And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which were with him…
Rarely do we find such an instance of misconception as is here recounted. The two and a half tribes, whose territory lay to the west of Jordan, had acted with the highest honour. During the five or six years occupied in the conquest of their land, they had voluntarily accepted the task of fighting - and fighting in the van in all the battles of Israel. When they leave completed task behind them, they return laden with spoil: rich in the gratitude of their brethren; solemnly blessed by Joshua. And yet within a few weeks, all their brethren - including those of their own tribes who had settled to the west of Jordan - are up in arms, ready to exterminate them. All this change is brought about by one of the most deplorable things in life - A MISUNDERSTANDING. Such things happen still, and it may illustrate and remove some of them if we observe the course of this. In the misunderstanding before us, we observe, first -
I. THE INNOCENT CAUSE. The two and a half tribes were, as they explain, solicitous to keep in unity with Israel. The possibility of their being treated as outsiders weighed on them. The erection of an altar precisely the same in pattern with that in the tabernacle struck them as a means of embodying a testimony that they had enjoyed the same access to the sanctuary with their brethren on the west of Jordan. By weighty precepts, Moses had forbidden any multiplication of altars. One God, one worship, one people, was to be the rule: Levites in every tribe, sacrifice only in the central consecrated spot. They were alive to the sin of schism, and the wickedness of seceding from their people, and the thought of it does not enter their minds. They would have acted more wisely if they had consulted the priests first, explaining their desire and purpose. But their very innocence makes them neglect to take precautions against being misunderstood. So far from desiring to break, they are solicitous to keep the unity of Israel. And the altar which their brethren think will destroy was erected by them to keep it. Yet they are misunderstood. So shall we be, and so will others be by us. There is hardly a word we can speak but can carry two meanings, or an act we can do but can carry two aspects. And if we attempt by the avoidance of speech or action to escape misunderstanding the endeavour will be in vain. At the same time, the fact that a large proportion - say 75 per cent - of misunderstandings have an innocent cause should set us on our guard against the next thing we observe here, viz. -
II. A HASTY CONSTRUCTION PUT UPON IT. How discreditable was this haste to assume that the worst explanation was the truest! If any part of the community had proved their patriotism, brotherliness, their honour, and their faith, it was these unselfish warriors who had laboured so generously for the general well being. But haste always leaves its fair judgment at home. It argues from its fears, its temper, its prejudice, its suspicions. Judgment being a slow-moving thing, that does net come to conclusions quick enough for its purpose. And so here, instantly there is put upon this act the construction that it evinces a purpose of secession, first, from the religion, and, next, from the people of Israel. Israel is not the only community disposed to hasty and harsh constructions. There is in all of us a vile readiness to believe the worst of men; a certain disposition to chuckle over the discover, of what seems a fault; an evil suspicion, arrogating to itself peculiar wisdom, suggests always that the worst view must be true. Observe here, the hasty construction is not only miststaken but utterly mistaken. It has concluded the very opposite of the truth. And our hasty constructions are not more accurate. Let us be on our guard. The truth may be the very opposite of what on the first blush it appears to be. What seems presumptuous and unholy may spring from the deepest devoutness. Observe thirdly -
III. A SENSIBLE INQUIRY. Phinehas, the high priest, and the ten princes of the nine and a half tribes are sent first of all to ask, "What trespass is this that ye have committed?" Some cooler heads and calmer hearts have suggested that before civil war be entered on there should he, at least, an explanation sought. None can cavil at a suggestion so prudent and pertinent. The best men for such a task are sent, not with weapons of war, but with words of peace - words still hasty and suspicious, but yet spoken in love and with a desire for the right. Then, for the first time, the two and a half tribes learn the evil construction which might be put on their deed. And the surprise with which they receive the accusation, convince all of their innocence of the things of which they were accused. The simple inquiry was all that was necessary to get the most perfect satisfaction. How many misunderstandings would at once be billed if men had just the courage to ask a question! But the suspicion which hastily concludes the worst is generally wedded to the cowardice which dare not ask if its conclusions are right, and so misunderstandings endure. If in a friend there is that which pains you, ask himself why he does it. Let the inquiry be a respectful one. Let the priestly and princely part of your nature make it. Let it be direct and full. Let no fear of being suspected to be yourself uncharitable permit you to be uncharitable. "If thy brother sin against thee, go and tell him his fault, between thee and him alone." If there was more of the manliness that would expostulate, there would be more of the saintliness that could forgive. Lastly, observe that the inquiry leads to -
IV. A HAPPY TERMINATION. There was every probability of the misunderstanding having a most disastrous termination. What would have been the issue of such a war? To crush a third part of Israel, and that the most warlike portion, would probably have cost the lives of another third; and the remnant surviving would at once have been at the mercy of the remnants of the Canaanite still surviving, and able to form strong alliances with Phoenician and Philistine neighbours. The extinction of Israel neither more nor less trembled on the verge of probability through this misunderstanding. Blessed are the peacemakers. The inquiry elicits the most satisfactory facts. The momentary, doubt of their brethren's good faith passes away. Their confidence in their faith and patriotism is resumed; for many, many centuries mutual suspicion is destroyed, and Israel on both sides of Jordan is an undivided people. A little wisdom, a little delay in speech or action until knowledge becomes certainty, a brotherly approach to those who have offended us, might bring outmost hopeless misunderstandings to the same satisfactory end. - G.
Parallel VersesKJV: And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spake, it pleased them.
WEB: When Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation, even the heads of the thousands of Israel that were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spoke, it pleased them well.