Building Altars of Communication

Building Altars of Communication

In the book of Joshua, amid the triumphs and conquests of the Israelites, a peculiar incident unfolds. The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh decide to build an altar near the Jordan in the land of Canaan. This seemingly innocent act triggers a chain of events that teaches profound lessons about communication, unity, and understanding within the body of believers.

The Unusual Altar

“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.” Joshua 22:10 (NASB1995)

In Joshua 22:10, as the people of Israel finally find rest in the land of Canaan, having taken possession of the territory God had promised them, a different scene unfolds. While most settle into a period of relaxation, the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh choose not to rest but instead engage in the construction of a sizable altar near the Jordan.

Building altars was a common practice, but after Moses delivered the Law, their construction was restricted to serving the purpose of making sacrifices to the God of Israel in a location He picked.

Questionable Actions

“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, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.” Joshua 21:11-12 (NASB1995)

When the news quickly spread, the leadership of priests and remaining tribes convened to discern the situation. The entire assembly shared a common concern, recognizing that something wasn’t right. Reflecting on past experiences, they recalled how God had dealt severely with those who rebelled against Him. There was a vivid memory of a time when the entire community suffered due to the rebellion of a few, leading God to send a plague of snakes. With valid reasons for concern, the assembly unanimously chose Phinehas the priest.

Confrontation and Surprise

“So the Israelites sent Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to the land of Gilead—to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh.” Joshua 22:13 (NASB1995)

Phinehas, known as an old-school, wrath-of-God priest famous for his zealous act of killing a couple engaged in sexual immorality in front of the altar of God, demonstrated the seriousness of his faith (Numbers 25). Now, as a more mature man, he assembled an army to investigate whether these three tribes would face a similar fate, confronting the three tribes.

“The whole assembly of the Lord says: ‘How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the Lord and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now?” Joshua 22:16 (NASB1995)

Phinehas directs his message of surprise to the leadership of the three tribes—Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. He recounts the past suffering at a place called Peor, emphasizing how a smaller group’s rebellion led to the people’s distress.

Additionally, he references Achan, whose mishandling of God’s sacred things brought suffering to the entire community (Joshua 7).

“Did not Achan the son of Zerah act unfaithfully in the things under the ban, and wrath fall on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.” Joshua 22:20 (NASB1995)

Phinehas, drawing from his personal experiences, was prepared to take drastic measures, understanding that an individual’s actions can have profound effects on the entire community. He wasn’t merely relaying information he had read or heard about—he had lived it!

Denial and Clarifying Communication

“Then the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered and spoke to the heads of the families of Israel.” Joshua 22:21 (NASB1995)

Summarizing Joshua 22:21-29, the three tribes vehemently deny any intention to rebel against God. They recount their experiences with both God’s wrath and mercy, expressing their willingness to face death if they had built the altar in disobedience. However, they clarify their purpose: the altar was not for burnt offerings or sacrifices. Instead, it served as a witness between them and the other tribes.

In their discussions, they decided that when questioned about the large altar’s purpose, they would emphasize that it wasn’t for worship. Instead, it was a witness, serving to communicate their fears of being forgotten. The term ‘witness’ fits their intent precisely, as the object aimed to provoke conversations about their fears and remind others of their genuine reasons.

A Surprising Outcome

What unfolds next is quite remarkable. While not exactly click-bait material, it’s an occurrence seldom witnessed in our modern-day churches when someone stands up and confronts church leadership.

“And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the sons of Reuben and to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Manasseh, “Today we know that the Lord is in our midst, because you have not committed this unfaithful act against the Lord; now you have delivered the sons of Israel from the hand of the Lord.”” Joshua 22:31 (NASB1995)

“Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest and the leaders returned from the sons of Reuben and from the sons of Gad, from the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the sons of Israel, and brought back word to them.” Joshua 22:32 (NASB1995)

“The word pleased the sons of Israel, and the sons of Israel blessed God; and they did not speak of going up against them in war to destroy the land in which the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad were living.” Joshua 22:33 (NASB1995)

Phinehas listened to their concerns and fears, and he was delighted that annihilation was not necessary for their brothers. Why? Because Phinehas had a love for God and a love for His people. These three tribes had been through a lot with him and the other tribes. They were a ‘band of brothers,’ and there was joy and celebration when they heard the intent of their hearts.

“And the Reubenites and the Gadites named the altar ‘A Witness Between Us—that the Lord is God.'” Joshua 22:34 (NASB1995)

A Witness to Unity and Understanding

As the Body of Jesus, we may have similar situations like this. Though the severity may differ, it serves as an example of how we, as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ (the Church), should communicate. It provides an early and great demonstration of how we should approach one another when something isn’t right and how we should respond when something is explained.

Here are 5 ways you can Build Altars of Communication in your church:

  1. Prioritize Open Communication: Encourage open and honest communication within your church community.

    “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors, they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22 (NASB1995)

  2. Demonstrate Genuine Love for God and His People: Cultivate a deep love for God and His people, mirroring Phinehas’ love for the tribes.

    “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8 (NASB1995)

  3. Clarify Intentions and Listen to Concerns: Learn from the tribes’ example and emphasize the importance of clarifying intentions and actively listening to the concerns of others.

    “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” Proverbs 18:13 (NASB1995)

  4. Approach Conflicts with Compassion: When conflicts arise, approach them with compassion and a forgiving heart.

    “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Colossians 3:12-13 (NASB1995)

  5. Build Altars of Unity with Understanding: As you navigate challenges within the Body of Christ, strive to build altars of unity with understanding.

    “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:3 (NIV)

Listening and Responding

The story in Joshua 22 unfolds a powerful lesson on communication, unity, and understanding within the body of believers. The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh demonstrated the importance of clarifying intentions, listening to concerns, and approaching conflicts with a genuine love for God and His people. As we navigate the challenges within the Body of Christ, let us emulate the example set forth in this biblical account. May our altars of communication be built with the bricks of understanding, compassion, and a shared commitment to serving the Lord together.

About The Author

Jesse Velez

Although Jesse Velez will forever carry the essence of a Native New Yorker, he currently calls the sun-soaked city of Miami, Florida, his home. Celebrating a marriage of 31+ years to Eusebia, he proudly embraces his role as the father of five grown children. Jesse has cultivated a profound grasp of the Bible over the span of 40+ years, dedicated to following and serving Jesus while engaging in extensive reading and in-depth study of the scriptures.