After Israel fights her way through the Promised Land, taking control of all that God has given her and fighting together, brother by brother, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh return home to the land that they've chosen for themselves on the other side of the Jordan. They are now cut off from their brothers by a river that sometimes rages, the very same river that the anointed and blessed armies of Israel not so long ago wondered how they would ever cross.
And with everyone settled and settling into their own places, it suddenly occurs to them that this may be a bit of a problem later. When their children don't remember fighting together. The day may be coming and indeed, may be not so far off, when the peoples on either side of the Jordan see each other not as brothers and not even, perhaps, as neighbors, but as simply nations...who may become rivals.
So the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh decide that they will build an altar to the Lord on their side of the Jordan, one that mirrors the altar on the other side. In this way, they will have a permanent marker that signifies the relationship between the peoples on either side of the river.
Except...the people on the other side of the river doesn't "get it."
Israel doesn't understand what their brothers are doing, and it seems to them that they are quickly turning away from the Lord to worship their own gods. After all, just look at this altar they have built! You can see it all the way from this side of the river! And Israel is disheartened at losing her brothers, so much so that she's ready to go to battle to keep them.
So the majority of the tribes on one side of the river send brothers to the handful on the other side as an attempt to draw them back into the fold, only to find out that they never actually left. What they were trying to do was to cement themselves in the fold for future generations, to remind everyone - themselves and their brothers - who they were, that they were part of Israel and always had been.
What we have had here is a terrible misunderstanding, one that almost resulted in bloodshed.
And so it goes. It's so easy for us to judge others based on what we think we see of them. We come up with all of these stories in our own heads about what they must be doing over there in their own land. After all, we see the signs of it from this far away, don't we? We see the altars they have built. Just look at that monstrosity. How could they even do such a thing?
I'm not talking just about the unchurched or the non-Christian here; we do this with our Christian brothers and sisters, too - especially of different denominations. We look at the ways that they are choosing to worship and we think, oh, how dramatically they have turned from the Lord. We're ready to go to battle with anyone and everyone based on what we think we understand, and unlike Israel, we don't often take the time to send brothers to talk. We just go in guns blazing.
But outward appearances can be deceiving. We cannot know truly what is in someone else's heart unless we ask him. We can't know what they're up to unless we get close enough to truly see, and we can't get close enough until we come in peace. How many of the battles that we're fighting could be stopped if we would understand first and fight later?
What if we just started with a simple question? Hey, I noticed your big, giant altar over here, and I was wondering - what are you thinking?
The answer may surprise you. And you may just find that we're not so far away from one another after all, raging river between or not.