Communicating accurately and well can be a difficult task.
Organizations maintain communication departments to enhance the general perception of their entity and prevent damage through bad news. Communication takes place in everyday life—in the workplace, in educational settings, with friends, in the family, and between spouses. At times our attempts at communicating deteriorate into mere interrogation:
“Where have you been?”
“What have you done?”
“Why didn’t you . . . ?”
Sometimes there is little openness to share and little willingness to listen. Sometimes it is more a monologue than a meaningful dialogue. Sometimes silence has replaced an exchange of ideas, and nonverbal communication reveals the estrangement of the affected parties. Sometimes the publicly visible aspect of communication is completely misunderstood, and the intentions behind people’s speech acts are misinterpreted. Marriages fall apart because communication goes wrong. Parent-child relations suffer from bad communicative patterns. Problems at work or in the church seem to be insurmountable.
A Biblical Example
An interesting example of how communication can go wrong but also how it can be improved is found in Joshua 22.
Israel had largely conquered the Promised Land. The two and a half tribes that had settled east of the Jordan and had supported the other tribes in taking possession of their inheritance west of the Jordan were now able to return home. Before blessing them and sending them on their way, Joshua admonished them “to love the Lord . . . and keep His commandments . . . and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5, NASB).*
When they approached the river Jordan, they decided to build a huge altar on its western side in the territory of Judah or Benjamin (verse 10) that could be seen from afar. Joshua 22 keeps us in suspense. We are not directly told why these tribes built the altar. Did they attempt to start an alternative worship service to the true God? It looked like a major crisis.
1React When Things Go Wrong—or Seem to Go Wrong
(verses 11, 12).
When the remaining nine and a half tribes heard about what had happened, they gathered in order to react to the event (Joshua 22:11, 12). Although their aim to go to war was clearly mistaken, they should be commended for not remaining indifferent.
This also happens frequently today. We may have an argument with our spouse but do not clarify the issue, and hope it will go away. Most likely it will not. Next time around, the issue may surface again. Problems have to be laid on the table and discussed, and a solution or a compromise worked out. Openness is necessary. If we have hurt others, forgiveness must be sought and granted. Unclarified issues can ruin a relationship in the long run.
The same is true for the church. We have become so individualistic that we are often not willing to assume responsibility for each other and help each other as an extended family. How will I lovingly address behavior and teachings in my brother or sister that do not correspond to Scripture and a Christlike life? We may have become so scared of possible consequences that we remain inactive, thereby allowing the problems to grow unnoticed.
Here is the first principle: we react tactfully when things go wrong or seem to go wrong. We do not remain indifferent and inactive. We care for each other, even though at times it may be difficult.
2Do Not Hurry to Premature Conclusions (verse 12).
Although the western tribes were correct in addressing the issue, the way they did it wasn’t correct. They rushed to the conclusion that the construction of the altar by the eastern tribes was a case of apostasy. If that was so, the only solution seemed to be war and complete eradication of the apostates (verse 33), because sacrifices were to be presented only at the altar of the tabernacle (Lev. 17:8, 9), and the worship of other gods was not allowed in Israel (Deut. 13:12-15). Interestingly, the western tribes are called “the Sons of Israel” and “the whole congregation of the sons of Israel” (Joshua 22:12, NASB), with the eastern tribes being already excluded.
That the western tribes should have avoided jumping to hasty conclusions is indicated through the location of the altar. If the altar would have been used for offering sacrifices, it can be assumed that the eastern tribes would have built it on their side of the Jordan and not in the territory of the western tribes. In addition, why was the altar so big that it could be seen from a far distance?
The rigid reaction of the western tribes may have also occurred because of some self-interest (verse 18). They knew that the entire people suffered from Achan’s sin (Joshua 7) and that the wrath of God had turned against Israel when they had worshipped the golden calf (Ex. 32). They did not want to see history repeated; they would rather kill their relatives.
Note a second principle: we don’t hurry to unsubstantiated conclusions, but remain tentative until the other party has had a fair hearing. We are willing to give to others the benefit of the doubt. Because we are unable to read the minds of others and don’t always know their intentions, we are very careful with our conclusions, trying to stay calm and objective.
3Take Time to Talk About Real or Perceived Problems (verses 13-20).
Fortunately, the western tribes didn’t start war right away, but sent a delegation of 10 tribal leaders headed by the priest Phinehas. Phinehas had been involved in the stopping of the plague that had befallen Israel when they had allowed themselves to be seduced by the Moabites (Num. 25). He was experienced in matters of apostasy.
Although it was good to send a delegation, the way these leaders approached their brothers was less than ideal. Without listening first, they rebuked them sternly and warned them of the consequences of their alleged apostasy (Joshua 22:16-18).
We can observe a third principle: We take time to talk about real or perceived problems. Sometimes appointments must be canceled to clarify issues and prevent permanent damage to a relationship. We need to listen to one another in our marriages, in our families, and in our churches; and we try to stay away from accusations. We allow the others to speak their minds and unburden their hearts.
4Be Willing to Make a Sacrifice (verse 19).
Despite their premature conclusions and their harsh accusation, the love of the western tribes for the eastern tribes is revealed in verse 19. These tribes were willing to make a tremendous sacrifice. “If it is problematic to live in Transjordan,” they reasoned, “come and dwell among us.” This would not be easy. They would have to give up land allotted to them. They would have to reduce their standard of living. But they were willing to do that. They offered a wonderful invitation to their brothers and sisters: Let us not walk away from the Lord. It is better to live in less comfort, if we only serve the Lord. This is such a moving appeal because the western tribes were willing to make personal sacrifices.
Note the fourth principle: We must be willing to make sacrifices in our marriages, families, and churches. We work on compromises that aren’t opposed to God’s Word. We seek the good of others, and we seek reconciliation. Conflict can be reduced if the other party recognizes our sincerity.
5Give a Gentle Answer (verses 21-29).
Although the western tribes launched serious accusations against the eastern tribes, the latter didn’t get angry or react offended. This is remarkable. Had we been in their place, we might have blamed them, become cynical, and defended our honor by taking up arms. It is difficult to deal gracefully with false accusation, especially the charge of apostasy and rebellion.
Joshua 22:22-24 provides part of this amazing response, which cools down the situation instead of adding fuel to the fire. The eastern tribes began their defense by calling God as their witness in the strongest possible terms. Twice they repeated three terms for God—something unique in the Old Testament. They declared that their intention was not to break away from the Lord but to make sure that even in the future a united people of Israel would follow the Lord and worship Him.
Here’s a fifth principle: We give a gentle answer when accused and blamed, staying calm and listening carefully. We don’t react to offense with offense, but explain the situation from our perspective without making cutting remarks.
6Share What You Are Planning to Do (verses 24-28).
And yet the eastern tribes made a serious mistake too. They didn’t share what they were planning to do. They surprised their fellow Israelites and thus contributed to the misunderstanding. Because they didn’t communicate their intentions openly, the tribes almost launched a civil war.
The information about their goals for constructing the altar is found only in verses 24-28. But even this good explanation wasn’t completely satisfactory. Since it was important for the eastern tribes to be counted among Israel and not be separated from God’s people, it would have been much better if the western tribes had been invited to participate in the construction of the altar as a memorial.
A lack of openness can be a major problem in communication today as well. Sometimes we may send ambiguous messages that can have two or more possible meanings—as in the case with this altar—and use cryptic language, making it difficult or impossible for the recipient to understand what we are saying or doing. For instance, a child may be afraid of a dog but instead of saying, “I’m afraid of the dog,” may demand, “I want to go home.” The child’s message can easily be misunderstood because it’s not transparent.
The sixth principle reminds us to be transparent, to share our plans and goals, thoughts and emotions, and even to make ourselves somewhat vulnerable. This doesn’t mean that we are spiritual exhibitionists—rather, authentic. From this position we may be able to help others. The highest level of transparency is reached when we not only share what we know we think and feel, but also who we are.
7Rejoice and Praise the Lord When Conflict Has Been Resolved
Finally, the conflict between Israel’s tribes was resolved. They were pleased and grateful, praising God (verse 33). The seventh principle is this: We rejoice and praise the Lord when conflict has been resolved. It’s not our great doing or skills, but the result of His grace.
Joshua 22 not only contains an interesting story but also speaks to us today as we struggle to communicate effectively. At times we misunderstand each other, talk past each other, and may have prejudices against each other. We may not communicate openly and lovingly. The seven principles that we observe in Joshua 22 are helpful—even essential—for our interaction with people around us. And they may just transform our families and churches.
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Ekkehardt Mueller, a native of Germany, is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He enjoys creating musical harmonies with his wife, Geri, a professional flute player. This article was published June 16, 2011.