It's amazing to me how much damage a misunderstanding can do. Maybe it was something misunderstood in an email. Maybe it was a word or phrase that one individual heard in a totally different way than the speaker intended. Maybe it was an altar built to be a sign of fidelity that another group saw as a sign of idolatry. That was Israel's case.
Israel had arrived in Canaan, and although they had not claimed all their territory, they had at least set up permanent residence. That having been accomplished, the two and a half tribes whose inheritance was east of the Jordan returned home after years of war. There was a problem, however. Nine and a half tribes lived west of the Jordan, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to imagine that some day, those western tribes might forget that the eastern tribes were really part of Israel. The Jordan River might stop being a river and start being a boundary marker, a visible distinction between an insider group and an outsider group. The eastern tribes understandably didn't want this to happen. So, as a sign of fidelity, they built a copy of the altar used at Shiloh (the new home of the Tabernacle).
But then, also understandably, the western tribes thought that the eastern tribes had built a false idol. This is no small issue. Israel was still experiencing the spiritual, emotional, and even physical consequences of the idolatry they practiced at Peor, and God had warned the Israelites what would happen if they began worshiping other gods once they inherited Canaan. He would destroy them. No, such an altar could be allowed to exist, and neither could the heathens who built it. Those eastern tribes...you know how people are on that side of the tracks...or Jordan. It's seems like the eastern tribes had reason to be worried.
Luckily, after mustering the army but before sending it off to war, the western tribes sent a delegation to find out why the eastern tribes would do such a thing. They then discovered that the altar wasn't an altar at all. It was a memorial. It was a physical, lasting tribute to the fact that the eastern tribes didn't worship false gods and did worship the Lord. It was a sign that the eastern tribes were, and always would be, part of the true Israel.
It saddens me how quick Christians are to go to war with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the Jordan. The Jordan can take many forms. Maybe it's differences of opinion about what happens to us when we die. Maybe it's differences of opinion about women's roles in the church, whether there should be ordained ministers, whether ministers should wear robes, or what style of music we sing. Maybe it's whether we're Church of Christ or Disciple of Christ or Baptist or Methodist or Catholic or Presbyterian or Episcopal or non-denominational. Whatever the case, we have a tendency to misunderstand each other, especially as generations come and go. What at first seemed like a small stream now seems like an immeasurable gulf. Maybe there is something for us to learn from ancient Israel. There is only one God, one Son, and one Holy Spirit, and we all agree on who that is.
I have no doubt that within a few generations the cultures on both sides of the Jordan became very distinct. West of the Jordan that happened from north to south, and they were physical neighbors. Maintaining relationship and community is never an easy endeavor, but it must be done. Maybe it's time for us to erect some memorials, or better yet, to remember the ones we already have.
Stopping point: Joshua 21