Notes on Joshua Chapter 22:10-34

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

10 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 to.


We are not told precisely where this second or new altar was built. The original altar of stones (Joshua 4) couldn’t have been very big as it was made of stones which one man could carry. This one, whatever it was made from, seems to have been made much larger.

11 And the children of Israel heard say, Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh have built an altar over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel.

The eastern tribes had built it to be seen, and it was!

12 And when the children of Israel heard (of it), the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them.

How many wars or almost wars (mobilizations) have begun over misunderstandings?

13 And the children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14 And with him ten princes, of each chief house a prince throughout all the tribes of Israel; and each one (was) an head of the house of their fathers among the thousands of Israel.

Wisely, Israel sent representatives to find out the truth of the matter.

15 And they came unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, unto the land of Gilead, and they spake with them, saying, 16 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?

There does not seem to be a prohibition against building altars, as such, in the first five books or the Law. The only altar, though, that was permitted for offering sacrifices was the one at the tabernacle (Deut. 27:1-6). In fact, Joshua had built such an altar in Mt Ebal (Josh 8:30-35) as the passage in Deuteronomy commanded, writing a copy of the Law on the stones.

17 (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,

Numbers 25 has the story of how a number of Israelites committed adultery with Moabite women. One of the leaders of Simeon even brought a Midianite woman into his tent. When Phinehas put the Israelite and Midianite to death, then the plague from the Lord was stopped. Why he stated that the “iniquity of Peor . . .(was) not cleansed until this day” is not specified.

18 But that ye must turn away this day from following the LORD? and it will be, (seeing) ye rebel to day against the LORD, that to morrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel.

He must have thought that building this altar was the first step in rebellion against the Lord. Sadly, when the nation split in two after Rehoboam became king (1 Kings 12), one of the first things Jeroboam, king of the northern tribes, did was to build an altar dedicated to the golden calf, as part of his rebellion.

19 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.

He didn’t say it was unclean but, rather, if it was, then the eastern tribes were welcome to come back and live in the same region as the other nine-and-a-half tribes. Phinehas was exhorting the eastern tribes, also, not to rebel against the Lord by building another altar.

20 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.

This story is in Joshua 7. God had told Israel that everything was to be destroyed and they were not to keep anything. Achan disobeyed and eventually paid with his life. If his family was involved with on in agreement with what he had done, they would have perished with Achan; if not, they would be left alone. Regardless of how many people were involved in Achan’s sin, his livestock and even his tent were all destroyed after the people had been put to death.

21 Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh answered, and said unto the heads of the thousands of Israel, 22 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, (save us not this day,) 23 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);

Here, the eastern tribes insisted they were not building this altar as a sign of rebellion. Note that they are appealing their case, so to speak, to God Himself. They were saying they had no intention of using this new altar as a place to offer sacrifices.

24 And if we have not (rather) done it for 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?

Even though they had chosen to live away from the main body of Israel, these eastern tribes wanted to keep the national identity intact. They were afraid that in the future, some might question whether or not they had remained true to the God of Israel.

25 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.

This was the fear of the eastern tribes, namely that a river (Jordan, in this case) would be treated as a national or political border. Israel had seen how the rivers formed borders between Moab, Ammon, and the other Canaanites as they had traveled on the eastern side of Jordan years before this.

They in the east were also afraid that they would be accused of not following the God of Israel simply because they lived on a different side of a river.

26 Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice: 27 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.

Their intentions are right here: we simply want to cement our identity with you on the west side of Jordan. The river divides our land, but not our faith!

28 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. 29 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 his tabernacle.

A very strong denial of the charge of rebellion against the Lord. They affirmed the only altar for actual sacrifices and offerings was the altar of the Tabernacle.

30 And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which (were) with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spake, it pleased them.

No doubt they were relieved that the eastern tribes had no intention of breaking away or using a memorial altar as a substitute or replacement altar in place of the one at the Tabernacle.

31 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the children of Manasseh, 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.

The penalties for rebellion against God were dire indeed. It hardly seems likely that the Israelites would have forgotten what had happened at Peor or even what the people had done at Mt Sinai while Moses was on the mountain.

32 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the princes, returned from the children of Reuben, and from the children of Gad, out of the land of Gilead, unto the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought them word again.

Though not specified, they probably returned to Shiloh, which was more or less the headquarters for Israel during this period.

33 And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt.

Sadly, there did come times when tribes fought tribes. This happened at least once in the time of the Judges (see Judges 12, for example) and also many times after the nation split into the northern and southern kingdoms.

34 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.

We don’t know how long this second or memorial altar lasted. It was never mentioned again after this.

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)

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