Reading Time: 14 minutes

East and West

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 22:1-34

Thesis: We can know the love only God gives.

Goal: Receive and give the love only God can offer.

A man’s wife died, and the first night after the memorial service was hard for him and his son. The boy got into bed with his father. They lay in the dark, but the boy could not fall asleep. Finally he said, “Dad, is your face turned toward me? I think I can go to sleep, if I know your face is turned toward me.” “Yes,” his father answered, “I’m looking right at you.” Soon the boy drifted off the sleep. The father got out of bed, walked over to the window, and looked up into the heavens. “God,” he said, “is your face turned toward me?”

God not only turned his face towards us, he took ours as his own. He put on our flesh, walked our planet, breathed our air, faced our sins, felt our pain. We could not come to him, so he came to us.

Advent means “to come,” and marks the pilgrimage of God from heaven to earth, from throne room to feed trough, from the worship of angels to the wonder of shepherds. The decision made before the world began that our Creator would be named Immanuel, “God with us.” History is filled with men who would be gods, but only one God who would be man.

In this study, we will remember the fact that true love is given only by this God. Not a single one of us can predict with certainty what will happen next year, or even if we will live to see next week. When Advent began last year, who of us knew that Iraq would fall this year or the largest power outage in world history would befall us? Think of events in your own life which were beyond predicting a year ago. If we would seek that love which transcends circumstances and crises, we must go to the only One who can give it.

Our study finds the infant nation of Israel facing the gravest threat to its future it has yet known. An objective reporter standing on the sidelines of the crisis would likely have predicted disaster for this fragile union of nomadic tribes. What the Canaanites could not do to the people of God, they almost did to themselves. But at the end of the story, they found a love for each other which had its origin in their Lord. Through our encounter with their story, may we discover the same.

Where do you most need to be loved? Where can your class most profit from a study on this vital theme? Ask the One who inspired our text to guide you in sharing his love with those entrusted to your care this week.

Love God before you walk with him (22:1-9)

Finally the land had peace, for “the Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers” (21:44). Now it was time for the armies of the tribes settled east of the Jordan to return home.

They had done all that God had commanded them to do (v. 2), having carried out their mission “for a long time” (v. 3). At last they could return to the land given to them by the Lord (v. 4).

But they must keep his commandments and laws as they left. Here are five:

•To love the Lord your God—”love” here means to desire or breathe after, to long for someone as your first and highest love.

•To walk in all his ways—”walk” means to live, and encompasses attitudes, words, and actions.

•To obey his commands; this is still Jesus’ description of true love (John 14:15).

•To “hold fast” to him—the words describe the wedding union, and call us to the deepest and most intimate communion with our Lord.

•To “serve him with all your heart and all your soul” (v. 5). The Greeks would later divide human nature into body, soul and spirit; the Hebrews always thought of man as a unity. It is not that we “have” a body, soul and spirit, but that we “are” body, soul, and spirit. Heart and soul here refer to two different ways of seeing the one person—the “heart” is the center of the will, emotions, and actions, while the “soul” describes the spiritual dimension by which the heart is to be led.

These were the priorities assigned to them by God. Only by knowing these commandments could they truly walk with their Lord.

Now they could return with “great wealth:” large herds of livestock, silver, gold, bronze, iron, and great quantities of clothing. This they could “divide with your brothers” (v. 8). Contrast their possessions in Egypt as oppressed slaves with the blessings God bestowed on those who were faithful to receive all he intended to give. And so the eastern tribes returned home to walk in the commandments and will of the God they had agreed to follow.

We cannot walk in the will of God unless we first know that will. It is possible to be sincerely wrong, to drive east when we are certain we’re driving west, to take the wrong medicine in good faith, to think we are serving God when we are not.

Suicide bombers in Israel and America have thought they were doing the will of Allah, but Islam is almost universally agreed that they were not. The medieval Crusaders were convinced they were serving their Lord by slaughtering Muslims, but we know that they were tragically wrong. The followers of David Koresh died for a lie and a liar; the men who fought for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan were serving a traitor to their faith; those loyal to Saddam Hussein in Iraq were followers of the man who destroyed their country and stole their freedom.

Before you try to walk with God, first renew your love for him. This is his first and greatest desire for your heart. Like any father, our Lord most wants from his children their love. How long has it been since you gave him yours?

Seek God before you work for him (22:10, 21-29)

Now came a decision which would threaten the very alliance forged in years of shared battle, sacrifice, and victory.

The eastern tribes “came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan” (v. 10a), most likely a site due east of Shiloh, the location where the tabernacle of God had been placed in the Promised Land. Here they “built an imposing altar there by the Jordan” (v. 10b). “Imposing” translates a Hebrew word which means “large in appearance.”

Constructing this structure was not part of God’s revelation to the people through Moses or Joshua. It had no place in the law or its interpretation. The eastern tribes moved ahead of God and his will, choosing a strategy born of their own reason and will. And their decision led the tribes to the west to gather for war against them, assuming an idolatrous action on their part.

The actual motive of the eastern tribes was meritorious and understandable: so that the descendants of the twelve tribes would be able to look across the Jordan, see the altar built there, and know that the eastern tribes were part of their nation and their faith (vs. 24-28).

When confronted, they proclaimed “The Mighty One, God the Lord!” (v. 22a). They were willing to die if they had acted in rebellion or disobedience (v. 22b). If their altar were intended to replace the tabernacle at Shiloh, “may the Lord himself call us to account” (v. 23). Their confession of faith was powerful and persuasive: “Far be it from us to rebel against the Lord and turn away from him today by building an altar for burnt offerings, grain offerings and sacrifices, other than the altar of the Lord our God that stands before his tabernacle” (v. 29).

Their problem was not with the motive of their action, but its origin. By stepping ahead of the will and word of God, they risked a war which could have ended their tribal alliance and destroyed their nation. Their action, while commendable in purpose, was unnecessary to the future; not once in all of recorded Scripture did the altar built by these tribes ever serve the purpose which its creators intended.

God’s word shows us that well-intentioned impatience is a pattern of human nature, with tragic consequences. If Abram and Sarai had waited on God for their child, could the centuries of enmity between the heirs of Ishmael and Isaac have been avoided? If Moses had not murdered the Egyptian, would he have been banished to the desert for 40 years? If Peter had not promised prideful loyalty to Christ, would he have denied his Lord three times?

Is there a place in your life where patience is required of your faith? Where you must continue to pray, though it seems you are not answered? Where you must continue to serve, though it seems your ministry is not as effective as you had hoped? Where you must continue to trust God for his provision, though you cannot see its result?

God waits to guide his people into a future filled with promise and purpose. But if we get ahead of him, he may not follow. He would rather lead us than fix us. His hope for tomorrow is predicated on our obedience today. Rather than asking God to bless our decisions and work, the eastern tribes would teach us to seek his will before we begin such work.

If we truly love our Father, we want our work to honor him. And so we seek his will and search his word before we begin our work. Before you teach this lesson, will you first take such a step on your knees?

Consult God before you war for him (22:11-20)

The self-reliant act of the eastern tribes led to an equally self-initiated response by those on the west of the Jordan.

They understandably assumed that the altar built by the eastern tribes was an act of idolatry, as no such altar had been requested or required by the Lord. And they had seen the consequence of such idolatry in their past. The “sin of Peor” (v. 17) was idolatry born of sexual immorality with Moabite women (Numbers 25:1-9). Before its punishment had ended, 24,000 died in a plague from the hand of God (v. 9). Such consequence continued to the present (Joshua 22:17).

They remembered as well the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:1-26) which resulted in military defeat for the entire nation at the hands of Ai. They rightly feared that such disobedience on the part of the eastern tribes would lead to the destruction of all the people.

And so “the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them” (v. 12). They sought to obey Moses’ command to deal severely with such acts of apparent idolatry (Leviticus 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 13:12-15). But the result would have been a civil war which would have led to the deaths of thousands of Israelites. The surrounding peoples would likely have rallied against those who survived such a war, and led an attack, which could have destroyed the entire nation. All this because they misjudged the motives of the eastern tribes. And because they did not consult their Lord before they went to war for him. As with the Gibeonite deception (Joshua 9), the leaders “did not inquire of the Lord” (v. 14).

It is noteworthy that Joshua is nowhere mentioned in this narrative. Rather, “the Israelites sent Phinehas, son of Eleazar, the priest,” along with “ten of the chief men, one for each of the tribes of Israel” to confront the eastern tribes (vs. 13-14). Phinehas had earlier shown himself faithful to God when the nation was tempted at Peor, which may be why he was chosen for this responsibility.

Perhaps Joshua had already retired to Timnath Serah (19:50). Perhaps he did not know of this crisis, though such is unlikely. Perhaps the leaders of the nation consulted him, received counsel of patience and prayer, and rejected it. We don’t know what role, if any, he played in their decision. But we do know that their decision nearly destroyed the nation he had spent his life helping to build.

If the evil one cannot get us to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, he will tempt us to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Congregations across the Kingdom of God know of slander and gossip repeated as well-intentioned concern for the person or the issue. We watch as decisions affecting church families are made by sincere leaders on the basis of human wisdom rather than divine revelation. We listen as well-meaning denominational executives speak unwise words which implicate the churches they serve.

The old carpenter’s advice is still sound: measure twice, saw once. Before you make your next decision, pray first. Then pray again. Do not step into battle until you are certain you are following the word of the Lord. He waits to grant his hope to all who trust his guidance. But he can only give such victories to those who fight in his will.

If we would love each other as our Father loves us, we must find the source for such forgiving grace in the word and leading of our Lord. Where has someone hurt you this week? This year? Where are you tempted to respond in kind? The love which looks past the hand to the heart, which sees in a fallen human being a soul esteemed by its Maker, is God’s gift to us. And our gift to each other.

Conclusion (22:30-34)

By the grace of God, the crisis was averted. Philehas spoke words of peace and hope to the eastern tribes, then brought the same report to the tribes of the west. The nation was “glad to hear the report and praised God. And they talked no more about going to war against them” (v. 33).

With this result: the eastern tribes named their altar “A Witness Between Us that the Lord is God” (v. 34). An altar which stood for the forgiving grace given only by their Lord. Love he offers to all who will yield to his word and trust in his will.

You and I serve a society tempted to lose heart. We have ongoing threats of terror attacks, with no reason to believe that such tragedy will end soon. Memories of loved ones lost across the past year bring back pain we thought had diminished. Lonely days in a new city or in new circumstances drag by. It is tempting to practice our faith by sight, trusting in our own wisdom or experience or abilities. It is easier to get ahead of God than to wait on him. But he offers healing grace to all who will place their hurt in his hands, and to all who will share such a gift with others.

Geoffrey T. Bull was a missionary held captive by Chinese Communists. He later wrote about his experience, including this episode:

“After a meal, and when it was already dark, it was necessary for me to go downstairs to give more hay to the horses. Chien permitted my going and I clambered down the notched tree trunk to the lower floor, which was given over in the usual manner to stabling. Below, it was absolutely pitch black. My boots squelched in the manure and straw on the floor, and the fetid smell of the animals was nauseating. I felt my way among the mules and horses, expecting to be kicked at any moment. What a place, I thought.

“Then, as I continued to grope my way in the darkness toward the gray, it suddenly flashed into my mind, ‘What’s today?’ I thought for a moment. In traveling, the days had become a little muddled in my mind. Then it came to me, ‘It’s Christmas Eve.’ I stood still, suddenly still, in that oriental manger. To think that my Savior was born in a place like this. To think that He came all the way from Heaven to some wretched eastern stable and, what is more, to think that He came for me. How men beautify the cross and the crib, as if to hide the fact that at birth we resigned Him to the stench of beasts, and at death exposed Him to the shame of rogues. God forgive us.”

He already has.