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The opening “Then” looks back to 21:43-45, where there is a brief but blessed summing up of all that is recorded in the foregoing chapters: “And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which He sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And the Lord gave them rest round about, according to all that He sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the Lord delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.”
Therein thankful acknowledgment was made of the inviolable integrity of Jehovah, for there had been an exact performance of everything He had promised. Therein we behold His unchanging faithfulness: notwithstanding their wilderness provocations, He brought them into Canaan. Therein we have exhibited the perfect harmony which there is between God’s words and His works, which are wonderful not only in contrivance, but equally so in their execution. Therein we learn how sure is the fulfillment of Divine prophecy; every detail predicted was literally accomplished.
The Lord had promised to give the land of Canaan unto Abram’s seed for a possession ( Genesis 12:7), and He had now done so. He promised to make Abram’s seed a prolific and numerous one ( Genesis 13:16), and they “multiplied and grew” ( Exodus 1:12), so that by the time they left Egypt a single family had become “about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, besides children” ( Exodus 12:37).
The Lord promised to preserve them in all places whither they went ( Genesis 28:15), and He had done so — in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and throughout all their wilderness journeyings. He promised to bring into Canaan the fourth generation of Abram’s descendants after their sojourn in Egypt ( Genesis 15:16), and a close examination of Exodus 6:16-28, proves that so it came to pass. The Lord promised to give them success in their fighting: “I will send My fear before thee (cf. Joshua 2:9), and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee... for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand” ( Exodus 23:27,31), and so their sons acknowledged ( Psalm 44:3). He promised to deliver “kings” into their hands ( Deuteronomy 8:24), and Joshua 10:24,40, attests that He did so. He promised to give them “rest” in the land ( Deuteronomy 12:10), and we are told “the Lord gave them rest” ( Joshua 21:44).
There were indeed some of the original inhabitants still left in the land to test and try God’s people; but at the close of the seven-year campaign all open conflict had ceased. The whole of Canaan had now been given by Divine lot unto Abram’s descendants: the greater part of it was then occupied by the different tribes, and they were peacefully settled in their heritage. If they continued to obey the Lord and count upon His enablement, they should still more completely possess their possessions. “There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel.” Such will be the triumphant testimony of the whole Church collectively and of every Christian individually. In due season shall all that God has promised the spiritual Israel come to pass, with regard both to their present comfort and future felicity. All will be accomplished, exactly and perfectly, as God has declared, for all His promises are in Christ yea and amen ( 2 Corinthians 1:20). At the last, when the whole company of the redeemed will have entered their eternal rest and inheritance, they will bear joyous witness that “He hath done all things well.” “Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh” ( Joshua 22:1).
The passage which opens with those words contains the sequel to what is recorded at some length in Numbers 22. There we read, “Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead that, behold, the place was a place for cattle... came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying... the country which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle; wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan” (verses <042201> 1-5).
They referred to the land which had formerly been occupied by Sihon and Og, whose forces Israel had, under God, completely destroyed, and whose territory they then seized by right of victory ( Numbers 21:21-35). Lying in the Jordan valley, the ground was well watered, and ideal for pasturage.
For several months the camp of Israel had remained stationary on the plains of Moab: looking backward to the house of bondage from which they had been delivered; looking forward to the land of Canaan which had been promised them for their inheritance. Behind them lay the dreary desert, before them was the river of Jordan. In view of the mentioning of “the princes of the congregation” in addition to Eleazar, it would appear that an official conference of the Sanhedrin, or chief counsel of the nation, was being held — perhaps over the disposing of the territory which had been acquired by their recent victory. The language used by the spokesman of the two tribes also conveys the impression that their request was of the nature of a formal petition. It was to the effect that they should be given the title to settle in the luxurious valley of Jazer and Gilead. There was nothing underhand or stealthy in the appeal which they. made, but an honorable and open approach unto the heads of authority; and in a meek and modest spirit, as their “if we have found grace in thy sight” evinces.
Notwithstanding, the commentators generally condemn their action.
It is concluded by some that their conduct was very blameworthy: that they showed contempt of Canaan, or, if not that, were following the line of least resistance in wanting to remain where they were, and thus escape the hardships and fighting which the crossing of the Jordan would involve.
Others see in their proposal a display of covetousness, a greedy desire to make this fertile portion their own. Still others charge them with being lacking in public spirit, putting their own private interests before the common good of the nation. Personally, we see nothing definite in the narrative to support such views, but rather some things to the contrary.
Had their request been as reprehensible as these critics make out, they had been promptly informed of its unlawfulness, and there the matter would have terminated. Most certainly the Lord had never confirmed it! God had already delivered this land into the hands of Israel, and someone must inherit and inhabit it. It was particularly suited for pasturage, and that was what these tribes, with their “very great multitude of cattle,” most needed.
Nor were they despising the Lord’s inheritance, for the boundary of Canaan was not the Jordan, but rather the mountain-range of Gilead, which separated it from the desert lying beyond. Thus, as Joshua 22:9, shows, the section desired by these tribes was as much within Canaan proper as was the land on the farther side of the Jordan.
Moses was thoroughly displeased with their suggestion, placing the worst construction upon it. He supposed that their request proceeded from a spirit of cowardice and sloth. He considered that they were giving way to unbelief, distrusting God’s power, seeking to shelve their responsibility ( Numbers 35:6). In any case, it would mean the weakening of Israel’s army by a reduction of at least one fifth of its manpower. Moreover, they were asking him to establish a dangerous precedent, which others might desire to follow (verse 7). He recalled the faint-heartedness of their fathers, and the disastrous sequel which had attended the same (verses 8, 9). He feared that their attitude would bring down the Lord’s wrath upon the whole congregation (verse 14). But his suspicions were unwarranted, and his fears unnecessary. “And they came near unto him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones: but we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in the fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on yonder side Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side Jordan eastward” ( Numbers 32:16-19).
Thus did they show how grievously Moses had misjudged them, and how unfounded were his surmisings. They had no intention of sitting still while the other tribes went to war. Without murmuring or disputing, they expressed a willingness to share their brethren’s burden. So far from being afraid to enter the field against the enemy, they were prepared to take the lead and go “before the children of Israel.” They would remain with their fellows until all of them were duly settled. Nor would they require any compensation or expect to receive any share of the spoils.
Satisfied with their explanation and assurances, Moses conditionally granted their request. Holding them to their promises, he agreed to the proposal 6n their fulfillment of its terms. If they carried out their part of the contract, the land of Jazer and Gilead should be their “possession before the Lord” ( Numbers 32:22). But if they went back upon their word, then they would be offending against God Himself, and in such an event their sin was certain to find them out (verse 23), which signifies that bitter and inevitable would be the consequences, and not discovered or brought to light. “Thy servants will do as my lord commandeth” (verse 25) was their ready response and solemn vow. Thereupon the agreement was formally and publicly ratified before Israel’s supreme court, Joshua (who was to succeed him) being expressly informed of the compact (verse 28), according to the terms of which the coasts and cities of Sihon and Og became the possession of the two and a half tribes (verse 33). Thus did they strikingly prefigure the Old Testament saints, who entered into their spiritual inheritance during the Mosaic economy.
When Joshua took over the leadership, he addressed himself to the two and a half tribes thus: “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, The Lord your God hath given you rest, and hath given you this land,” and then detailed the stipulated conditions of this provisional arrangement ( Joshua 1:12-15). As we pointed out in the ninth article of this series, Joshua was acting here not on the ground of natural prudence, but in obedience to his Master’s will. The Lord had bidden him to “observe to do according to all the law, which Moses My servant commanded thee” ( Joshua 1:7), and this was one of those things ( Numbers 32:28)! Thus, the new head of the nation did not take it for granted that they would carry out their agreement, but definitely reminded them of the same and held them to it. It is blessed, too, to observe the ground upon which he appealed to them: it was neither as a personal favor to himself for their co-operation nor as an encouragement unto their brethren, but as an act of obedience: “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you.”
Equally blessed is it to hear their response: “And they answered Joshua, saying, All that thou commandest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go.
Thus did they solemnly and explicitly renew their agreement; and, as the sequel demonstrates, it was no idle boast that they made. It is ever God’s way to honor those who honor Him: Joshua had given Him His proper place by complying with his commission and magnifying God’s Word, and now the Lord graciously inclined these two and a half tribes willingly to serve under him. In his “until the Lord have given your brethren rest... and they also have possessed the land” (verse 15), he expressed his unwavering faith in the successful outcome of the campaign; and here the Lord moved these men to give him their full support. They averred their willingness to accept him as their commander and yield full obedience to his authority.
Faithfully did they fulfill their part of the agreement: “And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses spake unto them: about forty thousand prepared for war passed over before the Lord unto battle, to the plains of Jericho” ( Joshua 4:12,13).
How the Holy Spirit delights to record the obedience of saints! And now we come to the happy sequel to the whole of the above: “Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and said unto them, Ye have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed my voice in all that I commanded you: ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God” ( Joshua 22:2,3).
A real tribute of praise was that, and a signal proof of the magnanimity of the one who paid it. Though they had only discharged a manifest obligation and fulfilled their part of the contract, it cost Joshua nothing to acknowledge their fidelity and commend their obedience, and such a word from their general would mean much to them.
They had given further proof of the sterling quality of their character by submitting to the authority of Joshua. They might have pleaded that their agreement had been made with Moses, and that, since death cancels all contracts, his decease relieved them of their engagement. But having put their hand to the plough, they refused to look back ( Luke 4:62). Or, to change the figure, they conducted themselves in a manner that was in every respect the very opposite of that of the Ephraimites at a later date, of whom we read that they “turned back in the day of battle. They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in His law” ( Psalm 78:9,10).
Alas, how the courage of many who enlist under the banner of Christ fails them in the day of testing, so that they retreat before the foe: and in the hour of temptation prove false to their good resolutions and solemn promises and vows. Different far was it with these Reubenites and Gadites.
Not only did they begin well, but they also endured unto the end; yea, their wholehearted devotion to the cause of God and His people increased, for a comparison of Joshua 1:16, with Numbers 32:31, reveals that the promise which they made unto Joshua went beyond that which they had pledged unto Moses.
For seven years they had served obediently under Joshua, had disinterestedly put the welfare of the nation before their own private comforts, had made no attempt to rejoin their families, but had remained by the side of their brethren until Canaan was conquered. Most commendable was their meekness in waiting for their dismissal. They did not chafe at the delay, but were submissive to their leader’s will. Instead of seeking out Joshua and complaining that it was high time for them to return to their homes, they quietly tarried for Him to take the initiative in the matter. As another remarked, “Like good soldiers they would not move till they had orders from their general. They had not only done their duty to Joshua and Israel, but, which was best of all, they had made conscience of their duty to God: ‘Ye have kept the charge,’ or, as the word is, ‘Ye have kept the keeping,’ that is, Ye have carefully and circumspectly kept the commandments of the Lord your God: not only in this particular instance of continuing in the service of Israel to the end of the war, but in general, you have kept up religion in your part of the camp — a rare and excellent thing among soldiers, and which is worthy to be praised” (Matthew Henry). “And now the Lord your God hath given rest unto your brethren, as He promised them: therefore now return ye, and get you unto your tents, and unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side Jordan” (verse 4).
How careful was Joshua to place the crown of honor where it rightly belonged, and ascribe the glory of their victory unto the Author of the same! At the same time, he considered it meet that thankful acknowledgment should be made to those who had assisted him therein. “God must be chiefly eyed in our praises, but instruments must not be altogether overlooked” (Matthew Henry).
Equally definite was Joshua in here magnifying the fidelity of Jehovah, reminding Israel that the successful outcome of their military efforts, and the resultant rest for the whole nation, was the fulfillment of the sure word of the Lord. Having faithfully performed their part of the contract by sharing the hardships and dangers of their brethren, Joshua now made good the assurances which Moses had given to the two and a half tribes, publicly and solemnly granting them an honorable discharge from the army and authorizing them to rejoin their families. “But take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law, which Moses the servant of the Lord charged you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments, and to cleave unto Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (verse 5).
Ere dismissing the two and a half tribes, Joshua gave them salutary counsel. No instructions were furnished for the fortifying of their cities or for the cultivation of their land, the whole emphasis being placed upon the regulating of their spiritual lives. Nor was there any lowering of the rule to meet their “moral inability,” but a strict maintaining of God’s claims upon them. “Perfect obedience to the Divine Law was no more practicable in the days of Joshua than at present, yet his exhortation takes no notice of this, for the standard of obedience cannot be too high ( Matthew 5:43-48), nor our aim too high, as we are sure to fall very far short of what we propose for ourselves. But the consciousness of our imperfections subserves the purposes of humiliation, and the feeling of our insufficiency dictates prayers for forgiveness and assistance” (Thomas Scott).
It is not sufficient that we know God’s Law, we are required to do it: in order to obedience, we most “take diligent heed”: we shall only walk in God’s ways to the extent that we serve Him wholeheartedly, for love to Him is the spring of all acceptable obedience and worship.
DEMOBILIZATION Attention has been called to the conflicting opinions relative to the actions of the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh in seeking their inheritance on the wilderness side of Jordan. The opinion of some is that they did wrong; while, of course, the opposite opinion is shared by others. In these studies this second opinion has been sustained. Where in Scripture there is no direct statement to clarify a matter, it is well not to dogmatize but to love as brethren and to be courteous ( 1 Peter 3:8).
Frequently the Apostle Paul opens his epistles to the churches, as did Joshua his address to the two and a half tribes, with a word of praise. To the saints with the bishops and deacons at Philippi, he wrote, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” ( Philippians 1:3-5).
While Joshua released the two and a half tribes from present military obligations, he imposed upon them other obligations of both a spiritual and a material character; they were to be mindful of the Lord and of their brethren.
Joshua reduced the content of the divine commandment to five important statements: to love the Lord, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, to cleave to Him and to serve Him. These would engage the entire personality and demand an unreserved response of the whole being to the divine claims. Their meaning to those for whom they were intended would be very similar to that of the Apostle’s words to the saints at Corinth and, of course, to us: “Ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” ( 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
It would be difficult for these faithful war veterans not to feel a sense of pride in their accomplishment, especially after the eulogy of Joshua; and to feel that the much riches, much cattle, silver, gold, brass, iron, and very much raiment, with which they returned were their own, the remunerative spoils of the battles they had fought and won, their possessions purchased with blood. Notwithstanding, Joshua instructed them, saying, “Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren” (verse 8), those that had remained at home to guard their belongings.
Moses had set a precedent years before when he had avenged the children of Israel of the Midianites. The Lord spoke to him, and said, “Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast, thou, and Eleazar the priest, and the chief of the fathers of the congregation: And divide the prey into two parts; between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation” ( Numbers 31:26-27).
Centuries later this was the principle upon which David commanded his men, “As his part is that goeth down to the battle, so shall his part be that tarrieth by the stuff: they shall part alike” ( 1 Samuel 30:24).
While this is not the only principle underlying David’s song of triumph, Psalm 68, it is one of them. The victor who had led the former captor into captivity gave gifts unto men, apparently from the spoils of the battle (verse 18), sharing his victory with others. The Spirit of God applies this conception to our Lord Jesus in Ephesians 4:8,11: “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.... And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.”
As the men who remained on the east side of Jordan were enriched by the spoils of the war fought by their brethren, even so the Church has been enriched by the spoils of Calvary where Christ, “having spoiled [stripped] principalities and powers,... made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” ( Colossians 2:15).
Our blessed Lord shares with His Church His glorious victory.
THE MEMORIAL ALTAR “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” ( 1 Corinthians 10:12).
God’s people must learn to act in the spirit of Hezekiah, who said, “I shall go softly all my years” ( Isaiah 38:15). There is always need of caution lest, having earned a commendation, we imprudently and inadvertently bring upon ourselves and others unnecessary troubles. God would have His own abstain from every appearance of evil ( 1 Thessalonians 5:22). The plans we formulate and execute may veil the true intention of the heart, and result in misunderstandings.
Shiloh had become the headquarters of Joshua ( Joshua 18:8-9). Gilgal was the place associated with the conquest of the land (Joshua 5); it was from his military position there that Joshua directed the invasion of Canaan. When the conquest was assured, obviously he moved to Shiloh, a good choice because of its central location, and from there supervised the distribution of the territory. It was from here that these heroic soldiers were demobilized and sent back to their families.
A memorial marked that earlier extraordinary episode in the history of the nation, the crossing of the Jordan. Moses had built it when first they entered the land. Representatives of these very tribes had carried the stones out of the river and piled them as a cairn on its bank (Joshua 4), stones which were to be a sign to future generations. They had carried out the instructions of the Lord, “This may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?
Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever” (verses 6-7).
The Reubenites, the Gadites, and those from Manasseh apparently felt that as a memorial witnessed before their posterity to the miraculous entering into Canaan, so a memorial should also witness to their children why they recrossed the Jordan, and why they had their inheritance on the east side.
No matter how plausible the argument for the altar seemed, there was a great difference between the cairn of stones and the altar as they stood on the bank of Jordan; the one was there in obedience to the Word of God, the other because of human reasoning and planning. Any departure from the divine will as it has been revealed, whether by an addition to it or a subtraction from it, must ultimately involve us in difficulties.
The intention of the two and a half tribes may have been sincere enough, but the appearance of the altar certainly seemed to violate the Word of God given by Moses, “And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee,... there shalt thou build an altar unto the LORD thy God” ( Deuteronomy 27:1-10).
Their brethren viewed it in that light. The motive may not have been wrong, but the method was not right.
From the reading of Joshua 22:11 in the King James Version, it would appear as if the two altars were very close together; but since the phrase, “at the passage of the children of Israel,” might also be rendered “at the side of them” the actual position of this second altar is not given.
This memorial of sacred appearance might easily have been a trap for future generations instead of a witness. The brazen serpent which brought life to many dying in Israel (Numbers 21), eventually became a snare and the people worshiped it. Good King Hezekiah destroyed it along with other idolatrous objects when he instituted his reforms in the nation ( 2 Kings 18:4).
We read that it was “a great altar to see to”; that is, to look upon. It was large so as to attract attention. How very human! An accomplishment by man generally results in a large celebration and display, an ostentatious reminder of successful performance. The classic example of this is Nebuchadnezzar and his massive image through which he sought worship.
With pride he exclaimed, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?” Even as he thus spoke, divine judgment was decreed against him ( Daniel 4:30-31). Surely, “a man’s pride shall bring him low” ( Proverbs 29:23). “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” ( Matthew 23:12).
Alarm spread quickly among the other tribes. “When the children of Israel heard of it [the building of the altar], the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them” (verse 12).
Shiloh, as we have noticed, was the center of government. Israel met there in a general and solemn assembly. This was not a movement resulting from mass psychology, nor was it a rash act that might burst into mob violence.
The Lord through Moses had legislated already how apostasy was to be punished. Israel, therefore, in formal assembly gathered for consultation and investigation. This wise and firm action stands in vivid contrast to that of the men of Gilead who indiscriminately slew forty-two thousand of the tribe of Ephraim (Judges 12). The rash words of the Ephraimites on that occasion indubitably were provocative, but the harsh and cruel deeds of Jephthah and his followers were not justifiable.
The Spirit of God differentiates between righteous indignation and cruel anger and malice. Of the first He says, “Be ye angry and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath”; but of the second He says, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” ( Ephesians 4:26,31).
The thoroughness with which the governing body of Israel, probably the Sanhedrin, studied the matter is admirable. They conducted their investigation according to the will of the Lord which stipulated, should certain men arise and attempt to lead the people of their city into idolatry: “Then shalt thou enquire and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city” ( Deuteronomy 13:12-18).
The procedure they were to follow required both caution and patience.
They were to enquire; that is, seek the answer to the difficulty. They were to search; that is, more intensely examine the evidence for proof. They were to ask diligently; make direct interrogations. They were to adopt a process of justice which would lead them to a righteous decision. Spiritual discretion and discernment will “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
It was the failure in the Corinthian church to practice a judicial caution, a failure to investigate certain discrepancies, that brought upon them the severe reproof: “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?... I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” ( 1 Corinthians 6:2-5).
This enquiry in Israel revealed certain fundamental principles which should be observed in dealing with rumors of a detrimental nature: consultation, representation, declaration, and recommendation. When these are strictly adhered to, they will result either in exoneration or condemnation.
At the solemn assembly the elders of Israel decided to make representation to their brethren: “The children of Israel sent unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, And with him ten princes, of each chief house a prince throughout all the tribes of Israel” (verses 13-14).
A large degree of wisdom is evinced in the choice of Phinehas. It was during a sad period of apostasy that he first distinguished himself. The Lord said concerning him: “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace” ( Numbers 25:11-12).
Their sending Phinehas was the outcome of his forceful resistance to apostasy and the consequent confidence this produced in the minds of his brethren. They knew that without doubt Phinehas would maintain the honor of Jehovah’s name, and that he would defend the monotheistic testimony of the nation. Furthermore, no more favorable choice could have been made for the two and a half tribes. To be exonerated by so zealous an individual as Phinehas would be a complete justification of blamelessness, and would result in an immediate restoration of confidence and national unity. The entire course of action proves the truth of the thrice repeated proverb, “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” ( Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6).
Phinehas and the princes which accompanied him, with candor and concern stated their suspicions of idolatry and rebellion, and from the bitterness of national disaster at Peor presented the case from the perspective of the tribes gathered at Shiloh. If such sins were permitted, the entire congregation would suffer. Since “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,” and there were still some among them so tainted (verse 17), all would be implicated and exposed to divine displeasure. Had the men of Reuben, of Gad, and of half Manasseh forgotten? “Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel?” (verse 20).
Nevertheless, with this stern reprimand of what to them seemed a grievous error, there was a gracious recommendation for peaceful settlement. “If the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the LORD, wherein the LORD’s tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession among us: but rebel not against the LORD, nor rebel against us, in building you an altar beside the altar of the LORD our God” (verse 19). There are those who see in this appeal an allusion to indiscretion on the part of the two and a half tribes choosing to remain on the east of Jordan. They look upon the altar as another instance of indiscreet action arising from a selfish and covetous attitude.
The carrying out of the advice given by the heads of Israel might cause considerable inconvenience, might require relocation of territory, might result in overcrowding in some areas within the original boundaries.
Whatever a recrossing of Jordan might involve, it would be an insignificant consideration if only the secession be abandoned and the nation be spared.
The words of the princes were mellowed by grace and truth; they spoke the truth in love ( Ephesians 4:15). Truth alone will make one too intolerant; love alone will make him too tolerant. Where these are properly combined, they produce a maturity that will express itself in vigor and kindness, in discernment and sympathy, in righteousness and compassion, in stability and flexibility. The firm yet gentle manner in which the men from Gilead were treated probably helped them to be courteous and humble.
The same firm and gracious principles which led to the solution in Israel were applied in the Church. Errors in practice, like those propagated in Antioch, led to a council at Jerusalem where, after a careful and prayerful examination of the difficulties under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, proper recommendation was made to Gentile believers, a recommendation made by capable representatives (Acts 15). The Church would have been spared many a heartache had she followed the example set by the apostles and elders on that occasion.
The reply and the denial of the men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh were characterized by simplicity and sincerity. Their appeal to the witness of God (verse 22) as a proof of their blamelessness is forceful. In this they employed three distinct names: El, Elohim, and Jehovah, God in His power, in His trinitarian nature, and in His eternal essence. Furthermore, there is a suggestion in this appeal that God alone, as He had revealed Himself, was acknowledged by them, and that they claimed Him as their covenant-keeping Lord. God was their witness, and should they be prevaricating, so they asserted, then let God require it of them, let Him not spare them.
In their repudiation of all evil intentions, they made reference to the anxiety that had motivated their action: “For fear of this thing,... In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have we to do with the LORD God of Israel?” (verse 24).
Whether or not some in Israel had manifested an attitude that caused them this concern is not known. It may have been the product of evil surmisings on their own part. Many of the fears of the human heart are self-imposed.
Their fear was not over the attitude of their own posterity but that of others. If they had doubts about the behavior of the descendants of the other tribes, they seemed quite self-assured. The future history of these two and a half tribes ( 1 Chronicles 5:25-26) leads to the conclusion that they had more to fear in their self-complacence then they had in the imaginary attitude and action of others. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” ( Jeremiah 17:9).
Apparently unconscious of self-complacence, these men from Gilead presented their explanation with sincerity and clarity. Yes, they had built an altar patterned after the brazen altar in the Tabernacle, only larger. They may have thought that the pattern itself would have been a link between them and their brethren on the west side of Jordan. They may also have thought that in an altar of such shape, they would have a reminder of God’s demands, the demands of the one and only true God. They may likewise have thought that its presence would confirm in their lives, and in those of future generations, that God could be approached only on the basis of atonement. One thing was sure, it was not to be used for animal sacrifices. They averred their plan: “Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering, nor for sacrifice: But that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us” (verses 26-27).
Following their explanation they disclaimed any attempt to rebel against the Lord, or to depart from the service of the Tabernacle at Shiloh.
The reply of Phinehas expressed pleasure, not in that they had built an altar, but in that they had not trespassed against the Lord, and consequently the nation had been saved from God’s wrath against apostasy. The absence of any reference to the altar by Phinehas at this time might be interpreted as a disapproval. It was the fact that the two and a half tribes had not transgressed that pleased the children of Israel when Phinehas and his associates on their return reported the matter. A civil war to extirpate the evil from the congregation had been averted. The joy that was Israel through this clear understanding expressed itself in worship. “The children of Israel blessed God.” Open strife and armed conflict had been avoided, and so praise ascended to the Lord. “And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the LORD is God” (verse 34).
How long the altar Ed remained is not stated, but in little more than four centuries, its witness to God was forgotten. We read: “And they transgressed against the God of their fathers, and went a whoring after the gods of the people of the land, whom God destroyed before them. And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, unto this day” ( 1 Chronicles 5:25-26).
Such are the good intentions of men. They do not have the strength to implement their good resolutions. The tendency of man is downward. The very generations for which the altar was intended despised its testimony and plunged into idolatry. Apart from the grace and power of God deterioration is stamped on all human plans.
A NEW PRIEST Any scriptural reference to the believer’s walk is an allusion to his public habit of life; his walk is his manner of living before men by whatsoever influence directs him. According to the New Testament various powers control the walk of the child of God. He may walk after the flesh ( Romans 8:4), and thus be directed by sensual desires; or he may walk in darkness ( 1 John 1:6-7), and thus respond to ignorance. Instead, he may walk after the Spirit ( Romans 8:4), and follow the inward impulses of God the Holy Spirit; and he may walk by faith ( 2 Corinthians 5:7), and live in reliance upon the Lord. Furthermore, he may walk in light ( John 1:6-7), and enjoy the atmosphere of purity and holiness; and he may walk in truth (2 John 3; 3 John 4), and be guided by divine revelation. It is true that at times he may be called upon to walk through fire ( Isaiah 43:2), and experience in the trial the presence of the Son of God as did the three Hebrew youths (Daniel 3). The highest form of public living is a demonstration of the results of constantly walking with the Lord. To walk with God would be to hold communion with Him, and that communion would result in pleasing Him personally and glorifying Him publicly.
This high plane of spiritual living apparently is a very rare experience among men. As far as actual biblical records are concerned only a very few men have received commendable mention in regard to this form of intimate, enjoyable, and spiritually successful living. The life of Enoch is summarized in these words: “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” ( Genesis 5:24).
Noah received a similar commendation: “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” ( Genesis 6:9).
David is given credit for walking before the Lord ( 1 Kings 3:14), but there seems to be a difference. Walking before the Lord would involve the ideas of walking in His presence under His scrutiny and fulfilling His will.
It lacks the thought of companionship and pleasure expressed by the use of the preposition “with.”
The prophet, in the immediate context, deplored the carnal state of the priesthood in his day. When its incumbents should have been the living exponents of the law, alas, such was their sin that God’s curse had descended upon them. In contrast to what they were, a reference is made to one of their ancestors, presumably Phinehas. (Compare Numbers 25:12 with Malachi 2:5.) It is believed by many that the Lord here recalled the zeal of Phinehas in the matter of Zimri and Cozbi (Numbers 25).
Phinehas was the man who walked with God in peace and equity; consequently, the absence of inward conflict was well reflected in the uprightness of his behavior. In his relationship with God’s people, this man who walked with God in peace and equity was strict in discipline and keen in discretion. In all probability he had learned of the divine discipline that had consumed his two uncles, Nadab and Abihu, in their sin ( Leviticus 10:1-7), and had been thereby warned. At any rate, he did not hesitate to vindicate the holiness of God with a javelin ( Numbers 25:7). With him the wages of sin were death. Righteousness demanded the punishment of evil, and justice the execution of the guilty, so in his zeal he justified the character of God.
Phinehas was not only a severe disciplinarian, but he was a discreet negotiator; that we saw in his plenipotentiary work for Israel as they dealt with the two and a half tribes which made the great altar. How true are the proverbs, “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find? The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him” ( Proverbs 20:6-7).
Phinehas was a humble and faithful man of much ability.
The name Phinehas suggests one of bold countenance; if this trait is to be added to what has been already noticed, he was a man of courage, peace, and uprightness. How much are men of this type needed in the Church today! He was the third high priest of Israel in the line of direct descent, and some historians claim that he functioned as such for nineteen years.
While we admire zeal, it becomes necessary, notwithstanding, that we differentiate between spiritual and carnal zeal. Phinehas drew a javelin, and was approved of God; Peter drew a sword and in the flesh sought to defend his Master, and suffered the Lord’s rebuke ( John 18:10-11).
The Book of Joshua closes with a reference to the death and burial of Eleazar, the high priest of Joshua’s day. His natural successor was Phinehas. It is recorded, “And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the LORD, that he had done for Israel” ( Joshua 24:31).
Attention is frequently called to the progressive spiritual deterioration evident in certain family lines. In the case of Eleazar and his son Phinehas the opposite is obvious. Aaron, their father and grandfather, was influenced by the people for ill ( Exodus 32:19-24); Phinehas, conversely, influenced the people for good ( Joshua 22:32-34).