Joshua 22:1-34

At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God. And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. [1]

We are now in the final section of the book of Joshua, chapters 22-24, which takes the form of three farewell occasions. First, in our chapter this morning, Joshua dismisses the 2 1/2 tribes whose homes are east of the Jordan. He sends them back to “the land where your possession lies” (22:4) with some parting words of wisdom. With a parting blessing, he acknowledges their faithful obedience in joining forces with their brothers west of the river, as commanded by God, to enable them to make these lands their own.

But this apparently peaceful parting soon generates traumatic difficulties with great potential for lasting damage, as we shall see. In chapter 23, Joshua speaks his farewell words to the elders and tribal heads, judges, and officials of Israel in the presence of a wider congregation (23:2), while chapter 24 addresses the whole nation (“all the tribes”) at Shechem (24:1) and renews their commitment to the Lord’s covenant at Joseph’s burial site.[2]

“The theme of each of these last chapters of Joshua is the need to acknowledge and serve God in peace as well as in war. The setting is the time of transition. For seven long years the people had followed Joshua in an aggressive and far-ranging conquest of the Promised Land. They had been faithful to God all that time. True, there had been a few lapses. Achan had disobeyed God by taking some of the spoil of Jericho, which he had been forbidden to do. Joshua had neglected to seek the mind of God in the initial attack on Ai. Later he and the people had been deceived by the wiles of the Gibeonites. But those were not great lapses, and they had been early in the campaign. As far as we can tell, the seven years of fighting had been marked mostly by Israel’s faithfulness to God and the task before them.”[3]

But this last section of the book of Joshua shows Israel shifting from a war footing to peacetime. Nations often lose in peace what they have gained in war. Would Israel abandon its high level of spiritual commitment and gradually fall into disobedience and paganism? Or would the people remain faithful to God? Those questions were on Joshua’s mind as he challenged first the eastern tribes, then the leaders, and eventually the entire company of the people.

When Joshua spoke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasa, who were about to return to their homes on the eastern side of the Jordan, he stressed three things: their past obedience to God’s commands through Moses and through him; God’s faithfulness in giving them the land he promised and bringing them the peace they were currently enjoying; and their obligation to continue to keep God’s commandments. “Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

It is no stretch to see that this is precisely what we are to do in our time. That last phrase, drawn from Deuteronomy 6:5, reminds us of the Lord’s identification of this verse as the first and great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Fulfilling that commandment means walking in God’s ways, holding fast to him, and serving him wholeheartedly, as Joshua explained.


If we think about this first portion of chapter 22 and use our imagination, we might sense something of the tremendous emotion in the parting of these comrades in arms. Remember these men had fought side by side in a conquest that lasted longer than either of our world wars. There would have been a special bond between all the tribes. Even today we see news stories of certain emotional gatherings of veterans who fought in a particular campaign together.

As the time came for their parting, soldiers would have passed through the camp saying goodbye to their comrades. Here was one who had saved another’s life. Here were a few who had pursued the soldiers of the southern coalition at Gibeon. There was a group who helped storm the fortified walls of Hebron. It must have been a moving picture to watch these bands of brothers breaking up.

The time of parting came and the 2 1/2 tribes of Ruben, Gad, and Manasseh moved east and made their way to the Jordan. The western tribes prepared to disperse to their territories. Peace and goodwill abounded in this moment of parting. Yet, within a matter of days, it seemed that something unexpected and terrible was happening. The eastern tribes were building an altar. 22:10 reads, “10 And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.

Here is yet one more pile of stones in the book of Joshua. But to the western tribes, this was something terrible and unexpected. An alter anywhere other than the one established at Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the Lord stood, symbolized a break with worship of the true God. It meant apostasy. The narrator states, “11 And the people of Israel heard it said, “Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.” 12 And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.

Picture it. These men had just parted under the most moving circumstances. They were sick of war and rejoicing in the long-awaited peace. But as soon as the 10 tribes heard that the 2 1/2 tribes were constructing a rival altar, they grabbed their arms again and prepared to march to war. What initially sounds terrible to us is actually quite a grand thing to contemplate. The western tribes were tired of fighting. They were not war mongers, nor angry, nor jealous, nor resentful of their brothers across the river.

Why were the western tribes prepared to go to war against the eastern tribes? There is only one explanation that unfolds as the text moves on. The western tribes are applying the written Word to this situation. Deuteronomy12:13, 14 states: “13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, 14 but at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.[4]

Although they loved their brothers to the east and were tired of fighting, the western tribes loved the honor of God more and were determined to let nothing taint that honor. They were zealous for God. God’s holiness demanded there be no compromise to his divine written revelation. If there was rebellion against God within the congregation of Israel, there had to be battle, otherwise the entire congregation would suffer for the sins of the minority.


Those who had fought together now appear destined to destroy one another. It is a terrible situation. The potential consequences of a military conflict could have been devastating. We know there are groups of scattered Canaanites, only too ready to regroup and reassert themselves at the least sign of Israelite weakness or disunity. Fortunately, wisdom prevails.

War did not start immediately, and in this there was another great lesson. The western tribes were ready to go to war, but before they marched, they dispatched a delegation to investigate and see if the error they believed to be unfolding could not be straightened out. This was a demonstration of both love and concern for God’s holiness. There are certain elements present as the two sides meet.

First, the delegation from the West was honest in describing what concerned them. Our modern western culture is so reluctant to offend anyone or alienate anyone that we tamp down our concerns, or we suggest they might not really be so important after all, or we forget them entirely. Not so this Jewish delegation. It was composed of 10 men, one leader from each of the 10 western tribes, all under the oversight Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest. The delegation said to the 2 1/2 tribes:

16 “Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord? 17 Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, 18 that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel.

These are clear words. Apostasy is called out as apostasy. Additionally, they make a clear connection between the alleged disobedience of one and the sufferings of many. Morality maybe individualistic in the world, but it is not individualistic in the church. If those who claim to be God’s people do not live for him faithfully and obediently, others who are trying to follow the Lord will suffer.

They remember the lesson they learned when Achan disobeyed the words of God and stole swag at the battle of Ai, resulting in the death of many Israelite warriors and Israel’s only loss in their entire campaign. Recall also that Phineas was the priest who killed an Israelite man and Moabite woman to stop the plague that had fallen on all of Israel because some of their men had been seduced by demon-worshipping Moabite women (Numbers 25:1-9). Up to that point, 24,000 people had died from the plague. This was the “sin of Peor” to which the western tribes referred.

Second, the western tribes were willing to pay any price to reclaim their lost brothers. The western tribes did not merely demonstrate their love for those they thought were in error like going to talk with them before attacking them. That was true and significant in itself, and this is something from which we should learn. But they did something even greater. They offered their own lands if that would be the means of drawing the eastern people back to faithful worship of YHWH.

Note their genuine offer: “19 But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God.” If the cause of their apostasy is the traditions of the land in which they are living, then they shouldn’t live there. They are invited to come West of the Jordan.

This is more than mere tongue love. This is costly. The western tribes offer their hard-won land to win back other people of God. It is easy to practice discipline in a self-righteous or self-serving way that exalts us and usually repels the other party. How much different and how much more effective it could be if we paid the personal price in our attempts to reclaim lost brothers and sisters.

Third, when the concerns of the western people were explained, the 2 1/2 eastern tribes agreed with the charges (22:21-29). This is important because it shows that these were true believers in God and not impostors. Not a word of their reply indicated that the peoples of the east took the idea of erecting false altars lightly. Notice that they did not descend into relative morality by simply saying, “Well, that’s just your opinion!” That response is a strong indication that the person making it is not saved, for no one who possesses the Spirit of God should be cavalier with God’s commandments.

The words, “that’s just your opinion” are an evasion. It’s true that anything any of us express is our opinion, but that’s not the point. The point is whether that opinion is right. Is that opinion the standard? Is that what God has spoken? If there is doubt over what God has spoken, believers may stop and work through it together to see if that is what God has indeed said or if there has been a misunderstanding or distortion. This kind of examination ought to go on in the church all the time. But the one thing the true believer cannot do is dismiss the charge as if such things were merely relative. If God has spoken, we must agree with his words and conform our lives to them if we wish to be his disciples.

Notice also that the eastern tribes not only agreed with the nature of the charges but also agreed with the rightness of the judgment assuming the charges were true. “22 The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, do not spare us today 23 for building an altar to turn away from following the Lord. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the Lord himself take vengeance.” They admitted the rightness of their brothers’ judgment and the rightness of the standard their brothers were upholding.


In our individualistic western culture, a confrontation like this is far more likely to end badly (to our shame). But in this case, it ended well. The tribes who were crossing the Jordan explained that they had not built their altar to establish worship of another god but as a reminder of the history they shared with the western tribes because of their continuing worship of and service to YHWH.

They explained their actions:

24 No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? 25 For the Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the Lord.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord. 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the Lord in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the Lord.” ’ 28 And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.” ’ 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away this day from following the Lord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle!”

The altar by the Jordan was not intended to be a functioning altar but a memorial or reminder of the true altar at Shiloh. Its purpose was not division but union among the entire congregation of Israel. Why did this story turn out well when there was so much room for disagreement? It was because of the two steps already mentioned.

First, there was clear agreement on the importance of doctrine and truth and understanding that the holiness of God demands submitting to him and obeying his commandments. When Joshua released the eastern tribes from military service he told them, “Take diligent heed… to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments.” The eastern altar functioned as a memorial to Joshua’s words.

Second, those who were courageous in standing for truth were also courageous in acting in love. A mere stand for truth could never have had a happy ending. The 10 tribes would have bolted across the river and killed the other Israelites without a single word. But because of their love of God, the tribes talked to each other openly, and the love and holiness of God were able to come together. God’s righteousness and his love kissed each other in this meeting (Psalm 85:10).[5]

The altar was built not as a place of sacrifice but as a witness to the eastern tribes’ continuing interest and worshipping God at Shiloh. At last our skilled narrator brings us to the story’s climax, which resolves the problem. The building of an altar as a memorial was not meant to diminish the Tabernacle but to show the eastern tribes were equally dependent on the sacrificial system, and equally committed to the worship of YHWH.

Phinehas expresses their joy not only that the issue has been resolved but also because this happy and peaceful outcome is certain evidence that “the Lord is in our midst” (22:31). The catastrophe was averted. The loyalty of the eastern tribes is established beyond doubt. The delegation reports back to the western tribes, and it is “good in [their] eyes” also (22:33). Finally, the eastern tribes memorialized the pile of stones with a name. “34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, ‘For,’ they said, ‘it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.’

That is also the only source of unity for the contemporary Christian Church under the lordship of Jesus Christ. True unity exists not through church councils or synods, not through resolutions or political bargaining, but in the simplest and most basic creed at the heart of the gospel, namely that “Jesus is Lord” (1st Corinthians 12:3). When the rivalry to God’s rule, which is endemic in our human nature, is finally laid at the feet of the crucified Lord, a unity between God and his people is created that is deeper and more lasting than the strongest earthly ties.

In the end, the Christian has only one basic duty in life, and that is to show the reality of the existence of God and his character in the midst of a rebellious world. That is not always easy to do, even among other Christians. In a world where truth is relative (“That’s just your opinion”), even Christians succumb to relativism and self-interest. In place of holiness and truth, the world can only offer relativism.

You have your truth. I have my truth. You have your standard of morality and I have another.” But instead of everyone getting along wonderfully, as that kind of relativism promises, the world is filled with misunderstanding, selfishness, and cruel hatred. Whatever your “truth” is you will always want to judge others for failing to live up to your standard if you live according to your flesh. The world offers what it calls “truth” based on observation and personal perspective. The church is called to cling to truth based solely on God’s revelation – the ONLY true truth.

Where God is sidelined and his Word disregarded, his Spirit is grieved and may well withdraw the lampstand of his presence until his people approach him in renewed repentance, loyalty, trust, and obedience. The Israelites were determined to deal with the issue because the continued presence of God in their midst was both their greatest blessing and their greatest need. Is our responsibility any less today?


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 22:1–6.

[2] Jackman, David. Joshua (Preaching the Word) (p. 224). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Joshua (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 116.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 12:13–14.

[5] Schaeffer 180-181.