The Civil War That Wasn’t

Brothers and sisters do not always get along.

One of my favorite midrashic passages states this pretty strongly: “From the beginning of Creation, brothers have hated each other: Cain hated Abel and killed him…; Ishmael hated Isaac…wanted to kill him…; Esau hated Jacob [and planned to kill him]…; and the tribes hated Joseph [and planned to kill him]…” (Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 24)

Why is this pessimistic passage a favorite of mine? Because it acknowledges that these sorts of conflicts are normal, and human.

It does not, however, idealize them. (The Tanchuma passage goes on to portray the relationship between Moshe and Aharon as the actual, rare, ideal.) It is normal and understandable that brothers and sisters would get under each other’s skin. Given that fact of human existence, I believe it is our task to find ways to get along anyway – and not just with our immediate siblings, but with our brothers and sisters in the broadest sense of the terms.

And the stories of the Bible seem like a good place to start in our quest to figure out what to do, or not do, towards that goal.

Most of us know the stories mentioned in the midrash quoted above, and we know of bigger incidents too: the civil war that resulted from the tragic episode of the concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19); the national split that occurred after the death of King Solomon, resulting in two separate Jewish kingdoms (Kings I 12).

But fewer of us have learned about the civil war that wasn’t. As it came up recently in a class I am teaching, I was blown away by the clear echoes of our times in this account.

Please, join me for a brief story time.

At the beginning of Joshua 22 (, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of Menashe, are dismissed to their homes on the east side of the Jordan River. Having fulfilled their pledge to fight for Canaan alongside the rest of the nation, they can now go home and begin life in their own territories. Joshua knows, however, that this will present a special challenge for them, separated as they will be from their brethren and the centralized worship in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh. He cautions them in verse 5 to remain true to G-d: “Only take diligent heed to do the commandment and the law…” (Verse translations are all from JPS, with some modernizing edits.)

And yet, what is the first thing they do as they head to their land? In verse 10: “… the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar there by the Jordan…”

Key background information: The Mishkan at Shiloh, at that time, was supposed to be the place of sacrificial worship for the Jewish people; other altars were prohibited. (Mishna Zevachim 14:6)  Given that serious prohibition, the other nine-and-a-half tribes are understandably shocked at this new altar, taking it as a slap in the metaphorical face of G-d Himself – and they are terrified by its potential consequences. They have experienced enough situations in which one, or many, of their brethren betrayed G-d to know that He holds them all responsible for one another. Again, understandably, they have no interest in being punished for standing by while their brothers build this unsanctioned altar.

So, they react. Verse 12: “And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered themselves together at Shiloh, to go up against them to war.” – The civil war that was about to be.

Let’s pause and note some details:

Detail #1: The nine-and-a-half tribes are referred to as “The Children of Israel” – the collective term for the entire nation. From this terminology, we might deduce that they see themselves as THE Jewish people – with their brethren, the remaining two-and-a-half tribes, having stepped outside the fold. Interesting.

Detail #2: As soon as they hear the news of this altar, they gather for war. Why? Because they are convinced that their brethren have committed a grave sin and must be stopped.  Admirable case of devotion to G-d, or reprehensible instance of minding other people’s business?

Detail #3: What do they not do? Ask any questions. As Malbim (19th century Bible commentator) points out – they did not give the benefit of the doubt, but simply “listened” to the report of this altar and assumed it was very, very bad.

They do take an impressive step before attacking, however, and it is this that saves the day: they send messengers to talk – the crucial detail #4.

What do they say? Verses 16-20: “What treachery is this that you have committed against the God of Israel…If the land of your possession is impure, then come over into the land of the possession of the LORD, where the LORD’S tabernacle dwells, and take possession among us; but rebel not against the LORD…”

 Which gives us detail #5: The 9-and-a-half tribes, ready as they are to fight their brethren, are just as ready to welcome them back to the fold. They realize that perhaps this altar is a misguided attempt to feel close to G-d despite living outside the main Promised Land and far from the Tabernacle, so they offer a solution: Come back! Presumably, this would involve accepting smaller territories for themselves – but they are willing to do it, to make physical and religious space for their apparently wayward fellow Jews.

Which means that, as harsh as their reaction may have been, and though it seems to have been motivated by fear – one might argue that it carries an undertone of love. They may themselves be misguided in this particular show of love – but the sentiment should be recognized, even appreciated, for what it is.

Yet, the two-and-a-half tribes are uninterested: They know exactly what they are doing, and they are happy with their choices. Detail #6.

And now, let’s examine the response of Reuben, Gad, and the half of Menashe – verses 21-29: “ …God, the LORD, He knows, and Israel shall know… we have done this out of concern about something, saying: In time to come your children might speak to our children, saying: What do you have to do with the God of Israel? For G-d made the Jordan a border between us and you… so your children might make our children stop fearing the LORD. Therefore we said: Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt-offering…but it shall be a witness between us and you…”

What a great line! Detail #7: G-d, alone, knows our motivations. He alone can judge.

And of course, detail #8: The whole incident began out of fear that one segment of the Jewish people might one day reject another, and deny them their right to worship G-d.

One might well wonder how those future generations could possibly stop the others from worshipping G-d. Some suggest they could physically prevent them from coming to worship at the Tabernacle. Malbim offers an explanation I find even more poignant: that in time, the descendents of the two-and-a-half tribes might take the rejection to heart and give up on their relationships with G-d.

And finally, detail #9: This “altar” was really a monument, never intended for actual sacrificial use. It wasn’t built as a betrayal of G-d and the nation; on the contrary, it was to be an everlasting testimonial to the unity of the nation and to their shared devotion to G-d.

So, let’s review.

One subgroup of the Jewish people, concerned for their own religious continuity, takes a step that looks really bad to the others.

The rest of the nation – viewing themselves as THE Jewish people, period – see how bad it looks and rush to respond. Their reaction is genuine, with the best of intentions; they are willing even to step aside to make room for the others – “just don’t rebel against G-d!” – that is their only concern. But, they are also willing to fight – because they are certain they are right and the others are wrong.

They should be commended, I think, for trying to engage in dialogue at all – but one can only imagine how it must have felt to the members of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe to hear such harsh words from the messenger. “What does he mean?” they must have wondered. “What on earth is he so upset about?!”

And naturally, that shock turned to indignation: “You don’t know anything! G-d knows our motives are pure and we are only trying to serve Him! We haven’t done anything wrong, and who are you to tell us we have?!” (My beloved editorial team, consisting of my sister and my husband, disagrees with my interpretation of the tone here. Read it and draw your own conclusions! I still think I’m right.)

Of course, as objective third-party readers, we might be as surprised at their indignation as at the others’ willingness to go to war – because really, it seems reasonable to assume an altar is an altar! So, perhaps, we might wonder at the behavior of the two-and-a-half tribes, in building this altar without a word to the rest of the nation. Perhaps a little foresight and communication could have prevented any conflict at all. “Guys, it’s been great fighting alongside you; good luck getting settled. Hey, you know, we’re going to be living all the way over there and would hate for any future generations to think that means we’re not united! Say, let’s build a monument for all to see and remember that we’re all one nation!”

A little bit of open, respectful communication can go a long way.

And, of course, the irony is pretty glaring here. The point of the altar was to ensure the Jewish continuity of the two-and-a-half tribes, to link them forever with the rest of the nation – but the rest of the nation assumed it meant the exact opposite: divisiveness and a rejection of their shared heritage. Moreover, had the two factions not communicated in time, it could have indeed divided the nation irrevocably and even potentially annihilated the smaller group.

Thankfully, although “the Children of Israel” had not initially imagined there could be any legitimate explanation for this altar, once they hear that there is one, “it pleased them well” (v. 30) – and civil war is averted.

Score one for communication. For talking, and listening, to one another.

I will leave it to the reader to draw the parallels to our times, if indeed there are some, and to determine what the messages might be and how to apply them. I simply could not resist calling attention to this story.

The one thing I will suggest is that perhaps there are things that both sides could have done better in strengthening, rather than endangering, their relationship – as there are always things that all of us could do better.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator, a freelance writer and editor, and the director of She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, Lehrhaus, Tradition, and more, and she serves as Editor-At-Large, Deracheha: Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and