lord is God!