A sign of belonging

John Ditty - Sunday School Lesson

(Joshua 22:10-28) People just want to know they belong so…they join a club, join a gang, join something that says, “You belong here.” The desire to belong is part of almost everyone. On rare occasion you may bump into a true loner, that person who is more comfortable in a cave than a club, by themselves than part of the gang. But these are the exception rather than the rule.

Need evidence that people long to belong? Go to a local crowded restaurant and see groups crammed into a booth. They are part of that crowd. Then, so they can be part of an even bigger horde see how many are connected to social media via their phone. Listen to them proudly announce how many folks have “friended” them. They are connected.

There is nothing wrong with the desire to belong; it is part of who we are. Humanity is a social creature most comfortable when connected, even if it is to only one other person. The fear for many is that somewhere along the way they we no longer belong so they change to fit in; they change their looks, beliefs, even their morals. Perhaps it is the fear of loneliness, isolation or alienation. For whatever the reason some people will do whatever it takes to keep from being disjoined. And this feeling knows no boundaries. It can even be experienced in the church.

During the closing days of Joshua’s life there is a story told that illustrates a people’s strong desire to know that they will always be part of the family, especially God’s family. The saga is found in Joshua 22. It is the account of the two and a half tribes heading east, going home. The chapter opens with their aged leader challenging them to be faithful to the Lord. Soon afterward Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh’s tribe head toward the Jordan.

It probably took just an hour or two for the two and a half to be on the western bank of the river. It was at this point that the group feared that a day might come when their family living on the west side of the river would disown them. So “the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh built a large, impressive altar there by the Jordan.” (v.10)

It did not take long for the news to get back to Joshua and the others. The Israelites responded by sending “Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest to the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead.” (v.13) Why Phineas? He was a priest who had no trouble attacking heresy; really attacking with swords and spears. He had been the one who led the attacked that killed disobedient Israelites who turned to worshipping Baal at Peor (Numbers 25). Sending Phineas was a signal to the eastern tribes that Joshua meant business.

When Phineas arrived at the large altar he demanded an explanation to which the two and a half replied, “Yahweh is the God of gods! Yahweh is the God of gods! He knows, and may Israel also know. Do not spare us today, if it was in rebellion or treachery against the Lord that we have built for ourselves an altar to turn away from Him” (vv.22-23). They further explained their actions, “We actually did this from a specific concern that in the future your descendants might say to our descendants, ‘What relationship do you have with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan a border between us and you descendants of Reuben and Gad. You have no share in the Lord!’ So your descendants may cause our descendants to stop fearing the Lord.” (vv.24-25) They continued, “Then in the future, your descendants will not be able to say to our descendants, ‘You have no share in the Lord!’ We thought that if they said this to us or to our generations in the future, we would reply: Look at the replica of the Lord’s altar that our fathers made, not for burnt offering or sacrifice, but as a witness between us and you.” (vv.27-28)

What was the two and a half’s rationale for building this large altar just inside the western tribes’ territory? Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh were afraid that the day would come when the Jordan River would divide the tribes and those on the west would disown those on the east. The eastern tribes feared that this would result in their turning away from the Lord.

Phineas and the other leaders heard the explanation and were satisfied and I suspect relieved. There would be no brother killing brother on that day.

What did the two and a half do to prove they belonged to the rest? First they declared their allegiance to the Lord (v.22). Then they put up a physical reminder of their partnership with the western tribes.

The actions of the eastern tribes set a good example of what God’s people need to do when they feel alone or left out. First that person should not be slow to acknowledge their relationship with Jesus. If nothing else it communicates to that lonely one that they are not alone; they have Christ and His family. Then they should be proactive. Don’t wait for the other group to make a move. Jump in and look for a way to participate, to be part of the family. Let them know that you need them to help you stay close to the Lord.

And to the group there is this reminder. People need to be needed. Look for ways to communicate that to that person who may be standing on the fringe. Your reaching out to them may be the catalyst that will move the person to the next level of devotion to Christ.

The story of Joshua 22 is told because two groups interacted. One was holding the other accountable and the other was declaring their need to belong. May this generation imitate that one.

John Ditty

Sunday School Lesson

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