For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

22:1.  “Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh”

22:2.  “And said unto them, Ye have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you:”

Many, mistakenly I believe, have taken these two and a half tribes to represent carnal world-bordering Christians, but there is little to support this view.  It must not be forgotten that the eastern border of the land given Israel wasn’t the Jordan, but the Euphrates, Jos 1:4; nor must it be overlooked that it was Moses who gave them their portion east of Jordan, Nu 32:33, on the condition that they first go over Jordan with their brethren to help them take possession of their inheritance west of the river.  That condition was fully met, for not only did they go over, but they went in the forefront, Nu 32:17.  And now at the end of the seven-year campaign which left the land subdued before Israel, they are warmly commended by Joshua, and sent back with his blessing to take possession of their inheritance.

The correct interpretation of the type appears to be that these two and a half tribes represent, not carnal world-borderers, but rather all believers as having died in Christ (they had crossed over Jordan), but who, as having been also raised with Him (their re-crossing Jordan speaks of resurrection), now live here in the world, but without being of it. 

The lessons connected with them have to do with the practical aspect of the Christian life: jobs, families, relation to human governments, interaction with men in connection with the ordinary affairs of life, etc.,  while the lessons connected with the other nine and a half tribes have to do more with the spiritual aspect of our lives, and are meant to instruct us in regard to such things as worship, prayer, service, our conflict with the unseen forces of evil, etc.

This is not to say, of course, that the lessons are limited solely to these matters.  They aren’t, for clearly the history of all the tribes is meant to instruct us relative to both spheres.

The fact that the number of these tribes east of Jordan is half of five, the number of responsibility, would remind us that all of us have failed to live up to our responsibilities as redeemed men and women; but if the half reminds us of failure, the names of these tribes are meant to encourage us.  Reuben, meaning see ye, a son, reminds us that in spite of all our failure, we are still the sons and daughters of God; while Gad an invader, a troop, fortune assures us that we are God’s “troop” here on earth, privileged to “invade” Satan’s domain with the Gospel which alone can lead men out of his bondage into the enjoyment of eternal life.  And the third meaning fortune, so far from suggesting that our lives are subject to the caprice of mere chance, would assure us that our times are in the hand, not of a capricious tyrant, but of the God and Father Who assures us that “All things work together for good to them that love God,” Ro 8:28.

Manasseh causing to forget remindS us of the need to live in view of the judgment seat of Christ, like Paul who has written, “This one thing I do, forgetting those thing which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” Php 3:13-14.

Their being commended for obedience to both Moses and Joshua has also its lesson, for Moses is a type of Christ dying for us, while Joshua portrays Him as living for us.  As those who have also died in Christ, but who also now live with Him, Ga 2:20, we are responsible to give practical effect to these truths by living as those who are “crucified with Christ,”  being “dead to the world,” Ga 6:14, to sin, Ro 6:2, to the law, Ro 7:4.  As a dead man yields no response to the things of the world, neither are we to yield any response to the allurements of this world through which we pass as pilgrims and strangers on our way home to heaven.

This commendation, coming as it does at the end of the seven-year conflict which ended in the subjugation of Canaan by the Israelites, points symbolically to the judgment seat of Christ, which will come at the end of our earthly conflict with the forces of darkness.  It would be well if we so lived as to merit the same commendation as was given the two and a half tribes by Joshua.

22:3.  “Ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God.”

Worthy of special commendation was their having remained faithfully with their brethren throughout the whole seven-year campaign, during much of which time they not only endangered their lives, but were separated from their families, and the enjoyment of their inheritance.  Those seven (number of perfection or completeness) years, however, represent the entire course of earthly life, and would remind us that the same selfless service of our brethren is to characterize our lives.

It is to be noted also that this service was not an option.  It was “the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God.”  Service to our brethren is not an option for us either.  It too is the Lord’s command, “These things I command you, that ye love one another,” Jn 15:17, and love involves service or giving, even to the point of laying down our lives for our brethren, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren,” 1 Jn 3:16.

22:4.  “And now the Lord your God hath given rest unto your brethren, as he promised them: therefore now return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side Jordan.”

An essential lesson is taught in the fact that the enjoyment of their own inheritance was preceded by that seven-year conflict with the enemy in Canaan.  The enjoyment of all that is ours in Christ will be in direct proportion as we are successful in that spiritual struggle with the unseen forces of darkness attempting to impede our progress, and keep us out of that very enjoyment, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places,” Eph 6:12.

This spiritual wrestling is carried on in the realm of the mind, for it is there that our spiritual battles are lost or won.  It is for this reason that Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (spiritual worship).  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” Ro 12:1-2.  And again it is written, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant....” Php 2:5-7.

Even the unconverted man can achieve outward conformity to a high moral standard, but God looks on the heart.  The believer must have more than mere outward conformity to good: he must have a renewed mind, for apart from such renewal, outward morality is a mere sham.  The cause of so much failure, of lack of joy and peace in our lives, is that there is not that inward conformity.  The enemy has been left there undisturbed, with the result that he governs our thinking, and a man is what he thinks, as it is written, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he,” Pr 23:7.

Since the tent is the Biblical symbol of pilgrimage, their being sent to their tents serves to remind us that as the patriarchs were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” Heb 11:13, so are we, see 1 Pe 2:11.  And the reminder that their possession had been given by Moses, type of Christ dying for us, serves to remind us that our eternal inheritance has been secured for us by the Lord’s death; while the reference to “the other side Jordan” reminds us that that eternal inheritance is to be enjoyed here and now, for as noted already, the eastern side of Jordan portrays our practical living here on earth, whereas the Canaan side represents that aspect of our lives which is lived on the spiritual plane.

22:5.  “But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and to cleave unto him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The imperative of obedience is set before us here, for God’s words to His people long ago are no less His words to us today.  Apart from obedience there will be no blessing, because for God to bless disobedience would be to condone sin, and impugn His own character.

The word “diligent” is literally vehement, i.e., fervent or intense.  There is to be nothing half-hearted about our obedience.  It to be with every fiber or our being.

“The commandment” is virtually the same as “the law” except that it focuses more on the Law Giver, while in “the law” emphasis is more on the content of what God has commanded.  If we lose sight of the Law Giver, then adherence to the law itself becomes a mere ritual.  This is emphasized in the words “to love the Lord your God.”  Love for Him must be the motive for our obedience, as the Lord Himself declared, “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” Jo 14:15.  See also 1 Jo 2:3,4; 3:22, etc.

Sometimes God spoke through Aaron, and when He did the emphasis was upon His speaking in grace; whereas His speaking through Moses tended to emphasize pure law.  When He spoke through both, as sometimes He did, there is the combination of grace and law.  Here it is emphasized that it was Moses who charged them, reminding us again that obedience will be rewarded, and disobedience punished at the judgment seat of Christ, the punishment taking the form of loss of reward.  An inflexible standard will measure the worth of our service.

“... to walk in all his ways” would teach us that we are not permitted discretion as to areas of obedience.  All that God commands is to be done.

“... cleave unto him” conveys the thought of clinging or adhering, of being joined together, and reminds us that in ourselves we have no ability to yield obedience, or to do anything; but as He assured Paul, so does He also assure us, “”My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” 2 Co 12:9.

“... to serve him” tells us that this is the purpose for which He has left us here on earth; and he who professes faith in Christ, but displays no willingness to serve, leaves open to question the reality of his profession.  And the disobedience of such a man is compounded by virtue of the fact that every believer has been given at least one spiritual gift which equips him for service, so that to refuse to serve is not only to disobey, but also to waste gift.  Such a man, in fact, bears a dangerous likeness to the slothful servant mentioned in Mt 25:24-30, who hid in the earth the one talent his master had committed to his care; and there is surely solemn warning for all of us in his lord’s description of him, “Thou wicked and slothful servant,” as there is also in his sentence, “Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Refusal to render God service impugns the reality of the profession.

“... with all your heart.”   The heart here is related, not only to the affections, but also to the intellect and the will.  In other words, as noted already, our service is to be impelled by love, characterized by singleness of purpose, the mind and will being devoted exclusively to the Lord’s business.

“... with all your soul,” on the other hand, is related to our enablement, for the word means, not only one who breathes, but is related also to one who has been breathed upon.  Adam didn’t possess life until “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” Ge 2:7.  Significantly, the risen Lord bequeathed peace to the disciples, and said, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” Jn 20:21-22.  They were commissioned and equipped. 

God breathed the breath of spiritual life into us the moment we trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, and at that same instant we also received the Holy Spirit, the One apart from Whom we can do nothing, so that we too have been commissioned and equipped - the Lord’s commission being “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” Mk 16:15, His enablement being the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

22:6.  “So Joshua blessed them, and sent them away: and they went unto their tents.”

As discussed already, Moses represents Christ dying for us; and Joshua, Christ living for us.  Joshua’s blessing the two and a half tribes therefore, becomes the figure of the blessing bestowed upon us by our risen Lord.  Their being sent away to their inheritance on the eastern side of Jordan is the symbolic foreshadowing of our own position, for as also noted, that inheritance represents what is ours as redeemed men still here on earth in our mortal bodies.  That eastern inheritance represents what we can enjoy here in the midst of, but also independent of, earthly circumstances.  It enables us to rise above those circumstances, and to walk in the assurance that no matter how adverse they may seem “All things work together for good to them that love God,” Ro 8:28.  The inheritance on the western side of the river, on the other hand, seems to represent, not as much what has to do with earthly circumstances, as simply the enjoyment of all that is set before us in Scripture, and to be enjoyed in our spirits.

Since the tent is the Biblical symbol of the pilgrim life, their going “unto their tents” becomes the admonition to us that we too are to walk as strangers and pilgrims who are passing through this world on our way home to heaven.

22:7.  “Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given possession in Bashan: but unto the other half thereof gave Joshua among their brethren on this side Jordan westward.  And when Joshua sent them away also unto their tents, then he blessed them,”

As noted already, Moses represents Christ dying to secure an inheritance for us, while Joshua represents Him as living and leading us into the enjoyment of that inheritance.  Its being emphasized therefore that these Manassites east of Jordan had been given their portion by Moses, is to remind us that here on earth we are to live as those who are dead to the world, since by God’s reckoning we have been crucified with Christ.  But just as the eastern, the wilderness side of Jordan represents the world, so does the western side represent the realm of the spirit, Israel’s portion there portraying all that we can enjoy in our spirits even while we are here on earth in these mortal bodies.  Associated with our earthly state is death; but with that which is spiritual, life.

Manasseh’s having his inheritance on both sides of Jordan reminds us of the dual character of what we have in Christ.  There is that which can be enjoyed even amid all the circumstances that make up our lives here on earth where death reigns, but there is also that which transcends earthly circumstances, and can be enjoyed in spirit.

Nor should we forget the significance of the meaning of Manasseh’s name forgetting.  God would teach us the folly of looking back, of remembering either past victories, or defeats.  Dwelling on the one may beget false confidence in ourselves, while occupation with the other is very likely to bring discouragement that will hold us back in the heavenly race.  We are to live as did Paul who wrote, “This one thing I do, forgetting  those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” Php 3:13.

Bashan means the shame of them; the fertile; the one in sleep, and as discussed already, represents the world of men oblivious of God, and indulgent of their lusts.  It is a world of shame, of fertility in evil, and of spiritual sleep.  It is a particularly apt figure of the world in which the believer must live until his earthly course is finished.

A reminder that the west is the direction that speaks of approach to God, is supplied in the fact that the portion given the other half of Manasseh by Joshua in Canaan was westward.  The portion given by Moses east of Jordan speaks of that exercise of our faith that enables us to cope with every day living here on earth; but that given by Joshua west of the river speaks of that exercise of our faith that enables us to enjoy all that we have in Christ.  Enjoyment, rather than mere endurance, makes for a closer walk with God.

Its being said that Joshua blessed them and “sent them away also unto their tents,” continues to remind us that in every circumstance of life, we are to walk as tent dwellers, that is, as strangers and pilgrims passing through this world on our way home to heaven.

22:8.  “And he spake unto them, saying, Return with much riches unto your tents, and with very much cattle, with silver, and with gold, and with brass, and with iron, and with very much raiment: divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren.”

The spiritual lesson of this verse is easily interpreted.  Their literal riches are but the figure of our spiritual riches spoken of by Paul when he exulted, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,” Eph 1:3.  The repeated mention of the tent reminds us that enjoyment of our spiritual riches isn’t something deferred until we get to heaven: it is available to us here and now, but not apart from a pilgrim lifestyle.

Since cattle furnished the sacrifices with which they worshipped God, the reference to very much cattle” declares the truth that our worship, that is, our giving to God, ought to be in proportion to His giving to us.  And how much He has given!  First, He has given His only Son to die in our guilty place, so that we might receive His gift of eternal life; but that was only the beginning of His giving, as Paul has written again, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” Ro 8:32.  He has not only saved us from hell, and fitted us for heaven, through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, but He has in addition made us heirs and joint heirs with Him, Ro 8:17. 

As the cattle given Israel were the source of the sacrifices that expressed their worship, so should His giving to us be the impetus for our worship.  Sadly, the paucity of our worship declares all too loudly the ingratitude of our hearts.  There are many believers, who on the most frivolous pretext, absent themselves from the Lord’s table, while multitudes of others attend merely as a matter of form, but haven’t even the spiritual equivalent of the poor man’s turtledove to offer.  In all their busy week there is no time to prepare an offering for the One Who has given His only Son to redeem their souls. 

We read in Malachi of God’s indignation against an Israel, who having been given so much, dared to offer Him only the blind, the lame, and the sick.  How much greater must His displeasure be against a Church which has been more richly blessed, and that yet dares not only to offer the equivalent of Israel’s sick and maimed animals, and that often refuses, not only to bring Him any offering, but that also often refuses even to appear before Him, as He has commanded, on the first day of each week.

Silver is the Biblical emblem of redemption, so that their being commanded to return to their tents also with silver, translates into the command to us to keep ever before our eyes the reason for our pilgrim walk: we are a redeemed people, having been redeemed not “with corruptible things as silver and gold... but with the precious blood of Christ,” 1 Pe 1:18-19.

“... and with gold,” the emblem of Divine glory.  The glory awaiting us ought to luster our lives here on earth, so that they will be lived for God’s glory.

“... and with brass,” the Biblical emblem of judgment.  We are to judge all things according to the written Word, that judgment beginning with the analysis of our own lives, and in remembrance of what is written, “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.  But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world,” 1 Co 11:31-32.

“... and with iron,” one of the Scriptural symbols of strength.  As they were to take iron with them as they returned to their tents, so are we to have with us throughout our pilgrim walk, the spiritual equivalent: strength.  That strength is God’s, and is available in all its might, in proportion as we renounce confidence in our own, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” 2 Co 12:9, an assurance that caused Paul to exclaim, “... when I am weak, then am I strong,” verse 10.

“... and with very much raiment,” the Biblical symbol of righteousness.  The very much emphasizes the need of holiness, and reminds us of the Lord’s command, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation (living); because it is written, Be holy, for I am holy,” 1 Pe 1:15-16.  Spiritual power is in proportion to the measure of holiness in our daily living.

And the command to divide the spoil with their brethren, is also easily translated.  We too are to share with the household of faith all the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ.

22:9.  “And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from the children of Israel out of Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go unto the country of Gilead, to the land of their possession, whereof they were possessed, according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses.”

As already noted, these two and a half tribes who had their possession east of Jordan, represent us as believers here in the world, responsible to live as those who are dead to the world, yet even in the midst of earthly circumstances, enjoying all that is ours as men in Christ, the knowledge that we are His, enabling us to live above the circumstances that overcome others.

For the spiritual lessons connected with the meanings of their names, see comments on verse 2.

Its being said that they departed “out of Shiloh” implies their having been in Shiloh; but inasmuch as Shiloh peace-bringer: bringer of prosperity, is itself a symbol of Christ, the lesson couldn’t be clearer.  Only those who are in Him can return to the world, not to live as formerly, but to be His witnesses; as salt to retard moral corruption; as light to dispel spiritual darkness; as stars to guide men to the Savior.

Shiloh’s being “in the land of Canaan a trafficker,” reminds us that it is here on earth, where the evil prince of this world trafficks in the souls of men, that the Lord Jesus Christ is available as the “Shiloh” into which sinners can enter to receive pardon and eternal life. 

Their going to Gilead heap of witness: rolling for ever, points to another aspect of the believer’s life here on earth.  This world, where the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, is the “heap of witness” where God’s love for guilty sinners was displayed 2000 years ago at Calvary.  That witness will never cease.  As long as God exists (and He is eternal), the remembrance of Calvary will Gilead-like, be “rolling for ever.”

The assurance that their possession in Gilead had been given them “according to the word of the Lord by the hand of Moses,” reminds us that our inheritance has also been given us according to God’s unchangeable Word, and by the hand of the true “Moses,” the Lord Jesus Christ.  Its having been given “by the hand of Moses” (the representative of the law), reminds us that all that is ours in Christ is on a basis of perfect justice.  God hasn’t simply turned a blind eye to sin.  His broken law required the life of the transgressor, and the Lord Jesus Christ gave that life at Calvary.

22:10.  “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.”

While some insist that the altar was built on the eastern, i.e., the wilderness side of Jordan, the evidence seems to point to its having been erected on the western or Canaan side; and as the sequel makes clear, their intentions were good, but the fact remains that it was an act of self-will.  It is not recorded that God had given any command for the erection of any altar there.  Shiloh was the place where He had chosen to place His name, and where His people were to assemble before him three times each year, Ex 23:17

There is no record of any evil directly attributable to that altar, but the very fact of their having built it without command from God, made them guilty of the same presumption as brought death to Nadab and Abihu, when they, also without command from God, took fire other than that from the brazen altar, for the purpose of burning incense, and were immediately slain by fire from God, the very element of their disobedience becoming the agent of their own destruction, Le 10:1-2.

But, someone may object, Why is there no record of Divine disapproval?  The answer is clear.  Having given dramatic evidence of His displeasure against the sin of presumption, by slaying Nadab and Abihu, God would not repeat the lesson, but would leave for the day of judgment His recompense of such disobedience.  The same principle is found in the NT.  When Ananias and Sapphira, two priests of the Church age, presumed to lie to the Holy Spirit, God struck them dead, but didn’t repeat that dramatic punishment when other professed believers sinned.  As with the two sons of Aaron, having declared His will once, He would leave for the judgment seat of Christ, His recompense of future infractions, it being clear that some would transgress even if the same dramatic warning was repeated.

The building of that “great altar to see to” is nothing less than the symbolic foreshadowing of the many sins of presumption of which, not only Israel, but the Church, would be guilty.  There was never a time when the sin of presumption was more rampant than today.  Everywhere the silence of God is construed as permission for every imaginable activity, the reasoning of ignorance being that if it isn’t specifically forbidden, then it is permitted.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What is desperately needed today is that reverential fear of God that will refrain from every scheme, every activity, for which there is not a clear “Thus saith the Lord.”  A survey of the professing church, however, reveals that the very opposite prevails.  Libertinism, governed by the principle that what isn’t specifically forbidden, may be done, has all but banished Scriptural order in favor of unscriptural schemes.

22:11.  “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.”

22:12.  “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.”

Joshua still lived, and the indifference to evil that marked the later generations of Israel, hadn’t yet set in.  There remained in the hearts of many a zeal for God.  Those days are figurative of the early Apostolic age, when there burned also in the hearts of many a zeal for the things of God.

Having just experienced the rigors of a seven-year conflict with the nations of Canaan, they must have been weary of war, and might well have been pardoned for ignoring what had every appearance of requiring them now to take up the sword again; but such was their care for God’s honor, and the welfare of the nation as a whole, that they were ready to engage in that warfare no matter what it might cost them in the way of personal toil and sorrow.  Such a spirit is much needed, but is conspicuously absent in the midst of God’s people today.

22:13.  “And the children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest,”

The man chosen to lead the delegation was well qualified for the task.  Not only did he, as son of Eleazar, represent the priesthood, but he was a man whose zeal for God’s honor had ended the plague that had consumed 24,000 sinning Israelites, Nu 25, and earned him God’s commendation, and the appointment of him and his descendants to an everlasting priesthood, Nu 25:12-13.  Nor is it without significance that his name means mouth of pity, for this speaks of the tender heart without which no man can hope to shepherd God’s sheep.  His being the son of Eleazar God is helper, adds the further thought of that dependence upon God apart from which no work should ever be undertaken.

Few will have difficulty in recognizing Phinehas not only as a type of the ideal elder (shepherd), but also as a type of the Lord Jesus Christ the chief Shepherd.

22:14.  “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.”

Inasmuch as ten is the number of God in government, the truth being set before us in these ten princes who accompanied Phinehas, is that they were the representatives of God, and responsible, therefore, for the maintenance of Divine order amongst His people.  As for the question relative to the identity of the two tribes not represented in the deputation, the explanation is that they were obviously Reuben and Gad, two of the tribes involved in the erection of the controversial altar; and though Manasseh was also involved, it was only the half tribe east of Jordan, so that the delegation included a Manassite prince from the half tribe west of the river.

The obvious lesson in all of this is that God’s people, whether His earthly people Israel, or His heavenly people the Church, are under His government, and He has deigned to use human instruments for the administration of that government, the ten princes under Phinehas being but the OT types of the elders (shepherds) of the churches under the true Phinehas, the chief Shepherd, 1 Pe 5:4, the Lord Jesus Christ.   

22:15.  “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,”

We have noted already that the two and a half tribes east of Jordan represent us as those, who though God’s people, must nevertheless live our lives here in the midst of earthly things; while those west of the river represent us in the context of spiritual rather than physical experience; and it is scarcely necessary to say that we are beset by enemies in both realms.  The coming of the delegation into Gilead therefore east of the river, would remind us that it is in the context of our every-day living that our failures ultimately manifest themselves, so that it is in that same sphere that the elders are frequently required to minister.

In the case of the two and a half tribes, it was fear of their being rejected by their brethren at some future time that had impelled them to build the controversial altar, but that fear was born of their forgetting God’s provision to guard against such a possibility.  All the tribes were to assemble three times each year at the place where God had placed His name, Ex 23:17.  Simple obedience to that command would have rendered impossible the breach they feared; and the principle still applies.  Simple obedience is the safeguard against every ill.

But forgetting God’s command, the two and a half tribes would do what man is always too ready to do: invent a human expedient, and with the same results as must always attend such inventions - angering God and generating strife amongst His people.  Nothing should ever be done without a clear “Thus saith the Lord.”  The deaths of Nadab and Abihu stand for all time as the solemn warning against acting without having been commanded by God, Le 10:1-2.  Note that “which he commanded them not,” is literally “without having been commanded to do so”.

This same evil is rampant in the professing church today.  God’s silence is wrongly construed as permission, and the resulting activity, piously claimed to be the right of “Christian liberty,” is nothing but the rebellion of the libertine.

22:16.  “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?”

Others have drawn attention to the fact that the word trespass is the same as that used in 7:1 relative to the sin of Aachan, the obvious lesson being that doing what God has not commanded is just as much sin as is doing what He has forbidden.  Nor should we fail to note, that in spite of their good intentions concerning the new altar, their building it was described as rebellion.  No matter how seeming good the activity, what is done without a command from God is sin!

22:17.  “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,”

The reference is to the sin of Israel in connection with their having intermarried with the Moabites and Midianites, and having  worshipped Baal-peor lord of the opening, cf. Nu 25.

The “too little for us” might be paraphrased, “Is that not lesson enough for us?” and the “from which we are not cleansed until this day,” is literally “from the effects of which we are not even yet recovered.”  Well might they ask, for 24,000 had died of the plague for that disobedience!

We too might well ask, “Are not these evils that befell Israel, sufficient warning against disobedience on our part?”

22:18.  “But that ye must turn away this day from following the Lord? and it will be, seeing ye rebel today against the Lord, that tomorrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel.”

As noted already, the presumption that construes the silence of God as permission to act, is no less wrong than was the sin of Achan in deliberately doing what God had forbidden.  That sin affected all Israel.  They fled before the men of Ai, and lost thirty-six of their own number, chapter 7.

The lesson couldn’t be clearer.  What we do as individuals, affects the whole assembly.

22:19.  “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.”

Phinehas and the ten princes generously offered to share their own inheritance with the two and a half tribes, if they felt that their inheritance east of Jordan was perhaps unsanctified because the Tabernacle, symbol of God’s presence, wasn’t on their side of the river.

The fact remains, however, that it was God Who had given the two and a half tribes their portion east of the river, just as He had given the others theirs on the west; and it was He Who had marked out the boundaries of each tribe’s inheritance on both sides of Jordan.  The generosity of the offer therefore should not blind us to the fact that it was not what God had ordained.  The ten tribes had no more authority to make such an offer than had the two and a half tribes to build the controversial altar in the first instance. 

That altar shouldn’t have been built, and instead of devising an expedient that would have eliminated the imagined need of it, the delegation should simply have told the two and a half tribes to dismantle it, reminding them at the same time of the Divine safeguard against the feared separation which had impelled them to build it, i.e., assemble three times a year at the Tabernacle with their brethren. 

How often today we also invent kindly expedients to spare the feelings of erring brethren, and in doing so, minimize sin, dishonor God, and encourage more error.  God never resorts to such subterfuge, nor should we.  Much evil has crept into the assemblies by this very means.  Brethren, knowing that something was wrong, but afraid of offending others, have remained silent when they should have declared the thing to be wrong.  Were we half as fearful about offending God as we are about offending mere men, the Church would be in a far happier state.  Those who would preserve peace by silence, which is simply compromise, would be well advised to consider Paul’s statement in Ga 2:11, “But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.”  Human feelings are not to be put before God’s honor.

The statement “nor rebel against us” suggests that the ten tribes had jurisdiction over the other two and a half, yet nowhere do we read of their having been given any such authority.  But we discover in this the age-old reasoning that the majority is right.  The tribes, however, were autonomous, God Himself being their only Ruler, obedience to His Word being that which preserved both their tribal autonomy and their national unity.  We are to be governed, not by the opinion of the majority, but by God’s Word alone.  In Scripture, as in the world and in the professing church, the majority is very frequently wrong.

22:20.  “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.”

Since this has already been discussed in our study of chapter 7, there is no need to repeat that discussion here.

22:21.  “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,

22:22.  “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,”

22:23.  “That we have built us an altar to turn from following the Lord, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat meal offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the Lord himself require it;”

There can be no question as to their sincerity, but sadly, many another has also been just as sincerely wrong.  Without a command from God, that altar should not have been built; nor should anything ever be done without a clear “Thus saith the Lord,” either in direct Scriptural statement or clear Scriptural principle.

To erect an altar upon which no offering would ever be placed, was to pervert its character, and prostitute it to an inferior use, contrary to God’s intention.  Nor would that incongruity have long escaped the notice of the two and a half tribes.  It was an open enticement to them to eventually present their offerings at a place of their own choosing, for there has never yet been an unauthorized altar that didn’t inevitably lead its builder away from God.

22:24.  “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?”

As noted already, God Himself had provided for just such a contingency.  All the tribes were to present themselves three times a year at the place where He had placed His name, and the obedience of the two and a half tribes was all that was needed to preserve perpetually their part with their brethren from the other tribes.  Their well-meaning, but misguided alternative, on the other hand, so far from preserving tribal unity, had all the potential for destroying it, for it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would be led to plead the convenience of the new altar: it would save the time and trouble of going up to Shiloh to worship with their brethren.

Were it not that so many since then have been equally blind to the evil potential of some equally well-meant scheme, it would be difficult to understand how the two and a half tribes could have been so blind as not to see the evil potential of that altar.  That the delegation led by Phinehas was induced to concur, simply confirms that even godly men may be swayed by plausible, but unscriptural arguments.  It is ominously significant that there is no record of their having sought counsel from God in regard to the whole matter.  Unless sanctified by the Holy Spirit, mere natural intelligence is a very untrustworthy guide relative to spiritual things.

22:25.  “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.”

The very fact that it was the Lord Who had made Jordan a boundary, ought to have assured them that they could leave in His hand the preservation of tribal unity.  They were so occupied with an imagined possibility, however, and so concerned about circumventing it, that they failed to see that the expedient to which they had resorted was itself the very thing that would bring about the evil they sought to prevent.

So is it with every scheme, no matter how well meant, that isn’t commanded by God.

22:26.  “Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice:”

We have noted in our study of verse 23, that to erect an altar upon which no offering would ever be placed, was to pervert its use and change its character.  Every scheme not authorized by God’s Word, no matter how good the intention of its promoter, will eventually pervert Scriptural order, and corrupt God’s people.

22:27.  “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.”   

Simple obedience to God’s Word was all the safeguard needed against the imagined harm.  They had but to assemble three times a year with their brethren west of Jordan, to worship with them in the place where God had chosen to place His name, and in this we learn a salutary lesson.  The spirit of obedience is the spirit of worship, 1 Sa 15:22, and where there is obedience we can count on God to preserve us from every ill.  Where there is disobedience, the best expedients devised by men cannot secure blessing, or deliver us from Divine chastisement.  The two and a half tribes had no more need of that great altar, than have believers today of the countless grandiose schemes being promoted to recover the blessing forfeited by disobedience.  It isn’t pretentious schemes, but penitent obedience that we need.

Were it not that the same lack of perception abounds everywhere today, it would be difficult to believe that they could have been so blind as not to see their folly.  If unity wasn’t preserved by their going up to worship with their brethren three times a year, just what contribution did they imagine their great altar would make to the preservation of tribal harmony?

22:28.  “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.”

If their assembling thrice yearly with their brethren at the approved altar set up where God had placed His name, didn’t remind the other tribes of the bond that linked them with the two and a half tribes, just how did they think their false altar was going to accomplish that purpose?

Is it possible that there was an ulterior motive behind the erection of that great, but unauthorized altar?  Is it possible that in their hearts they didn’t intend making that thrice annual inconvenient journey to Shiloh, and their great altar was meant to be a testimony to their good intentions?  Good intentions are no substitute for deeds.  Someone has commented very aptly that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. 

If it was indeed in reality merely a testimony to good intentions, then may we not see in it a foreshadowing of many such spiritual equivalent altars erected today in Christendom by those who never seem to get beyond good intentions.  The outward facade of much busy activity is simply the “altar” that distracts the eye of the beholder from the true spiritual state.  Are we, for example, consistent in our attendance at the weekly prayer meeting, but very inconsistent in our own personal prayer life?  Are we equally consistent in attending the weekly Bible study, but negligent when it comes to personal study?  Do we talk a lot about evangelizing, but do little or none?  Is our ministry to the sick, the aged, the needy, etc., also confined mostly to talk?  A little honest self-examination will reveal that the two and a half tribes weren’t alone in having built an unauthorized altar which would focus attention on good intentions, but distract the eye from their actual disobedience.

22:29.  “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.”

All their pious protest didn’t change the fact that that great altar ought not to have been built; nor do all the equally pious claims being made today by professing Christendom, justify what is all too clearly departure from Scriptural order.  Much that is found in the professing church today has no more Scriptural warrant than did that altar.

22:30.  “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.”

So far from indicating that it was right for the two and a half tribes to have built that altar, the pleasure of Phinehas and the princes in response to the assurance, simply reminds us that even godly men may be swayed by plausible arguments, and led to endorse schemes and activities which lack Scriptural warrant.  The fact remains that that altar ought not to have been built, nor should it have been allowed to remain.

22:31.  “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.”

Relief that the possible trespass hadn’t occurred, may perhaps have induced the too ready acceptance of the explanation, the wrong reasoning being that since it hadn’t occurred, it wouldn’t occur.  But that was very flawed deduction.  That altar should have been dismantled, for as long as it remained there it constituted an inducement to commit the very trespass they feared.  No matter how plausible the arguments of those who promote unscriptural schemes, such programs should not be allowed to remain operative.

22:32.  “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.”

22:33.  “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.”

Convinced by their leaders that no sin had been committed by their brethren east of the Jordan, and that they themselves would not therefore suffer God’s displeasure, the other tribes were induced to consider the matter closed, relieved, no doubt, that they were delivered from the necessity of going to war with the two and a half tribes who had raised their fears originally.  Were they perhaps the more anxious to be delivered from that necessity, having just completed seven years of war with the Canaanites?  There would have been more reason for their complacency had the controversial altar been dismantled, but it wasn’t.

Peace at any price is a principle not found in the Word of God, nor should it have any place in the midst of God’s people.  The application of that principle, however, has paved the way for the introduction of many a seemingly innocent, but unscriptural scheme.

22:34.  “And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed a witness: for it shall be a witness between us that the Lord is God.”

The only Divinely authorized witness to that fact was the altar set up at God’s command in the place where He had placed His name.  That great altar erected by the two and a half tribes was at best superfluous, and at worst a potential snare.  So is everything in the midst of God’s people that has been introduced without a clear “Thus saith the Lord.” 

Grant comments very aptly in connection with that controversial altar, “It is not by ability to keep in view the whole horizon of circumstance that we shall be effectually guarded from the approach of evil: it is by that spirit which is manifested in those who are the true circumcision - ‘no confidence in the flesh,’ Ph 3:3

[Joshua 23]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough