Ah, so this is what they meant that Joshua is “Deuteronomistic.” In this story, when Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh return to their home across the Jordan river, they build an altar and nearly start a war. This only makes sense if you read it from the point of view of Deuteronomy, where there is only one legitimate altar to perform sacrifices: the tabernacle, and later the temple.

The problem, though, is that according to Exodus and all the other books, any Levite can set up an altar anywhere, so long as it’s made of uncut stones. And maybe in the original event that inspired this, that’s exactly what happened. The Transjordan tribes just built an altar, and there was no kerfuffle at all.

But for the Deuteronomist editor to make this fit with the belief that there could only be one true altar and that this supposedly goes all the way back to Moses, that couldn’t fly. For them to have built another altar would have called down God’s wrath. But it didn’t. So they have to come up with another solution: the altar wasn’t really an altar.

The NRSV calls it a “copy” (v 28), and the Japanese mokei is the same word used for those miniature reconstructions you see in museums. It’s a faux altar, a replica of an altar, and it was never meant to actually be used as an altar, it just looks like one, to remind the tribes of their connection to each other.

Now, when I first read it I really did expect the altar to get smote because this excuse is so lame. But nothing happens, so either the LORD forgave the Transjordanians their sin or they really did just have the oddest idea for how to remind their descendents that both sides of the river were one nation.

What’s interesting about this patch-up is that the editors could have chosen to make Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh look bad. They could have had some disaster happen to them that they had to repent of. It’s not as though there were any Gadites, Reubenites, and Manassehites around when they finished this book. But instead they portray them as innocent, while the other tribes were too quick to rush to judgment. The other tribes almost immediately start talking about “your land” versus “the LORD’s land” (i.e. their land, v 19), and it gives a lot of credence to a fear from the Transjordanians that, because of their geographical divide, they would wind up outsiders to the rest of Israel (v 24).

Maybe in the original version, that’s exactly why they built a real altar so quickly – to assert their unity with other Israelites, their loyalty to YHWH. Maybe it was such an important event that there was no way that the editors could alter the main elements of it, and had to resort to fudging on the details.

Admittedly this is my bias as a Christian, and as a Lutheran at that, but there’s something unpleasant about one temple in one city held by one tribe being the only place everyone can go worship. That’s a lot of power, and humans have a tendency to abuse that power. Look at how quickly the tribes turned self-righteous because their territory held the tabernacle!

A diffused worship pattern might make religion less centralized and controllable, but it also makes it more balanced, and reduces resentment and tribalism. You can see the same kind of thing with how tired Catholics worldwide have become of European popes, and how elated they were to have someone from Argentina, even if he was ultimately of European descent. If all your religious leaders are tied to one place, then that place dominates your religion, and people from elsewhere are marginalized and ignored.

The Japanese: shinrai suru “to trust in, to rely on” (v 5), zaihou “treasure” (v 8), shutoku suru “to get, to obtain” (v 9), izuremo “every, all” (v 14), haishin “betrayal, disloyalty,” koui “act” (v 16), saisai na “trivial, minor” (v 17), bassuru “to punish” (v 23), aidagara “relationship” (v 27), mokei “model” (v 28), douhan suru “to accompany,” yoshi to shita “it was good” (v 30), kakeru “to place,” manukareru “to be rescued from, to avoid” (v 31).

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