10 When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. 11 And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, 12 the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. (Joshua 22:10-12 NIV)
This story takes place immediately after the same people had been dismissed to return to their homes and families after the conquest of Canaan. The “whole assembly of Israel” of course excludes these three tribes does it not? The narrative draws a distinction between the tribes who had land on the other side of the Jordan and the Isrealite “side.”
The planned assault is based on the report they received of this altar’s construction. The ensuing narrative explains how the situation was resolved without violence.
This is one of those stories where I want to not put my values and perspective onto a story and make it mean something that I want or am inclined to believe. But I am drawn to the rapid taking of sides, the obvious textual contrast made between the “Israelites” and “Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” These people had just accomplished the conquest of the promised land of Canaan together – without the other tribes the entire assembly could not have been victorious. But they could go to war with their own people!
It may be that this is a story about the Israelites demanding the purity, the entire consecration to the Lord that also informed their conquest and subjugation of the land. But it seems it is more about the “natural” inclination of people – even God’s people – to divide, to turn into parties, to fracture as soon as the task at hand is done.
In some ways this early division foreshadows the later divisions that will ultimately separate Israel into two kingdoms. And the church has always been prone more to a partisan spirit than the Holy Spirit it seems (witness in the readings from 1 Corinthians this divisiveness – “I follow Paul”… “I follow Apollos”… “I follow Cephas.” ) Our current landscape of denominations and internal divisions within them proves the point.
I am prone to this same spirit of division – I take sides, I classify people by my own arbitrary standards. The point is not unity as a universal principle on its own but unity in the faith and mission of purposes of God.
Holy Trinity – One in Unity – look down upon our divisive hearts, our spirits so prone to fracture and take sides. Give us spirits that honor you, that seek to unite around your mission and purposes and your word. Help us to resist the urge to declare war at the first sign of something beyond our understanding. Help us not to react with violence – physical or verbal – because we are ignorant of other’s motives and convictions. May I become one who reacts in love and wisdom and in you above all. In the name of Jesus who prayed that those who follow him might be one… Amen.