My wife and I had a fight this morning. Lest you have immediate concern because you think pastors’ families should never argue, please remember that we too are sinners. Marriage is hard work. And sometimes my wife and I disagree—vehemently. We are no less committed to one another, though. In our fight this morning, I hurt my wife and she hurt me. In the process of reconciling with each other, I said that her intentions were irrelevant, that what I perceived was what we were dealing with. But after reading the Scriptures this morning, as part of my daily routine, I think I was wrong. Here are some thoughts on Christian communication perception and apologies based on the passage I read.
The reading that struck me this morning was from Joshua 22. Here it is in its entirety. Please read it:
1 At that time Joshua summoned the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, 2 and said to them, “You have kept all that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I have commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the LORD your God. 4 And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brothers, as he promised them. Therefore turn and go to your tents in the land where your possession lies, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you on the other side of the Jordan. 5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents.
7 Now to the one half of the tribe of Manasseh Moses had given a possession in Bashan, but to the other half Joshua had given a possession beside their brothers in the land west of the Jordan. And when Joshua sent them away to their homes and blessed them, 8 he said to them, “Go back to your tents with much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with much clothing. Divide the spoil of your enemies with your brothers.” 9 So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the LORD through Moses.
10 And when they came to the region of the Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size. 11 And the people of Israel heard it said, “Behold, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built the altar at the frontier of the land of Canaan, in the region about the Jordan, on the side that belongs to the people of Israel.” 12 And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.
13 Then the people of Israel sent to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, 14 and with him ten chiefs, one from each of the tribal families of Israel, every one of them the head of a family among the clans of Israel. 15 And they came to the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16 “Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘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? 17 Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, 18 that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19 But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD’s land where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. Only do not rebel against the LORD or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. 20 Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.’”
21 Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel, 22 “The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today 23 for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself take vengeance. 24 No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? 25 For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you people of Reuben and people of Gad. You have no portion in the LORD.’ So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. 26 Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, 27 but to be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, “You have no portion in the LORD.”’ 28 And we thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.’” 29 Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!”
30 When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. 31 And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, “Today we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you have delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD.”
32 Then Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. 33 And the report was good in the eyes of the people of Israel. And the people of Israel blessed God and spoke no more of making war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and the people of Gad were settled. 34 The people of Reuben and the people of Gad called the altar Witness, “For,” they said, “it is a witness between us that the LORD is God.” (Josh 22:1–34)
In this part of the book, Joshua is casting lots to divide up the land for the tribes after the conquest and the tribes are slowing taking possession of their territories. The tribes of Ruben, Gad, and part of Manasseh had settled just to the east of the Jordan river, just outside the promised land. The contingency for them to settle in that part of the region was that they had to assist in the conquest of the rest of the land. In vv. 1–6, Joshua is confirming that they have fulfilled their promise and are now free to return to their land with the admonition to obey the Lord and all he had commanded.
An apparent problem arises as the people return to their land. As the people of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh cross the Jordan, they build “an altar of imposing size” (22:10) that caused a kerfuffle. Such angst built up with the people of Israel that they gathered in a central city to go to war against the other tribes who had build the altar (22:12) because there was only to be one altar to the one true and living God (cf. Josh 18:1–10; Deut 12:4–14).
The people of Israel sent an envoy to talk to the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The envoy brought the accusation of a “breach of faith” against God (22:16) and building and altar in rebellion against the LORD. This accusation is huge because if these tribes are indeed rebelling against God, God will judge the entire nation.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what’s going on here. Party A (Reuben, Gad, half-Manasseh) has done Action X (build an altar of immense size). Party B (the rest of the nation represented by this envoy) has perceived that Action X means Intention M and has set out to confront Party A for their infraction.
In verse 21, Party A explains what their intentions are. They begin their explanation by affirming the greatness of the covenant God and saying that if indeed they have committed a breach of faith, Party B should continue with the extermination of their clans (vv. 22–24). They acknowledge that if the altar is used for offerings they are in covenant violation and should be judged. And then they explain the reason they did what they did (vv. 25–29). The altar was never intended to be used for sacrifices; it was always intended to serve as a reminder of the bond between the tribes, it is merely a copy (v. 28).
Again let’s pause and think about what has happened. Party B has confronted Party A for a perceived infraction, Action X means Intention M. Party A has explained that Intention M was not even in their consideration. Instead in building the altar they had Intention N. Circling back to the fight with my wife, at this point I would be saying that Intention N is irrelevant because I perceived Intention M and we need to deal with that because communication is a two-way street and she needs to take responsibility for communicating Intention M. But let’s see how Party B responds to the explanation.
In verse 33, we are told that the explanation “was good in the eyes of the people of Israel.” Then they blessed God and dropped the idea of war against Reuben, Gad, and half-Manasseh.
Well, that’s interesting. Not only did Party B drop their complaint, they blessed God for Intention M and walked away. Now, I don’t know if this is a universal principle here or how good of an example this is, but I think it serves to add a little wisdom in how we communicate as Christians. Perceptions matter. They are enough to motivate a confrontation between brothers. But perhaps they ought to end up in the trunk of the car when the true intentions are revealed. That is, as soon as the brother who has offended you reveals his intentions, if those intentions are indeed biblical, the accusation should be dropped—immediately. In the situation with my wife this morning, I should have raised what I perceived, let her explain her intentions, then, upon hearing that her motives were pure, dropped the whole matter. Notice also, that Party B did not apologize for misunderstanding, nor did Party A apologize for miscommunicating. The intentions behind my wife’s actions, as she explained them, were honorable. Therefore, my perception was wrong, I was wrong. I praise God for giving her wisdom in this action and am glad that we can move forward from it, praising God together.
Relationships are a work in progress, always. Let’s consider this as a possible way of communicating with one another when there are perceived breaches of faith. Bless God that we are able to ground our relationship in the Lord Jesus Christ and strive for Christ-likeness in all things.