Joshua tells us that as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh asked permission to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan as their own area of inheritance. Joshua gave the two and a half tribes permission to do this on condition that they fought alongside the rest of the Israelite tribes till the Promised Land was occupied, and then they could return to claim the area granted to them (Joshua 22:1-9).
Returning home, the two and a half tribes built a large altar next to the Jordan, on their own side of the river (Joshua 22:10). It was at this point that the potentially fatal misunderstanding occurred. The other tribes were immediately incensed at what appeared to be the rapid apostasy of the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into their own system of worship rather than honoring the main altar of God which was with the rest of the tribes. The Israelites were acutely aware that they had only recently been punished by God for disobedience (Joshua 7), so the Book of Joshua tells us that “the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war” against the eastern tribes (Joshua 22: 11).
This is the point at which tempers flared, and many were calling for the destruction of the apparently apostate tribes. But due to the wisdom of Israel’s leaders, an effort was made to defuse the situation. The priest Phinehas, along with ten tribal elders, bravely went to confront the eastern tribes and to tell them:
“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? … And are you now turning away from the Lord? If you rebel against the Lord today, tomorrow he will be angry with the whole community of Israel. If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the Lord’s land, where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and share the land with us. But do not rebel against the Lord or against us by building an altar for yourselves, other than the altar of the Lord our God’” (Joshua 22:16-19).
It was at this point that the eastern tribes explained how they had not built an altar in disobedience to the commands of God, but had built a structure to serve as a “memorial” to remind their descendants and those of the other tribes of the connection between them and the shared heritage of the tribes on both sides of the Jordan (Joshua 22:24-29, 34).
Fortunately, war was averted – but only narrowly. Had the ten tribes simply moved on the misunderstanding they had, there would have been great bloodshed and lasting animosity between them and their eastern cousins. But we should notice how this catastrophe was averted by the skillful defusing of the situation. The account tells us a number of important things.
First, we should notice how Phinehas and the tribal elders presented their case clearly, giving all the facts they knew, but then asking: “… are you now turning away from the Lord?” (Joshua 22:16). This asking rather than accusing was probably the primary reason the negotiations were successful in defusing the potential disaster. Notice that the discussion was framed from this perspective throughout. The Israelites said “If you rebel against the Lord…” (Joshua 22:18), not “You have rebelled against the Lord….” This is treading lightly on the already heightened emotions of those with whom the misunderstanding had occurred.
The other aspect of the story that we should clearly note is the way in which Phinehas and the elders did not back the eastern tribes “into a corner” in the process of defusing the situation. They did not pronounce judgments or rebukes or issue ultimatums before they had heard the other side of the story. But notice how they left a way open to still be in harmony with the eastern tribes, even if they were guilty of what they suspected: “If the land you possess is defiled, come over to the Lord’s land, where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and share the land with us” (Joshua 22:19). This is handling things very carefully so that the situation does not blow up in terms of open accusation leading to angry denial and reaction.
The analogy of bomb disposal is a useful one in studying this account. Like Phinehas and the ancient elders of Israel, the brave individuals who take on great personal risk to defuse actual bombs in today’s world have only two basic rules: they tread lightly and they handle things very carefully with a soft touch. Those basic rules have saved many lives in the course of disarming live munitions and bombs; and they can save a great deal of heartache if we apply them to ”defusing” misunderstandings and other tense situations in our lives, too.