Now that Canaan was subdued, Joshua announced a pleasant surprise for the soldiers of the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh: “You have been faithful in remaining to work and fight with the rest of the Israelites army these six years, even though our families have been only a few miles east of Jordan.
“Now that Canaan is ours, you are dismissed from service with the army of Israel” (Joshua 22:1-7). “You have obtained great wealth from the enemy, and now you should return to share these flocks, gold, silver, brass, iron and clothing with our brethren who stayed behind to care for your families. May the blessings of our God go with you and to your families, and may you serve God diligently by keeping all His commandments” (v. 8).
The happy thousands of warriors moved eastward from Shiloh with the cheers of their fellow Israelites ringing in their ears (v. 9). They couldn’t march as an army, however, because their share of the flocks, herds and loaded pack-animals taken from their enemies had to be herded along in a very long caravan. In fact, their soldier friends remaining at Shiloh good-naturedly made fun of them by loudly addressing them as sheepherders and cattle rustlers.
At Joshua’s suggestion, some Israelite officers accompanied the soldiers as far as the Jordan River. At that time the river was not as deep and swollen at it had been when the Israelites had passed over westward six years before. It was no great problem, therefore, to ford the river at a shallow point where the pack-animals could wade across. As for the smaller animals, it was as easy for them to cross the river as it was for the soldiers, what with animals being natural swimmers and generally not too afraid of water.
On their second or third night after leaving Shiloh, the soldiers of Reuben, Manasseh and Gad camped on the east side of the Jordan. The Israelites who had accompanied them camped on the west side of the river before starting their return to Shiloh the next day.
At dawn the Israelites on the west side of the river prepared to leave for Shiloh after a planned last salute to their brothers. Then someone noticed a peculiar thing. The soldiers across the river were working hard to haul stones and earth to form a swiftly growing box-like stack of stones which they were filling with earth. Instead of setting out for Shiloh, the Israelites on the west side of the river stayed to see what was going on. They were increasingly perplexed to note that the heap, in the course of the day, was developed into a large altar that was made after the pattern of God’s altar in Shiloh (Joshua 22:10, 28).
“This is very strange,” said one of Joshua’s officers to the others. “It appears to me that our brothers are building a huge altar.” Then these men began to draw hasty conclusions.
“Our God hasn’t told us to build such an altar,” another officer spoke out. “Perhaps our brothers are building this altar with the intention of sacrificing to idols!”
“If that’s even a possibility, then we should report to Joshua at once,” one of the men said. Rather than immediately finding out what their brother tribes were doing, these men began to imagine things, and came to a conclusion that seemed right to them (Prov. 16:25).
It was only hours later that Joshua was told about these things. Unfortunately, word of these events, as these men interpreted them, also leaked out to the whole congregation of Israel. Reports became so repeated and exaggerated that it quickly became a common belief that the soldiers from the tribes east of the Jordan had suddenly fallen away from the true God, and were starting a new system of pagan worship in their own territory. A huge, murmuring crowd gathered near the tabernacle and around Joshua’s tent. Some of the people from this crowd began to loudly criticize the tribes east of the Jordan.
“We should at once send troops across the Jordan to forcefully remind our idol-worshipping brothers that they must stop this terrible idolatry immediately!” one man yelled. Great cheers followed his remarks. For a people who had been disobedient in so many ways for so many years, it seemed somewhat extreme to demonstrate such a spirit of supposedly spiritual criticism that seemed to indicate a great love for God.
“We must clear up this matter now, even if it takes all the soldiers we have here at Shiloh!” another bellowed. “If we don’t do this, our brothers to the east may all become pagans and turn against us” (Joshua 11:11-12)
Joshua was dismayed at the conduct of some of the people almost as much as he was at the unhappy report. After all, it had not been proved just what this altar was for, though it was something that required looking into immediately.
“No troops should go now and risk starting a civil war in Israel,” Joshua told the people. “If the tribes to the east are doing something contrary to God’s will, then someone should be sent to point out their sins. Instead of soldiers, I am sending Phinehas, the priest, the son of Eleazar, and the heads of the ten tribes west of the Jordan. These men can determine what is happening and how to deal with any who are possibly falling into idolatry” (vs. 13-14).
Hours later Phinehas, the heads of the ten tribes and their aides arrived at the west side of the Jordan at a spot opposite the altar. The soldiers of God, Manasseh and Reuben were surprised to see such a distinguished group, and hastily helped them across the river.
“Why are we honored with your presence?” smiling officers inquired of them. Phinehas, spokesman for the group, pointed gravely to the huge altar of rocks filled with earth.
“The people of Israel at Shiloh have heard of this great altar you have built,” Phinehas declared in a loud voice that could be heard by all the assembled officers of the armies of the three tribes east of Jordan. “They feel that you have erected this thing as a sudden move to depart from God and become idol-worshippers. If this is true, can you do such a thing and still recall how close our God came to destroying all of Israel for such a sin in the Baal-Peor idolatry and in Achan’s curse?” (Joshua 22:15-17, 20; Num. 25:1-9; Deut. 4:1-6; Joshua 7:1-5.) “Do you realize that all of Israel suffers tomorrow for the sin of a few committed today?” (Joshua 22:18) “If you feel that this land east of the Jordan is not right for you or that the pagan influences here are too great for you, don’t rebel against God by building a pagan altar, but come over west of the Jordan and we’ll make room for you and your people closer to the tabernacle where God’s altar is located” (v. 19).
The officers of the armies of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh lost their happy smiles before Phinehas finished speaking. They appeared troubled, but not guilty. Their spokesman came out at once with an answer.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” he explained. “Our God knows that rebelling against Him by building an altar to any other god is something that hasn’t even entered our minds. We know that God wants sacrifices made only on the altar He has directed to be made in front of His Tabernacle, and we didn’t build this altar for offering sacrifice. If this is not true, may God destroy us today. We didn’t build the altar for any religious functions, but rather as a duplicate of God’s altar, to serve as a monument to the fact that our people east of the Jordan and your people west of the Jordan are one people bound together by the sacred laws of God. This altar, being patterned after God’s altar, will be a constant reminder that we serve the same God you serve. We hope that it will remain a monument for a long time so that we may point it out for what it means for many generations to come” (Joshua 22:21-29).
There were moments of silence before anyone spoke. This truthful explanation from the soldiers of Gad, Manasseh and Reuben was as surprising as it was pleasing to Phinehas and the ten tribal heads.
“You have shown us just now that God is with all of us,” Phinehas finally spoke out. “We at first feared that you were falling into idolatry and that God would deal harshly with all of Israel because of what we thought you had done. Now we know what you were intending to do, that you are loyal to God and that your righteous actions have spared us from any punishment God otherwise would have put on us.”
After delaying farewells, Phinehas, the heads of the ten tribes and their aides set out for Shiloh. When they arrived there with news of what had happened, those who had been most concerned about their east-of-Jordan brothers going astray were happy to learn that matters were not as they had imagined. Many of the people felt so relieved that they held a celebration in which God was loudly praised for keeping Israel together (vs. 30-34).
Although there were some among the Israelites who were too hastily inclined to point to their brothers east of the Jordan as being sinners, the real concern among most of the Israelites was that a part of them might break away and fall into idolatry.
Joshua was well aware of the kind of people who were always quick to point to the shortcomings of others so that they might seem more righteous by comparison – which is really self-righteousness. Those were the ones he didn’t like having any part in the somewhat feverish proposal that one part of Israel should take up arms against another part. In trying to make themselves look more righteous, those people can do great harm.
People who feel that they are next to perfect are often as evil in God’s sight as those who feel just the opposite. Such people are generally unable to recognize their own shortcomings. Otherwise they wouldn’t have a feeling of self-righteousness and near-perfection.
There is an interesting true story in the Bible about such a man, and at this point it might be well to temporarily leave the Israelites in Canaan and flash back a few hundred years to the time just after the famine in Egypt.
The main character of this story of the ancient past wrote the 18th book of the Old Testament. It was titled “The Book of Job,” because Job was the man’s name (Job 1:1).
Regardless of what some historians have written about him, Job wasn’t an Arabian who ruled a domain close to the Euphrates River. He has often been referred to as “The Wizard of Oz,” the title of a well-known children’s books written a few decades ago. This land called “Oz” Is called Uz in the Bible. It was the region of Seir, a western part of Arabia, south and southeast of the Dead Sea. The Israelites passed through this territory twice on their long trip from Egypt to Canaan. In those day the ruler of Seir had dominion as far westward as Goshen, the area of lower Egypt, near the Mediterranean, given to the Israelite shepherds in Joseph’s’ time.
As for being a wizard, Job wasn’t exactly that. Probably he earned that title because he was a very wise man and a skilled engineer. During Joseph’s governorship in Egypt, Job though not an Egyptian, was one of the several kings who ruled parts of Lower Egypt (Job 3:11-15, Job 29:21-25). Being king, Job was the greatest man in the eastern land (Job 1:3).
The outstanding thing about Job was that he followed God’s laws and used his power to protect the helpless (Job 29:7-17). While he was a ruler in Egypt he exerted his influence in favor of the one true God, at the same time working to destroy belief in the pagan gods of the Egyptians (Job 29:20-22, 25).
Job’s active career during and after Joseph’s time in office in Egypt was marked by a very outstanding accomplishment. Job planned, designed and superintended the building of the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Gizeth, Egypt. In fact, Job was Cheops. The Great Pyramid is still the most massive man-made structure in the world, though there are buildings that are much taller. Its huge mass isn’t the only quality that makes it outstanding.
The precision workmanship in the massive stones is a marvel. These segments of the pyramid were so accurately fitted together that present-day engineers wonder how it could have been done. However it was accomplished, it required the skill and effort of thousands of laborers, working three months a year during which the Nile River overflowed and kept them from their regular work. It took them twenty years to build such an outstanding structure. As the planner and builder, Job naturally received great honor and prestige in the nations in all directions.
The part of Job’s life related in Scripture had to do with the time after his great engineering feat in Egypt. He had become a more famous and respected man than he had been before. He was wealthier than ever, what with owning seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, a thousand oxen and five hundred donkeys. Job owned many buildings, and much land for his animals’ grazing. He also had a very fine home, and buildings and tents in which his servants, hired hands and shepherds lived (Job 1:3).
Job’s greatest treasure, however, was his ten grown children – seven sons and three daughters. They had comfortable homes of their own in which they often gathered to hold dinner parties and birthday banquets. Job noted that they indulged so much in this pastime that he felt they might be sinning. Therefore he often made sacrifices in their behalf. His constant prayers to God were that the Creator would be merciful to his family (Job 1:4-5).
People have long been erroneously taught that there is a constant desperate, frenzied battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, with God as the champion of good and Satan as the champion of evil. Thus it would seem to be a long war between God and Satan, with each one taking turns at reeling under powerful blows from the other, and this process repeated century after century until God finally strikes a final, victorious blow that causes everything to turn our right.
That isn’t the situation. God is Ruler of the universe and everything in it (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32; Job 38:1-19). Satan is the god or prince of this world (Eph. 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). He is under God’s power and authority. He can do only what God allows him to do. In other words, God can and does allow evil to occur by giving Satan permission to tempt people who need to learn lessons, but God lets Satan go only so far in doing certain things.
God keeps an eye on all the angels, including the fallen ones, or demons. If He calls them before Him to report, they must obey, including Satan.
At a time during Job’s life after he built that Great Pyramid, Satan came with other angels to report to God, and was asked what he had been doing. His answer was that he had been roaming the Earth. He couldn’t successfully lie to God. Roaming was what he had been doing for a long time with his demons, looking for opportunity to separate men from God (Job 1:6-7).
“If you have been everywhere on Earth, then you must have noticed that a man by the name of Job is one of my most obedient servants,” God said to Satan, ‘”What do you think of him?”
“I know the man,” Satan replied. ‘I am aware that you have given him great ability, power and wealth. At the same time you have protected him and his family from trouble, disease and death. He knows that these blessing have come from you, so he works at being faithful to you. But take his prosperity and comfort away from him, and he will turn away from you. In fact, he will curse you” (Job. 1:8-11)! Notice how Satan admitted God is all-powerful and fully able to protect Job from him.
“You would like to destroy this man’s faith,” God remarked. “I’m going to give you the opportunity to test him. Deal with him as you choose, but don’t do him any bodily harm” (v.12). Notice how God set a limit on Satan’s evil, and let him go only so far in tempting Job. What Satan didn’t know was that God was using him to teach Job a much needed lesson. But Satan thought he was getting a chance to destroy one of God’s servants. Satan departed, anxious to bring trouble to one of God’s most faithful followers. It wasn’t much later that Job, examining a part of his orchard, was startled by the noisy approach of one of his plowmen.
“We were plowing your fields on the east border,” the man panted excitedly, “when suddenly a band of mounted Sabeans rushed at us! They killed all the men except me, took all the oxen and all the donkeys that were gazing nearby!”
Before the shocked Job could express himself, another of his men wearily ran up to blurt out that a series of tremendous lightning bolts had struck where all the sheep and sheepherders had been gathered, that all the sheep had been killed and that he was the only man to escape.
This second man hadn’t finished giving his discouraging news when a third man staggered toward Job, waving his arms and shouting.
“Three bands of Chaldeans attacked the camel grazing grounds!” the man panted. “They killed your men, then took all three thousand camels! I managed to escape to report to you” (Job 1:13-17)!
These three reports left Job in stunned silence. He could scarcely believe that such a great loss could come so suddenly. Slowly and dazedly he sat down with his back to a tree trunk. Abruptly he was aware that a fourth man was standing over him, talking and gesturing wildly.
Job shuddered at the thought that shot into his mind. With all his livestock gone, any other evil report would have to concern his family!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. Job’s troubles are just beginning.