A Lesson from Our Forefathers

Víctor Chininin Buele

Nothing incendiary here. Or at least not purposefully so. But I’ve been slowly reading through the Old Testament over the last several weeks. A story caught my attention. Nothing new. Nothing that I have not read before. A lesson from our forefathers in the faith.

We meet some friends in Numbers 32, the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who promise to go fight with Israel until the end before returning to the land that they asked to be their possession. They all crossed the Jordan and did what they promised they would do. These men of integrity kept their word.

In Joshua 22, we read of their return trip. These people received a great commendation: “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” (3). They kept their promise and did not forsake the rest of Israel. The historical precedent to this episode is, then, one of faithfulness. This truly is what they did. They did what they said they would do.

Joshua blesses them and before sending them on their way, he charges them to “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” (5).

The charge is clear. Despite their display of faithfulness, they are blessed with/through a reminder of their need and calling to holiness, to obey Yahweh, to cling to Him, an impossible task without the pursuit of holiness. Joshua doesn’t assume they know. Joshua doesn’t assume that their past faithfulness will necessarily result in holiness once they return to their land.

Grace does not mean we are to strive to always see the best in others. This story would have turned out very differently if our friends would have turned on Joshua and said, “Why are you not seeing us with the eyes of grace? Are you accusing us of something? Don’t you see we have been faithful at great personal cost? Maybe your connection to Achan (cf. Joshua 7:10-26) has poisoned everything you see? Perhaps you are acting like this Achan thing is a hammer and so, everything you see is a nail? Maybe you are harboring bitterness over Achan?” Grace is not ignorant of the reality that we must always be watchful and actively working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Grace is not ignorant of temptation. Grace is not ignorant of the reality that there is sin that must be warned against and called out, proactively and reactively pursuing holiness.

They received the blessing, the warning, the exhortation. And they went home.

The text then tells us what happened after they got back: “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” (10).

That is simply a fact. They built an altar.

What happened next? When Israel heard about this, their first reaction was to go make war with them. This is far from the false grace we have come to expect in our days: trust unquestionably, see the best in people, affirm the evidences of grace in them. Of course, there is a time under the sun to trust, to overlook minor offenses and mistakes, to affirm the work of God in a person. But it is not always the time for such responses.

Were the people of Israel vengeful? Was that why their first possible response was war? Let’s answer that from the text:

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? Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the Lord, that you too must turn away this day from following the Lord? And if you too rebel against the Lord today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 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. Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.’”

Joshua 22:13-20 (ESV)

The sin of Achan is still fresh in their minds. They remember the wrath that fell upon them as a result of this sin. They recall the loss and consequences due to this breach of faith. They fear the Lord and do not desire for this to happen again. This kind of sin, as they have realized, is possible to prevent. They even had a fresh memory to which they can appeal in their plea for repentance.

You may want to ask, why did they jump to conclusions so fast? Why are they assuming sin? I would ask back, have you read the Old Testament? Up to this point in the biblical narrative we have had sufficient evidence that Israel can and will build altars for idolatrous purposes (Aaron built an altar for the golden calf, for example). They actually did not assume the best in this situation. They actually assume the very worst. They see Aaron all over again. They see Achan all over again. There is a pattern, and this sure looks like it.

So, they assembled a delegation on behalf of the whole congregation of Yahweh and sent them to make a diligent inquiry of the matter and to explicitly call for repentance. And they went and asked hard questions, not the kind of tentative insinuations we are accustomed to in our modern days “maybe, perhaps, I don’t know if you are seeing this, I think…”

Did these questions sound like accusations? Or better said, were these questions accusations? These questions show the tribes that the whole congregation of Israel believes that the tribes have committed a breach of faith, that they have sinned, and that have rebelled against the Lord. They are being called to repent. A better question to ask is, what kind of a heart did the questions reveal? A broken and contrite heart? A defensive and evasive heart? A bitter heart?—“One who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’” (Deuteronomy 29:19 ESV).

What happens in the text? What is the way that the tribes respond to these questions?

Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, “The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, do not spare us today for building an altar to turn away from following the Lord. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the Lord himself take vengeance. No, but 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.”’ And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.”’ Far be it from us that we should rebel against the Lord and turn away this day from following the Lord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle!”

Joshua‬ ‭22:21-29‬ ‭ESV‬‬

They did not resent the questions. They were not defensive. Their intentions and actions clearly show they are pursuing holiness. Not just in what they did in the past but also in how they are going through the process of being called to repentance.

When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. 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.” Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.”

Joshua‬ ‭22:30-34‬ ‭ESV‬‬

That was it. There you have it. Unity was preserved. It was not because they hard questions were avoided, or because people were assumed to be in the right despite seeming evidence to the contrary, or because the events were put in their best possible light. Unity was preserved precisely because people on both sides were willing to follow the Lord and do their job, calling for accountability and repentance, showing truth and submitting to God in responding.

Let us not miss these lessons from our forefathers in the faith. There may be a thing or two out there that we very well may be called to put into practice today.