In Joshua 22, a rather tense scene unfolds when the children of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Mannasah return to their lands on the other side of the Jordan following the completion of the conquest of Canaan.
The two and half tribes return to their land and build an altar on the border of the Jordan River, and when the other tribes of Israel get wind of this they gather themselves together to go to war against them (Josh. 22:12).
I just want to point out that this is a glorious moment in the history of Israel, and specifically, it is a glorious moment for the unity of Israel. We need more of this kind of love in the Christian Church. Let me explain.
On the surface, you might be tempted to think of this as the great Israelite freakout — a massive overreaction, an example of legalism, being judgmental, belligerent, divisive, and so on. But that’s not how the writer presents the story. What unfolds is a controversy, full of hard questions, tense moments, but then faithfulness on both sides, the presence of God, and all indications of a deeper, sweeter unity.
Notice some of the details: when Israel hears something about their brothers that sounds bad, they are not indifferent (Josh 22:12). They care enough to prepare for the worst, and they go to their brothers (Josh. 22:13-14) and confront them directly (Josh. 22:15-18). The confrontation not only points out the apparent sin of their brothers but also offers a way of escape, indicating their good will (Josh. 22:19).
The two and half tribes respond with an oath of innocence before the Lord (Josh. 22:22) and recognize the justice of the military preparations if they have turned away from the Lord in any way (Josh. 22:22-23). The two and half tribes explain the purpose of the altar, somewhat courageously given that it (in part) prepares for the worst in the rest of Israel (Josh. 22:27-28).
Notice that both sides prepare for the worst, but do not allow their fears to cloud the truth. Either side could have been offended by the other side, but instead they believe one another’s good intentions. Nothing is said of whether Israel thought the altar of witness is a “good idea.” But they realize it was not done with any intention to turn away from the Lord, and that pleases them (Josh. 22:30-33).
It is in the midst of this controversy (with swords drawn) that the presence of God is known and by all appearances deeper respect and unity is cultivated. Having heard the explanation of the two and a half tribes, Phinehas says, “This day we perceive that the Lord is among us…” (Josh. 22:31).
The Bible has other important things to say about confrontation, like taking the log out of your own eye, like restoring erring brothers in a spirit of gentleness, but there is also something to be said about the kind of love that is direct, prepares for the worst, and is easily pacified. Unfortunately we live in an age of thin-skinned whiners who care more about their pride, their feelings, and their reputations than they do about the truth and honoring God. And I wonder how often we actually make things worse by tiptoeing around problems, assuming the best to a fault, and pretending we don’t notice, in the name of minding our own business, like those religious guys avoiding the body on the road to Jericho. The irony of course is that we often avoid the direct approach in the name of preserving unity, and then when the gangrene of fear and suspicion has settled in deep, we wonder where the unity went.