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Joshua dismisseth the two tribes and a half. They build an altar of testimony on the banks of Jordan; the purpose of which, being mistaken by the other tribes, is satisfactorily cleared up.
Before Christ 1444.
Ver. 1-4. Then Joshua called the Reubenites, &c.— The war against the Canaanites being happily concluded, the conquered country divided, and the priests and people settled in the peaceable possession of the cities which had been assigned them; Joshua thought it was just to dismiss the 40,000 men of the three tribes beyond the Jordan, who, for seven or eight years before, had generously quitted their families, and run all the hazards of war, to assist their brethren in their conquest, as Moses had enjoined them. Accordingly, he sent for their chiefs, bore public testimony to their courage and fidelity, and in a solemn manner permitted them to return to their tents, i.e. to their dwellings or houses; for, as the Israelites dwelt at first in tents, this word is in Scripture put indifferently for dwellings or habitations.
Ver. 7. Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given, &c.— These words seem to be here inserted, 1. Merely by way of parenthesis, and as it were to bring back to the reader's view the present state of the tribe of Manasseh settled as well as the other on this side of the Jordan. 2. It may be a kind of introduction to what follows; namely, Joshua's blessing the children of Manasseh; for, from the manner in which the whole is worded, one would think that he blessed them separately.
Ver. 8. Return with much riches, &c. and—divide the spoil—with your brethren— Nothing could be more just than this command; for, notwithstanding those who remained beyond Jordan had not shared in the dangers of the war, like those who had gone through it; yet they had during that period watched over the families of the latter, and defended their possessions against the inroads of their surrounding enemies. This seems to have been constantly the custom among the Israelites: those who were detached upon any military expedition gave the rest of the army a share of the booty they had taken from the enemy: the pagans acted in like manner. God himself enjoined this practice after the war against the Midianites. Those who fought kept half the spoil of the enemy, and gave the other half to the rest of the people. Probably the same proportion was observed upon this occasion: I mean, that the 40,000 fighting men of the Israelites who came from beyond Jordan, retained a moiety of the booty they had taken, and remitted the other moiety to be divided among those other fighting men of the two tribes and a half, who remained behind to guard the country; and who were 70,000 in number. David, on his return from pursuing the Amalekites, changed this custom into a law. 1 Samuel 30:24-25.
REFLECTIONS.—The auxiliary forces, supplied by the tribe of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, having fulfilled their engagement, are now dismissed by Joshua. And this,
1. With an honourable testimony to their obedience, patience, and piety. They had served him with as much fidelity as they obeyed Moses; they had waited, without offering or desiring to return, till the whole land was subdued, and the tribes divided to possess their inheritance; and they had kept the charge of the commandment of the Lord, not only in this instance of patient service, but also in their pious conduct in the camp. Note; (1.) The soldiers of Jesus Christ must object to no service that he enjoins them, but cheerfully and readily run at his bidding. (2.) Though our warfare be long, the faithful shall obtain an honourable dismission at death, to return to their eternal inheritance. (3.) Jesus, at the day of his appearing, will remember and own, to their eternal honour, the faithful services of his people.
2. He gives them a solemn charge (equally applicable to every spiritual Israelite) to keep up their religion at home, when they were separated by Jordan from the tabernacle in Shiloh. Take diligent heed (for our spiritual enemies are ever lying in wait to deceive) to do the commandment and the law of God; this is our constant rule of duty, and must be conscientiously obeyed; to love the Lord your God, without which no obedience can be acceptable, or indeed practicable; to walk in his ways, strait, holy, and self-denying as they are, and to cleave to him, amid all the temptations which surround us, and would turn us aside; and this with all your heart and soul. God's service requires a willing heart, and his work will never be done, unless it be our delight.
3. He adds his blessing to his advice; prays for their prosperity, and wishes them a safe and comfortable journey, and a happy meeting with their families. Where there is a good will, there will be a good wish; those whom we love, we shall pray for.
4. They return with all diligence; it was a long absence, and, no doubt, a happy meeting. Here below, business, war, voyages, separate the dearest relatives; but they are glad to get home in peace. How much hap-pier for the pilgrim soul, when his warfare of life is accomplished, to cross Jordan, and meet his brethren in glory, the family of God!
Ver. 10. And when they came unto the borders of Jordan, that are in the land of Canaan— From the first reading of these words, one would conceive that the sacred writer means to say, that the Israelites built the altar, of which he proceeds to speak, on this side Jordan, before they had repassed the river; but, from what follows, we shall soon be convinced that this cannot be the sense of the historian. Had the Israelites of the two tribes and a half built an altar on the west side of the river, they would not have executed their own design, which was, to shew by this monument that, though separated from their brethren, and from the altar of the Lord, by Jordan, they still made but one and the same people with them. Besides, is it likely that they would have ventured to erect this pile upon the territory of the other tribes? And even were this the case, how, in the verse following, could the altar in question be said to have been built over-against the land of Canaan? we must, therefore, necessarily suppose the author to have expressed himself here in such brief terms as leave something to be made out by the reader. It was evidently his intention to say, that the Israelites, on their coming up to the bank of the Jordan on the side of the land of Canaan, crossed that river, and built the altar beyond it in their own country. See Josephus. Hist. Jud. lib. v. cap. 1. and Rabb. in Seder.—Olam. c. xii. p. 32. We may add, that the Hebrew Geliloth, rendered in our version borders, may very probably be in this verse the proper name of a place situate on the side of the Jordan. The Vulgate translates, on the heights of Jordan; but the Vatican manuscript of the LXX has it Gilead or Geliloth; understanding it of a place near that where the Israelites crossed over the Jordan. The question then is, where Geliloth stood: if we understand by it the country of Gilead, the whole is clear; and then the Israelites, without any doubt, reared the altar after having passed the river. Le Clerc understands the matter very naturally, namely, that the Israelites came to Jordan, which bounds the land of Canaan, and, having crossed it, built there (i.e. on the other side,) the altar in question. This altar, we read, was of a remarkable size; such as might be perceived from afar. It was the work, not of an individual, but of a whole body of people, who thought they could not build it too magnificently. It was a heap of earth or stones. Bacchus, Hercules, Semiramis, Cyrus, and Alexander the Great, in after times, made others like it upon various occasions, to eternize the memory of their victories and travels. See Pliny, lib. 6: cap. 16, 17. Philostrat. Vit. Apollon. lib. 2: ad fin. See also Calmet and Le Clerc. By the stateliness and magnificence of this altar, it was rendered so different from that which Moses had dedicated to divine worship, that it is probable these Israelites thought it would therefore administer less occasion to their brethren to suspect that it was intended for sacrifice, or to rival the other.
Ver. 11. And the children of Israel, &c.— That is, those who were in the land of Canaan to the west of Jordan. This is a proof of the observation we just now made, that there are many things to be supplied in this narration; for the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh, were no less children of Israel than the former. They were informed of the building of this altar, when finished; a certain proof that it had not been reared within their territories, in which case they would have seen and opposed them. The passage of the children of Israel is so called, either as being the part at which they entered into the land of Canaan, or by which they returned from thence: perhaps it was the place where the river was commonly crossed.
Ver. 12. And—the whole congregation—gathered themselves together at Shiloh— That is, the elders and princes of the tribes came from their several cities thither to consult what, in consequence of this step of the two tribes and a half, was necessary to be done. On the first advice of the erection of so elevated an altar, the Israelites in general conceived that their brethren had abandoned the true religion. For, not to mention that the law forbad a plurality of altars, the prodigious height of the present denoted a monument dedicated to the pagan deities, for whose worship they were fond of the highest places, rather than one appropriated to the true God, who can as easily assist the most lowly, as those who are nearest the skies, and who had commanded that His altar should not exceed three cubits in height, and be without steps. See Deuteronomy 12:13 : Exodus 27:1; Exodus 20:26. The congregation at Shiloh, therefore, in the first emotions of its zeal, thought that the Israelites beyond Jordan were fallen into idolatry, either by devoting themselves to the worship of false gods, or by presuming to worship the Lord in another place and manner than he had appointed. Hereupon they consulted how it was necessary to act towards the supposed offenders; and the conclusion was, that they should proceed in strict conformity to the law of Moses; and that in case the 40,000 men had done as was presumed, it was necessary to go up to war against them, to avenge their insulted religion, and destroy them, as God had commanded, Deuteronomy 13:12; Deuteronomy 13:18. Many reflections might be drawn from this determination: we may boldly conclude, that it is not sufficient to have right intentions in what we undertake; but that in the execution of it, piety requires us to avoid, as much as possible, all appearance of evil. The 40,000 ought to have apprised the Israelites of Canaan of what they were about to do, and of their motive for so doing; their manner of proceeding could not but create disagreeable suspicions. But what noble sentiments did these suspicions produce in the hearts they animated! It is very pleasing to see the Israelites, scarcely delivered from the fatigues and dangers of so long a war, and but just beginning to taste the fruits of their conquests, determining immediately to resume arms, in obedience to the laws of their religion and commonwealth. An example of courage and zeal like this well deserves to be remarked.
Ver. 17. Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, &c.— "Were not the abominable transgressions of which ye were guilty, respecting the idol of Peor, enough; and was it necessary, by adding sin to sin, to draw down fresh evils upon the nation, and shew yourselves to be so imperfectly cleansed, so badly cured of that fatal propensity to idolatry, which has already caused us so much affliction; though heaven has not yet punished us for the offence so highly as we deserve?" Phinehas, as we may see, supposes throughout, that the Israelites beyond Jordan had built altar against altar, with idolatrous views. To explain his mind, he recals the unhappy affair of Peor, which happened in the very country that had been assigned to these Israelites; that thus, after the zeal which he had displayed upon that occasion, his argument deduced therefrom might have the more peculiar weight.
Ver. 19. Notwithstanding, if the land of your possession be unclean— This fully justifies the piety, disinterestedness, and benevolent intentions of Phinehas: he even himself seeks out some plausible pretence for the step against which he inveighs. He supposes, that the Israelites beyond the river may have thought their land would be defiled; that it would not be a holy land, consecrated to God, and under his protection, unless they beheld there some token of his presence, some sacred edifice, which might publicly signify that the Lord was their God. And on this charitable supposition, he addresses them thus: "Did not you rear this altar, as thinking that the country in which you dwell would be an impure and profane land, unless this monument supplied the presence of the tabernacle and altar of the Lord at Shiloh, from which the Jordan divides you? If this be the case, come back, repass the river, and partake with us of our possessions. We would rather put ourselves to straits, by receiving you among us, than see you deviate into schism and revolt against God."
Note; (1.) Many a heavy charge is sometimes brought, where there is the purest innocence; and this even by those who have zeal for God. (2.) They who have smarted for sin, dread the thoughts of renewing their provocations. (3.) They who desire to recover their brethren from schism, must show their charity towards them, and readiness to yield every thing that they lawfully may to a tender conscience, lest by unchristian violence the rent be made worse.
Ver. 21, 22. Then the children of Reuben, &c.—answered—The Lord God of gods, &c.— No sooner had Phinehas ended his discourse, than the president of the congregation of the two tribes and a half, to remove the suspicions that had been entertained of their faith, takes up the conference, and begins by calling God to witness the purity of their intentions. "The Lord God of gods," they begin; in which their design is first to shew, that they worshipped no other God than Him, whom their fathers had worshipped, that great Being, who, infinitely exalted above all the creatures, is the first and original cause of every thing that exists: after which, in a noble emotion of zeal, they immediately repeat the same appellation; the Lord God of gods: which flows as it were from an ardent desire to wash off the reproach that Phinehas had just cast upon them; and is a mark of the sincerity wherewith they dared to call God to witness their fidelity in his service. These lively and emphatical modes of expression are common to all languages.
If in transgression against the Lord, save us not this day— In proportion as the apologist for the Israelites of Gilead proceeds in his discourse, he speaks with more fire; displaying a soul, touched with the most sensible concern at the heavy reproach cast upon his fellow-citizens. He calls on the Deity to testify their integrity; he repeatedly invokes the Most High, and still this is not sufficient; waving, therefore, his address to Phinehas and the deputies his companions, he lifts up his voice to God immediately, and cries out with great emphasis, "O Lord, protect us not, if guilty of that revolt whereof our brethren have suspected us!" Perhaps this is one of those soft-ened expressions, which have in reality more energy than one would at first imagine: as if he had said, "May heaven punish us on the spot, if we entertained the design charged upon us."
Ver. 23-25. What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel? &c.— Not satisfied with justifying themselves from the crime imputed to them, of having dared to erect a new altar, to rival, as it were, the holy altar: not content with having submitted in that case to whatever the most formidable judgment of divine vengeance might inflict, let the Lord himself require it; (see Deuteronomy 18:19.) the accused candidly explain what were their views in the step which had alarmed the other tribes; an ill-grounded though a pious fear. "We apprehended," say they, "that in a course of time, on seeing ourselves separated by the Jordan from the place at which the sanctuary of the Lord is situated, we should be looked upon as strangers, as a people who had no share or right in the worship of the tabernacle, and that our posterity, biassed and persuaded by speeches to this purpose, should absolutely grow relaxed, and turn aside from the fear and worship of the true God."
Ver. 29. God forbid that we should rebel against the Lord, &c.— They conclude, as they began, by protesting in the most sacred manner before God, that they have an utter abhorrence of the very idea, of the least tendency to rebellion against Jehovah; or, as the Chaldee paraphrase, both here and in the foregoing verses, has it, against the word of the Lord. Thus ended the conference in behalf of the Israelites beyond Jordan: how admirable is the mildness with which their judicious apologist repels the most dreadful suspicions, and the most ignominious accusations! using for this purpose no offensive retort, over-bearing arrogance, or affronting language. Happy they who can imitate the amiable example, and have virtue enough never to oppose to the false judgments passed upon them, and the groundless accusations they undergo, aught but proofs demonstrative of their innocence, and of the unjust treatment they meet with! A closer attention to this maxim would often have spared Christians the shame of striving rather to rail at their adversaries, than to reclaim them by informing their understandings. See Divine Legat. vol. 4: p. 15, &c.
Note; (1.) We are to be careful not only to act simply before God, but to make our integrity appear before men. (2.) The perpetuating the means of grace to our posterity, is the best method we can take to secure them in the ways of God. (3.) They who neglect the ordinances of God's worship, will soon prove apostates from his truth.
Ver. 31. This day we perceive that the Lord is among us, because, &c.— Rejoiced to find by the answer of their brethren, that they were perfectly innocent, Phinehas and his associates think it their duty to acknowledge that God was among them; that they had done nothing unworthy of his protection; and that, consequently, neither of them had any thing to apprehend from the divine displeasure, as they had feared at seeing the altar on the bank of the Jordan: the latter clause might in this view be rendered thus; Now, therefore, behold, we are happily delivered from our fears. Jonathan, in his paraphrase, reads the whole sentence as follows: This day we perceive that the SHECHINAH is amongst you, because ye have not committed this trespass against the word of the Lord: thus ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the word of the Lord.
Ver. 33. Did not intend to go up— Or, Talked no more of going up.
Ver. 34. And the children of Reuben, and—Gad, called the altar Ed— The word עד ad, is evidently wanting in the Hebrew, which only says the children of Reuben, &c. called the altar; for it is, or shall be OD, i.e. a witness between us, that Jehovah is God; or as the LXX very well translate it, that the Lord is our God. The Syriac, Arabic, and several modern versions supply the word Ed, as we do, and as the sense plainly requires; though it is omitted by the LXX, Jonathan, and the Vulgate. See Bishop Patrick, and Hallet's Study of the Scripture recommended, vol. 2: p. 18. Masius would render the passage thus: they made an inscription upon the altar, which expressed, that it should be an everlasting witness of their attachment to the Lord; and this conjecture he founds upon the Hebrew verb kara, which signifies commonly to call, to name, and sometimes to write: hence the Jews call the Holy Scripture, Karah and Mikrah; and hence the Arabic name of the Al-coran. See Poole's Synopsis, and Kennicott's Dissert. vol. 1. We are not to be surprised at seeing Joshua's name nowhere throughout this whole narration: some, indeed, have pretended to infer from this, that Joshua was dead when the affair of the altar happened; but this is only the better to ground a conclusion that he cannot have been the author of this book. Such frivolous observations serve but to discover the inclination of their authors to weaken the authority of sacred writ; for, we need only read, to be convinced that the event in question happened immediately after Joshua had dismissed the 40,000 Israelites. The context leaves not the least room to suppose the contrary: and of this the LXX were so well satisfied, that in the Vatican, which is the most common edition of their version, they tell us, that it was Joshua who gave the altar its name: their words are, Και επωνομασεν ο Ιησους τον βωμον, &c. It is impossible, as Le Clerc judiciously observes, that in so short a narration all the circumstances of the fact should be inserted. To raise a doubt about them because the author is silent, would be preposterous in any one who has read these books with a small share of attention.
REFLECTIONS.—Never was there a happier issue of religious controversy! Charity tempered the zeal of the complainants, and meekness adorned the integrity of the defendants; thus, when the matter was well explained, both sides were satisfied.
1. The princes' ambassadors are happy in being undeceived, and conclude that God is surely among them, when they discover such a zeal for his service and worship on both sides. They do not question their assertions, nor blame their rashness in not consulting them, but are glad to retract their warm expostulation. Note; (1.) Charity is easily persuaded, while censoriousness refuses to acquiesce, or be convinced. (2.) They who are satisfied in their brethren's simplicity, will overlook their little slips of inadvertence or want of complaisance. (3.) It gives real joy to the heart, to find our brethren more faithful than we feared.
2. The people were as readily satisfied with their report, and gladly laid down their arms, blessing God for the tidings of their brethren's fidelity. Note; They are often suspected to design a breach in the unity of the church, who are most diligently labouring to heal her divisions, and to preserve to posterity the purity of her doctrines and worship; but though mistaken zeal may cry, Down with them, yet shortly every dispute shall cease. In heaven at least we shall lay aside the arms of contention, and learn war no more.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Joshua 22". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20