Lectio Continua: a continuous reading of every verse
Lectio Semi-continua: shorter reading selections from the passages
“And the Reubenites and the Gadites gave the altar this name: A Witness Between Us, that the Lord is God.” ~Joshua 22:34
The land is allotted, and the Levites, the worship leaders, are interspersed among the tribes in cities and towns. Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, the three tribes given land on the east side of the Jordan, have fulfilled their promise to battle on behalf of their brethren and are ready to return home (Num. 32:16-24). Upon returning to their land on the east side of Jordan (Transjordan), and with Joshua’s praise and blessing still ringing in their ears, Manasseh, Reuben, and Gad build an altar of memorial to the Lord. When word of the altar reaches the rest of the nation, they prepare to go to war.
Our earlier readings from Moses’ Law described the controls placed on constructing altars. The land is to be protected from idolatry, and a policy against decentralized worship (altars anywhere and everywhere) allows the Levites to ensure worship is carried out properly. When people build their own altars, which became a common practice in Israel’s later years, they’re usually trying to hide something. It usually means they are worshipping false gods.
The priest Phinehas is given the task of confronting Manasseh, Reuben, and Gad’s leaders while the rest of the nation waits, armed and ready for battle. The misunderstanding is quickly cleared up. The three tribes have no intention of offering idolatrous sacrifices on the altar. Separated as they are from the rest of the community by the Jordan, they do not want their children to grow up thinking they are also separated from the nation and the blessing of God. The altar is simply a memorial to the one true God.
Once again we are reminded that we are indeed our brother’s keeper! If we hear that our brother (friend, fellow worshiper) has strayed from the path of right, we should talk to him. How often I have heard Jesus misquoted on this issue: Judge not, lest you be judged, people like to say. But they fail to read the rest of the passage, which tells people to first deal with a log in their own eye so that they can see properly to help their brother with the speck in his eye (Matt. 6:1-5). What Jesus is really opposing is the hypocritical practice of judging others from a distance while ignoring the issues in our own lives. Instead, Jesus calls us to strive after purity and to practice love! To those who say “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” we must say amen (John 8:7, paraphrase)! Let us not cast stones. Let us help people! And let us go to them with an open mind because, like Phinehas, we may find that there is more to the story than what we’ve witnessed or heard.
One of the things I have learned as a pastor is that hearing people’s stories makes me far less judgmental. Confrontation may still be in order, but it can be carried out with greater love, empathy, and effectiveness. So when we hear others are straying, we should not be complacent. We must love them enough to go to them, to help them, and to work to restore them, if necessary. That’s community in action. And that is the kind of community God wants us to be. (See Matthew 18:15-20 and Galatians 6:1-6.)