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An Altar of Misunderstanding

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Joshua 22

How do you handle misunderstandings? More important, how do you avoid misunderstandings? Israel’s greatest success was almost immediately compromised by a misunderstanding that could have been disastrous. This incident offers us some important lessons.


Something is going to take place in Joshua chapter 22 that is as old as the human race—in a word: misunderstanding. Misunderstandings destroy relationships, break up marriages, and divide churches and fellow believers. 


The human heart is quick to misinterpret, misjudge, misunderstand, and condemn, whether we know the facts or not. The misunderstanding in Joshua 22 almost leads to a massacre. 


Verses 1-3 set the stage:


At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the Lord your God.”


Joshua is commending these tribes because they are about to cross back over to their inheritance east of the Jordan River. They are going to be separated geographically from the other tribes by the Jordan valley and a mountain range, and Joshua wants to make sure they remember that even though they might be out of sight, they are not out of mind as fellow Israelites.


Now verse 10:


And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan.


They arrive at the banks of the Jordan River and, in essence, say, “You know Joshua told us not to forget that we belong to the nation of Israel; so, let’s build a replica of the altar at Shiloh, and this replica will become a memorial, a witness, to our national unity and faith in God.” 


Now look at verses 11 and 12:


And the people of Israel heard it said, “Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan” . . . And . . . the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.


They were lightning quick to respond to what they had heard. And what had they heard? An altar had been built, and that can mean only one thing—idolatry. “So, grab your swords and let’s go wipe them out!” 


The fire of emotion in the hearts of these Israelites is well intentioned, but it’s fueled by misunderstanding. And as we still know today, misunderstandings have the power to turn friends into enemies in a matter of moments, destroying fellowship. 


Fortunately, the Israelites decide to send out a delegation of leaders to get some answers before sending soldiers. When the delegation arrives, they ask their fellow Israelites in verse 16:


“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?” 


This is a perfect illustration of how not to confront someone. Without hearing any of the facts, they arrive with their conclusions—did you notice?—“You’ve broken faith; you’re rebelling against God.” 


These two and a half tribes are probably standing there in shock as this delegation just rattles on in verse 17: “Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor?” This refers to the incident in Numbers 25, when Israel fell into idolatry.


Then in verse 20, they ask, “Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things?” This goes back to Joshua 7, where Achan’s rebellion led to Israel’s defeat in battle. 


Now evidently this delegation had been working on their speech because when they show up, they just unload the wagon.


And the tribes respond in verses 22-23: 


“The Mighty One, God, the Lord! 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.”


They are asserting that God knows they didn’t build this replica to use it. Why, then, did they build it? They answer in verses 24-25:


“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? 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.’”


Their explanation continues down in verse 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.”’”


In other words, “This isn’t a replica to use; it’s a replica to remind us of our unity—that even though we’re living on the other side of the Jordan River, we are part of the same nation and follow the same God.”


And with that, this delegation realizes they had jumped to all the wrong conclusions. Terrible bloodshed and disunity are avoided when they report the truth back to the other tribes.


Let me offer some principles of application from what we see here in this text:


The first principle is this: (all bold) It is commendable for believers to be passionate about the purity of the faith. The Israelites had misunderstood the actions of their fellow Israelites, but at least they were willing to confront what they thought was serious sin. They realized that if these two and a half tribes rebelled, it would affect the entire nation. 


The apostle Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Galatians 6 that if they see a brother entangled in sin to ignore it and hope it will go away. No, he says to pursue the sinning brother and lovingly restore him.


Here’s another principle: When misunderstandings take place, make sure your feelings are based on facts. You don’t get the facts through the gossip grapevine. I’m afraid we’re often more interested in the juicy story than the hard, cold facts. Make sure you are tracking down the truth.


Here’s a third principle: Gracious communication is the key to resolving misunderstanding.

The two and a half tribes were willing to provide an answer to their accusers, and that took great humility. They could have said, “How dare you accuse us of idolatry; we will just go get our swords and show you!” 


Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I believe most problems in marriages are related to misunderstandings that have turned into unkind words. Most of the problems between friends are misunderstandings that get cemented with harsh, judgmental words. Even if you are wrongly accused, respond with grace.


One more principle: Remember when you are wrongly accused that God alone will control the damage. The truth is, you can’t manage the damage from gossip. But God can. No matter how much you have been hurt or misjudged or had your motives misunderstood, hand over to God your reputation and any kind of personal vindication. 


Simply respond with grace. Then trust God with the damage control. 


And in the meantime, God can use these altars of misunderstanding to humble you, shape you, deepen you, and conform you to the image of His Son, the Lord Jesus, who still to this day is the most misunderstood Person to ever walk on Planet Earth.

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