No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, ‘What do you have to do with the Lord , the God of Israel? The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you—you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord .’ So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord . “That is why we said, ‘Let us get ready and build an altar—but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.’ On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the Lord at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices and fellowship offerings. Then in the future your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no share in the Lord .’ “And we said, ‘If they ever say this to us, or to our descendants, we will answer: Look at the replica of the Lord ’s altar, which our ancestors built, not for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but as a witness between us and you.’ “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.” When Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the community—the heads of the clans of the Israelites—heard what Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had to say, they were pleased. And Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, said to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, “Today we know that the Lord is with us, because you have not been unfaithful to the Lord in this matter. Now you have rescued the Israelites from the Lord ’s hand.” – Joshua 22:24-31
So in this passage we hear the explanation for the alternate altar constructed by the reubenites on the east side of the Jordan. I admit I’m a little confused by their explanation. The essence of their explanation seems to be that they need the altar so that the Israelites west of the Jordan don’t forget that they have a relationship with God too… A community standing stone if you will. This standing stone appears to be directed more towards the people remembering their relationship with the Israelites west of the Jordan than remembering something that God did in the past. The twist here is that the Israelites east of the Jordan, having chosen not to cross into the Promised Land, wanted to make it clear that they had not given up their covenant with God.
As I have reflected on this passage I am trying to think of a modern day example of what the Israelites east of the Jordan were doing. The closest analogue I can think of is the creeds that have been set down throughout the history of Christianity to link us back to the early followers of Christ. Granted these creeds are more explicit in their description of the essence of a relationship between God and us. These creeds, like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, were intended to set down things that we can agree upon as Christians. It seems like on one level the altar constructed by the Reubenites and Gadites was something similar but in their case it was an effort to have their generations remember who it was they followed, even though they had failed to faithfully follow God across the Jordan River.
I cannot help but feel that the altar the Reubenites and Gadites have constructed is a substitute for a vibrant loving relationship with their God that God desired of them. Taken to an extreme the Christian creeds can become a replacement for a vital relationship with Jesus too. As important as the creeds are to our faith they cannot become a substitute for a vibrant, loving, and active relationship with God. This type of relationship requires wrestling, and even sometimes arguing, with God about what He means, who He is, and how we are to love Him.
The Reubenites and Gadites wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Just like sometimes we as Christians want to hold onto parts of our old life even after we have accepted Christ and begun a new life. We construct complicated facades of traditions and behaviors to hide the fact that we have become dead inside and disconnected from God.
Prayer: God may we have such a vibrant relationship with You that we are a living reminder of your love for generations to come.SDG