Hurlbut's Story of the Bible  by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut

The Story of an Altar beside the River

Joshua xxii: 1, to xxiv: 33.

dropcap image HEN the war for the conquest of Canaan was ended, and the tribes were about to leave for their places in the land, Joshua broke up the camp at Gilgal, which had been the meeting place of the Israelites through all the war.

You remember that two of the tribes and half of another tribe had received their land on the east of Jordan (see Story 33), but their soldiers crossed the Jordan with the men of the other tribes. Joshua now called these soldiers, and said to them:

"You have done all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you; you have stood faithfully by your brothers of the other tribes; and now the time has come for you to go back to your wives and your children in your own tribe-lands on the other side of Jordan. Go to your homes, where your wives and children are waiting for you. Only remember always to keep the commandments of the Lord, and be true to the Lord, and serve him with all your heart and all your soul."

Then Joshua gave them the blessing of the Lord, and sent them away. They left Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was standing, and came to the river Jordan. There on a great rock where it could be seen from far, they built a high altar of stone.


The altar which stood as a witness

Soon it was told among the tribes that the men of the two tribes and a half-tribe had built for themselves an altar. God had commanded the people to have but one altar for all the tribes and one high-priest, and one offering for all the tribes upon the altar. This was for the purpose of keeping all the people together, as one family, with one worship.

The people of Israel were greatly displeased when they found that these tribes had built an altar, while there was already one altar for all the tribes at Shiloh. They were almost ready to go to war against the tribes on the east of the Jordan on account of this altar.

But before going to war they sent one of the priests, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, and with him ten of the princes of Israel, one from each tribe, to ask the men of the tribes on the east for what purpose they had built this altar. These men came to the men of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and said to them:

"What is this that you have done in building for yourselves an altar? Do you mean to turn away from the Lord and set up your own gods? Have you forgotten how God was made angry when Israel worshipped other gods? Do not show yourselves rebels against God by building an altar while God's altar is standing at Shiloh."

Then the men of the two tribes and a half answered:

"The Lord, the only God, he knows that we have not built this altar for the offering of sacrifices. Let the Lord himself be our judge, that we have done no wrong. We have built this altar so that our children may see it, standing as it stands on your side of the river and not on our side: and then we can say to them, 'Let that altar remind you that we are all one people, we and the tribes on the other side of Jordan.' This altar stands as a witness between us that we are all one people and worship the one Lord God of Israel."

Then the princes of the nine tribes and a half were satisfied. They were pleased when they knew that it was an altar for witness and not for offerings. They named the altar Ed, a word which means witness. "For," they said, "it is a witness between us that the Lord is our God, the God of us all."

Joshua was now a very old man, more than a hundred years old. He knew that he must soon die, and he wished to give to the people his last words. So he called the elders and rulers and judges of the tribes to meet him at Shechem, in the middle of the land and near his own home.

When they were all together before him, Joshua reminded them of all that God had done, for their fathers and for themselves. He told them the story of Abraham, how he left his home at God's call; the story of Jacob and his family going down to Egypt; and how after many years the Lord had brought them out of that land; how the Lord had led them through the wilderness and had given them the land where they were now living at peace. Joshua then said:

"You are living in cities that you did not build, and you are eating of vines and olive-trees that you did not plant. It is the Lord who has given you all these things. Now, therefore, fear the Lord, and serve him with all your hearts. And if any of you have any other gods, such as Abraham's father worshipped beyond the River, and as your fathers sometimes worshipped in Egypt, put them away, and serve the Lord only. And if you are not willing to serve the Lord, then choose this day whatever god you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

Then the people answered Joshua:

"We will not turn away from the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord brought us out of Egypt where we were slaves; and the Lord drove out our enemies before us; and the Lord gave us this land. We will serve the Lord, for he is the God of Israel."

"But," said Joshua, "you must remember that the Lord is very strict in his commands. He will be angry with you if you turn away from him after promising to serve him; and will punish you if you worship images, as the people do around you."

And the people said, "We pledge ourselves to serve the Lord, and the Lord only."

Then Joshua wrote down the people's promise in the book of the law, so that others might read it and remember it. And he set up a great stone under an oak-tree in Shechem, and he said:

"Let this stone stand as a witness between you and the Lord, that you have pledged yourselves to be faithful to him."

Then Joshua sent the people away to their tribe-lands, telling them not to forget the promise that they had made. After this Joshua died, at the age of a hundred and ten years. And as long as the people lived who remembered Joshua, the people of Israel continued serving the Lord.