God had given the land of Canaan to Israel (Abraham’s descendants, the Jews). Consequently, some forty years after unbelief and cowardice had initially cost them their first opportunity to make the land their own (Numbers 14:1-38), God again guided them to its brink for a second chance at taking possession of their possession. But first they would have to cross the Jordan river.
A curious thing happened, though, before the nation crossed the Jordan and began the military push westward into Canaan. Three distinct groups of Israel decided they liked the land on the east side of the Jordan enough to settle down there and live out their lives. Those groups were the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. The story of this event is told in Numbers chapter 32.
The land in question was known as Jazer (the northern part of the land) and Gilead (the southern part of it) and had been brought under Israel’s control when Israel’s army had defeated the armies of the Amorite king Sihon and the Bashanite king Og on its march toward the Jordan (Numbers 21:21-35; 32:33). As it so happened, the land was incredibly lush and perfect for raising livestock. This fact wasn’t lost on the tribes of Reuben and Gad, two tribes that had large amounts of livestock. Consequently, their leaders went to Moses and asked that the land be given to those tribes for a permanent dwelling place (Numbers 32:1-5).
Moses’ initial reaction to the request was not favorable to say the least. For one thing, he didn’t want the nation to undertake its military conquest of Canaan minus the men of two tribes (Numbers 32:6). For another, he feared that allowing those two tribes to settle east of the Jordan would create enough discouragement among the rest of the nation to cause a second failed attempt at conquering Canaan (Numbers 32:7). He even accused the leaders of the two tribes of acting like their forefathers who had refused to take Canaan forty years earlier (Numbers 32:8-15). He told them, “If you turn away from following the Lord, He will once again leave our people in the wilderness, which will mean that you have destroyed all of us” (32:15).
Being taken aback by Moses’ strong words, the tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad proposed a deal. They said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, and then our fighting men will leave our livestock, little ones, and wives in order to take the lead in moving the army of Israel into Canaan” (Numbers 32:16-17). They promised Moses, “We will not return to our homes until every one of the children of Israel has received his inheritance in Canaan” (Numbers 32:18).
This deal was acceptable to Moses, and he gave the two tribes permission to build their sheepfolds and their cities (Numbers 32:20-32). Even though he warned them that their sin would surely find them out if they reneged on the deal (Numbers 32:23), history would prove them true to their word. As Joshua 22:1-4 informs us, the tribes held up their end of the bargain very well.
At some point toward the end of the negotiations, half the tribe of Manasseh decided that they too wanted to join the people of Reuben and Gad in living on the east side of the Jordan (Numbers 32:33). In an interesting twist, once all the fighting was finally completed, the tribe of Manasseh actually received land on not only the east side of the Jordan but also the west side. Half the tribe settled on the east side in territories they had won by driving out the previous inhabitants (Numbers 32:39; Joshua 13:1-7), and the other half settled on the west side in land that was allotted to them by Joshua (Joshua 13:8-12; 22:7).
Still, the central question regarding the tribes that settled on the east side of the Jordan is always: “Were they right to do so?” Truth be told, Bible scholars and commentators differ in their opinions on the matter. I’ll lay out the basic cases for each point of view and let you decide which camp you think has the right take.
Commentator William Macdonald is a good example of those who don’t think the tribes were wrong in what they did. In his Believer’s Bible Commentary, he points out that God had actually given the land east of the Jordan to the people of Israel and told them to possess it (Deuteronomy 2:24, 32; 3:2). With this in mind, he then logically asks the question, “What was to be done with the land east of the Jordan River if none of the children of Israel were to settle in it?”
Likewise, James Mays, in The Layman’s Bible Commentary, says, “…this geographical separateness was not a division of the unity of all Israel as responsible for her mission and as recipients of the Lord’s blessing.” Similarly, B. Maarsingh in Numbers: A Practical Commentary, says of the deal proposed by the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, “In this promise a very different mentality comes through. No longer were they implying that they would be satisfied if only they got their share; rather the message that comes through is, ‘We are together one people; we live by only one promise and are led by one God.'”
The Baker Commentary on the Bible takes its assessment of the situation to an even further extreme by saying the following: “The wise provision of the sovereign Lord for his people is clearly seen in this account. He provides for the needs of the cattlemen; he gives an enlarged inheritance to Israel (more than the west side of Jordan); he provides warriors to lead Israel in its further conquests.”
The majority of scholars and commentators, however, believe that the tribes were wrong in what they did. Many point out the practical problem of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan not having the river as a natural protective barrier against enemy attacks from the east. This, accordingly, allowed those tribes to be the first ones to be conquered when the Assyrian empire started marching westward and making inroads to conquering Israel’s northern kingdom (2 Kings 15:29).
Moving from the practical to the spiritual, the New Scofield Study Bible calls the tribes that settled to the east of Jordan “world-borderers” and compares them to “carnal Christians.” Along the same lines, in his Matthew Henry Commentary, Matthew Henry surmises that the lust of the eye and the pride of life caused the tribes to make their request. David Jeremiah, in The Jeremiah Study Bible, follows suit by attributing their request to them being “unable to wait for the best.”
Merrill Unger also favors this interpretation of the tribes choosing to settle for less than God’s best. In his Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, he writes: “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… Especially is this true of the good and providentially advantageous things of this life that in themselves are by the mercy of God, but which, if we settle down in them, become the ‘good’ that is the enemy of the ‘best’ that God has for us. This is what happened to Reuben and Gad with regard to their very great multitude of cattle and their desire to settle down in the place that was a place for cattle, but not the place of full blessing God had promised them.”
George Williams, in The Student’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, is especially critical of the tribes. He writes: “The path of self-will is never so smooth as that of faith and obedience. God’s plan for Israel was first to conquer Canaan, and then, the vast region between the Jordan and the Euphrates. Reuben and his allies elected to reverse this; the result was present suffering and future loss. They had immediately to bid farewell to their wives and children and march away to a seven years war, in which many of them would probably lose their lives; and later on, they were the first tribes to be carried into captivity and exile…”
Coming at the criticism another way, J. Vernon McGee, in his Thru the Bible commentary, transfers the whole story into the New Testament world by mentioning that the people of Gadara, whom Jesus encountered when He cast a host of demons out of the Gadarene demonic and into a herd of swine (Mark 5:1-20), were the descendants of the tribe of Gad that had once settled in that general area. McGee writes: “Now who are the Gadarenes? They are the tribe of Gad, living on the wrong side of the Jordan River. And when Jesus came to them, He found them in the pig business, you remember. And when He healed the demon-possessed man, the Gadarenes asked the Lord Jesus to leave their country! They had gotten into a sad condition. This always happens to the child of God who fails to cross Jordan and get into the Land of Promise.”
As you can see, the camps on both sides of the debate make good arguments to support their cases. I myself probably tend to favor the interpretation that all those who settled on the east side of the Jordan missed God’s fullest slate of blessings upon their lives. But should we classify their decision as “sin”? I’m not sure that I would call it that, but I do suspect that they somehow missed out on the highest and best that God had in mind for them.
I will admit, though, that those people did a lot with that land. Numbers 32:34-42 lists all the cities they either built or renamed for the Lord, and the livestock produced by those tribes became known throughout all Israel. As evidence of this, Psalm 22:12 refers to the strong bulls of Bashan. Does this productivity mean that those Jews actually were in God’s will by dwelling in that land? Perhaps. Then again, it’s quite common for people outside God’s will to get a lot accomplished in terms of worldly affairs.
As I said, I lean toward siding with Merrill Unger, David Jeremiah, and all the others who believe that those people missed God’s ideal best. I won’t sneer at you, though, if you lean toward the other side. It really is an interesting debate, one that we won’t know the full answer about until we get to heaven. Until then I won’t come down like thunder on those tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, but I won’t sing their praises, either. And if I ever find myself being tempted to settle down in a land that I’m a little dicey about, I’ll be sure to seek God’s wisdom and will all the more to make certain that I get the decision right.