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The Eastern Tribes Return to Their Territory


Then Joshua summoned the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2and said to them, “You have observed all that Moses the servant of the L ord commanded you, and have obeyed me in all that I have commanded you; 3you have not forsaken your kindred these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the L ord your God. 4And now the L ord your God has given rest to your kindred, as he promised them; therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the L ord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5Take good care to observe the commandment and instruction that Moses the servant of the L ord commanded you, to love the L ord your God, to walk in all his ways, to keep his commandments, and to hold fast to him, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.

7 Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given a possession in Bashan; but to the other half Joshua had given a possession beside their fellow Israelites in the land west of the Jordan. And when Joshua sent them away to their tents and blessed them, 8he said to them, “Go back to your tents with much wealth, and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with a great quantity of clothing; divide the spoil of your enemies with your kindred.” 9So the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the Israelites at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had taken possession by command of the L ord through Moses.

A Memorial Altar East of the Jordan

10 When they came to the region near the Jordan that lies in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of great size. 11The Israelites heard that the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh had built an altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region near the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the Israelites. 12And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the Israelites gathered at Shiloh, to make war against them.

13 Then the Israelites sent the priest Phinehas son of Eleazar to the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, 14and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. 15They came to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16“Thus says the whole congregation of the L ord, ‘What is this treachery that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away today from following the L ord, by building yourselves an altar today in rebellion against the L ord? 17Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which a plague came upon the congregation of the L ord, 18that you must turn away today from following the L ord! If you rebel against the L ord today, he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel tomorrow. 19But now, if your land is unclean, cross over into the L ord’s land where the L ord’s tabernacle now stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us; only do not rebel against the L ord, or rebel against us by building yourselves an altar other than the altar of the L ord our God. 20Did not Achan 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!’ ”

21 Then the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, 22“The L ord, God of gods! The L ord, God of gods! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith toward the L ord, do not spare us today 23for building an altar to turn away from following the L ord; or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or offerings of well-being on it, may the L ord himself take vengeance. 24No! We did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the L ord, the God of Israel? 25For the L ord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you Reubenites and Gadites; you have no portion in the L ord.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the L ord. 26Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27but to be a witness between us and you, and between the generations after us, that we do perform the service of the L ord in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and offerings of well-being; so that your children may never say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the L ord.” ’ 28And we thought, If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we could say, ‘Look at this copy of the altar of the L ord, which our ancestors made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.’ 29Far be it from us that we should rebel against the L ord, and turn away this day from following the L ord by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the L ord our God that stands before his tabernacle!”

30 When the priest Phinehas and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the Reubenites and the Gadites and the Manassites spoke, they were satisfied. 31The priest Phinehas son of Eleazar said to the Reubenites and the Gadites and the Manassites, “Today we know that the L ord is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the L ord; now you have saved the Israelites from the hand of the L ord.”

32 Then the priest Phinehas son of Eleazar and the chiefs returned from the Reubenites and the Gadites in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the Israelites, and brought back word to them. 33The report pleased the Israelites; and the Israelites blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them, to destroy the land where the Reubenites and the Gadites were settled. 34The Reubenites and the Gadites called the altar Witness; “For,” said they, “it is a witness between us that the L ord is God.”

1. Then Joshua called the Reubenites, etc Here is related the discharge of the two tribes and half-tribe, who had followed the rest of the people, not that they might acquire anything for themselves, but that, as they had already obtained dwellings and lands without lot, they might carry on war in common with their brethren, until they also should have a quiet inheritance. Now, as they had been faithful companions and helpers to their brethren, Joshua declares that they were entitled to their discharge, and thus sends them back to their homes released and free. It is asked, however, how he can consider them to have performed their due measure of military service, while the enemy were still in possession of part of the land, of which the sole possession was to be the proper termination of the war? 178178     Latin, “Cujus sola possessio justum debuit bello imponere finem.” French, “De laquelle il faloit qu’ils fussent paisibles possesseurs avant qu’ils peussent avoir licence de se desparter, et avant que finir la guerre;” “Of which it was necessary that they should be peaceful possessors before they could have license to depart, and before finishing the war.” — Ed. But if we bear in mind what I lately said, the knot will be loosed. Had the Israelites followed the invitation of God, and seconded his agency, nay, when he was stretching out his hand to them, had they not basely drawn back, 179179     French, “Ou pour mieux dire, s’ils n’eussent vilainement tourne le dos arriere, quand il leur tendoit la main;” “Or, to speak more properly, if they had not villanously turned their back when he stretched out his hand to them.” — Ed. the remaining part of the war would have been finished with no danger and little trouble. From their own sloth, therefore, they refused what God was ready to bestow. And thus it happened that the agreement by which the two tribes and half-tribe had bound themselves, ceased to be binding. For the only obligation they had undertaken was to accompany the ten tribes, and contend for their inheritance as strenuously as if their condition had been exactly the same. Now, when they have perseveringly performed their part as faithful allies, and the ten tribes contented with their present fortune, not only do not demand, but rather tacitly repudiate their assistance, a free return to their homes is justly allowed them. They, indeed, deserve praise for their patient endurance, in not allowing weariness of the service to make them request their discharge, but in waiting quietly till Joshua of his own accord sends for them. 180180     Jewish writers, founding on plausible data, calculate that the auxiliary tribes who crossed the Jordan to assist their brethren, had been absent from their homes for a period of fourteen years. — Ed.

5. But take diligent heed, etc He thus releases and frees them from temporary service, that he may bind them for ever to the authority of the one true God. He therefore permits them to return home, but on the condition that wherever they may be they are to be the soldiers of God; and he at the same time prescribes the mode, namely, the observance of his Law. But since such is the vanity and inconstancy of the human mind, that religion easily fades away from the heart, while carelessness and contempt creep in, he requires of them zeal and diligence in executing the Law. He calls it the Law of Moses, that they may not be carried to and fro by airy speculations, but remain fixed in the doctrine which they had learned from the faithful servant of God. He touches also on the end and sum of the Law, love to God, and adherence to him, because outward worship would otherwise be of little value. He confirms the same thing by other words, by which sincerity is denoted, namely, serving the Lord with their whole heart and soul.

8. Return with much riches, etc As it was formerly seen that the greater part of the two tribes were left in their territories beyond the Jordan, when the others passed over to carry on the war, it was fair that, as they had lived in case with their families, or been only occupied with domestic concerns, they should be contented with their own livelihood and the produce of their own labor. And they certainly could not, without dishonesty, have demanded that any part of the booty and spoil should be distributed among them, when they had taken no share in all the toil and the danger. Joshua, however, does not insist on the strictly legal view, but exhorts the soldiers to deal liberally with their countrymen, by sharing the prey with them. Here some one may unseasonably raise the question, Whether or not the booty was common? For Joshua does not decide absolutely that it is their duty to do as he enjoins; he admonishes them that, after they have been enriched by the divine blessing, it would betray a want of proper feeling not to be liberal and kind towards their brethren, especially as it was not their fault that they did not take part in the same expedition. Moreover, when he bids them divide, he does not demand an equal partition, such as that which is usual among partners and equals, but only to bestow something that may suffice to remove all cause of envy and hatred. 181181     The Septuagint alters the tenor of the whole passage by substituting the past tense for the imperative, and making it read not as a part of Joshua’s address, but as the statement of a fact, “They departed with much riches,” etc., and “they divided the spoil of their enemies with their brethren.” — Ed.

10. And when they came unto the borders, etc The history here is particularly deserving of notice, when the two tribes and half-tribe, intending to erect a memorial of common faith and fraternal concord, allowed themselves from inconsiderate zeal to adopt a method which was justly suspected by their brethren. The ten tribes, thinking that the worship of God was violated with impious audacity and temerity, were inflamed with holy wrath, and took up arms to use them against their own blood; nor were they appeased till they had received full satisfaction. The motive for erecting the altar was right in itself. For the object of the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, was to testify that though they were separated from their brethren by the intervening stream, they were, however, united with them in religion, and cherished a mutual agreement in the doctrine of the Law. Nothing was farther from their intention than to innovate in any respect in the worship of God. But they sinned not lightly in attempting a novelty, without paying any regard to the high priest, or consulting their brethren, and in a form which was very liable to be misconstrued.

We know how strictly the Law prohibited two altars, (Exodus 20:24) for the Lord wished to be worshipped in one place only. Therefore, when on the very first blush of the case, all were at once led to think that they were building a second altar, who would not have judged them guilty of sacrilege in framing a ritual of a degenerate description, at variance with the Law of God? Seeing, then, that the work might be deemed vicious, they ought, at least, in so great and so serious a matter, to have made their brethren sharers in their counsel; more especially were they in the wrong in neglecting to consult the high priest, from whose lips the divine will was to be ascertained. They were, therefore, deserving of blame, because, as if they had been alone in the world, they considered not what offence might arise from the novelty of the example. Wherefore, let us learn to attempt nothing rashly, even should it be free from blame, and let us always give due heed to the admonition of St. Paul, (1 Corinthians 6:12; 1 Corinthians 10:23) that it is necessary to attend not only to what is lawful, but to what is expedient; more especially let us sedulously beware of disturbing pious minds 182182     Latin, “Pios animos.” French, “Les bonnes consciences;” “Good consciences.” — Ed. by the introduction of any kind of novelty.

11. And the children of Israel heard say, etc There is no doubt that they were inflamed with holy zeal, nor ought their vehemence to seem excessive in taking up arms to destroy their countrymen on account of a pile of stones. For they truly and wisely judged that the lawful sanctuary of God was polluted and his worship profaned, that sacred things were violated, pious concord destroyed, and a door opened for the license of superstitious practices, if in two places victims were offered to God, who had for these reasons so solemnly bound the whole people to a single altar. Not rashly, therefore, do the ten tribes, on hearing of a profane altar, detest its sacrilegious audacity.

Here, then, we have an illustrious display of piety, teaching us that if we see the pure worship of God corrupted, we must be strenuous, to the utmost of our ability, in vindicating it. The sword, indeed, has not been committed to the hands of all; but every one must, according to his call and office, study manfully and firmly to maintain the purity of religion against all corruption’s. More especially deserving of the highest praise was the zeal of the half-tribe of Manasseh, who, setting aside all regard to the flesh, did not spare their own family. I admit, however, that this zeal, though pious, was not free from turbulent impetuosity, inasmuch as they hasten to declare war before they inquired concerning the mind of their brethren, and properly ascertained the state of the case. War, I admit, was declared only under conditions; for they send ambassadors to bring back word after they had carefully investigated the matter, and they move not a finger in the way of inflicting punishment till they are certified of the existence of the crime. Excuse, therefore, may be made for the fervor of their passion, while they prepare for battle in the event of any defection being discovered. 183183     French, “S’il se trouve que les autres se soyent revoltez de la religion;” “If it be found that the others have revolted from religion.” — Ed.

16. Thus says the whole congregation, etc Just as if it had been known that this second altar was opposed to the one only altar of God, they begin with upbraiding them, and that in a very harsh and severe manner. They thus assume it as confessed, that the two tribes had built the altar with a view of offering sacrifices upon it. In this they are mistaken, as it was destined for a different use and purpose. Moreover, had the idea which they had conceived been correct, all the expostulation which they employ would have been just; for it was a clear case of criminal revolt to make any change in the Law of God, who values obedience more than all sacrifices, (1 Samuel 15:22) and there would have been perfect ground for condemning them as apostates, in withdrawing from the one only altar.

17. Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us? etc They represent the crime as more heinous, from their perverse obstinacy in not ceasing ever and anon to provoke the Lord by their abominations. They bring forward one signal example of recent occurrence. While they were encircling the sanctuary of God from the four cardinal points, like good watchmen of God, and when they had received the form of due worship, and were habituated to it by constant exercise, they had allowed themselves, through the seductive allurements of harlots, to be polluted by foul superstitions, and had worshipped Baal-Peor. As the whole people were implicated in this crime, the ten ambassadors do not hesitate to admit, that they were partners in the guilt. They therefore ask, Is not the iniquity which we contracted in the matter of Baal-Peor sufficient? They add, that they were not yet purified from it, just as if they had said, that the remembrance of it was not yet entirely buried, or that the vengeance of God was not yet extinguished; and hence they infer, that the two tribes and the half tribe, while with impious contumacy they turn aside from God, and shake off his yoke, not only consult ill for themselves, but are calling down similar destruction on the whole people, because God will avenge the insult offered him to a wider extent. This they confirm by the example of Achan, who, though he was alone when he secretly stole of the accursed thing, did not alone undergo the punishment of his sacrilege, but also dragged others along with him, as it was seen that some fell in the line of battle, while all were shamefully put to flight, because pollution attached to the people.

They reason from the less to the greater. If the anger of God burnt against many for the clandestine misdeed of one man, much less would he allow the people to escape if they connived at manifest idolatry. A middle view, however, is inserted, that if the two tribes and half tribe built up an altar, and if their condition was worse from not dwelling in the land of Canaan, let them rather come and obtain a settlement also in the land of Canaan, but let them not provoke God by a wicked rivalship. 184184     Latin, “Prava aemulatione.” French, “Abusant en mal de ce qu’ils ont veu faire aux autres;” “Making a wicked abuse of what they have seen others do.” — Ed. Hence we infer, that they were not urged by some turgid impetus, since, even at their own loss and expense, they are willing kindly to offer partnership to those who had demanded a settlement and domicile for themselves elsewhere.

21. Then the children of Reuben, etc The state of the case turns on the definition. For the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, explain that they had a different intention, and thus exculpate themselves from the charge, inasmuch as the nature of the proceeding was quite different from what the others supposed. In not making a disturbance, 185185     Latin, “Quod autem non tumultuantur.” French, “Et en ce qu’ils n’escarmouchent point;” “And in not skirmishing.” — Ed. nor picking a quarrel for the injustice done, to them they give an example of rare modesty, which is held forth for our imitation; so that if at any time anything we have rightly done happen to be unjustly and falsely blamed by those not acquainted with its nature, we may deem it sufficient to refute the censure only so far as may be necessary for clearing ourselves. Moreover, that the more credit may be given to them, and that they may the better attest their integrity, they, by a solemn protest, put far from them the wickedness of which they were suspected. For there is force and meaning in the reduplication, The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, by which they with vehemence affirm, how faithfully they desire to persevere in the doctrine of the Law, and how greatly they abhor all contrary superstitions. But as their intention was not patent to men, and every one explained it variously, according to his own sense, they appeal to the judgment of God, and offer to submit to punishment if he decide that they had attempted anything wickedly. And to prove that they are not like hypocrites who, with abandoned wickedness, appeal to God a hundred times as judge even when they are convicted in their own minds, they not only bring forward conscience, but at the same time declare, that the whole people will be witness; as if they had said, that it will be made palpable by the fact itself, that they never had any intention of devising any new form of worship; and they rightly explain, how the altar would have been unlawful, namely, if they had built it for the purpose of offering sacrifice. For the Law did not condemn the mere raising of heaps of stones, but only enjoined that sacrifices should be offered in one place, for the purpose of retaining the people in one faith, lest religion should be rent asunder, lest license should be given to human presumption, and thus every man might turn aside to follow his own fictions. We thus see how an explanation of the nature of the deed removes the detestation which the ten tribes had conceived of it. 186186     Several Romish writers endeavored to make the most of this transaction, and think they find in the apparent sanction which it gives to the erection of an altar similar to the one on which sacrifices were offered though intended for a different purpose, an authority for their endless forms of image worship. It is scarcely possible to treat such an argument seriously, but it is surely sufficient to answer, that while the Reubenites and their associates justified the erection of their altar, by declaring in the most solemn manner, that they never intended, and were firmly determined never to employ it for religious service, the Romanists, on the other hand, erect their images for the express purpose of so employing them, and are continually extolling the imaginary benefits which this sacrilegious employment of them confers. — Ed.

It is not strictly correct, though appropriate enough, for the rudeness of sense, to place our God above all gods. For it is impossible to compare him with others, seeing that no others actually exist. Hence, in order to avoid the apparent absurdity, some interpreters substitute angels for gods; this meaning holds in some cases, though not in all. It ought not, however, to seem harsh when he who is the one sole supreme being is called the God of gods, inasmuch as he has no equal, standing forth conspicuous above all other height, and so, by his glory, obscuring and annihilating all names of deity which are celebrated in the world. Hence this mode of speaking ought to be viewed with reference to the common sense of the vulgar.

26. Therefore we said, etc The gross impiety of which they had been accused was now well refuted; and yet they seem not to have been in every respect free from blame, because the Law forbids the erection of any kind of statues. It is easy, however, to excuse this by saying, that no kind of statues are condemned except those which are intended to represent God. To erect a heap of stones as a trophy, or in testimony of a miracle, or a memorial of some signal favor of God, the Law has nowhere prohibited. (Exodus 20:4; Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 5:8) Otherwise, Joshua and many holy judges and kings after him, would have defiled themselves by profane innovation. But the only thing displeasing to God was to see the minds of men drawn hither and thither, so as to worship him in a gross and earthly manner. The children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh do all that is required for their exculpation, when they declare that they would use the altar only as a bond of brotherly union; and add a sufficient reason, namely, the danger there was, lest, after a long course of time, the ten tribes might exclude the others as strangers, because they did not inhabit the same land. For as the country beyond the Jordan was not at first comprehended in the covenant, a difference of habitation might ultimately prove a cause of dissension. They therefore consult timelessly for their posterity, that they may be able by means of the altar as a kind of public document to defend their right, that they may mutually recognize each other, and unite in common in serving one God.

30. And when Phinehas the priest, etc Phinehas and the ambassadors rightly temper their zeal, when, instead of harshly insisting and urging the prejudice which they had conceived, they blandly and willingly admit the excuse. Many persons, if once offended and exasperated by any matter, cannot be appeased by any defense, and always find something maliciously and unjustly to carp at, rather than seem to yield to reason. The example here is worthy of observation. It teaches us that if at any time we conceive offence in regard to a matter not sufficiently known, we must beware of obstinacy, and be ready instantly to take an equitable view. Moreover, when the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh are found free from crime, Phinehas and the ambassadors ascribe it to the grace of God. For by the words, We know that Jehovah is in the midst of us, they intimate that God was propitious to them, and had taken care of their safety.

This is to be carefully observed; for we are able to infer from it that we never revolt from God, or fall off to impiety unless he abandon us, and give us up when thus abandoned to a reprobate mind. All idolatry, therefore, shows that God has previously been alienated, and is about to punish us by inflicting judicial blindness. Meanwhile, we must hold that we persevere in piety only in so far as God is present to sustain us by his hand, and confirm us in perseverance by the agency of his Spirit. Phinehas and the ambassadors speak as if they had been delivered by the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, because there was no longer any ground to fear the divine vengeance, when all suspicion of criminality had been removed. At last similar equity and humanity are displayed by the whole people, when accepting the defense of their brethren they gave thanks to God for having kept his people free from criminality.

Though they had been suddenly inflamed, they depart with calm minds. In like manner the two tribes and the half tribe carefully exert themselves to perform their duty by giving a name to the altar, which, by explaining its proper use, might draw off the people from all superstition.

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