When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. – Joshua 22:10-12
In reading this story, it will be important to remember where the tribes built the altar. It is built in the Land of Canaan. That is, it was built in the Promised Land and not where the two and a half tribes were living on the other side of the river. If they were building an altar to offer sacrifices on, then surely they would have built it in the middle of where they were living. But why did they build the altar if they weren’t going to use it? We will, LORD willing, see an answer to that question tomorrow.
For now, we should notice how quickly the attitude of the tribes West of the Jordan has changed towards those who are returning to the East.
Adolph Harstad writes:
The brotherly spirit of blessing and dismissal ceremony for the Transjordan tribes gives way to preparation for war when the two and a half tribes build an altar on their way home. Building the altar does not at first build unity. What is the meaning of the altar? The eastern tribes did not consult with Joshua, Eleazar, the high priest; or the tribal leaders before setting it up. Earlier in the book those three parties were the ones who administered major decisions for Israel. Why were they left out of the decision-making process now? Therefore, suspicion ensues.
Have the tribes built the altar as a rival to the central place of worship, the tabernacle at Shiloh? Are they planning to offer sacrifices to degenerate heathen gods such as Baal, as did their fathers before the conquest and allotment? Are they cutting themselves off from the rest of the covenant nation and from their covenant LORD? …
The western tribes assume the worst-case scenario: The Transjordan tribes have committed apostasy and so they must be exterminated, even as God had commanded Israel to exterminate the pagan Canaanites. Deuteronomy 13:13-19 gives instructions about what Israel is to do if fellow Israelitesin one of their own cities start to worship other gods: Israel is to apply the cherem to them and totally destroy all of the apostate people, their livestock, and all their goods. Hence the western tribes are following the Torah of Moses as they gather at Shiloh to prepare to wage war against their eastern brothers.
What a change of atmosphere has taken place in Israel since Joshua blessed the eastern tribes at Shiloh! That was just a short time, a few miles, and a few verses prior to the construction of the altar. The unity of Israel seems to be broken irrevocably.
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 58
Q. 58. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requireth the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy sabbath to himself.