When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. So the Israelites sent Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to the land of Gilead–to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. With him they sent ten of the chief men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, each the head of a family division among the Israelite clans. When they went to Gilead–to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh–they said to them: “The whole assembly of the LORD says: ‘How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the LORD and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now? Was not the sin of Peor enough for us? Up to this very day we have not cleansed ourselves from that sin, even though a plague fell on the community of the LORD! Joshua 22:10-17
After the eastern tribes were released to go back home, they built an imposing altar on the western side of the Jordan before they crossed over the Jordan to the eastern tribes. The Israelites find out about the altar and the leaders think the eastern tribes have turned away from the Lord, rebelling against Him and following other gods to sacrifice to. They are ready to go to war against the eastern tribes, but decide to first send a delegation to them headed by Phinehas the priest. The Israelite’s choice of Phinehas to lead the group was indeed based on his past. Phinehas, son of Eleazar the High Priest, was the Levite who speared Zimri the Simeonite prince and Kozbi the Midianite who were flaunting the sexual immorality the Israelite men engaged in with Moabite women leading them to worshiped their Moabite gods. Phinehas’ actions and zealousness for the Lord turned the Lord’s anger that day and limited the Israelite’s lost to the Lord’s plague to 24,000. If the eastern tribes were rebelling against the Lord Phinehas surely would take swift action. But the eastern tribes were not rebelling against the Lord, instead they were thinking of their descendants and building a witness that the eastern tribes are Israelites, and can worship at the altar in the temple, even if they live on the other side of the Jordan. Phinehas believed them and reported that back to the western tribes. Several things happened that resulted in the happy ending which we can all learn from: 1) Israel’s responded with love for their brothers by first attempting to reconcile instead of going immediately to war; 2) Israel’s actions were in response to their concern for God’s holiness – that followers would not turn to other gods; and 3) they were willing to see the situation from the eastern tribe’s perspective, and believe in them.