Chapter 22

                                                                               Part two

                                                     The curious near civil war over an altar


Seven years of battles to defeat and control Canaan ended followed, according to a tradition, with seven additional years[1] during which the priest, Joshua, and elders divided the land among the nine and a half tribes who settled in Canaan. Joshua now tells the remaining two and a half tribes that they can return to Trans-Jordan to their families and settle there for there is no further need for them to aid their brethren in conquering Canaan.[2]

When the soldiers returned to Trans-Jordan, they “built an altar beside the Jordan, a conspicuously large altar.”[3] The Israelites in Canaan heard about this altar, “they assembled at Shiloh to go to war against them.”[4] A delegation of ten leaders of each of the nine and a half tribes led by Phineas the priest traveled to Trans-Jordan to discover what they intended with “this treachery that you committed against Israel’s God.”[5] They charged the tribes with rebelling against God who will “in the future be angry at all of Israel.”[6] The eastern tribes explained they were misunderstood. They didn’t erect the altar on which to offer sacrifices, but a monument to remind their children and descendants that despite living in Trans-Jordan, they were part of the Israelite nation, and they always planned to offer sacrifices only at God’s tent. How should we understand this near civil war?


Considering war 

            It seems significant that despite the presence of the priest and the ark in Shiloh, where the Israelites gathered to consider war, the Israelites do not ask God by any means – Urim and Thummim or lots – whether they should wage war. This reliance on themselves rather than God reinforces our understanding of previous accounts: to interpret every episode in a natural manner.

            It is significant that Joshua is not mentioned as a participant in this affair. This bolsters the idea that Joshua was now too old and weak to lead the people.[7]


            The priest Phineas, grandson of Moses’ brother Aharon, was apparently involved in three Israelite civil conflicts. Here, in Numbers 25 concerning the crisis following the worship by many Israelites of the god of Peor that resulted in the death of thousands of Israelites, and in the war and near decimation of the tribe of Benjamin, narrated in Judges 20.[8]

Building an altar

            Verse 10 is opaque: it states that the Trans-Jordan tribes built their altar al hayardein, which could mean in the Jordan River or beside it; if beside it, it could be on the Trans-Jordan or the Canaanite side. Olam Hatanakh asserts the altar was in Trans-Jordan and suggests that the chapter should be read as indicating the bulk of Israelites felt Trans-Jordan is not holy, but an impure area, an improper place to build an altar.[9] In contrast, Ehrlich insisted that the tribes constructed their altar in Canaan, and it was this placement that incited the other Israelites. They interpreted the act as a provocative symbol: the eastern tribes showed that the Shiloh altar did not belong to them; they had their own altar in Canaan.[10] In contrast, the Trans-Jordan tribes explained that they set their altar in Canaan as a monument showing that they were part of the Israelite nation and the Jordan River was not a barrier between them and other Israelites.

More on pre-King Josiah Israelites not knowing about the Torah

            Y. Kil, in Sefer Yehoshua, sides with those who say the monument was set in Canaan. He understands that the Israelites in Canaan were incensed because the Trans-Jordan tribes violated Deuteronomy 12:10-14 which states[11] that when the Israelites settle in Canaan, they may not “offer your burnt-offerings in every place that you see, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes,” and this place was Shiloh. The problem with this interpretation is that we know the Israelites built altars, as in Judges 18, and the two altars established when Israel broke away from Judah during the early reign of King Solomon’s son. The fact that none of the biblical books mention anyone criticizing the building of altars as a violation of Deuteronomy 12 seems to add another possible indication that the pre-King Josiah Israelites knew nothing about Moses’s Torah.

The Israelite claim they still suffer from the crime of Peor

            This claim is another possible indication that the post-Moses Israelites did not know of the existence of the Torah until the time of King Josiah. They say that they are still not cleansed from the crime of Peor,[12] yet they apparently did not know that Numbers 25:13 and Deuteronomy 4: 3, 4 state that the Israelites who survived the plague that followed the crime are absolved of all guilt.[13]

The Israelite claim that the misdeed of the Tran-Jordan tribes will result in them being punished

            The Israelites felt that when one member of Israel commits a crime the entire people is punished.[14] This biblical notion was later changed by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. I discussed this notion and how it might be understood in chapter 7, part two.

When was the story composed?

            We saw indications in the past that Joshua, or at least parts of it, seems to have been composed after Jerusalem became Israel’s capital and the temple built there. The Cambridge Bible Commentary and Y. Kaufman suggest that it is possible to see this story reflecting the reformation of King Josiah that included that altars outside of Jerusalem must cease and worship must be centralized in Jerusalem. Thus the western tribes are threatening those in the east because they were building an unauthorized altar and neglecting this injunction.[15]

Defective reading

            Rashi, the Aramaic translation of Joshua, and most others recognize that verse 34 misses a word: “The tribes of Reuben and Gad called the altar…because it was a testimony (eid) between us, that y-h-v-h is God. The missing word is eid, testimony.[16]

Use of three

            We noted previously that the book of Joshua uses the number three frequently, with three indicating a strong emphasis.[17] The term “many” is repeated three times in verse 8 to emphasize the huge accumulation of spoils acquired during the wars with the Canaanites. In verse 22 the Trans-Jordan tribes emphasize their allegiance to God by using the divine names three times, “el, elohim, y-h-v-h,” God, God, y-h-v-h, and by saying it twice. Kimchi and Altschuler understand the three as “the one who is a God over angels y-h-v-h,” and the doubling as an emphasis. Rashi reads it as “the one who is the God over all gods” and the doubling as “in this world and the next.” Minchat Shai writes the tribes were showing their allegiance to God by using the names mentioned in reference to the creation of the world[18] and the revelation at Sinai.[19]



[1] According to Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 118b and other sources.

[2] No reason is given why the military force of the two and a half tribes had to remain in Canaan while the Israelite leaders divided the land among the tribes who settled in Canaan. The book does not indicate that they were needed for any battles. This seems to conflict with the tradition that the partition of territories lasted seven years. It leads readers to conclude that if these warriors remained until after the distribution, these assignments took at most several days.

Another problem: is it reasonable to say that every soldier of the two and a half tribes crossed the Jordan into Canaan and joined the other tribal forces in conquering the land? Who protected their families while they were gone? Also, did these soldiers remain in Canaan for the entire seven or fourteen years without returning home on furloughs from time to time to be with their families. While this book does not say so, it seems reasonable to suppose that only some soldiers of the two and a half tribes joined the battles in Canaan, while a substantial number of them remained at home to protect their territory and families. Additionally, it is likely that from time to time these soldiers returned home to Trans-Jordan and were replaced by a contingent of their tribal members who were protecting the homeland.  While this seems reasonable, David Kimchi rejects the idea in his commentary, possibly because Scripture does not say this.

[3] 22:10.

[4] 22:12.

[5] 22:16.

[6] 22:18.

[7] This is not the only episode of civil war between the eastern and western tribes. Judges 12 reports that Jephthah, who was a judge from the tribe of Manasseh in Trans-Jordan, attacked the western tribe of Ephraim.

[8] If we accept the notion that this last campaign occurred at the end of the era of Judges, as the book seems to say by concluding the book with this tale, it would mean that Phineas lived over 200 years. Three key solutions are offered: (1) Although inserted at the close of Judges, the event occurred shortly after Joshua’s death. (2) The Phineas in Judges is not Aaron’s grandson, but a descendant of that Phineas, who some scholars named Phineas II.  (3) Phineas did live long and is still alive today. He was awarded everlasting life because of his deed in Numbers 25. In later time, for awhile, he took the name Elijah and is the prophet known by that name in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

[9] The Interpreter’s Bible supposes that this chapter reflects the ancient belief that “God is a tribal and national God” who can only be worshipped in Canaan, and this is why the nine and a half tribes criticized the Trans-Jordan citizens. “This limited concept of God one finds also in Psalm 137:4. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’” Josephus also reports that the monument was constructed in Trans-Jordan (Antiquities 5, 1, 26). The question whether Trans-Jordan is part of Israel is dealt with by eighteenth century Rabbi Chaim David Azulai in his Birkai Joseph commentary on Orach Chaim 489.

[10] Ehrlich was convinced that had the tribes built their altar in Trans-Jordan it would not have offended the tribes in Canaan for they would see it as their own business. Ehrlich notes that unlike most monuments where Scripture’s authors state that they are still standing today, this phrase is absent here. He supposes that the monument was not in existence when the book of Joshua was written.

[11] See also Midrash Sifrei on this verse and Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 118b that discuss this prohibition. Rashi understood that the western tribes were bothered because of the violation of Deuteronomy 12.

[12] 22:17.

[13] It could be argued that they knew of these statements but were saying despite what God said there we still feel guilty.

[14] The same problem exists with the story of Achan in chapter 7.

[15] The idea being that Deuteronomy was discovered during this king’s reign.

[16] The Israelites also used stones as a monument in chapter 4. Jacob also called his monument in Genesis 31:44-52 Gal-eid.

[17] Additionally, some commentators, such as ibn Ezra and Samson R. Hirsh, see seven as a symbol of completeness and three as nearly half seven and indicating something large but not that large, such as Abraham’s journey of three days to a mountain to sacrifice his son. The number is also superstitiously used with the belief that if something is said or done three times there is a better chance of success.

[18] Psalm 50:1.

[19] Exodus 20:5.