Saturday, April 21, 2007

Let's not be hasty

When Israel entered the Promised Land, three tribes (2½ actually) were allotted land east of the Jordan: Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. After they helped their brothers take their allotments in the west, Joshua sent them home to their eastern territories with his blessings.

They built a big, imposing altar near the Jordan, and their brothers assumed the worst -- that the altar was for worshiping other gods -- and prepared for war. They sent a delegation, a priest and ten clan leaders, to the (assumed) rebels, where they delivered a sermonette about rebelling against the Lord. Today's reading, from the book of Joshua, picks up immediately after the sermonette is over. The 2½ tribes reply to this delegation:
22"The Mighty One, God, the Lord! The Mighty One, God, the Lord! He knows! And let Israel know! If this has been in rebellion or disobedience to the Lord, do not spare us this day. 23If we have built our own altar to turn away from the Lord and to offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, or to sacrifice fellowship offerings on it, may the Lord himself call us to account.

24"No! We did it for fear that some day your descendants might say to ours, 'What do you have to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? 25The Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you--you Reubenites and Gadites! You have no share in the Lord.' So your descendants might cause ours to stop fearing the Lord.
Joshua 22:22-25
Whew! There wouldn't be any need for bloodshed among brothers. Since the ten had misunderstood their brothers' motives, it was good that they sent a delegation to find out what was really going on.

But given that these groups had been fighting the same enemies side-by-side, how did this misunderstanding happen? The "right-bankers" (the ten) saw the altar and immediately assumed evil intent, whereas this possible interpretation was apparently off the left-bankers’ radars. Why were they so different?

A few things come to mind. One is a principle of communication I heard some decades ago: that it's not enough to say things so they can be understood -- or even so they can be easily understood. What one must do is communicate in such a way that it's impossible to misunderstand -- or at least very hard. So if for example the altar had written clearly on it, "This altar bears witness between the 9½ tribes on the right bank and the 2½ tribes on the left bank that we all belong to the Lord, the God of Israel, that the Jordan divides the land but it does not divide our nation," then the right-bankers might not have been so concerned that their brothers had gone astray.

Another thing that occurred to me was the fallacy of attribution (if I have that phrase correct). That is, if I see you grumping at your kids, I think it's because you're impatient, intolerant, and not very understanding. But if I'm grumping at mine, I think it's because my great patience, though nearly limitless, has nevertheless been exhausted over many hours and despite many warnings, etc. In other words, I know I'm a good guy (at least I think so), but I'm not so sure about you.

How could this misunderstanding have been avoided? Well, of course if you could've imagined in advance the possible misunderstanding... but what if you couldn't have? Here's a possibility, that I heard about in a workshop on communication in marriage. The key word is "telegraphing", which in this context means to sort of "call or wire ahead" with your intentions. "Honey, I'm really looking forward to this vaation. I'm imagining that we'll have time for just sitting on the porch, watching the waves and sipping our coffee." Which then gives your partner the chance to say, "Glad you mentioned that, because there were 12-15 art museums I was hoping to visit. Per day." Or whatever. So that some discussion could happen before departure, or at least before you reach the "Why are you sitting on the porch again today?!" stage.

This has worked really well for us in vacation planning. The advantage we have over these tribes, of course, is that we've done this several times. "What would make ethis a good vacation for you?" -- and we all answer (the kids too) and talk about how to make it a good time for everyone.

So if before leaving the other ten (or 9½) tribes, the 2½ had said, "So guys, we were thinking, what if in the future our descendants and yours think that the Jordan is some kind of boundary and they forget that they're all part of the same nation? So we were thinking to build this big altar as a witness between us that we are all one...." or something like this, all those worries and all that sermonizing and the troop mobilization... maybe all that stuff would have been avoided?

Wars and family fights all saved by the telegraph? Maybe.

And if the telegraph is broken, it's good to ask first and shoot later; at least it beats the "Shoot first and ask questions later" methodology of the Wild West.

posted 4/22

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