Have you ever wondered?
Why was the altar in Joshua 22:10–34 such a big deal?
After the conquest of Canaan, while Joshua was still alive, an altar was built that caused quite a stir and almost led to civil war in the newly founded nation of Israel. When God revealed the Law of Moses, God prohibited the building of altars other than those He had commanded (Deuteronomy 12:1–14). Yet the tribes on the east side of the Jordan River—Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh—constructed an altar in Joshua 22. As a result, the western tribes felt the Law had been violated and intended to go to war against their own people. The tribal leaders west of the Jordan followed this law exactly. In Joshua 22 they heard of an altar; since there was no Mosaic authorization to build such an altar, the western tribes suspected the altar in Joshua 22 represented the beginnings of idolatry. Fortunately for all involved, the western tribes investigated the allegation to discover the truth of the situation before they went to war. As it turned out, the altar built by Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh was a memorial to the Lord God. The eastern tribes were separated from their brethren by geography, but they wanted to show their spiritual solidarity. They had built the altar on the east side of the Jordan to show their connection to the rest of the Israelites who lived in the Promised Land proper. The altar was a sign of unity, not rebellion. Later in Israel’s history, after Joshua’s death, idolatry would indeed become a problem for God’s people. The Book of Judges reveals that idol worship soon became common among the Israelites, leading to God’s judgment upon them. Yet, in this early stage of Israel’s possession of the Promised Land, they quickly sought to obey God’s laws and preserve the unity of the tribes (see Psalm 133:1).