(Originally published February 17, 2017)
Chapter 22 of Joshua opens with an air of solemnity. The conquest is won, the allotment of lands is complete, and now the time is come for the warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh to return to their families and possessions on the East side of the Jordan River. The first four verses of the chapter parallel and show the fulfillment of a passage from the first chapter of Joshua, where Joshua addresses these warriors before entering the land.
“And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.” (Joshua 1:12-15)
“… 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.” (Joshua 22:1-4)
These warriors have fulfilled their commission. Without any complaints, they have fought alongside the rest of the tribes of Israel to conquer the land of promise and drive out the Canaanites so the tribes may take possession of their inheritance. They have been faithful to their brothers and to the Lord. The time has come to rest.
Rest. After 7 years of warfare. Forty years of wandering. Four hundred years of slavery. Sweet rest. What, exactly, is this rest? Is it Heaven; the cessation of all labor? Well, no. They still have lives to lead in the promised land, and pockets of resistance from the scattered remnants of the enemy to defeat. The rest that the Israelites are now to enjoy is a dim picture of a deeper and higher rest; a signpost pointing to Christ. Their warfare is ended and life in the land of promise is begun.
The author of Hebrews comments on this passage in Joshua to teach us that as Christians there is a better rest into which we are privileged to enter.
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:8-11)
Andrew Murray, commenting on this passage from Hebrews, points out the meaning of the connection to the Sabbath:
“… the rest here is called a sabbatism, or Sabbath rest. It is spoken of as remaining, with reference to the rest in Canaan. That was but a shadow and a symbol: the real Sabbath rest remained, waiting its time, till Christ the true Joshua should come, and open it to us by Himself entering it.”
He then goes on to explain the difference between the working and resting of God in creating the world. When God rested, he ceased from his work of creating, but his work of sustaining and perfecting his creation is ongoing. Then:
“It is this resting from their own work which many Christians cannot understand. They think of it as a state of passive and selfish enjoyment, of still contemplation which leads to the neglect of the duties of life, and unfits for that watchfulness and warfare to which Scripture calls. What an entire misunderstanding of God’s call to rest. As the Almighty, God is the only source of power. In nature he works all. In grace he waits to work all too, if man will but consent and allow. Truly to rest in God is to yield oneself up to the highest activity. We work, because he worketh in us to will and to do…. Entering the rest of God is the ceasing from self-effort, and the yielding up oneself in the full surrender of faith to God’s working.” (Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All, an Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1894, re-published 1993, Fleming H. Revell)
Sinclair Ferguson explains that, “In the context of (Hebrews 4:8-11), this refers fundamentally to the “Sabbath rest” which is found in Christ (“Come… I will give you rest,” Matt. 11:28-30) … We rest in Christ from our labor of self-sufficiency, and we have access to the Father.” (Tabletalk Magazine, Ligonier Ministries, March 2004)
This has been the lesson for the Israelites all through the forty years wandering in the dessert and the seven years of battles to conquer the promised land. Rely on the Lord! Strap on your armor and march into battle trusting in Almighty God for the outcome! They needed to rely on him for the warfare; they will need to rely on him for the peacetime.
In verses 5-6 Joshua is addressing the two and a half tribes with a grave admonition:
“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.” (Joshua 22:5-6)
These tribes live on the opposite side of the Jordan river from the rest of the people of Israel. Separated by this natural boundary from the promised land, returning for the appointed feasts and times of worship will be more difficult. Like the rest of Israel, they have the benefit of Levitical cities, so the teaching of the Law of the Lord and his word are not wholly absent from their midst.
Even still, Joshua is correct that they will need to “be very careful to observe the commandment and the law” and to “love the Lord (their) God.” This first and highest commandment will need to be uppermost in their minds and hearts.
Love of God is, after all, the attitude of the heart which lies behind all true obedience to the Lord. Obeying out of a sense of duty or fear only goes so far. To fully obey the Lord in the depths of one’s being, one must love him. Jesus expounded this law when questioned by a scribe: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).’”
As Christians, our loves come from our hearts. But we must realize that that which is truly loved must pass first through our minds. He who we love is the Almighty Creator of the universe. He has given us his revelation of himself in the form of the written Word so that we may know him. He who is a “Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” has told us what we need so that we may know him. Not exhaustively, of course, our finite minds have not the capacity to know him to the end of his endlessness. But what we may know he has told us in words that we are capable of understanding. Why else would Paul pray for the Believers in Ephesus, ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge… (Eph. 4:17-19).’
For the Believer, to know him is to love him. Dear friends, let us pray that our love for God grows stronger every day, that we may better serve and obey him.
Our text in Joshua now takes an unexpected turn.
“So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the Lord through Moses. 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.” (Joshua 22:9-10)
Directly on the heels of Joshua’s admonition to follow the Lord and obey his law, these two and a half tribes head for home and build an altar of their own! The rest of Israel, upon hearing the news, are naturally alarmed and send a delegation to learn the whole truth behind this potential breach of faith.
“Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, “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?” (Joshua 22:13-16)
Their response is swift and serious because they have been down this road before, and God spoke directly to this sort of circumstance in no uncertain terms.
“And you shall say to them, Any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from his people.” (Leviticus 17:8-9)
“If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” (Deuteronomy 13:12-15)
The leader of the delegation, Phinehas, had demonstrated his zeal for the Lord and the purity of his worship during an outbreak of idolatry in the wilderness years which they now remember as “the sin of Peor.” Israel was living in Shittim and had been there long enough, evidently, that the Israelites developed such a relationship with the Moabites of the neighborhood that they joined them in worshiping Baal. The Lord took notice, sent a plague, and directed the execution of those who were involved. In the middle of the executions, the weeping, and the dismay over the idolatry, an Israelite man brazenly marched through the camp with a Midianite woman, in front of God and everybody, and into his tent. Phinehas grabbed a spear and marched in behind them and speared them both through, thus ending the plague upon the Israelites.
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” (Numbers 25:10-13)
Once again, the honor of the Lord is on the line, and Phinehas is out to do what he must to set the record straight. But these are their brothers, and are loved by the rest of Israel. Therefore, before they ‘put them to the sword,’ they ask their fellow Israelites about the altar, leaving no doubt as to their intentions should the purposes be against God’s law. In their investigation, they not only confront the eastern tribes with their suspicions, they offer them an escape from living in a defiled land, should that be the reason for the altar.
“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.” (Joshua 22:19)
Commenting on this, James Boice sees sacrificial love in action:
“The Western tribes did not merely demonstrate their love for those they thought were erring by going to talk with them before attacking them, though that was significant in itself and is something from which we should learn. They did something even greater. They offered their own lands if that could be the means of drawing the eastern peoples back to faithful worship of Jehovah… In other words, “If the cause of your apostasy is the traditions of the land in which you live, don’t live there. Come over to where we live, and we will give you some of our cities, some of our land. Only do not rebel against the Lord.”
This is costly love. But this is the kind of love that wins people to God.” Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice, Published 1989 by Baker Books]
In response, the eastern tribes are utterly dismayed that their altar could have been mistaken for a departure from the worship of the Lord. Invoking the name of the Lord with extreme sincerity, they agree with their brothers that the Lord himself ought to take vengeance upon them if they had built the altar out of rebellion or a breach of faith. Their intention, it turns out, was far from what the western tribes assumed.
“…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? 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. Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 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.”’ (Joshua 22:24-27)
They feared the potential that in the future their children may be prevented from worshiping the Lord at his sanctuary in the promised land, and so they built the altar to testify to future generations that they were part of Israel and worshipers of the Lord. Far from rebellion against the Lord, the altar was insurance for the future true worship of him by their children.
They may have gotten the idea for this altar from Joshua himself, who took stones from the bed of the Jordan river at the instruction of the Lord in order to build a memorial to testify to future generations that the Lord cut off the waters of the river so that the people could pass over (Joshua 4:6-7). Passing the faith of one generation to the next is a theme throughout Scripture because it is vital for the continuation of true worship. This was on the minds and hearts of the eastern tribes as they journeyed homeward.
Upon hearing their explanation, Phinehas and the rest of the delegation are relieved, as are the rest of Israel when they return with their report.
“And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, “Today we know that the Lord is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the Lord. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the Lord.” (Joshua 22:31)
They had anticipated another battle, this time against their brothers. They even feared that the Lord himself would execute his own vengeance against the people, as they had experienced in times past. But now, to their great relief, they sense the presence of the Lord not in wrath, but in mercy.
We are asked to consider how this parallel’s Christ’s death for us on the cross.
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)
For those who are in Christ, God’s wrath has been turned away and we receive instead his mercy. We are declared to be innocent—justified—because Christ took our sins upon himself and gave us his righteousness in its place. Christ took the wrath due to us, turning God’s wrath away from us. This is propitiation. I think this is what the authors of our study are wanting us to see. The Israelites expected God’s wrath to fall on them, but instead they receive his mercy. His wrath is, in effect, turned away. That is the parallel to the work of Christ on the cross.
The difference would be that instead of the innocent action of the eastern tribes which was misunderstood by the others, we are indeed guilty of our sins before our Holy God and fully deserving of his wrath. Christ did not shed his blood on the cross and die to clear up a misunderstanding on our behalf. He died to cleanse us from the defilement of more sins than we can comprehend, which we have committed against the Lord and others around us. Christ died for sinners. And the cross stands as a witness to his death, to remind us that we owe him our lives, our gratitude, and all our worship. Never forget.