Satisfied with the conquest and ready to retire, Joshua calls up Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He thanks them for sticking around as they had promised to Moses back in Numbers 32 and, with that, sends them home.

It doesn’t take long before there’s trouble, however. Once they get home, the three Transjordan tribes build themselves a nice big altar.

Given the focus of the Deuteronomistic Histories on the centralization of worship, this is obviously a rather big mistake. Or, at least, it seems so. When the rest of the Israelites hear about it, they quickly muster at Shiloh, ready to get back to the holy war-making that had only too recently ended.

JoshuaPhinehas goes on ahead, accompanied by ten chiefs (one from each of the remaining tribes). You may remember Phinehas, by the way, from Numbers 25 where he murdered two lovers for being of different ethnicities. By doing so, he stopped a plague that God had sent to the people and was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants. Lovely stuff.

So here he is again, rushing to defend the faith. Only this time, it seems that he’s angered too quickly. The Transjordan tribes defend their altar, saying that it isn’t real, it’s just a replica. They had no intention of ever using it to make sacrifices (knowing that this is only to be done at the tabernacle). Rather, they made it as a “witness.” They were concerned, they explain, that “in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘what have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan as a boundary between us and you'” (Deut. 22:24-25).

It’s hard to imagine how building a second altar, explicitly breaking God’s law (even if they never planned to actually use it), would serve this purpose. It’s more likely, I think, that the story is used as justification for the continued existence of an altar that the author grew up near and has fond childhood memories of.

It’s also strange, given the context of a time when God is explicitly speaking to the people, that they would fear that the other tribe might (falsely) read God’s purpose in geographical design. It makes me think of all the instances of people doing precisely this today, like a hateful old man claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was divine punishment, or the idea that pain in childbirth must be a consequence of sin.

The Transjordan tribes’ concern is even stranger because Deuteronomy has, so far, been pretty easy-going as far as who can participate in worship. As long as your testicles are uncrushed, foreigners generally seem to be accepted within the congregation. We see this, for example, in Deut. 23:7-8.

Either way, the inclusion of Phinehas here has me scratching my head a little. In Numbers 25, his jumping in to defend the purity of the faith was seen as an unambiguous good. Here, however, that very same attitude gets him into trouble (sort of – he’s never punished or anything, but it’s clear that he was wrong and it’s implied that he goes home rebuked). I wonder if the author(s) of this passage used him on purpose as a jab at the hard-lining ethics of Numbers. It’s not an open criticism, obviously, since Phinehas isn’t punished or explicitly scolded, but it does feel implied.

Regardless, the explanation is accepted and the Israelites go home satisfied.

There are a few remaining details that I thought I’d mention:

When asking the Transjordan tribes why they have built their altar, Phinehas&co ask them to consider what happened when Achan disobeyed God in Joshua 7. In that chapter, he is referred to as Achan son of Carmi in Josh. 7:1, and then Achan son of Zerah in Josh. 7:24. Here, he is listed once again as Achan son of Zerah (Josh. 22:20).

When Phinehas&co meet with the Transjordan tribes, they do actually talk first rather than just rushing in with their spears. (Good thing, too.) Rather than just kill the tribes for their perceived heresy, they first offer a compromise: “If your land is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernale stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (Josh. 22:19). It’s an interesting concept – that the land itself might be corruptive (and not, say, the locals, since Phinehas has amply demonstrated what he does to people who allow themselves to be corrupted by locals).

In the King James Version, Josh. 22:22 refers to God as “God of gods.” In my RSV, the line goes: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” Does anyone know enough Hebrew to comment on what the original text says?

Lastly, I think that David Plotz made a very interesting point about how portable this passage makes the worship of God:

This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. […] The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to  their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.

If we assume an authorship date around the time of King Josiah, we do have some scattering of the Israelites and the Babylonian Exile itself less than half a century later. It seems that this passage shows a softening of the “centralized worship” stance, perhaps an understanding of what distant Israelites felt they needed to do in order to stay connected to their shared god.

It’s nice. I like it.