With the eastern tribes of Israel having returned to their inheritance, their land, across the Jordan, Joshua 22:10–34 tells the story of a giant altar that the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh somewhere along the Jordan river in Gilead, the hill country of the East Bank.
This giant altar is a cause for war, and all Israel gathers at Shiloh to make war against the Israelites in Gilead, and to ask them why they risk dividing Israel with the kind of idolatry Israel experience at Peor, when Israelite men and women cavorted with the Moabites and worshiped their gods (Numbers 25).
16 “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? 17 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, 18 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. 19 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. (Joshua 22:16–19 ESV)
The fear here is that the Israelites of Gilead will engage in idolatry, and thus will put the entire assembly of Israel at risk.
Christians have, I think, lived for so long in the land of personal piety and moral rectitude — the kind that sees no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no cursing, and no dancing as signs of virtuous living — that they have forgotten the sin Israel struggled with, the sin that God held Israel truly accountable for, was idolatry. Even sex was primarily about idolatry, about the worship of foreign gods, and not so much about sexual behavior in and of itself. As Stanley Hauerwas wrote, the second table of the decalogue which outlines prohibited behavior makes no sense without the first table, which is all about Israel’s relationship to its redeemer God.
So when the tribes of Gilead build an altar, the fear is they are preparing to worship — to sacrifice and bow down to — other gods. Gods who did not redeem them. Who did not deliver them. Who did not make them a gift of land.
Whether this was intent of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh, they are quick with the really clever answer. “Who, us? Why, we would never! We built this so we could remember, because there is this river between us and you, and our children might forget that we belong to you. That we belong to the Lord our God.”
26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 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.”’ 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.”’ 29 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!” (Joshua 22:26–29 ESV)
The answer is good enough for Phinehas (of the spearing cavorting Israelites fame), who says that the words of the Israelites of Gilead is enough to spare the entire people the wrath of God.
32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” (Joshua 22:32–34 ESV)
An unused altar standing as a silent witness to this people’s unity. A monument. Whether Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh really meant to use this altar or not, this clever answer (as clever as the Hivites of Gibeah pretending to be someone else in order to save their cities and their lives) saves the situation. While it may seem all that work was for nothing, if everyone takes what happened here at Shiloh seriously, then this altar really does perform an important function, doing nothing, sitting unused underneath sun and stars. It bears witness. But only because everyone who sees it knows, and remembers, and understands.