The Two Tribes and a Half: Joshua 22

Joshua 22  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
The army may now be disbanded. It had been enlisted in chapter 1. It had served faithfully in the wars of Canaan, but the country being now conquered, and the land divided, there is no further occasion for the army which had been hired for this service. The Reubenites, Gadites and men of Manasseh, may now re-cross the Jordan and feed their flocks in peace in the mountains of Gilead and Bashan. They may turn their sword into a shepherd’s crook.
This is as though the sword of an earlier David had sheathed itself in the presence of the peaceful throne of Solomon, or as though David’s armor had been hung up in the temple of God (see 2 Chron. 23:99Moreover Jehoiada the priest delivered to the captains of hundreds spears, and bucklers, and shields, that had been king David's, which were in the house of God. (2 Chronicles 23:9)).
It savors, too, of that still future day when the host that is to accompany the Rider on the white horse in the day of the judgment of the Beast and his confederates, having done their service as the armies of heaven, were laying aside their weapons of war to take their place of peaceful, glorious sovereignty in the world to come (Rev. 19-20).
The army of the two tribes and a half now became the cultivators of their fields and their flocks on the eastern side of the Jordan, but there, in their own portion, they continue one with their brethren in the land of Canaan, the witnesses and the worshippers of the God of Israel.
And in meditating on the scene connected with this, I would linger a little; for if I mistake it not, it has a word for our souls. The ark had gone over, conducting and sheltering the Israel of God, and Israel and the ark had remained there, but the men of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had re-crossed the Jordan, returning to settle where their brethren had but: wandered. Before they had set out, Joshua had again, as we saw in chapter 1, been uneasy about them, and as soon as they make the passage, and touch the place which they had chosen, they begin, evidently, to be uneasy also; and under pressure of this uneasiness they raise an altar.
This is full of language in our ears. An Israelite in the land of Gilead at this living day of ours understands it. Jehoshaphat understood it when he saw himself on the throne with Ahab; he was, after this manner, disquieted, and under pressure of his soul, he asks for a prophet of the Lord. And all this was the language of the renewed mind in a foreign land, or in the place of the uncircumcised. So the two tribes and a half now raise an altar, and call it “Ed.” It was a witness as they purposed of this, that Israel’s God was their God.
But why all this? Had they taken up their portion in Canaan they would not have needed this. They would have had the original and not a mere copy; but they were in Gilead and not in Canaan; Shiloh was not in view, and they had, therefore, to give themselves some artificial, some secondary help to sustain their confidence, that they and the Israel of God were really one.
All this is full of meaning, and is much experienced to this day. Some witness of what we are and who we are is craved by the soul and called for by others, when we get into a position in the world with which the call of God does not combine. Some extraordinary testimony is felt to be desirable—the countenance or acceptance of others, the examination of our own personal condition, reasonings with ourselves or restless action in the soul, remembrances of better days; something of all this has to be invoked or gone through, where there is not consistent singleness and fidelity; and this is the altar called “Ed”; this is the writing on that pillar in the land of Gilead. Lot’s wife, the pillar in the plains of Sodom, has a writing upon it, and the divine Master has deciphered it for us; and I doubt not, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, would have us under His anointing, read the writing on this pillar in the land of Gilead. It may warn us, if we love quietness and assurance of heart, not to return and find a settlement where the Church of God only finds a pilgrim age.
An Israelite in Gilead does not make his calling and election sure.
Does my soul read this lesson? Every heart knows its own humiliation, These disturbances of spirit, this demand of Jehoshaphat for a prophet, this altar of Ed raised by the Reubenities and their companions, bespeak such exercises as a more single-eyed attachment to Christ would surely spare us.
But grace aboundeth as ever; so here, for in spite of all this I feel that I can say that I know not that the people, of Israel ever present themselves in more moral beauty and healthfulness than just at this time. It was happy to hear their song on the banks of the Red Sea, and happy to observe their good order while crossing the Jordan, and well, as I have already noticed, to see them and their ways reflected in the Book of Leviticus; and generally all through this book of Joshua. But of the times of Israel under Joshua, this was still the brightest, palmiest hour. The heart, perhaps, takes more delight in surveying them in the twenty-second chapter of Joshua, than at any moment whatever.
The jealousy and fear of the tribes on the western side of the river, as soon as they heard of the altar set up by their brethren in the east, has every expression about it that can satisfy us; and the answer which the Reubenites and their companions give to this jealousy is equally perfect in its way. Jordan, which threatened to be a partition-wall, becomes, rather, by such exercises as these, a link between them. If it be a veil, it is a rent veil. In heart, and in the sympathies of their common faith, all must have been more firmly and happily bound together than if nothing had happened. Each must have valued the other the more, because of the witness they had liberally borne to their common Lord. The fears and jealousy of the one must have been welcome to the other, though they themselves had awakened them—the earnestness and simplicity of the eastern tribes must have been most refreshing to their brethren in the west, though it rebuked the groundlessness and unworthiness of their fears. “To the Lord,” they, each of them, did what they did—and that is the strength, as well as the title, of fellowship.
It reminds me of Romans 14. New Testament brethren are there as on either side of certain partition walls. The eating and the not eating of meats, the observing and the not observing of days, is like a Jordan rolling between them. But when they make inquiry under the light and conduct of the Holy Spirit, they discover that these partitions are really links, that the veil is a rent one, and that as the one observes the day to the Lord, and as the other observes not the day to the Lord, as the one eats to the Lord, and the other eats not to the Lord; since the Lord, His name, His glory, and His pleasure is everything to each of them, they are only the more closely knit together. The longer the cord that binds them, by its very length proves its strength.
Happy thus to speak, whether of Old Testament or New Testament brethren; and I have not the slightest misgiving but that we may speak thus.
There is, however, I grant, another light in which to read the conduct and the character of the two tribes and a half; and it is a warning, as this view of them is a consolation. I have referred to this already; and here I would add that nothing is more common than this, that many and many a saint of God looked at personally in his own spirit and behavior, may well be the joy of one’s heart; looked at in his position, may as easily grieve and surprise us.
In our own day, this is proved abundantly. It is illustrated here in the story of the Reubenites, Gadites, and half tribe of Manasseh; and precious indeed are these divine unities, which are traced everywhere throughout the Book of God, and which may be traced between His words in the Book and His work in the saints. I am in Romans 14, when reading Joshua 22, and I am in the midst of brethren in the Lord Jesus all around me at this living moment, when reading either the one or the other of these chapters.