We saw in our message in Joshua 22 this week a lesson on being careful to remain faithful to the Lord. We do that in a couple of ways – by watching over our own lives and by watching over each other.
The 9½ tribes on the western side of the Jordan River demonstrated great conviction and commitment in their approaching the Trans Jordanian tribes to address what appeared to be a breach of faith against the Lord, the building of an altar by the Jordan. In fact, their actions provide a good example for us to follow as we seek to hold one another accountable.
First, that they saw the “altar of imposing size” shows that they were keeping watch over their brother tribes. It is essential that we get out of ourselves and pay attention to one another. Second, they decided to address the issue rather than ignoring it or purposing to “mind their own business.” They recognized that ignoring the problem would have critical ramifications not only for the offenders, but for the whole assembly. Third, they explicitly named the sin. Generalities are not helpful here. For the good of all, each party involved needs to know exactly what sin is being confronted, so that confession, repentance, and forgiveness can be specific as well. Fourth, they warned the Trans Jordanian tribes of the consequences of their sin. We also should remind one another that our sin doesn’t just affect us, but it also affects the whole body. Fifth, they were willing to do whatever necessary to bring the Trans Jordanian tribes back to faithfulness to the Lord. Not only were they prepared to give of their own land to the Trans Jordanians, but they were also willing to go to war. We, too, should be willing to go the distance in winning back a brother or sister.
The Israelites’ example here is almost perfect. I would note one flaw in their approach – they did not ask questions to confirm that a sin was committed. They did ask a question, but it was phrased as an accusation: “What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD?” You see, they assumed a breach of faith was committed.
There is a vital principle of communication found in Proverbs 18:13: If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. If I react to a situation before hearing all the facts, before asking questions to determine the truth, I will likely make a fool of myself. I will shame myself. All the Israelites’ warning, passion, and pleading, however well-intentioned, was completely unfounded. No sin had been committed. In fact, the truth was that the Trans Jordanians’ building of the altar was motivated by the same zeal for faithfulness to God that motivated the 9½ western tribes to confront it.
There is an excellent lesson here. Even when all the evidence available indicates that a sin was committed, that does not mean one actually was committed. If ever there seemed to be an open and shut case for intent to worship a false god, this would be it. These Israelites were only ever aware of two kinds of altars – the altar to the One True God, the central place of worship for all of the people of Israel; and the many altars to false gods scattered all over the Canaan land. In their minds, this altar built by the Trans Jordanian tribes would have to be one of those two kinds of altars. And since the altar of the One True God was located in Shiloh, this could only be an altar for the worship of a false god. Their experience with the sin at Peor (v17; Num 25:1-4) would seem to confirm this. All the evidence pointed to a breach of faith.
But was there a breach of faith? Quite the contrary. The Israelites answered before hearing. The altar was a copy of the altar of God, not for offering sacrifices, but for serving as a witness to all subsequent generations that the Trans Jordanian tribes had a legitimate claim to worship the God of Israel (v28-29).
Presumption is a very dangerous thing. When we presume, we run the risk of holding a sin against someone when that sin never took place. We should always withhold any offense, admonition, or counsel until we have asked the appropriate questions to determine if our suspicion is true.
But what about in cases where we have the testimony of a witness? Is it then okay to confront that sin before asking questions of the supposed offender? No. Proverbs 18:17 addresses such a situation: The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. This is the Bible’s way of saying, “there are two sides to every story.” Taking the word of one person against another is still answering without hearing because questions still have not been asked of the supposed offender.
This is played out in living color for me every time my children come to report each other’s crimes. Time and time again the first child’s account of the situation does not closely resemble the account of the accused. I’ve learned it is not much different with adults. None of us can see another’s heart and know his or her motive. Neither can we always be aware of all the circumstances surrounding an event. That is why Scripture would have us ask questions about the situation, rather than leading off with an accusation.
What should Israel have done? They should have asked, “why did you build that altar?” Then they would have heard the truth and realized there was no need for a confrontation at all.
In the next week or so, I’ll address another issue. I’m convinced John 3:16 is no longer the most widely known verse in the Bible. It has been eclipsed by a two-way tie for first: Matt 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged”; and John 8:7, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…” How do we reconcile those verses with clear commands to confront (Luke 17:3; Matt 18:15-17)?