As Israel set about to enter the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and Manasseh decided they would rather stay outside Canaan. The land to the east of the Jordan (they felt) was more suited to them. This division among God’s people was considered serious by Israel – an attempt to separate the People of God.
The three tribes explained that they meant no harm. They would certainly go and aid their brothers in conquering the land. They meant no division; they only wished to live east of the Jordan.
Now, these same people build an altar, a very large one, replicating the one at the tabernacle at Shiloh, and again, all Israel rises up. God has decreed only one altar, at only one place. They may not worship the Lord wherever they choose, but only in the place He has designated. To do otherwise threatens all of Israel
Again, the three tribes say they are misunderstood; they meant no harm. They only wished to show, with a similar altar, that they were one with their brethren in the west, not separate from them.
Did they tell the truth?
I find it significant that as Joshua sends the eastern tribes home, he urges them to remain true to the Lord, to walk in His commands, and the first thing they do is break one.
Equally significant are the lessons Israel has learned about the necessity of faithfulness – which she recites in her rebuke of the eastern tribes.
But most of all, I find here a message of reconciliation. It’s easy to assume the worst in the intentions of others. It’s more difficult, and more rare, to peacefully inquire about those intentions, assuming the best. Israel should have done the latter. And when such differences arise among us, so should we.