It’s not that the twelve tribes of Israel didn’t trust each other…well, okay, they didn’t. With every tribe now settled in their new patches of Promised Land, three of the tribes start to get nervous. They are dwelling to the east of the massive Jordan River, and the more they look at that natural barrier, the more they start to think that maybe one day the rest of Israel will decide to cut them off. Once the seed of fear is planted, it keeps growing larger. First they imagine that all the tribes west of the river will start to view themselves as a separate nation. Then they imagine that one day those tribes will say “You cannot worship Yahweh, the God of Israel” (v24). So these three tribes (Gad, Reuben, and East Manasseh) decide to build a monument that publicly declares their loyalty to God—a way of proving that they are legitimate members of God’s holy nation. But what will the monument look like? What else but a replica of the altar on which sacrifices are made to Yahweh? It’s perfect and they design it to be especially pleasing to the eye.
When word gets around that a beautiful altar has been built east of the Jordan, anger erupts in the west. Why would anyone build an altar if not to sacrifice to foreign gods? The rest of the tribes are furious at the idolatry of their brothers and they immediately decide to go to war. After all, Moses had warned them that this might happen:
If you hear it said about one of the towns Yahweh your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to Yahweh your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt, and none of the condemned things are to be found in your hands. Then Yahweh will turn from His fierce anger, will show you mercy, and will have compassion on you. (Deut. 13:12-17)
The Israelites still remember how God violently punished them for sacrificing to idols during their wilderness journey and they’re very afraid of reliving those dark days. They’re furious with their idolatrous brothers for setting them up for more trouble and this time Moses isn’t around to try and calm God down.
The western tribes have already decided their brothers are guilty but they go through the formality of sending an investigative team across the river to assess the situation. The priest Phinehas and some others head over and start blasting everyone with accusations and anger. They urge them to stop and tell them the steps they need to take to repent before even letting the eastern tribes explain themselves. But when they are finally given a chance to tell their side of the story, the eastern tribes explain the whole situation, insisting that their altar wasn’t made to be used, it is simply a monument of loyalty to Yahweh.
Well, this is an unexpected twist. The western tribes are extremely relieved and end up praising God and putting down all their swords.
In the Bible, God tells us not to draw conclusions until we’ve heard both sides of the story. When is the last time you saw a Christian behaving in a way that made him or her look rebellious towards God? Often times when people’s walks don’t match their talks, we are all too eager to label them as hypocrites in our minds. And yet in the Bible God gives us many accounts of Him telling His faithful followers to do some very strange things. Isaiah had to walk around naked for three years. Ezekiel had to cook with cow dung. Abraham had to sacrifice his son. If we’d walked in on any of these scenes, we certainly wouldn’t have come away thinking “Now there’s a fully devoted believer—what a model for us all.” If we don’t want to end up on the wrong side of God, we must learn to suspend judgment until we get some leading from the Holy Spirit. Often God won’t share His assessment of someone else with us—He’ll say it’s none of our business and direct our focus back onto our own convictions instead. Other times His answer might surprise us. Only God can see into people’s hearts. We don’t want to be like the people who all thought Mary should be stoned for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Always check with God first—and remember that someday He might ask YOU to be the weirdo.