“11) And the children of Israel heard say, Behold, the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh have built an altar over against the land of Canaan, in the borders of Jordan, at the passage of the children of Israel. 12) And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up to war against them.” (Josh. 22:11-12)

In this lesson among the eastern and western tribes of Israel, we see the danger of rumors and imposing false assumptions on those rumors. The people of God get to the brink of war just because they imposed their own assumptions on others’ actions and did not follow the biblical command to verify this information by asking the people directly. Once they actually got around to asking the eastern tribes and getting an explanation, they understood it was a reasonable decision, and the conflict was resolved. All of this conflict was created because they did not ask the people directly and attempt to reconcile the issue before escalation. Unfortunately, even today the world and God’s people are not any different. We assume we know “why” others do something, impose our own false assumptions upon what we heard, and then create conflict based on totally wrong information. What is the remedy for this danger of rumors and false assumptions? Simply follow the scriptural pattern to ask the offending parties directly for an explanation before we assume anything regarding their actions. Our speech needs to minister grace and edification to our hearers, and gossip and unverified rumors need to cease when they reach our ears.  

Choosing Land & Building an Altar

When the Israelites conquered the land east of the Jordan River, the tribe of Reuben and Gad (and then later the half-tribe of Manasseh) were impressed with the land and requested that land for their inheritance (Num. 32). Originally, Moses was opposed to this proposition because he believed the men would not fight to help conquer Canaan. However, the men committed to help Israel fully conquer Canaan, and only then would they return to their land east of Jordan. This was acceptable to Moses and the Lord, and the Lord committed to bless them and give them this land for their inheritance. This commitment was reiterated by Joshua just before the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 1). After they had finished defeating the Canaanites, Joshua gives his blessing for these tribes to return to their land and to their families for their inheritance (Josh. 22:1-9).

These eastern tribes appear to have made a somewhat selfish decision to choose very good pasture land for their cattle instead of pressing into the promised land like the rest of Israel. “Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle.” (Num. 32:1) Their decision appears similar to Lot who chose the land of Sodom because the plain of Jordan was well watered everywhere for his flocks, even as the garden of the Lord (Gen. 13:10). They were initially motivated by somewhat carnal or business motives, instead of simply following the command of the Lord. While their original motive was not ideal, it was not wrong for them to choose this land east of Jordan. No, instead, Moses (and thus the Lord) gives them his blessing for these tribes to inherit this land. Their original motive may have been somewhat selfish, but it was still the Lord’s will to give them this land. The Lord gave them his blessing for this land. Also, there were other disadvantages to this decision. Their positioning on the eastern side of the river without the natural protection of the Jordan River made these 2 ½ tribes more vulnerable to enemy attacks. This came to fruition in later years as these tribes were usually attacked first when enemies began wars against Israel.

Therefore, there were quite a few drawbacks to these tribes choosing this eastern land. In addition to lack of protection and vulnerability, one of the main drawbacks was a lack of communication and fellowship with the other tribes. This division of the eastern tribes from the western tribes by the Jordan River created a lack of fellowship, lack of regular communication, and therefore, some friction in their relationship. The eastern tribes were viewed as “different” by the majority ten tribes. They made their own decision, decided to do things a little differently, and therefore were somewhat ostracized by the majority of their kindred. There was friction there even though they were kindred in the Lord. This natural friction and a lack of communication and fellowship created a vacuum for false assumptions and bad decisions and ultimately created unwarranted conflict due to ignorance.

When the eastern tribes returned to their land, they “built there an altar by Jordan, a great altar to see to” (Josh. 22:10). We later find out that they built this altar for a witness between all the tribes to teach future generations to come (Josh. 22:27-28). They probably had the memorial of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River in mind when they built this altar. After the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River on dry ground (Josh 3), Joshua commanded 12 stones be set up in the midst of Jordan for a memorial for generations to come to teach of God’s providential blessing for his people (Josh. 4:4-8). God commanded this memorial to be a “question generator” for future generations to ask “what do these stones mean?” Then, they could tell the next generations of God’s blessing and faithfulness to his people. This memorial was set up to remind the current and future generations and to prompt discussions of God for generations to come. I believe the men from the eastern 2 ½ tribes had that in mind and wanted the same kind of memorial on their side of the Jordan river to be able to teach their future generations as well. They had a good idea, a good motive, and built an altar to teach their future generations about the Lord. However, there was a significant misunderstanding over this altar among their kindred.

They “Heard Say”

The western 10 tribes of Israel “heard say” (v.11) that the eastern 2 ½ tribes had built an altar. They heard a rumor from someone about an event that occurred. As is usually the case, a destructive rumor starts with a true event and a true fact. They “heard say” that the eastern tribes had built an altar. That was a true fact. However, through rumor and false assumptions imposed on that rumor, this true statement spiraled out of control and got the people of God on the brink of war. How did this occur? Well, it happens the same way rumors and false assumptions create destructive situations today. When we play the rumor “telephone game”, true facts usually get left out, false ideas get added, and the truth of events is distorted the farther the rumor goes. You may have played the “telephone game” as a child. A very simple statement is told from Person A to Person B. Then, a little more imagination is added when Person B tells Person C. Then, some original facts are forgotten or distorted when Person C tells Person D. The more people you add to the telephone line, the more distorted the story becomes. Then, the final story told back to Person A does not at all resemble the original simple statement. Unfortunately, this is not a humorous child’s game. This is real life where supposedly grown, mature adults spread gossip and rumors, distorting truth and facts, and imposing their own imaginations or false assumptions on the truth. That happens all the time in almost every area of our lives when we let the rumor mill run out of control. There is a place for relaying facts to affected parties, but rumors and gossip of unverified facts are downright sinful.

Then, the fuel that escalated the fire of this rumor was the western tribes imposing their own false assumptions on the reason behind this action. They imposed their own false assumptions on a rumor they heard, and then “assumed” they knew the reason “why” the eastern tribes had done this. There is a well-known saying about what happens when we assume. That is not appropriate to recite here, but suffice to say, all parties look very foolish when we assume things that are unverified. We always get into bad trouble when we assume “why” people do things, especially without asking them to explain why in the first place. “They” are usually the most destructive persons in the church. “They say that…” Well, who are “they”? Rarely does anyone know who “they” actually are, but yet “they” are the most destructive gossips in the church. “They” start rumors that after 2-3 revolutions of the “telephone game”, the facts are severely distorted from any resemblance of the truth. However, no one knows who “they” are who actually started the rumor. Always be wary when you hear “they say” rumors. It is good practice to not pass on anything that “they say” without verifying the accuracy of that information yourself.

This was not just one or two zealots with an ax to grind distorting the truth. The whole majority had been deceived because their leaders told them unverified assumptions as facts. This was not just one or two people who started this. It was the “ten princes, of each chief house a prince throughout all the tribes of Israel…head among the thousands of Israel” who accused the tribes (v.14). These leaders of all the tribes stirred up “the whole congregation of Israel” to war against the eastern tribes (v.12). It was the leaders of the people who started this whole controversy. These leaders imposed their own false assumptions on the actions of people who were a little different than them without verifying it themselves, and then stirred up all the rest of the people to war based on totally wrong information. Those in positions of leadership must display more wisdom than these men. If we hear a concerning report, we have the proper pattern given to us in scripture for how to deal with that issue; go to the person directly and ask them about it in person (Matt. 18:15-20). All of this horrible situation and possible war among God’s people would have been avoided if the leaders displayed wisdom to simply ask the supposed offending party before imposing false assumptions on their actions.

The western tribes are now ready to go to war against the eastern tribes because of their false assumptions of the truth as told by their leaders to the congregation. Look at what false assumptions they have imposed on the original simple, true fact that the eastern tribes had built an altar. They accused them of trespassing and rebelling against God and turning away from following the Lord (v.16); they relate building this altar to being worse than the egregious sin and plague at Peor (v.17); rebelling from following the Lord and putting the whole congregation in danger of judgment (v.18); rebelling against the Lord and making their land unclean (v.19), and putting the whole congregation in danger like the sin of Achan in partaking of an accursing thing (v.20). They totally lambast the eastern tribes for rebelling against the Lord and putting the whole congregation in danger of being destroyed that their building an altar was much worse than the sin at Peor and the sin of Achan. All of these destructive lies and slander hurled against the eastern tribes because of false assumptions and not following God’s ordained pattern to simply ask an offending party to give him a chance to explain himself.

Answering the Accusation

When the eastern tribes heard this accusation against them, they did not get emotional or overly offended. Impressively, they answered their accusers in a reasoned, calm, and godly way. “The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord… let the Lord himself require it.” (v.22-23) They commended themselves over to the judgment of God. This is a very good approach to model when we are slanderously accused. Don’t get down in the mud and start slinging mud with the other pigs. Don’t hurl false accusations against others just because they have hurled them at you. No, just commend yourself over to the righteous judgment of God. God knows our heart; God knows the truth; God knows our motives in building this altar. We commend ourselves over to God’s judgment (not your judgment), and we don’t have to defend ourselves against every false accusation against us. Just take comfort in the fact that God knows the truth, and he will defend us. “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self… but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” (1 Cor. 4:3-4)

Why did they really build this altar? The Jordan River will be a natural divider of fellowship with the western tribes. It will also prevent them from regularly worshipping in the tabernacle as much as the other ten tribes. This was significant drawback of their choosing the eastern land that should have been considered earlier by these tribes. Therefore, they were concerned that the western 10 tribes’ children would think that the eastern tribes weren’t true Israelites or followers of God. Due to this natural separation and lack of fellowship and communication, the western children might question “What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel?… ye have not part in the Lord, so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord.” (v.24-25) It’s true that children (and certainly grown adults too) can be very cruel to those who are different. If the western children questioned the eastern children’s commitment in following God, it could discourage the eastern children and prevent them from fearing God as they ought.

Therefore, the eastern tribes explain that they bult this altar, not to rebel against God, but to ensure the next generations are equipped to remain faithful to serving God. They are not trying to set up false worship. They are setting up this altar to have a remembrance of the sacrifices made in the tabernacle because they are not able to attend tabernacle worship due to the Jordan River’s separation. They built this altar “that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the Lord before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no part in the Lord.” (v.27) They did not intend to rebel against God or replace tabernacle worship, but just to have a witness and remembrance of sacrifice in their own land for their children.

When the leaders heard this explanation, it “pleased them” (v.30). They returned to their land and gave the appropriate explanation to all the people, and the thing pleased the children of Israel and war was avoided (v.32-34). When the leaders of the people actually followed God’s pattern for reconciling offenses by actually talking to the other people (Matt 18:15-20), the explanation was satisfactory, and the offense was resolved. God’s people were on the brink of war because of rumors and false assumptions. Then, that conflict is immediately resolved by actually following God’s word to talk to the other person, and after they talked, the offense was remedied. Imagine that. Following God’s way work. It is ridiculous that God’s people – that the leaders of God’s people – would act in such an irresponsible way to try to incite a war before validating in person the information they heard.

Biblical Warning Against Gossip & Rumors

Scripture universally condemns the spread of unverified information by gossip and rumors. Some might think that gossip is a harmless action, but scripture thinks differently. “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.” (Prov. 18:8) The words of a talebearer wound and hurt others. These are not just superficial wounds, but those wounds cut deep. They go down into the innermost parts of the belly and the heart. Slanderous gossip – especially from those who you deem as your friends – is one of the most hurtful devices of Satan to hurt other and destroy relationships. Paul condemned the young widows who weren’t busy working with their hands but filled up their time with being a busybody and gossip. “And withal [the younger widows] not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.” (1 Tim. 5:13, see also 2 Thess. 3:11) The Holy Spirit makes it clear these things ought not be spoken to others – speaking things which they ought not.

When we are told something that might appear to be a juicy piece of gossip, we need to not pass that information along to anyone else until at a minimum it has been verified by the first-person account, not by third party hearsay. To put it simply, unverified gossip needs to stop when it reaches our ears. “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.” (Prov. 26:20) There is a place for passing on verified, true information to people who need to know that information. However, there is never an occasion to pass on unverified gossip until you have personally verified that information with a first-person party. Gossip always needs to stop when it reaches our ears. We need to put out the fire of gossip by quenching that fire ourselves. Notice, that where the talebearer is absent, then “the strife ceaseth”. That shows how gossip always creates strife. God’s people almost went to war to kill one another because of rumors and false assumptions. There has been so much strife in this world – and especially among God’s people – because of the spread of unverified information. Let us be the people who cease that strife instead of fueling the destructive fire of gossip and rumors.

When we hear information, we need to ask ourselves a few questions: #1) Is this information people need to know? #2) Is this edifying to the hearers? Our speech should be more seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6) than just to blindly pass on to others everything we hear. Instead, the standard for our speech is actually much higher than that. All our speech should be good to the use of edifying and should minister grace to the hearers. “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. (Eph. 4:29) If any information is not needful or edifying, then it ought not be repeated. Period. We see the destruction and conflict and even war that can arise when our speech is not edifying and graceful to the hearers. We ought to follow the Biblical pattern given to us by Jesus to contact the offender in person to discuss and reconcile the issue. Again, unverified gossip needs to stop when it reaches our ears and not spread to others. There is great destruction that comes when we engage in rumors, gossip, and false assumptions. Let us put out that fire of strife by quenching unverified gossip and rumors.