Today’s reading: Joshua 20-24, Judges 1-5, Psalm 32-33
Over the last few days, we’ve read several times about the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Remember that they desired to settle on land east of the Jordan. They received permission to do so, as long as they first helped Israel cross over and settle the promised land to the west of the Jordan. Today, in chapter 22, with the fighting over and the land all parceled out, Joshua sends the men home to their families.
Their very first action is to build an altar on the eastern banks of the Jordan as a sign of reverence for the God who has delivered them. No sooner have they done so then the rest of the Israelites are perturbed by their new construction and want to go pick a fight. Representatives from the Israelite board of trustees decide they will cross the river to confront the renegade tribes. Their tone is harsh and judgmental–“What in the world do you think you’re doing? You can’t worship that way!”
How can this be? Aren’t they worshipping the same God. Why would the Israelites on the west bank want to destroy their brothers and sisters on the east bank for their act of worship? This story highlights how a community of faith can become so attached to its way of doing things as the only way and how easily (and angrily) it can dismiss others as doing it wrong. In America in the late 20th century, even within the same congregation, worship wars began to spring up as members fought over the “style” of worship that was best or most appropriate. Some of those wars have even led to fractured or dis-membered churches.
Thankfully, the storyline in Joshua 22 has a much happier ending. The trustees decide they will hear the renegades out and become convinced by the earnestness of their devotion to God. Not only that–they also learn that the altar, far from being a means of separating from their west-side brothers and sisters, is meant to be a reminder for generations to come that their tribes are connected to a larger faith community. The LORD is God over all of Israel, even if they gather for worship at two different altars now.