The story of Joshua and the Israelite conquest of the land revealed two internal struggles that bear far greater concern to the emerging nation’s history than any fortified, armed foe. The first of which is rather understated, that being a spirit of independence that led to isolation.
Back in Numbers 22, the story unfolds as Reuben and Gad came to Moses requesting that their tribes be granted permission to not cross the Jordan River. They preferred to stay east of Jordan, citing suitable pasture lands for their developing flocks and herds. I don’t think one has to reason long to conclude that God’s plan was for the entirety of His people to “possess the land” together. Even today we can see how rivers, mountain ranges, and the interstate highway system has a way of creating societal boundaries.
Reuben, Gad, and later one half of the tribe of Manessah would eventually receive permission to settle in the land east of Jordan, under the condition that the warriors would help the other tribes with the conquest of Canaan before permanently settling their inheritance. On the surface this seemed harmless enough. Who was to say whether or not settling east of Jordan was a bad thing?
There are at least two concerns. First, the independence created immediate conflict. When the tribes were released from their military obligations to return home, the three tribes immediately constructed their own altar for worship. When the western tribes heard the news, they immediately took up arms to go to war against their own brothers and sisters. Joshua 22 reports that after a contentious conversation, the issue was resolved and written off as a simple misunderstanding. The reader should take special note, however, to the fact that this distance in proximity created immediate challenges to the unity of the nation.
This would not be an isolated incident, no pun intended. If you quickly flip through those neat, color maps in the back of your Bible you’ll see those maps detail not only the division of the eastern and western tribes, but later other divisions among the people. You have Israel distinguished from Judah. Then the northern kingdom divided from the southern kingdom. As time marched on, the people of Israel continued to have challenges maintaining a sense of unity. Such is the state of the 21st century church. Think of how the people of God in America and around the world have categorized themselves: Catholic and Protestant; Evangelical and Mainline; Liberal and Conservative; Charismatics and Calvinists; not to mention the scores of denominations that exist!
One can even narrow the focus to our individual churches, where many struggle to maintain a sense of unity and purpose. Isolation and independence plague the best of them as pastors and spiritual leaders struggle to fulfill Jesus’ request in his high priestly prayer that we simply “be one” as He and the Father are “one” (John 17:11).
We need to remember that the goal of the church is unity, not uniformity. The sanctuary that I lead worship in has block walls. Those blocks are uniform, being the same size, shape, color, and density. That’s an illustration of uniformity. The same sanctuary also has a beautiful stained glass window high up on the western wall. Those panes of glass are different sizes, colors, and shapes. They are bound together in a frame that allows their individuality to come together to create something greater. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he called us to unity. We’re all different sizes, shapes, and colors, bringing our individual gifts and talents as offerings to God. The Holy Spirit is the frame that holds us together and allows us to participate in something greater than we could accomplish on our own. If we don’t have unity, we’ll live provincially in God’s kingdom, insisting on our own rights and our own interests while the greater need is left un-met.
The second concern that concerns me about isolation from this Old Testament story is fairly basic. Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Mannessah were the first tribes to lose their identity as they were absorbed into the culture of their surrounding neighboring nations. Unity is not just a matter of mission, it can also be a matter of sustainability.
Tomorrow I’ll post the second part of this week’s series and talk a bit about the second battle that Israel faced in Joshua. In the meantime, take a moment and meditate of the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Contemplate what He meant when we prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one, and what could happen in our world if that prayer were to be answered.