Verses 1-9: Half of the tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Gad had land given to them in the East, on the other side of the Jordan river. Moses had designated this land for these tribes and at this time Joshua is sending them back to finally settle in the land now that Canaan has been conquered. Joshua gives them spoils to enjoy and reminds them of their duty to serve God.
Verses 10-20: When these tribes gst to the Jordan river, they build a great altar, but we are not immediately told what kind of altar, or its purpose. Word of this altar traveled back to the other tribes and the assumption is quickly made that this altar is unholy, to serve other gods. The other tribes prepare for war against half of the tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Bad because of their perceived rejection of God. In verse 16, Phinehas is sent with 10 tribe leaders to deliver an aggressive message of warning and also a plaintive request to turn away. The sins of Peor and Achan are cited, as is the reminder that punishment has often followed transgression.
Verses 21-34: It is revealed that the tribes had no intention to serve other gods with the altar, and instead that the altar was meant to serve as witness that they still served the true God. Specifically, the altar was a reminder to the future generations of the half-tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Gad that they served the Lord. In their minds, this replica of an altar was to serve in spite of the Jordan that divided Israel and the other tribes.
Notice that there are assumptions on both sides of the river. The tribes of Gad and Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh assume that the rest of Israel will eventually judge that they do not worship and honor God because of the geographic divide of the Jordan. Joshua had reminded these tribes to remain faithful, but there was not evidence that he expected rebellion, so the tribes’ assumption that Israel thought less of their adherence to God was erroneous. Likewise, the other tribes immediately assumed that the tribes on the other side of the Jordan were worshipping other gods. As difficult as it was to conquer Canaan, one might think that a deeper bond of trust would have been forged on behalf of both sets of tribes.
Sometimes despite our best intentions, the assumptions we make get the best of us and lead us to making decisions that are not only embarrassing, but also ruin others’ perceptions of us. When Paul said in Phillippians 2:3-7 that we ought to think higher of others than ourselves, it automatically saves us from this pitfall. Even our Savior Jesus humbled himself so that he might give His life for my sake and yours. This can be a tall order when we think that others are up to evil, but the repercussions if we are wrong can be damaging.
Am I sometimes too quick to make assumptions about others? Sometimes we can’t help making some assumptions about our fellow brothers and sisters, but when we do, we should make sure that our assumptions place them in the highest regard.