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Minimizing Misunderstanding

Joshua 22:10-12 - And when they came to the region of the Jordan which is the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built an altar on the border of Canaan near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.

How often a minor misunderstanding leads to friction and factions among God's people! Misunderstandings not only cause the disruption of fellowship between individual believers, but unchecked misunderstandings cause church splits as well. Unresolved misunderstandings do not shrink and go away--they invariably snowball! How tragic! How can we minimize misunderstandings? We can keep them from starting--if we follow biblical guidelines!

In order to see some important guidelines, we'll analyze a major misunderstanding in the history of Israel, recorded in Joshua 22. As we look at the mistakes and then see how the problem was resolved, we'll become aware of divine principles that, when followed, will help us to avoid misunderstandings. Misunderstandings that are resolved mean less friction between believers and thus more worship and service for the glory of God. "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" (Psalm 133:1).

Honorable Discharge

The events of Joshua 22 took place near the end of Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan. The backbone of enemy resistance had been broken in a brilliant "divide and conquer" strategy directed by Joshua, but planned and executed by the Lord Himself. The enemy coalitions and the potential for any joint offensive had been eliminated. Although some pockets of enemy resistance remained in various tribal areas, the major battles of the conquest were over. It was at this point that Joshua told the 2 1/2 tribes whose chosen territories were on the east side of the Jordan River that they could go home. The tribes on the west side of the Jordan would finish the "mopping up" operations in the land of Canaan.

Do you remember the background story of the 2 1/2 tribes? Before the people of Israel crossed the Jordan to begin the conquest of Canaan, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh had requested that they be given territories on the east side of the Jordan River. They felt it was good land for their flocks and herds, and they didn't want to endanger their wives and children by taking them into the enemy strongholds on the west side of the Jordan. Although God had intended that all 12 tribes of Israel would cross over and settle in the Promised Land, He told Moses to allow the 2 1/2 tribes to have their wish--as long as they promised to send their armies across the Jordan to fight alongside the other tribes. When the battles were over and the land was conquered, they could return and settle in their own chosen land on the east side of the Jordan River. (Read Numbers 32 for all the details.) The 2 1/2 tribes had agreed to these terms and they had fought courageously shoulder to shoulder with the other tribes under the command of General Joshua. Now they were going home.

Thus the opening section of Joshua 22 essentially describes an honorable military discharge that was given to the fighting forces of the 2 1/2 tribes. Joshua said to them, "You have done all that Moses commanded, and you have obeyed me in everything I commanded...you have not deserted your brothers but have carried out the mission the Lord your God gave you. Now that the Lord your God has given your brothers rest as He promised, return to the lands that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to obey His commands, to hold fast to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul" (v3-5).

Up to this point in the story everything was going as planned. All the troops and war buddies said their goodbyes and farewells and parted company (v9). It had been a great and victorious conquest. Now they could look forward to going to their respective homes, building up their farms and raising their families in the good land that God had given them. But trouble was on the horizon--trouble that no one would have predicted or expected. And it all started with a misunderstanding.

Civil War

As the troops from Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh made their way down to the Jordan River, they decided to build a large symbolic altar before they crossed over--not an altar for offering sacrifices, but a monument of witness for future generations (v10). The Jordan Valley formed a natural division between the tribes on the east side and the tribes on the west. The leaders of the 2 1/2 tribes wanted be sure that future generations would remember that all the tribes were one nation and that they all worshiped the same God. The entire nation had been united in conquering the Land together, and they were united still. No one was to be barred from worship at the Tabernacle, the central sanctuary on the west side of the Jordan, or later from the Temple when it was established in Jerusalem, also on the west side.

Unfortunately, the good intentions of the leaders of the 2 1/2 tribes were misconstrued by the 9 1/2 tribes. As word of the altar-building filtered back to the Israelis in the west, it was hastily misinterpreted as an act of rebellion against the Lord (v11-12)! The 9 1/2 tribes decided that the 2 1/2 tribes were building a sacrificial altar, thereby setting up a new system of worship in defiance of the Law of the Lord. With righteous wrath and religious zeal in their hearts, they gathered at the Lord's Tabernacle in Shiloh and determined to go to war against their "rebellious" brothers. The fledgling nation was on the brink of civil war.

Notice that the molehill of misunderstanding which became the mountain of potential civil war was rooted in good intentions onboth sides! The 2 1/2 tribes intended to build a lasting witness to national unity before the Lord, while the 9 1/2 tribes were anxious to prevent any departure from the Law of the Lord among the tribes. Likewise today, even when fellow believers mean well, their good intentions can rapidly deteriorate into friction and factions because of hasty judgments, misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The good desire to start a new ministry or plant a new church may be misunderstood and labeled "competition" or "sheep stealing." The godly initiative to serve as a leader may be misinterpreted as a prideful "play for power." The proper motive to stay true to Scripture may be misjudged as "traditionalism." On the other hand, the spiritual desire for new outreaches or ministry methods may be misconstrued as "dangerous departure" from the Word of the Lord!

Good Communication

The misunderstanding which almost led to civil war could easily have been avoided if both sides had done what seems so obvious to us now, long after the event. If only the 2 1/2 tribes had explained to the other tribes exactly what they were planning to do before constructing the altar! If only the 9 1/2 tribes hadn't jumped to a hasty and incorrect conclusion! How many church splits could be avoided if open and honest communication took place early on! How many "warring" factions could be brought together with healing, if the conference table of communication came before the wall of separation was constructed! How much family friction, heartache and separation could be eliminated between husbands and wives or parents and children if hasty judgments and angry words and actions could be avoided, and if loving communication replaced the "silent treatment"?

Good communication can nip problems in the bud. It will help to keep us from wrongly judging the motives of others (Matthew 7:1), or having our own actions misinterpreted. Even well-intentioned actions from good motives can result in major misunderstandings if there is a lack of communication. Honest and open communication is absolutely necessary, whether it be individual believers getting along together, or ministries and fellowships functioning smoothly, or Christian families staying intact, healthy and happy. Keeping communication lines open is especially critical today, when Satanic forces are doing everything possible to bring confusion and dishonor on God's people by separating Christians--husbands from wives, children from parents, and church members from each other. Let's learn the obvious lesson that God is "shouting" to us in Joshua 22!

Fortunately, communication was established before a civil war and a disastrous split of the new nation could occur. Before they carried out hasty "disciplinary action" against the "rebellious" brothers, a delegation under Phinehas, the priest, was sent to communicate how the 9 1/2 tribes viewed the altar-building activity. Explanation and warning before hasty action is always the divine method.

But it was more than cold and formal talks that brought about a peaceful settlement to the crisis. Included in the warning was a note of grace and reconciliation, which is typical of godly warnings. In verse 19 an invitation was extended to the 2 1/2 tribes to reconsider their original decision to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, and to join the 9 1/2 tribes in the Land of Promise. This was a sacrificial offer, because each of the 9 1/2 tribes would have had to give up some of their own tribal territory in the interest of restoration and healing.

How much would we be willing to sacrifice in the interest of peace in our churches and fellowships and families? Would we be willing to humble ourselves and give up our personal "territory" in order to repair the bad fallout from misunderstandings with our brothers and sisters in Christ or to defuse the feuds in our families? The 9 1/2 tribes practiced "New Testament principles" long before the following verses were written! "In humility consider others before yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4). "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:10). Notice the strong emphasis on humility, patience and self-sacrifice expressed now by the 9 1/2 tribes. How much more should we, who have received salvation from sin and reconciliation with God through our Lord Jesus--and have the completed Scriptures--follow these maxims!

The Response

The response of the 2 1/2 tribes to the "fact-finding committee" is certainly a model for peace-makers to follow today (v21-29). Their indignant response could have been, "How dare you question our motives?" or "What makes you think you're the only ones who know the will of the Lord?" But not the 2 1/2 tribes! They patiently explained their actions without flying off the handle or indulging in verbal retaliation or character assassination. In fact, instead of insisting on their "rights" or demanding special treatment because they had helped their brothers to conquer the Land, they humbly stated that if they had done wrong they were willing to suffer the discipline meted out by the 9 1/2 tribes before the Lord!

Would we have been so humble--especially if our motives were worthy and we had been misjudged hastily and wrongly? Like the 9 1/2 tribes, the 2 1/2 tribes also displayed the New Testament qualities of humility and patience. "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2-3). "Clothe yourselves with...humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another" (Colossians 3:12-13).

The Phinehas delegation was reasonable. They listened to their fellow-Israelis and made an honest attempt to understand their motives and concerns, rather than demanding that the altar be destroyed immediately. No wonder there was a peaceful settlement (v30-34)! Would we have been as willing to hold back our "righteous" zeal and indignation, to patiently listen and honestly try to understand the viewpoints of others in our families and fellowships? Would we have been as willing to recognize and admit errors in our judgment and affirm the legitimate concerns and desires of others? Phinehas and his delegation accepted the explanation that the riverside structure was a replica altar, and not a rival altar. The new altar remained as an unusual and novel--but not unlawful--reminder to God's people of their history and national unity. The misunderstanding was cleared up. Righteous indignation was mollified by humble explanation. Civil war was averted. The breach in fellowship was closed. And the Lord was praised and exalted!

What a wealth of instruction for today is found in Joshua 22 - for churches and families and friendships! Let's not just read the story! Let's go further and apply these divine principles for minimizing misunderstandings. "The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:17-18).

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