Battles Of Misunderstanding
Stand with me a while on a hilltop.
The morning sun is warm as it breaks over the distant line that stands between heaven and earth ready for its march across the cloudless sky. Pinching against your neck, the light throws your long shadow over the precipice that falls before you.
In the distance, on the other side of the river, the plains of Gilgal are shrouded in gloomy darkness and wisps of morning fog. You cannot see them, but they are there.
Word had reached you yesterday that the army had gathered at Shiloh, from where you had just been, and now once again returned to its old launching grounds; Yahweh’s army, Joshua’s forces, your brothers. They were gathering for some great battle, but no messenger had come to bring your orders. They were readying themselves for victory, but you would not share in it.
Why? For the last 35 years you had stood together with them, shoulder to shoulder you had routed your common enemies. Had you not bled with them, even for them? Who was it that was about to face the terrible wrath of the armies of the LORD? Surely they would be no more. Why had Joshua not called for you? Why had you been shamed like this?
The growing warmth of the sun on your back is no match for the growing heat of anger as it burns in your chest.
“I knew this would happen”, you spit out, “but I did not think it would be so soon.” They have forgotten you. It was why you had built the great altar. ‘A memorial‘, you had thought. ‘A memorial to stand as a witness down through the generations. That though our inheretance stands on the distant side of the Jordan, we are still brothers.’ But surely they could not have forgotten so soon. Their children maybe, or their children’s children, but not these brothers of yours.
The sun fought back the shadows in a battle it had not lost since the dawn of time, light now filled the plains. Fog gave way to smoke as it drifted from the morning fires, and thousand upon thousands of spear tips gleamed in the crisp morning light.
Then word comes, and with it dread.
The army comes for you.
As your knees weaken and your stomach heaves within you, a hundred questions wage war on your mind. ‘Why have they come? What are our defences? Where can we find safety? Who can come to our rescue?’ Has Yahwah abandoned us?’
So, it has come to this. Nowhere to run or hide. These ten brothers of yours will overrun your land and consume your inheritance.
And then they came.
First the scouts, but not scouts of battle, these were men you knew; leading men sworn to protect the chiefs of Israel. Then came Phinehas, Eleazar’s son, followed by the ten chiefs of Israel themselves. As your people gathered around in expectation, wondering what this delegation from Joshua meant, Phinehas climbed a rocky outcrop and stood looking sadly at the great altar you had recently completed. Turning with a look that sometimes seemed sorrowful, yet flickered with a righteous anger, Phinehas’ voice exploded.
“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.'”
His words still hung in the air, incriminating accusations that batter your soul. The weight of emotion drives you to your knees. Tears stream down your face. ‘How could we have got this so wrong?’, you think. ‘How could my actions be seen for anything other than righteous? God help me!’
First quietly, with a hiss barely heard. “The Mighty One, God, the LORD!” Now, with a rising vigour and booming cry. “The Mighty One, God, the LORD!” Phinehas scans the crowd as your people echo the cry. Clothes are torn and dust fills the air as the people mourn.
On your knees you shuffle forward, raise your hands to the heavens and cry out. “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 may 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 may make our children cease to worship the LORD. Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offerings, 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”‘.
Phinehas climbed down from his high place, takes now your hand and pulls you to himself, clasping you as one does a brother. With tears he hears you say, “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.” Phinehas holds you close and says, “Brother, all is well. This altar stands today as a witness between us that the LORD is God.”
So now it is evening. The distant army is slowly dissolving into the western hills. Beside you stands a witness. The LORD is indeed God. And he is good.
Narrative passages like the one that unfolds in Joshua 22 can be tricky to interpret and learn from, and while it fits within a much larger biblical theological arc, here are a handful of lessons we can take from the immediate text:
Be careful of assumptions: Not all actions will be as you see or perceive them. When Israel saw a great and imposing altar being constructed on the eastern banks of the Jordan, assumptions were made that almost led to a devastating civil war. Be careful of assumptions, they often lead to destruction.
Be slow to act: Every great leader knows that swift action is often vital, but not always. Wise leadership discerns the times and leads with caution, knowing that not everything will be as it seems, and that ‘swift’ is not always a measure of success. Pause – pray – seek counsel – go.
Stand face to face: Be wary of second-hand information. Phinehas took a delegation and found out for himself, voicing his concerns in person and hearing with his own ears the response. Swift actions, based on assumptions, built from second-hand sources, are a chefs-special reciepe for disaster. Whenever possible, seek personal clarification rather than second-hand interpretations.
Allow candid discussion: Phinehas clearly stated how he felt about the altar that had been built. He didn’t couch his words in pseudo-relational jargon in an attempt to leverage diplomacy for his own sake. The action that had caused offence was clearly identified and the attached emotions clearly shared. When scripture exhorts us to ‘speak the truth in love’, too often we either speak in love with no truth, or speak truth with no love. We must allow candid, but Christ honouring discussion to take place.
Listen, and listen well: Give the honour of listening well. Not listening with one ear while formulating your counter-attack, but true Spirit enriched listening. If, like me, you need extra help and grace in this dicipline, please read David Mathis’ excellent article, Six Lessons in Good Listening, over at the Desiring God site. Let me say it again, ‘listen, and listen well’.
Prepare to be wrong: You have been wrong before, and you will be wrong again. Maybe you are wrong now. When Israel realised that they had acted on false assumptions, almost plunging the nation into civil war, Phinehas was ready to be wrong. Rather than stubbernly persisting with your assumed righteous position, are you able to plan for the fact that you may be incorrect? That you may need to change your course of action? That you may need to humbly tell a brother, ‘I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Pray ernestly that God will deliver you from the crippling need to always be right, and foster a gentle spirit within you that is ready to accept that you will often be wrong.