7Now to the half tribe of Manasseh Moses had given possession in Bashan, but to the other half Joshua gave among their brothers on the west side of Jordan. 8And when Joshua sent them away to their tents, he blessed them, and spoke to them, saying, “Return to your tents with much wealth, and with very much cattle and silver and gold and bronze and iron and with very many clothes, and divide the spoils of the enemy with your brothers. 9So the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned, and departed from Israel at Shiloh which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, to the land of their possession, which they possessed according to the command of the LORD by the hand of Moses. 10And when they came to the borders of the Jordan that are in the land of Canaan, the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built there an altar by Jordan, a great altar to see. 11Now the sons of Israel heard that, behold: the sons of Reuben and the sons 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 sons of Israel. 12And when the sons of Israel heard, the whole congregation of the sons of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh to go up to war against them. 13Then the sons of Israel sent to the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, into the land of Gilead, Phineas the son of Eleazer the priest, 14and with him ten leaders, of each chief house a leader through all the tribes of Israel, and each was a head of the house of their fathers among the thousands in Israel. 15And they came to the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh the land of Gilead and spoke to them, saying, 16“Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD: What unfaithfulness is this that you have committed against the God of Israel, to turn this day from following after the LORD and build to yourselves an altar, that you might rebel this day against the LORD? 17Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we have still not cleansed ourselves this day, even though there was a plague in the congregation of the LORD, 18but that you must turn away this day from following the LORD? And it will be, if you rebel this day against he LORD, that tomorrow He will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. 19But if the land of your possession is unclean, then pass over to the land of the possession of the LORD, in which the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take possession among us. But do not rebel against the LORD, or revel against us, in building an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God. 20Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on the whole congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.” 21Then the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered the heads of the thousands in Israel, 22“The LORD, the God of gods, the LORD, the God of gods! He knows, and Israel will know, if we be in rebellion or in breach of faith with the LORD (do not save us this day), 23that we have built an altar to turn from following after the LORD, and to offer on it burnt offerings or cereal offerings or to offer on it peace offerings—then, let the LORD Himself take vengeance. 24And if we have not rather done it for fear of this thing, saying, in the time to come, your sons will say to our sons, saying, ‘What do you have to do with the LORD, the God of Israel?’ 25For the LORD has made the Jordan a border between us and you, you sons of Reuben and sons of Gad; you have no portion in the LORD,’ and your sons make our sons cease from fearing the LORD. 26So we said, ‘Let us prepare to build an altar—not for burnt offerings and not for sacrifice—27but as a witness between us and you and the generations that come after us, that we might perform the service of the LORD before Him with our burnt offerings and peace offerings, and in the time to come your sons will not say to our sons, ‘you have no portion in the LORD.’ 28Therefore we said, ‘It shall be when they say to us or to the generations in the time to come,’ that we may say, ‘Look at the pattern of the altar of the LORD that our fathers made, not for burnt offerings or for sacrifices, but as a witness between us and you.’ 29Far be it; God forbid that we should rebel against the LORD, and return this day from following after the LORD to build an altar for burnt offering or cereal offering or any sacrifice other than the altar of the LORD our God that is before the tabernacle.”
30When Phineas the priest and the leaders of the congregation and the heads of the clans of Israel who were with him heard the words spoken by the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the sons of Manasseh, it pleased them. 31Then Phineas the son of Eleazar the priest said to the sons of Reuben and the songs of Gad and the sons of Manasseh, “Today we know that the LORD is among us, that you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD; now you have delivered the sons of Israel from the hand of the LORD.” 32Then Phineas the son of Eleazar the priest and the leaders of the congregation of the sons of Israel returned from the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad from the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan to the sons of Israel, and brought word with them again. 33And the report pleased the sons of Israel and the sons of Israel blessed God and did not intend to go up against them to do battle to destroy the land where the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad dwelled. 34And the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad called the altar “witness,” for so shall it be between us that the LORD is God.
The Cis-Jordan tribes of Israel are disturbed. They have heard a report about something terrible going on in the Trans-Jordan area: the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh have erected what appears to be an altar. The Western mind wonders “why would this be a problem?” The reason would have been obvious to a Jewish mind, fresh off the exodus: there is ONE place, geographically, where the people of God are to worship—the tabernacle. All of the congregation was to be in the same place, geographically, together in the adoration of YHWH. To build oneself a worship place apart from the tabernacle was to sin against YHWH by sinning against the congregation. It was to split up the whole people of YHWH—to divide them unnecessarily. You’ll note that similar warnings are given to church leaders in the New Testament about being on guard against those who would divide the church. The more collectively the people of YHWH worship Him, the more He is pleased. And so Israel thought they knew what the Trans-Jordan tribes were up to, and they needed to be dealt with harshly so that they whole congregation didn’t suffer as they had during Achan’s sin. But during the confrontation, the Reubenites, Gadites and Manasseh folks explained themselves: the thing they built wasn’t for worship, but to remind the descendants of the Cis-Jordan tribes that the folks on the east side of the river were people of YHWH, too. A big river like the Jordan can form a natural boundary that would cut off the Trans-Jordan tribes from fellowship, unless steps were taken to memorialize their fellowship. When Phineas and the rest of Israel heard this explanation, they agreed that it was a great idea and everyone went home pleased.
We live in a day of church proliferation. There are too many churches, to put it plainly. God never intended for His people to be so disparately disconnected from one another. The locality of worship is meaningful to God, and has not proven meaningful to us, His people in the West. We have consistently devalued local worship and the need for corporate gathering, and why not? There are 212 churches in the community where I pastor….rendering the concept of local worship disparate, scattered, and individualist. Church doesn’t seem important on any level. But that is so far from what God intended. He always intended for His people to gather corporately and worship Him locally in time and space. He intended for us to set aside a space to be holy to Him. One thing we could do to recapture this essence is to be reminded of the physical nature of worship as well as the spiritual nature. We are to be THERE, where the people of God are. We are to physically gather with His people. And we are to remember that our act of worship is as much about US as it is about ME.
What is “church” to you? Isn’t it more important to bring that definition in line with what “church” is to God? Value the time and place set aside for worship of the holy God with His people.