Joshua 21-22
(First Controversy)
March 10th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verses

So the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he had solemnly promised their ancestors he would give them. When they had taken possession of it, they settled down there. The LORD gave them peace throughout the land, just as he had promised their ancestors. Not one of all their enemies had been able to stand against them, because the LORD gave the Israelites the victory over all their enemies. The LORD kept every one of the promises that he had made to the people of Israel.

- Joshua 21:43-45 (GNB)

Summary of Chapters

In today's readings we find out that all the tribes have finally settled in their land. Unfortunately, peace was short-lived as a controversy over an un-authorized altar leads to a national crisis. But before we get to the big controversy we can observe that Joshua assigned 48 towns to the Levites in chapter 21, as previously instructed by God in Numbers 35:1-28. Joshua took an average of four towns from each tribe and allotted them to Levites who would live among that tribe, in service to the LORD. Some of the cities were designed as places of refuge to which an accused person could run until a fair trial could be held. Joshua planned the distribution of cities in a geographic pattern that allowed for a city of refuge within a day's walk for all people.

The big controversy arose after the eastern tribes were formally dismissed by Joshua. They returned to their land and built an altar as a witness of their faith in God. Word got around to the other tribes that the easterners were creating a competing religion and the collection of tribes was on the brink of a Holy War.

    The other Israelites heard the report: "The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar" in the region of the Jordan facing the land of Canaan, across from the Israelites.

    When the Israelites heard this, they assembled at Shiloh, as the entire Israelite community to take military action against them.

    - Joshua 22:11-12 (NAB)

Fortunately, coolers heads prevailed, as Phineas, son of Eleazar, the priest, led a delegation to investigate. Phineas reminded the easterners of the trouble created by people going their own way, noting the rebellion and consequences at Peor (Numbers 25:1-18) and the theft and consequences by Achan in chapter 7 of Joshua. But he gave the tribes an opportunity to explain their actions. After hearing their story, the whole delegation concluded that the altar was built in good faith, not to serve as an alternate place for sacrifices, but to serve as a witness to their relationship with the LORD. The text below provides a response from the accused and an observation of the reaction from the investigators:

    "We built this altar as a witness between us and you and our children coming after us, a witness to the Altar where we worship God in his Sacred Dwelling with our Whole-Burnt-Offerings and our sacrifices and our Peace-Offerings."

    "This way, your children won't be able to say to our children in the future, 'You have no part in God.'

    "We said to ourselves, 'If anyone speaks disparagingly to us or to our children in the future, we'll say: Look at this model of God's Altar which our ancestors made. It's not for Whole-Burnt-Offerings, not for sacrifices. It's a witness connecting us with you.' "

    "Rebelling against or turning our backs on God is the last thing on our minds right now. We never dreamed of building an altar for Whole-Burnt-Offerings or Grain-Offerings to rival the Altar of our God in front of his Sacred Dwelling."

    Phinehas the priest, all the heads of the congregation, and the heads of the military divisions of Israel who were also with him heard what the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had to say. They were satisfied.

    - Joshua 22:27-30 (MSG)

The investigators returned with their report, which was accepted by the people, so the crisis ended peacefully and the people resumed their lives and their worship of the LORD.

Reflection and Application

If we are honest, we might acknowledge that some parts of Joshua have been harder to believe or accept than others. But here is one theme that we should all be able to agree on: Joshua gets it. He understands what God wants. He waited patiently for his leadership role, performed every duty obediently, and never let it go to his head. He knew that the MVP was God, not Joshua. In addition to all of that steadfast loyalty, he remembered to share the most important instruction.

When Joshua said farewell to the eastern tribes, as reported in chapter 22, he concluded with these final words: "But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you: to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul (22:5 - NIV)." This last phrase concurs with the words that Jesus would say when he was asked what is the greatest commandment. Therefore, Joshua was clearly on the right track by upholding the sacred instructions as intended.

God gave us instruction and he eventually fulfills every promise – we must trust him patiently and do what he tells us. We are reminded of this truth in the concluding verse of chapter 21, which appears after all the allotments were concluded: "Not one of all the LORD's good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled (Joshua 21:45 - NIV)."

We also have a good reminder in today's reading to be careful to listen to the whole story before judging. How did a rumor get started regarding an alleged sacrificial altar back east? Maybe it started with one person who was jealous of the land held by the Reubenites or the other eastern tribes. The story sounded credible and it was a sensitive subject, so this hearsay quickly got picked up on the gossip network and spread throughout the region, like ripples in a pond.

Today is the anniversary of first successful telephone conversation. On March 10th, 1876, the American inventor, Alexander Graham Bell placed a call to his assistant, Watson as proof of his concept that intelligible speech could be successfully transmitted on a wire. Bell established a patent and eventually created commercially available versions of the telephone and a network on which the signals could be carried, thus allowing people to speak to each other at a distance and spread news faster than ever before.

However, it's worth noting that humans never needed technology to disseminate information. Indeed, the Social Network existed long before the discovery of electronic communication. Humans enjoy communicating with one another and are easily tempted into spreading false rumors about others. Phineas almost got caught up in the rumors. At first, he appeared to be judgmental, but he gave an opportunity for the accused to speak before he drew any conclusions. If Phinehas had not taken time to listen, then a war may have erupted.

Note that the establishment of cities of refuge was also consistent with this philosophy of giving the accused an opportunity to testify for themselves and bring in witnesses if possible in order to help avoid premature judgment.

The location of the tabernacle is not explicitly mentioned in Joshua, but presumably it was in Shechem, a Levite city located within the tribal boundaries of Ephraim. One day it would be relocated to Jerusalem, but Shechem is mentioned in the subsequent chapter as the place where Joshua and the other leaders gathered before God, therefore, this is most likely where they had brought the tabernacle. God had instructed the people to have one central place of worship - this is why everyone was so upset with the eastern tribes, because they thought these guys were setting up a second central place of worship. This would be a problem in the future, but was not the case in these chapters.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. Can you recall a time when you were too quick to judge someone?
    2. How can we train ourselves to judge fairly?
    3. What good news would you like to see spread quickly in your social network?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, we acknowledge you as the ultimate judge of what is fair and just. We thank you for your patience in judging us and ask you to help us be quick to listen and slow to speak about the accused.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    People who are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Joshua 23-24 (Joshua's Farewell Speech)

    Comments and Questions
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