Have you ever been struck by the timeliness of those seemingly obscure Bible passages? Or is that just me? If I’m honest, sometimes it surprises me how relevant the really old parts of God’s Word are. Even those Old Testament texts we’re tempted to consider “highly skippable” ring true to situations we face even today.
Case and point: the book of Joshua. We've been studying it at my church, and chapter 22 really struck me this week. To catch you up to this point in the story, the Israelites had just taken claim of God’s promised land through war. Three tribes had been granted land on the eastern side of the Jordan, but their fighting men continued over the river to help the rest of the Israelites. After God had given Israel miraculous victories, His people were finally on the cusp of enjoying a time of peace; everyone was settling in to live happily ever after...
If only there were happily ever afters this side of Revelation 21.
As the necessary battles against the evils of Canaanite culture were cooling down, Israel found themselves beginning to turn their eyes and weapons on their brothers. They began to look at those who had been fighting in the trench with them and wondered if they, too, were just a little too dangerously different. And this is where our story picks up.
Fighting the Good Fight
In chapter 22, the eastern tribes—or as we’ll call them Easties—are commended for helping their brothers fight for the land, and they return home. Soon after, the western tribes—who I’ll refer to as Westies—hear the Easties have built a giant altar on their side of the river. This is the point where you should be getting nervous.
To sacrifice on any other altar other than the tabernacle’s was a BIG no-no. God had made that much clear. From deadly plagues to embarrassing military defeats, Israel had seen the dangers of disobedience and were still facing some of the fallout. The Westies had every reason to be concerned about the threat of the Easties' disobedience.
So, the Westies pick up their weapons, call on Phinehas (the Rambo of priests), and get ready to take out the Easties for their assumed disobedience. Their time at war with the Canaanites had primed them to eradicate anything that hinted of evil. Poised for the attack, the Westies launch their accusations at the East from over the Jordan. They assumed the Easties were guilty. What they almost miss, however, is the heart of their fellow Israelites across the river.
Fortunately for Israel, however, cooler heads prevail, and the Easties were able to explain. The altar, which Westies saw as idolatry, was to be a symbol reminding Easties not to reject God or their brothers over the Jordan. It would also serve as a witness to the Westies not to forget the Easties as time would likely make the Jordan a greater geographic and cultural divide than it already was. Rightfully so, the Easties feared that they would be excluded from Israel over time and become an “other” to the rest of Israel
I wonder how often we, too, misinterpret our misunderstandings or even prejudice as godly zeal: Those skinny jeans are disrespectful. Those guys in ties are legalistic. Their creeds are cold and rote. Their dancing is unruly. I don’t understand why that church doesn’t preach like ours, look like ours, worship exactly like we do. It’s us vs them.
Have I hit a nerve, yet? I know it’s true because I’m just as guilty. But how can we get it right?
Watch Your Language
A deeper look into the language of the text may help us understand the disconnect. As the Westies gathered, they were already referring to themselves as “the whole assembly of Israel” and excluding the Easties. Then, in their peace talks, the Westies suggest the Eastern land is defiled in comparison to the holy, Western land. Both were former slaves given land by God, but the West was already looking down on the East. By creating factions, Israel almost snuffed out a whole section of their people, who God intended to be a light to the unbelieving world.
Note that neither side was composed of express “bad guys.” The Westies had every right to confront what may have been idolatry. The Easties had every right to fear marginalization. Their almost fatal flaw was in the divide, in the fear of the other. They were separating “us” from “them.”
Do we do the same? Are there some we’re willing to give the benefit of the doubt and others we’re quick we rush to conclusions about?
Our “Little Jordans”
With so many different populations and kinds of churches in our area, we must be careful not to forget what holds our churches together. We cannot trust the name “Baptist” or even our common spiritual ancestry to bind us. These ties will prove very shaky as time rolls on and rivers of difference cut more deeply.
No matter how we look, what languages we speak, how we voted, where we were born, or how we prefer to worship, we must look to the cross that stands as a witness between us. It reminds us that we are family, regardless of our differences. So, let’s learn from the Israelites, as they responded well for once. When someone claiming to be a Christian is doing something you don’t understand or agree with, take the time to approach them about it and really listen to them. Maybe they’re wrong and need to return to the gospel. Or maybe, you just need to understand.