Joshua 22: Lessons on Resolving Conflict from the Altar of the Eastern Tribes

Seek to maintain Spirit-led unity in the Body of Christ1

Introduction: Chapters 22 through 24 contain the conclusion to the book of Joshua. Chapter 22 contains Joshua’s final instructions and blessings to the two and a half tribes who chose to live in modern day Jordan, outside the Promised Land. This chapter also contains an account years later when the tribes outside the Promised Land built their own altar. The tribes inside the Promised Land believed that the altar violated God’s Law. As a result, they almost went to war over it. From this account, God reveals seven lessons on preventing and resolving Church conflict.

First, although the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh decided to forgo an inheritance in the Promised Land, they remained faithful in fulfilling a promise to Moses to fight with the Jews to subdue the Promised Land. From this, God reminds us that all believers play an important role in His army. Being a spectator is not a calling of the Holy Spirit. Second, from Joshua’s call for the tribes outside the Promised Land to remain obedient, believers are reminded that they must also remain obedient toward God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Third, from the blessings given to the tribes for their faithfulness and obedience, God promised to also bless you when your faithfulness produces the fruit of obedience. Likewise, when you are in a leadership role, He also wants you to bless those under your command when they are faithful and obedient. Fourth, from the offense taken at what the Jews inside the Promised Land believed to be an alternative altar of sacrifice, He reveals that He wants believers to jealously guard against false teachers who claim that there is more than one means for atonement. Only through faith in Jesus’ blood at the cross can mankind be reconciled toward God. Fifth, a delegation composed of the High Priest and a representative for each of the nine and a half tribes inside the Promised Land investigated the altar to prevent a war. From this example, leaders are taught to use private investigation, admonishment, and encouragement to avoid Church conflict. Sixth, though the approval of both the High Priest and the leaders of the altar of worship outside the Promised Land, He reveals that believers should celebrate different forms of worship when it does not contradict sound doctrine or the exclusive atonement offered through Jesus. Finally, the altar was built as a witness for future generations never to forget God. Today, you are the temple of His Spirit. He also wants you to be a witness to others so that they may never forget Him.

1. Ensure that Each Believer Plays a Role in God’s Army. Josh. 22:1-4.

  • The faithfulness of the tribes east of the Jordan river. After seven years of conflict spent subduing and pacifying the Promised Land, Joshua assembled the leaders of the two and a half tribes who wanted to live outside the Promised Land to bless them and discharge them to live in their own lands: “1 Then Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, ‘You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have listened to my voice in all that I commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days to this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God. 4 And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan.” (Josh. 22:1-4). Before the invasion of the Promised Land, God blessed the Jews with the wealth from three wars in Jordan against: (1) the Amorite King Sihon (Nu. 21:23-31; Dt. 2:24-37); (2) the Amorite King Og (Nu. 21:32-35); and (3) the Midianites (Nu. 31:7-11). He gave the Jews these things to prepare them for the Promised Land. But the tribes of Rueben and Gad assumed that God gave them this wealth for their own benefit. Like the servant who was given a talent and hid it, these tribes decided to bury their talents in a foreign land instead of watching them grow in God’s Promised Land (Matt. 25:14-30; Lk. 19:12-28). After receiving God’s many blessings, the tribes of Reuben and Gad noticed that they had “an exceedingly large number of livestock.” (Nu. 32:1). They also noticed that the conquered land that they were staying in “was indeed a suitable place for livestock.” (Nu. 32:1, 4). After realizing the comfort of God’s blessings, these tribes pleaded with Moses: “do not take us across the Jordan.” (Nu. 32:5). Moses later agreed to their requests. God cannot force people into His Promised Land if they don’t want to be there. Yet, in exchange for letting them live outside the Promised Land, they promised to forgo their inheritance until the other tribes received their inheritance: “We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance.” (Nu. 32:18). Just before the Jews invaded the Promised Land, Joshua reminded these tribes of their vow: “12 To the Reubenites and to the Gadites and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, Joshua said, 13 ‘Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God gives you rest and will give you this land.’ 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your cattle shall remain in the land which Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but you shall cross before your brothers in battle array, all your valiant warriors, and shall help them, 15 until the Lord gives your brothers rest, as He gives you, and they also possess the land which the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to your own land, and possess that which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.” (Josh. 1:12-15). Although these tribes gave up their inheritance, they still were faithful in honoring their promise to fight for the other tribes in the Promised Land. God in turn was faithful to give them the inheritance in Jordan that they sought.

The Tribes to the East of the Jordan River2

  • Everyone is needed in the fight to bring others to the eternal Promised Land. Jesus is looking for people to serve in His army: “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 2:3). “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.” (Dt. 10:20). Every member of the body plays a vital role in God’s army (1 Cor. 12:25-26). If you truly love Him, you will want to serve out of love and not obligation: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.” (Matt. 22:36-38). He wants you to fight to bring others to the eternal Promised Land. Are you fighting the devil by helping to rescue non-believers?

2. Ensure that Each Believer Remains Obedient to God’s Commandments. Josh. 22:5.

  • Joshua’s charge for the eastern tribes to remain obedient. Before blessing the tribes for their obedience, Joshua reminded them of their obligation to remain obedient to God’s Law: “5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God and walk in all His ways and keep His commandments and hold fast to Him and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.’” (Josh. 22:5). Joshua knew that it was disobedience that caused God to remove His hedge of protection. Their disobedience and lack of faith were also the reasons for 38 of their 40 years of marching through the wilderness. Thus, he began his address to the Jews with a similar call to obedience: “‘7 . . . be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go.’” (Josh. 1:7). Obedience was a command that Moses also gave frequently (e.g., Dt. 6:3-4; 9:1; 20:3). Believers are to be obedient even if they do not understand. God’s thoughts and His ways are greater than our own (Is. 55:8). Is there any rebellion in your walk with God?

  • Be obedient in your walk. Today, Christians are no longer “under the Law” in the sense that they must comply with it to be saved (Gal. 5:18; Ro. 7:6; 8:3). By “fulfilling” the Law, Christ freed us from the impossible task of trying to obtain salvation through the Law (Matt. 5:17). But Jesus also says that, if you love Him, you will keep His Commandments: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jo. 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6). He is the great “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Jo. 8:58; Ex. 3:14). His “disciples” were the “disciplined ones” in keeping His Commandments. As bondservants or freed slaves, they were obedient out of love, not obligation. Whether you follow the Law out of love instead of obligation is a test for whether you really know God: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” (1 Jo. 2:3). Even Paul observed that: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Cor. 7:19). Do you follow the Word and the direction of the Holy Spirit out of love and not obligation? If not, what kind of witness are you?

3. Bless Believers for Their Faithful Service. Josh. 22:6-9.

  • The blessings given to the eastern tribes for their obedience. For their faithfulness and obedience, Joshua blessed the tribes outside the Promised Land and gave them their share of the spoils of the Promised Land: “6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. 7 Now to the one half-tribe of Manasseh Moses had given a possession in Bashan, but to the other half Joshua gave a possession among their brothers westward beyond the Jordan. So when Joshua sent them away to their tents, he blessed them, 8 and said to them, ‘Return to your tents with great riches and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, iron, and with very many clothes; divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers.’ 9 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home and departed from the sons of Israel at Shiloh which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, to the land of their possession which they had possessed, according to the command of the Lord through Moses.” (Josh. 22:6-9). If they obeyed with the right motives, Joshua also promised that the Jews would receive God’s blessings: “‘This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”’ (Josh. 1:8-9). If you do not boast of your works and your works are motivated by love and not obligation, Jesus also promises to bless you: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (Jo. 13:17; Matt. 6:4; 10:41; Rev. 2:26). The rewards for obedience done with the right motives may also be received in this lifetime: “But happy is he who keeps the law.” (Prov. 29:18). “Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” (Ps. 19:11). “Surely there is a reward for the righteous . . .” (Ps. 58:11). “But you, be strong and do not lose courage, for there is reward for your work.” (2 Chr. 15:7). “So keep the words of this covenant to do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.” (Dt. 29:9). “[H]e who sows righteousness gets a true reward.” (Prov. 11:18). “Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess (Dt. 5:32-33; 4:40; Lev. 18:5). Through obedience, are you putting yourself in a place where God can bless you? Are you storing up blessings in heaven?

  • 21 specific blessings in the Torah for those who are faithful and obedient to God. In the four books of the Law, God reveals at least 21 specific blessings for those who are faithful and obedient to Him. These blessings are unrelated to Jesus’ blessings of eternal salvation. In Exodus, He revealed at least three conditional blessings that come from faithful obedience. These include: (1) protection from diseases (Ex. 15:26); (2) a “prolonged life” (Ex. 20:12; Dt. 5:16, 32-33; 4:40; 6:1-2; 12:28; 22:6-7; 25:13-16; Lev. 18:5; Eph. 6:2-3); and (3) His holy presence (Ex. 40:34-35). In Leviticus, He revealed seven other conditional blessings that He may use to bless a person or a nation for obedience. These include: (1) provision (Lev. 26:3-5); (2) peace (Lev. 26:6); (3) protection (Lev. 26:7-8; Ex. 23:22); (4) fertility (Lev. 26:9); (5) abundance (Lev. 26:10; Ps. 92:12-14; Mal. 3:10-12); (6) guidance (Lev. 26:11-12; Ps. 32:8); and (7) freedom (Lev. 26:13; Ex. 20:2). In Deuteronomy, He revealed 10 other conditional blessings. These include: (1) exaltation for the nation (Dt. 28:1-2); (2) exaltation for the individual within the nation (Dt. 28:1-3); (3) growth (Dt. 28:4); (4) food (Dt. 28:5); (5) success (Dt. 28:6); (6) the defeat of your enemies (Dt. 28:7); (7) prosperity (Dt. 28:8); (8) holiness (Dt. 28:9); (9) respect (Dt. 28:10); and (10) the fullness of God’s blessings (Dt. 28:11-14). Finally, in books of the Law from Exodus through Deuteronomy, He reveals the blessing of forgiveness from the blood sacrifices (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). Jesus became the final one-time sacrifice to fulfill the Old Testament sacrificial laws (Heb. 10:12). The only act of obedience required to receive this blessing today is to believe that He died for your sins and that He is both your Lord and Savior (Ro. 10:13; Acts 2:21; Jo. 3:16; 1 Jo. 1:9). Are you obedient to His will to receive His full blessings?

4. Ensure that Believers Remain Obedient in Sound Doctrine. Josh. 22:10-12.

  • The offensive altar of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Years later, the Jews inside the Promised Land almost went to war when they learned that the Jews outside the Promised Land built an altar. The Jews inside the Promised Land feared that the Jews outside the Promised Land had set up an alternative system for sacrifice and atonement: “10 When they came to the region of the Jordan which is in the land of Canaan, the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan, a large altar in appearance. 11 And the sons of Israel heard it said, ‘Behold, the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region of the Jordan, on the side belonging to the sons of Israel.’ 12 When the sons of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the sons of Israel gathered themselves at Shiloh to go up against them in war.” (Josh. 22:10-12). Moses warned against compromising how the Jews were to worship God. To ensure conformity with requirements for atonement, God required that the Jews worship Him at an appointed place: “13 Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see, 14 but in the place which the Lord chooses in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you.” (Dt. 12:13-14). Allowing more than one place of atonement would have symbolically stated that there is more than one route for the atonement of sin. This foreshadowed Jesus as the only means to atone for sin: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Tim. 2:5). If any group teaches that there is more than one route to heaven or that a means exists outside of Jesus, believers should confront such a false teaching or belief.

The Jews east of the Jordan River build their own altar for worship3

  • Worship Jesus corporately as the one and only means to atone for sin. God did not mention the appointed place for worship to Moses or Joshua because it has changed over time. While in the wilderness, the appointed place for worship was in His Tabernacle because His holy presence or His Shekinah glory was there (Ex. 40:35). His Shekinah glory later entered Israel’s first Temple after Solomon dedicated it (2 Chron. 5:3; 7:1-4; 1 Kgs. 8; Ezra 3:1-4). Yet, after the Philistines captured the Ark, “The glory is departed from Israel.” (1 Sam. 4:22). Later, it was prophesized that the Shekinah glory would return with the Messiah (Ez. 43:1-5). While Jesus was on Earth, He fulfilled this prophesy by becoming the dwelling place of God’s glory and the place for our worship. Jesus then gave His glory to us: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one;” (Jo. 17:22). Today, the Holy Spirit dwells within us (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:22; Heb. 3:6; Rom. 13:14; 2 Tim. 1:14). Whenever two or more are gathered in His name, He is there: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt. 18:20). Thus, today the appointed place of worship is not a “place” but a “gathering.” It is any place where you congregate with others to pray in Jesus’ name. A believer must therefore not forsake the fellowship of other believers (Heb. 10:25). Are you regularly attending church? Are you also making yourself accountable in a small group?

5. Ensure that Conflict Amongst Believers is Resolved Peaceably. Josh. 22:13-20.

  • The investigation of the High Priest into the eastern tribes’ altar. Before resorting to war, Joshua sent Eleazar, the High Priest, and the 10 representative from the nine and a half tribes inside the Promised Land to investigate: “13 Then the sons of Israel sent to the sons of Reuben and to the sons of Gad and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14 and with him ten chiefs, one chief for each father’s household from each of the tribes of Israel; and each one of them was the head of his father’s household among the thousands of Israel. 15 They came to the sons of Reuben and to the sons of Gad and to the half-tribe of Manasseh, to the land of Gilead, and they spoke with them saying, 16 ‘Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the God of Israel, turning away from following the Lord this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against the Lord this day? 17 Is not the iniquity of Peor enough for us, from which we have not cleansed ourselves to this day, although a plague came on the congregation of the Lord, 18 that you must turn away this day from following the Lord? If you rebel against the Lord today, He will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel tomorrow. 19 If, however, the land of your possession is unclean, then cross into the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take possession among us. Only do not rebel against the Lord, or rebel against us by building an altar for yourselves, besides the altar of the Lord our God. 20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah act unfaithfully in the things under the ban, and wrath fall on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.’” (Josh. 22:13-20). Joshua and the ten elders followed the procedure that Jesus later laid out in detail for confronting sin. First, the elders or leaders approached the person accused of sinning with the goal of first verifying the sin and then correcting the sin out of love: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:15-17). Like the High Priest and the elders, the Church is to confront sin privately with the goal of restoring any believer caught in sin. A good shepherd never looks the other way when a sheep wanders off: “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back,” (Jam. 5:19). Does your church equip you to rescue the lost sheep who have wandered away? Like a good shepherd, are you trying to bring the lost sheep around you back to their true master?

  • Seek to restore believers out of love. Believers are to follow in this same example when confronting sinners. First, they must remove the planks in their own eyes to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matt. 7:5). Second, you must confront the believer privately (Matt. 18:15-17). Third, motivated by love, you should restore the believer: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1). “What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21). “with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,” (2 Tim. 2:25). When a brother or sister has sinned, are you following the correct steps to put them back on their walk?

6. Protect Diversity in Worship When it Does Not Contradict the Word. Josh. 22:21-33.

  • The eastern tribes’ altar of worship. After learning that the two and a half tribes built the altar as a place for future generations to remember God and not as an alternative place for atonement, Eleazar and the leaders of the tribes inside the Promised Land were pleased: “21 Then the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered and spoke to the heads of the families of Israel. 22 ‘The Mighty One, God, the Lord, the Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows, and may Israel itself know. If it was in rebellion, or if in an unfaithful act against the Lord do not save us this day! 23 If we have built us an altar to turn away from following the Lord, or if to offer a burnt offering or grain offering on it, or if to offer sacrifices of peace offerings on it, may the Lord Himself require it. 24 But truly we have done this out of concern, for a reason, saying, ‘In time to come your sons may say to our sons, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? 25 For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you sons of Reuben and sons of Gad; you have no portion in the Lord.’ So your sons may make our sons stop fearing the Lord.’ 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us build an altar, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; 27 rather it shall be a witness between us and you and between our generations after us, that we are to perform the service of the Lord before Him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices and with our peace offerings, so that your sons will not say to our sons in time to come, ‘You have no portion in the Lord.’ 28 Therefore we said, ‘It shall also come about if they say this to us or to our generations in time to come, then we shall say, ‘See the copy of the altar of the Lord which our fathers made, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice; rather it is a witness between us and you.’ 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away from following the Lord this day, by building an altar for burnt offering, for grain offering or for sacrifice, besides the altar of the Lord our God which is before His tabernacle.’ 30 So when Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the congregation, even the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the sons of Manasseh spoke, it pleased them. 31 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the sons of Reuben and to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Manasseh, ‘Today we know that the Lord is in our midst, because you have not committed this unfaithful act against the Lord; now you have delivered the sons of Israel from the hand of the Lord.’ 32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest and the leaders returned from the sons of Reuben and from the sons of Gad, from the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the sons of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 The word pleased the sons of Israel, and the sons of Israel blessed God; and they did not speak of going up against them in war to destroy the land in which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad were living.” (Josh. 22:21-33). The High Priest and the elders were correct in allowing for different styles of worship within the community of God.

The eastern tribes defend the use of their altar4

  • Although there is only one route to God, there are many ways to worship Him. As long as your heart longs to draw closer to God, your style of worship does not matter: “But from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Dt. 4:29). “I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.” (Jer. 24:7). “For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel, “Seek Me that you may live.” (Amos 5:4). “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13). God does not care whether you worship Him through traditional hymns or contemporary music. As long as you are motivated by love and following sound doctrine, He welcomes different types of worship. Are you also welcoming other styles of worship?

7. Ensure that Future Generations of Believers Never Forget God. Josh. 22:34.

  • The eastern tribes altar of “witness”. The tribes called the altar “witness” to be a witness to all future generations that they were God’s children: “34 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad called the altar Witness; ‘For,’ they said, ‘it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.’” (Josh. 22:34). Today, your body is the temple where the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means that you should be a witness to others and your children. You are meant to be a witness to God’s light and His love (Matt. 5:14). Is your life a witness to the love and light that lies within you?