Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
After the conquest and division of the land, Joshua sent the auxiliaries of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh back to their homes, with a laudatory acknowledgment of the help they had given to their brethren, and a paternal admonition to adhere faithfully to the Lord and His law, and with a parting blessing (Jos 22:1-6). By the expression "then Joshua called," etc., the occurrence described in this chapter is placed in a general manner after the conquest and subjugation of Canaan, though not of necessity at the close of the distribution of the land. As the summons to these tribes to go with their brethren into Canaan, to assist them in the war, formed the commencement of Joshua's plans for the conquest of Canaan (Jos 1:12.), their dismission to their home very properly forms the conclusion to the history of the conquest of this land by the Israelites. We might therefore assume, without in any way contradicting the words of the text, that these auxiliaries had been dismissed immediately after the war was ended. Even in that case, the account of their dismission would stand in its proper place, "since it was only right that the history itself, which relates to the conquest and possession of the land, should be fully completed before any other narratives, or any casual occurrences which took place, were introduced to break the thread" (Lightfoot, App. i. p. 42). On the other hand, however, the circumstance that the two tribes and a half were dismissed from Shiloh, where the tribes assembled for the first time during the casting of the lots, favours the conclusion that the dismission did not take place till after the lots had been cast; that is to say, contemporaneously with the advance of the other tribes into their possessions.
Joshua acknowledged that they had done all that they were under any obligation to do towards Moses and himself (Num 32:20.; Jos 1:16-17). "Kept the charge of the commandment," i.e., observed what had to be observed in relation to the commandment of the Lord (see at Lev 8:35 and Gen 26:5).
Jos 22:4 points back to Jos 1:15. "Unto your tents," for to your homes, - an antiquated form of expression, as in Deu 16:7; Jdg 7:8, etc.
Remembering, however, the changeableness of the human heart, Joshua appends to the acknowledgment of their fidelity in the performance of their duty the pressing admonition, to continue still to observe the law of Moses faithfully, to walk in the ways of the Lord and serve Him with the whole heart, which was simply a repetition of what Moses had impressed in a fatherly way upon the hearts of the people (see Deu 4:4, Deu 4:29; Deu 6:5; Deu 10:12; Deu 11:13, etc.).
Thus Joshua dismissed them with blessings. - In Jos 22:7, the writer, for the sake of clearness, refers again to the fact that only half of Manasseh had received its inheritance from Moses in Bashan, whereas the other had received its inheritance through Joshua on the west of the Jordan (cf. Jos 14:3, and Jos 18:7). To us such repetitions appear superfluous; but they are closely connected with the copious breadth of the early historical style of the Hebrews, which abounded in repetitions. The verb נתן (gave) wants its object, אחזּתו or נחלתו, which may easily be supplied from the context. This interpolation involved a further repetition of the fact, that Joshua also dismissed them (the Manassites of the other side) with a blessing, in order that the words might be appended with which Joshua dismissed the two tribes and a half to their homes, namely, the admonition to share the rich booty which they had accumulated with their brethren at home, in accordance with the instructions which Moses had given them with reference to the war with the Midianites (Num 31:25.).
On the way home, when the two tribes and a half had reached the border of Canaan, they built a large conspicuous altar in the district of the Jordan, in the land of Canaan, i.e., on this side of the Jordan: "a great altar to see to," i.e., one which caught the eye on account of its size, since it was to serve for a memorial (Jos 22:24.). The definition appended to Shiloh, "in the land of Canaan" (Jos 22:9), serves to bring out the antithesis "into the land of Gilead," by which we are to understand the whole of the country to the east of the Jordan, as in Num 32:29; Deu 34:1; Jdg 5:17, etc. נאחז, both in the form and meaning the same as in Num 32:30, made possessors, i.e., settled down. היּרדּן גּלילות, the circles of the Jordan, is synonymous with היּרדּן כּכּר in Gen 13:10, and signifies that portion of the Ghor which was upon the western side of the Jordan.
The Israelites (on this side) heard that the tribes in question had built the altar "opposite to the land of Canaan" (lit. in the face or in front of the land of Canaan), אל־אבר, "at the opposite region of the children of Israel" (two descriptions which may be explained on the supposition that the name of Canaan is used in a restricted sense, the valley of the Jordan being expressly excepted, and Canaan considered as only extending to the valley of the Jordan). When they heard this, the whole congregation (in its heads and representatives) assembled at Shiloh, to go up, i.e., with the intention of going, to make war against them. The congregation supposed that the altar had been built as a place for sacrifice, and therefore regarded it as a wicked violation of the commandment of God with regard to the unity of the sacrificial altar (Lev 17:8-9; Deu 12:4.), which they ought to punish according to the law in Deu 13:13. This zeal was perfectly justifiable, and even praiseworthy, as the altar, even if not erected as a place for sacrifice, might easily be abused to that purpose, and thus become an occasion of sin to the whole nation. In any case, the two tribes and a half ought not to have erected such a building without the consent of Joshua or of the high priest.
(Note: "We know how sternly the law prohibited the use of two altars: because it was the will of God that His worship should be restricted to one place. When, therefore, from the very appearance it could not fail to occur to the mind of any one that they were establishing a second altar, who would not have condemned them as guilty of sacrilege, for introducing rites and ceremonies at variance with the law of God? And since it might so naturally be regarded as a wicked deed, they ought certainly to have consulted their brethren in so grave and important a matter; and it was especially wrong to pass by the high priest, when the will of God might have been learned from his lips. They were deserving of blame, therefore, because they acted as if they had been alone in the world, and did not consider what offence might easily arise from the novelty of their proceedings." - Calvin.)
The congregation therefore sent Phinehas, the son of the high priest and his presumptive successor in this office, with ten princes, one from each tribe (not the tribe-princes, but a head of the fathers' houses of the families of Israel), to Gilead, to the two tribes and a half, to call them to account for building the altar.
Assuming at the outset that the altar was intended for a second place of sacrifice in opposition to the command of God, the delegates, with Phinehas no doubt as their speaker, began by reproaching them for falling away from the Lord. "What faithlessness is this (מעל: see at Lev 5:15) that ye have committed against the God of Israel, to turn away this day from Jehovah, in that ye have builded you an altar, that ye might rebel this day against Jehovah?" מרד (to rebel) is stronger than מעל.
To show the greatness of the sin through apostasy from the Lord, the speaker reminds them of two previous acts of sin on the part of the nation, which had brought severe judgments upon the congregation. "Is there too little for us in the iniquity of Peor (i.e., with Peor, or through the worship of Peor, Num 25:3), from which we have not cleansed ourselves till this day, and there came the plague upon the congregation of Jehovah?" את־עון is an accusative: see Ges. 117, 2; Ewald, 277, d. That plague, of which 24,000 Israelites died, was stayed through the zeal of Phinehas for the honour of the Lord (Num 25:4-9, Num 25:11). The guilt connected with the worship of Peor had thereby been avenged upon the congregation, and the congregation itself had been saved from any further punishment in consequence of the sin. When Phinehas, therefore, affirmed that the congregation had not yet been cleansed from the crime, he did not mean that they were still bearing or suffering from the punishment of that crime, but that they were not yet cleansed from that sin, inasmuch as many of them were still attached to idolatry in their hearts, even if they had hitherto desisted from it outwardly from fear of the infliction of fresh judgment.
"And to-day ye turn away from the Lord again," and are about to bring His wrath upon the whole congregation again through a fresh rebellion.
"And truly," the speaker continued, "if the land of your possession should be unclean," sc., so that you think it necessary to have an altar in the neighbourhood to expiate your sins and wipe away your uncleanness, "pass over into the land of Jehovah's possession, where His dwelling-place stands, and settle in the midst of us ('settle,' as in Gen 34:10); but do not rebel against Jehovah nor against us, by building an altar beside the (one) altar of Jehovah our God." מרד is construed first of all with בּ, and then with the accusative; the only other place in which the latter occurs is Job. Jos 24:13.
He finally reminded them of the sin of Achan, how that had brought the wrath of God upon the whole congregation (Josh 7); and, moreover, Achan was not the only man who had perished on account of the sin, but thirty-six men had fallen on account of it at the first attack upon Ai (Jos 7:5). The allusion to this fact is to be understood as an argument a minori ad majus, as Masius has shown. "If Achan did not perish alone when he committed sacrilege, but God was angry with the whole congregation, what think ye will be the consequence if ye, so great a number, commit so grievous a sin against God?"
In utter amazement at the suspicion expressed by the delegates of the congregation, the two tribes and a half affirm with a solemn oath, that it never entered into their minds to build an altar as a place of sacrifice, to fall away from Jehovah. The combination of the three names of God-El, the strong one; Elohim, the Supreme Being to be feared; and Jehovah, the truly existing One, the covenant God (Jos 22:22), - serves to strengthen the invocation of God, as in Psa 50:1; and this is strengthened still further by the repetition of these three names. God knows, and let Israel also know, sc., what they intended, and what they have done. The אם which follows is the usual particle used in an oath. "Verily (it was) not in rebellion, nor in apostasy from Jehovah," sc., that this was done, or that we built the altar. "Mayst Thou not help us to-day," sc., if we did it in rebellion against God. An appeal addressed immediately to God in the heat of the statement, and introduced in the midst of the asseveration, which was meant to remove all doubt as to the truth of their declaration. The words which follow in Jos 22:23, "that we have built," etc., continue the oath: "If we have done this, to build us an altar, to turn away from the Lord, or to offer thereon burnt-offering, meat-offering, or peace-offering, may Jehovah himself require it (דּרשׁ, as in Deu 18:19; cf. Sa1 20:16). Another earnest parenthetical adjuration, as the substance of the oath, is continued in Jos 22:24. "But truly (לא ואם, with an affirmative signification) from anxiety, for a reason (lit. on account of a thing) have we done this, thinking (לאמר, since we thought) in time to come your sons might say to our sons, What have ye to do with Jehovah, the God of Israel?" i.e., He does not concern you; He is our God. "Jehovah has made the Jordan a boundary between us and your sons; ye have no part in Jehovah. Thus your sons might make our sons cease to fear Jehovah," i.e., might make them desist from the worship of Jehovah (for the infinitive form ירא instead of the abbreviated form לרא used in Sa1 18:29, there are analogies in יצק in Eze 24:3, and לישׁון, Ecc 5:11, whereas יראה is the only form used in the Pentateuch). There was some reason for this anxiety. For, inasmuch as in all the promises and laws Canaan alone (the land on this side of the Jordan, Num 34:1-12) is always mentioned as the land which Jehovah would give to His people for their inheritance, it was quite a possible thing that at some future time the false conclusion might be drawn from this, that only the tribes who dwelt in Canaan proper were the true people of Jehovah.
"So we thought, we will make ourselves to build an altar (an expression derived from the language of ordinary life, for 'we will build ourselves an altar'), not for burnt-offerings and slain-offerings; but it shall be a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we may perform the service of Jehovah before His face (i.e., before the tabernacle in which Jehovah was enthroned), with our burnt-offerings, slain-offerings, and peace-offerings," - in order, as they repeat in Jos 22:27 from Jos 22:24, Jos 22:25, that they might not be denied a part in Jehovah in time to come. For if it should so happen in time to come, that this should be said to them and to their descendants, they would say (or reply), "Behold the copy of the altar of Jehovah, which our fathers made, not for burnt-offerings," etc. (Jos 22:28, as in Jos 22:26, Jos 22:27). For this reason they had built the altar according to the pattern of the altar before the tabernacle, and that not in their own land, but on the western side of the Jordan, where the dwelling-place of Jehovah was standing, as a witness that they worshipped one and the same God with the tribes on this side.
The speakers conclude with an expression of horror at the thought of rebelling against Jehovah. ממּנּוּ לנוּ חלילה, "far be it from us away from Him (ממּנּוּ = מיהוה, Sa1 24:7; Sa1 26:11; Kg1 21:3), to rebel against Jehovah," etc.
This explanation pleased the delegates of the congregation, so that Phinehas bore this testimony to the tribes on the east of the Jordan: "Now (to-day) we perceive that Jehovah is in the midst of us; because (אשׁר, quod, as in Gen 31:49, etc.) ye have not committed this unfaithfulness towards Jehovah, since (אז, then, if ye had only this intention) ye have saved the children of Israel out of the hand of Jehovah," i.e., preserved them from His judgments.
They then returned to Canaan and informed the congregation. And the thing pleased them, so that they praised the Lord, sc., for having kept their brethren on the other side from rebellion, and they thought no more of going to war against them, or laying waste the land of the tribes on the east of the Jordan.
The Reubenites and Gadites (half Manasseh is omitted in Jos 22:33, Jos 22:34, for the sake of brevity) called the altar "witness is it between us that Jehovah is God" (כּי introduces the words). This is at once a name and an explanation, namely in this sense: they gave the altar the name of "witness between us," because it was to be a witness that they also acknowledged and worshipped Jehovah as the true God.