Numbers chapter 32 provides us with a fascinating twist in the story of Moses and the Israelites. The twist involves the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh, and it holds multiple metaphorical lessons for us in regards to the spiritual life. As such, every Christian should know it.
As the story opens, Moses and the Israelites are in the final stages of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness regions surrounding the land of Canaan. These forty years have been God’s judgment upon the people for being too unbelieving and cowardly to cross over the Jordan river, go to war with the inhabitants of Canaan, and take the land forty years earlier (Numbers chapters 13 and 14). But now a new generation of Israelites is preparing to right the wrong of that previous generation.
God has already decreed that Moses himself will not be the one to lead the nation in its conquest of Canaan. A certain sin that Moses has recently committed at Kadesh has cost him that opportunity (Numbers 20:1-13). Joshua (Moses’ general, right-hand man, and successor) will be the one to lead Israel in the conquering of Canaan. Prior to the commencement of that full-scale invasion, however, certain territories on the eastern side of the Jordan river have been conquered (Numbers chapters 21 through 31).
This sets the stage for Numbers chapter 32. As part of those recent victories, the Israelites have conquered the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead. Basically, this is all the territory between the Arnon river and the Yarmuk river (Joshua 12:1-6). What makes these lands particularly appealing is the fact that they are perfect for raising livestock. This appeal doesn’t go unnoticed by the Israelite tribes of Reuben and Gad, both of which own large herds of livestock, most of which are the spoils of a recent plundering of the Midianites (Numbers chapter 31). The appeal of the lands causes the leaders of the two tribes to think, “No matter what the other side of the Jordan river holds for us, it can’t be better than what we have right here.”
So, the leaders of the two tribes go to Moses and ask if he will give them the lands as their inheritance and allow them to settle there (32:1-5). They even say, “Do not take us over the Jordan (v.5, N.K.J.V.) Moses’ response, not unpredictably, is one of fury. He accuses the two tribes of being cowards who want to remain in safety while their fellow tribes go to war in Canaan (32:6-7). He also tells them they are acting like their ancestors did forty years earlier in refusing to take Canaan (32:8-14) and calls them “a brood of sinful men” (32:14).
It’s at this point that the leaders of the two tribes explain to Moses that they have no intention of not taking part in the fighting to settle Canaan. Is this a “plan B” explanation devised on the spot in the wake of Moses’ appall at their request? Probably.
Their new proposed plan begins with them first preparing their requested lands by building pens for their livestock and cities for their women and children (32:16-17). Once those projects are completed, the fighting men from the two tribes will take their place in Israel’s army, cross over the Jordan with the rest of Israel, and continue the warfare until Canaan is completely conquered (32:18). They will even take point by going “before” the children of Israel (32:17). Only when the land is conquered will they return to their families and herds by crossing back over the Jordan river (32:19).
After hearing this explanation, Moses does agree to the request, but he warns them that they had better live up to their part of the deal (32:20-24). If they don’t, God will judge them harshly. Since Moses already knows that he won’t be around to ensure that everything gets handled correctly, he calls in Eleazar the priest, Joshua, and the heads of all the tribes and explains the agreement to them (32:28-32). At some point, half the tribe of Manasseh gets in on the deal as well because they also have livestock and like the looks of the lands (32:39-42). A full listing of the lands and the cities that ultimately either got built, rebuilt, or conquered is provided in Numbers 32:33-42.
In the end, the fighting men from Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh did make good on their agreement with Moses, and they did return to their lands and settle there. Joshua 13:15-33 tells us that the tribe of Reuben settled in the southern portion of the lands, the tribe of Gad settled in the northern portions, and half the tribe of Manasseh settled furthest north in Bashan. (According to Joshua 13:1-7, the other half of the tribe of Manasseh settled in an allotted portion of Canaan.)
All this brings us to the question: “When all the dust was settled from all the centuries that would follow, was the decision of the two and a half tribes to settle on the east side of the Jordan river a good one?” The answer to that is, no. Consider the results of the decision:
- By agreeing to join their fellow Israelites in the war to conquer Canaan, the men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh were forced to remain away from their wives and children for the length of the war. That turned out to be a period of seven long years.
- By settling on the eastern side of the Jordan river, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh forfeited the natural protection of the Jordan river and left themselves susceptible to attacks from the east.
- In 732 B.C., the Assyrians invaded Israel from the east. And who were the first tribes they defeated and carried off as prisoners of war? Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 5:1-26).
So, what spiritual lessons can we Christians learn from this story? Well, here are a few, and I offer them as the close to this post. Consider each one carefully and take heed that you don’t fall victim to it:
- We must resist the temptation to place prosperity and easy living above obeying God’s plan for our lives. As James Mays writes in The Layman’s Bible Commentary, “The promise of prosperity loomed larger than the promise of a destiny as the People of the Land.”
- We must resist the temptation to succumb to the fleshly temptation of what looks good in our eyes. Just as those members of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh gazed lustfully and longingly upon those lands of Jazer and Gilead, Lot had once cast the same look upon the plain of Jordan, that plain where the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located (Genesis 13:10-11). The results of Lot’s look, of course, proved similarly disastrous (Genesis 13:12-13; 14:1-17; 19:1-38).
- We must resist the temptation to settle for anything less than God’s fullest and best for us. As Merrill Unger writes in his Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, “How easy it is for God’s people to get so near to what is God’s purpose for them and yet be diverted from it by what is expedient from a worldly standpoint.”