When we think about finding help for practical matters in the church, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are books that come to mind. However, Joshua should be added to the list of places we go to find help for practical ecclesiology. In this list of ten, we will see how Joshua 22 fits into the book of Joshua. And from its place in the book of Joshua, we will see at least five ways this chapter informs a variety of church matters.
1. Joshua 22 begins the fourth and last section of Joshua.
In Joshua there are three or four major sections, depending on how you organize the book. But however you arrange it, Joshua 22 begins a new section, one composed of three concluding assembles. As Dale Ralph Davis puts it,
Observe that each of these last three chapters begins when Joshua summons (Hebrew, qara’) Israel or some significant segment of it (22:1; 23:2; 24:1). Thus the book closes with three assemblies of the people of God. Remember that all this immediately follows the heavy theological text, 21:43-45, which emphatically underscores Yahweh’s fidelity to his promise.
By contrast, chapters 22–24 are preoccupied with the theme of Israel’s fidelity to Yahweh (22:5, 16, 18, 19, 25, 29, 31; 23:6, 8, 11; 24:14-15, 16, 18, 21, 23, 24).’ Hence the last three chapters constitute the writer’s major application: Israel must respond in kind to Yahweh’s unwavering faithfulness. Willing bondage [think: Paul’s use of the word doulos] to this faithful God is their only rational and proper response. The logic is that of the ‘therefore’ of Romans 12:1 as it follows the divine mercies of Romans 1-11. In principle it is the same as ‘love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’ (Joshua, 169–70)
Davis’s observation about these three assemblies is most helpful for establishing a link between Israel living in the land and God’s people living before God today. Thus, we can be sure that these chapters are meant to help churches walk together in covenant unity.
2. Joshua 22 puts the emphasis on the altar of witness.
In the first of three assemblies, we see how Israel resolved a problem concerning Israel’s unity. The arc of the story in chapter 22 moves from Joshua’s effusive commendation of the Eastern tribes (vv. 1–9) to a concern with these same tribes (vv. 10–13). The reason is that when they returned home, they built an altar of witness to remind future generations of their unity with the Western tribes. Unfortunately, this was not immediately clear. Hence, the drama is seen in Israel mustering for war to put down this (perceived) rebellion. Wisely, they sent a delegation to discover the purpose this altar before going to battle.
The dialogue that ensues, places the altar of witness at the center (v. 27) and at the end (v. 34). From this literary structure, we learn that that altar of witness is the main point in this chapter. Consider this outline:
A The Altar is Constructed (v. 10)
B The Righteous Anger of Israel Burns (vv. 11–12)
C The Delegation is Sent (vv. 13–14)
D The Inquiry is Made (vv. 15–20)
E The Altar of Witness is Explained (vv. 21–29)
D’ The Acquittal is Happily Given (v. 30–31)
C’ The Delegation Reports the Good News (v. 32)
B’ Righteous Anger Turns to Praise (v. 33)
A’ The Altar Bears Enduring Witness (v. 34)
Notice, the center of this outline (vv. 21–29) and is resolution (v. 34) are both focused on the altar of witness. Going further into the center (E: The Testimony is Give), we find another more intricate chiasm too. (The colors are added to show the verbal connections).
21 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,
Praise to God
22 “The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows; and let Israel itself know!
Self-Malediction: If we are rebels, strike us down!
A If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, do not spare us today 23 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.
Problem: What if future generations deny our children?
B 24 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? 25 For the Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad.
C You have no portion in the Lord.’
D So your children might make our children cease to worship the Lord.
Solution: Let’s Build Something That Will Prove Our Union with God’s People
E 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice,
F 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us,
E’ that we do perform the service of the Lord in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings,
D’ so your children will not say to our children in time to come,
C’ “You have no portion in the Lord.” ’
Problem Solved: An Altar of Witness
B’28 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.” ’
Vow of Faithfulness
A’29 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!”
From this literary shaping, we discover that the main point is the altar of witness. Interestingly, it was the divergent interpretations of this altar that posed the problem. And instructively, when the West inquired of the East it was discovered that they both had the same godly desire—to see their children continue to worship the Lord. Only because of their various locations, they approached it in different ways. This will be a feature to consider in this passage and one that results in all sorts of practical applications today.
3. The original audience of Joshua directs our understanding of this passage.
As we consider ways this passage relates to the church, it is important to remember who it Joshua was written for. Again, Ralph Davis is helpful,
I suggest that Joshua, substantially as it stands, would prove potent preaching material to the Judges generation (Judg. 2:6-10) who were slack about driving out the remnants of the Canaanites (Judg. 1:27—2:5; cf. Josh. 16:10; 17:12-18; 18:3), and therefore created a climate for apostasy to occur in a most predictable way (Judg. 2:11-3:6; cf. Josh. 23:6-7, 11-13). A faithful disciple of Yahweh seeing the sophomore generation slowly losing its vision of its gracious God and sliding toward apostasy wants Israel to know the work Yahweh had done for them (Judg. 2:10). Hence, he rehearses the power and fidelity of Yahweh in the original conquest story (chs. 1-12) and even wraps the archives in exhortation and admonition (14:6-15; 17:14-18; 18:3). Then in a threefold application he drives home that Israel should and must always be slaves of Yahweh (chs. 22-24). Not that the book wouldn’t speak to still later generations and situations, but one need look no further than thirty or forty years after Joshua’s death for a most appropriate audience urgently needing the kerygma of Joshua. (Joshua, 170)
By keeping the original audience in view, we come closer to discerning the original author’s intent. Given the waywardness of Israel in the book of Judges, Joshua highlights the commitment of the second generation to share their faith with their children. We should take the same the interest and approach to our children. Yet, as George Bush (not that George Bush) commented a century ago that often does not happen.
Alas! how much more anxious are thousands to entail upon their descendants ample worldly possessions, even at the hazard of all their better interests, than to perpetuate among them those invaluable means of grace which take hold on eternal life! God forbid that we should ever be willing that our children should dwell in splendid mansions, or revel in accumulated riches, on which ‘Ichabod’ is written! (Notes on Joshua, 198)
Once again, by pressing into the original meaning of this passage, it helps us understand what God is saying. Parents will pass on their passions to their children far more than they will pass on mere instructions. Knowing this, if you want to know what you love: Consider the passions your children pick up from you. What sacrifices are you making to impart some good gift to your children? Whatever you are laboring to pass on to them, that reveals what you love most. And what you love most is what they will (most likely) pick up from you.
Israel’s second generation loved Yahweh and Joshua 22, with its focus on the altar of witness, helps reveal that.
4. The altar of witness threatens the unity of worship in Israel.
If the altar of witness is the central point of contention in Joshua 22, we should ask, “Why?” The answer comes, in part, from Deuteronomy 12 and God’s purpose for Israel’s worship in the land. In Deuteronomy 12, Moses had written,
2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. 7 And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. (vv. 2–7)
This passage indicates Yahweh would lead his people to a centralized place for worship when they entered the land. In Joshua, this becomes Shiloh (Joshua 18). Therefore, when the Western tribes learn of this altar—on their side of the Jordan, no less—they are greatly concerned. Have their brothers already broken the faith?
The only logical reason for this altar, in their thinking, is that it represents a departure from the altar of the Lord in Shiloh. Because altars were built for sacrifices, not for memorials—contrast this with the pile of stones in Joshua 5—the purpose of witness would not have been immediately clear. Only after Israel heard the testimony of their brothers could they understand the meaning of this altar. And learning the reason for the altar—that it is not meant to compete with Shiloh—the tribes rejoice and return to a peaceful concord.
5. The church is Christ’s altar of witness today.
Today, God’s people don’t have a stone altar of witness like the people of Israel, and neither does the church have a stone temple where they gather for worship. Rather, the people of God are the living stones of God (1 Peter 2:5, 9) and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16–17). Moreover, Paul even applies the words of Leviticus 26 to the church, calling us a temple of the living God and sons of God separated from the world (2 Cor. 6:16–18). In this way, the church, as God’s covenant people, fulfills the role of Israel because of their union in Christ.
For these reasons, it is also appropriate to say that the church bears witness to the Lord in their gatherings. As Jesus answers a question about the kingdom of God and the nation of Israel, he states that the people who receive the Holy Spirit are the ones who will be his witnesses: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” As Acts demonstrates this call to be witnesses is not reserved to the 12 tribes of Israel; it is given to the Jew first and then the Gentile.
In fact, as Paul goes on to explain in Ephesians the witness of the church is most pronounced when the people of God are joined across boundaries. Ephesians 2 speaks of the “one new man” composed of Jew and Gentile through the death of Christ. Then, writing about the corporate witness of the church, one comprised of Jew and Gentile, Paul says,
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Eph. 3:8–11)
From these reflections, we discover that today, the church is God’s witness. And more than that, it is an altar of witness, when we consider the places where the church is described as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) or “sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36). Moreover, Paul can speak of himself as filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). Clearly, he is not denying the finished work of Christ; in context, he is describing the suffering of his evangelistic mission to bear witness to Christ.
Putting Joshua 22 and Paul’s words together, we can see how the altar of witness serves as a type and shadow of the church. Just like this altar stationed near the Jordan River, erected near the memorial stones of Joshua, testified the union of God’s people, so local gatherings of diverse people unified by Christ bear witness to current and future generations of the promises of the new covenant. While these gatherings can certainly be misunderstood (even by fellow believers), they are means by which God’s people bear witness to what joins them together—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
6–10. The people of Israel model what it takes for reconciliation to occur.
Last, when we recognize how this altar of witness served to bring union to God’s people who were separated by the Jordan River—notice how Joshua 22:25 describes the Jordan as the Lord’s boundary—it reminds us that (1) God has intentionally put divisions between his people and (2) God’s people must be proactive to pursue the unity of the Spirit that comes in the diversity of God’s people. In Israel, this unity was the conjoining of twelve tribes; in Christ’s church, this unity comes from the conjoining of many different members of the church body.
Nonetheless, there is much from Joshua 22 that we can learn about the pursuit of unity in the church. Thus, what follows is an outline of how unity was preserved, when the altar of witness threatened to bring division.
Six Priorities for Seeking Peace
When the Western heard that Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar near the Jordan River, they were ready to go to war. While some commentators have taken this negatively, as if this was a reflection of narrow-mindedness; it is far better to see it as another instance of the godliness of the second generation. In keeping with Deuteronomy 12, these tribes who had just purified the land from idolatry, wanted nothing more than to please the Lord. This altar threatened that and they were ready to act.
Fortunately, before they took up swords and started a holy war, they sent a delegation to inquire about this altar. This peace-keeping mission is what Joshua 22:10–34 describes, and in these verses we find a tremendous model for peace-making in the church today. Consider six priorities for genuine reconciliation:
First, peace requires a faithful (high) priest.
When the Western tribes learned of the altar, they gathered at Shiloh to make war. Only before proceeding on that path, they sent a priest by the name of Phinehas. Phinehas is to us well-known because of this actions in Numbers 25. There, he atoned for the sins of the people by taking the sword in his own hand and killing Zimri and Cozbi. This appeased God, ended the plague, and proved Phinehas’s faithfulness as a priest.
Now, following his lead, the delegation of Israel went to inquire of their brothers. What becomes apparent in this peace negotiation is that these brothers acted in faith and did not sin against God or them. Thus, a faithful priest is the means by which peace is achieved. Only now, it is not by wielding his sword that Phinehas brings peace; it is by shielding his sword. Faithful priests know how to divide clean and unclean (Lev. 10:11), and in this case, Phinehas excellence is proved in his ability to make this decision.
At the same time, it is vital to see that a priest is needed to make peace. In the new covenant, Christ is the peace of his people, one who has made peace by his cross and one who preaches peace to those far and near (Eph. 2:14–17). Moreover, present with his people by his Spirit (Matt 28:20; John 14–16), he lives to intercede for his brothers (Heb. 7:25). Thus, the unity of the church is preserved by Christ and his priesthood.
Moreover, as Matthew 5:9 says, those who make peace prove themselves to sons of God, which is to say, they prove themselves to be faithful priests in God’s household. (Faithful sonship was always the source of true priesthood). Joshua 22 emphasizes the need of a faithful priest to bring peace to God’s people, and it foreshadows the same for the church today. If the church has any unity, it is because Christ is the one who is mediating the covenant and praying effectively for his people’s peace.
Second, peace requires a willingness to go to war.
After Joshua commends the Eastern tribes for their obedience (vv. 1–9), we learn that these warriors built “an altar of imposing size” on the way home (v. 10). Importantly, verse 11 includes that this altar was built “in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.” In other words, this altar was built West of the Jordan.
Rather than dismissing this as someone else’s problem, the tribes respond rightly. They gather together at the Lord’s house (v. 12), seek the assistance of the priests, and set out to address the problem. This kind of proactive, passivity-denying action is what it takes to make peace.
Peace can never prevail or continue where sin is suspected and God’s people say nothing. In the church, we are our brothers keepers. Elders are called to seek straying sheep. Members are called to pray for and pursue sinning members. This is never easy; it is a spiritual war. But the goal of this war is not the destruction of those whom we share a covenant; it is the way God protects the flock. It is also the way the people of God keeps pure the church, when sin enters.
Third, peace-making depends upon seeking truth, not peace.
At the same time, peace-seeking depends upon seeking truth. Too many people seek peace and lose truth in the process. This peace-faking, we might call it, can occur when peace must be kept at all costs and truth is compromised. For peace to endure, the truth must prevail. There is no enduring peace without truth and thus peace-makers must be truth-seekers. (A later example of this is found in Zechariah 8, where truth is the prevailing theme of Zion’s peace).
One example of peace-making gone bad is the church at Corinth. There, Paul excoriates the Corinthians for making peace with the adulterous man (1 Corinthians 5). Paul calls them to action because they have sought peace over truth. Another example of peace-making devoid of truth is that of Pontius Pilate. He sentences the Prince of Peace to death because he cares not about truth (John 18:38).
From these two examples, we learn that peace-making can occur when sin has occurred and when sin has not occurred. Every case (i.e., person) must be considered separately. There is no single protocol for peace-making, except that truth must always prevail. Peace devoid of truth will never produce lasting peace.
Thankfully, in Joshua 22, the result of Israel’s action is a greater unity between the tribes, short-lived as it may be. Phinehas led the people to seek the truth, and when the truth came to light, all parties were able to rejoice in the good news that no had broken faith. Imagine the lasting damage that would have been done if accusations had led to judicial sentencing and war. Thankfully, Phinehas led Israel to the truth, and the peace that comes with it.
Fourth, peace requires a sympathetic approach.
When Hebrews 5 describes the ministry of the priest, it says that priests are to be sympathetic to the weaknesses of their brethren. In Jesus day, that never happened. The priests and Levites served themselves and had little compassion for the poor in Israel. This is in large measure why Jesus cleansed the temple—it had set up money-making schemes in the court of the Gentiles, hence denying these God-fearers a place.
Not so in Joshua 22. What is striking about the delegation that Phinehas leads is that he does not come with a heavy hand. He does address the sin, saying, “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?” But notice, he leads with a question, not an accusation. Even more, he will offer a way of escape for them.
17 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, 18 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. 19 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. 20 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 22:17–20)
Filling his appeal with past and present works of God in their midst, he makes Scripture (or God’s actions that would become Scripture) his source of authority. Then, he even offers these tribes a place to live on the side Western side of the Jordan. This is an incredible offer, as it would require sacrifice from everyone of the 10 tribes. Yet, so great is Phinehas’s concern for his brothers that he extends this tangible offer of peace.
We can learn much from this action today:
- Scripture must be the source of our conviction. If we are going to war to make peace, we must be certain that it is Scripture that is making the accusation, not ourselves. How often is peace forfeited because over-zealous leaders rely on their own authority—their office, their insight, their idolatry.
- Question-asking must be our chief aim in the initial stages of peace-making. How many mistakes are made when pastors, leaders, or church members make assumptions without getting all the facts. Phinehas asks a question and listens to his brothers before he brings a charge. We must do the same. Failure to listen will always result in strife.
- Peace-making requires a sympathetic ear. Unlike the situation in Numbers 25, where the sin of Zimri and Cozbi was apparent to all, Phinehas seeks to understand the motive in this situation. This is what we must do today, as well. Rare are the occasions when actions in church call for the swift judgment of a pastor. Rather, known sin will always take time to hear from all the parties in involved. This is what Phinehas did, and the result was a glorious reconciliation.
- Peace-making requires a sacrifice from the mediator. Finally, more than words may be necessary. Though Phinehas’s offer of a place in the land is not taken—because it is not needed—it is an important part of the peace-making process. The genuineness of Phinehas’s offer is found in the fact that it would cost him something. Whenever someone demands peace, but is unwilling to assist the accused person, it is evident that their peace-making has become mere problem-solving, or person-removing. Pastor’s may achieve their vision or agenda by simply getting problem people out of the way, but this does not lead to enduring peace. It is the way of Herod and Pontius Pilate, not Phinehas and Jesus Christ.
Fifth, peace requires a humble, self-denying heart.
All compassionate attempts at peace-making will fail if the person receiving the inquiry is smug, stubborn, or self-justifying. Thankfully, the Eastern tribes are anything but haughty. They model humility and immediately evidence a desire to please God. This is the obedient heart that won them the commendation of Joshua (22:1–9; it is also the kind of heart that is needed to enjoy peace today.
Truly, verses 21–29 model the kind of response that a repentant heart should have. For instance, they begin with praise to God (v. 22). They follow their Godwardness with a self-denying oath (vv. 22–23). That is to say, they call down God’s judgment upon them if they had broken faith. They don’t defend themselves, but make themselves open to inquiry.
Next, they explain their motives, which prove to be identical to the Western tribes—they long for their children to be participants in the covenant and worshipers at the Lord’s house (vv. 24–25). Then, instead of sidestepping the construction of the altar, they declare it is for the purpose of witnessing and not sacrificing (vv. 26–28). This memorial purpose is innovative but not illegal, like the sacrifices would have been. Finally, they close with a vow of commitment to worship at the tabernacle of God (v. 29).
All in all, the humility and faith of these brothers is seen in their self-denying, God-centered, faith-proclaiming response. They do not excuse themselves, nor do they question why they are being questioned. They demonstrate the kind of humble faith that is necessary to maintain peace. May God help us to exhibit the same kind of humility.
Sixth and finally, peace is something God gives and God’s people maintain.
While it may sound like Phinehas and the obedient sons of Israel produced this peace on their own, it must be remembered that true peace is always something God gives. It is not, contrary to the wishes of many, something fallen humanity can produce.
In the context of Joshua, it is Joshua who gave the people rest and peace in the land. Yes, Joshua is also a man, but as a type of Christ, his success in bringing peace signifies the role he had as “God’s Salvation.” As we can seen throughout Joshua, it was because of his obedience to God that the whole nation prospered. Thus, Joshua 22 is an outworking of the blessing Joshua pronounced on the people.
In this way, the peace that the people maintain in Joshua 22 is not something they fabricate, but something they preserve. Just as Ephesians 4:3 urges Christians who share one baptism, one faith, one God, etc., “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” so Joshua 22 proves that this peaceful concord is not the product of mankind, but an application of the previous covenant unity that Joshua secured.
Understanding peace in this way teaches us that it is something we must maintain today, as well. Indeed, when we experience divisions in the church—from sin or any number of other factors—we do not need to create a unity. Nor do we need to find resources outside of God and his gospel. We need to remember the unity we have in Christ, and return to that reality.
This is what Joshua 22 teaches, albeit in the historical garb of Israel. When a divided people come together for the purpose of seeking God, his glory, and his truth, there is every reason believe that the unity God’s gives will prevail. Indeed, when we step back from Joshua 22, we realize that the conflict is over a matter of interpretation about the altar of witness did not divide them. But incredibly, when led by a faithful and wise high priest, what they thought was dividing them, actually united them. Only, this realization took some time to work out.
The same is true in the church today. And we must labor to maintain the peace God has given to us in Christ. We are called to be an altar of witnesses today. And this does not mean that the church does not have divisions. Just like Israel had a River running through the middle to divide them, so God has divided his people by language, ethnicity, socio-economic standing, education, temperament, giftedness, and so on. Yet, by returning to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our identity in him, there is every reason to believe that unity in Christ can prevail.
Joshua 22 helps us to see this in action. And we should pray and perspire to see it in our local churches. May God continue to grant his people wisdom and grace, so that peace may prevail and Christ’s glory may be seen by all.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds