The account of Israel’s national unity in chapter 22 is a rather straightforward narrative that unfolds in five main steps. It begins in verses 1-10 with the dramatic problem of the construction of an altar by the tribes of Transjordan.
After Israel’s victories in Cisjordan, Joshua sent the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh back to their inheritances east of the Jordan. He warned them to remain faithful to God. As they travelled, the Transjordan tribes built a large, imposing altar near the Jordan River. When the tribes of Cisjordan heard about this, they assumed the altar had been erected as a substitute for the Lord’s altar at the Tabernacle of Moses.
The tension of the narrative increases in verses 11-14 with the rise of the threat of war. Fearful that the altar erected by the Transjordan tribes would bring God’s anger on all of Israel, the Cisjordan tribes made plans to attack. But, in an attempt to avoid war, they first sent a delegation of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, and ten chief men to confront the tribes of Transjordan.
The lengthy turning point of our story, in verses 15-31, reports the confrontation between this delegation and the Transjordan tribes. The delegation warned that the newly-constructed altar violated God’s command to sacrifice only at the Tabernacle. But the leaders from Transjordan passionately explained that they had not built their altar for sacrifice. Rather, it was a symbol of their unity with the other tribes because they feared that the other tribes would reject them from the nation. In response, the delegation rejoiced because the Transjordan tribes had not been unfaithful to the Lord.
The falling action of the narrative appears in verses 32, 33 with the cessation of the threat of war. The delegation reported on what they had learned, and the tribes in Cisjordan praised God and immediately stopped speaking of war.
Then the final resolution of the dramatic tension of the story appears in verse 34 with the naming of the altar. The Transjordan tribes demonstrated their intentions by naming their altar at the Jordan, “Witness.” As they explained, “[I]t is a witness between us that the Lord is God.” By doing this, the Transjordan tribes confirmed their honorable motives, their intentions to sacrifice only at the Tabernacle and their commitment to the national unity of Israel.