(Numbers 32)

The Ruebenites and the Gadites solicit for their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan. This country recently dispossessed of the Amorites, impressed them, from its abundant pastures, to be well adapted to their occupations with respect to their large possessions in cattle. Then, too, the land was without an owner, as it was not literally included in the promise. “Wherefore,” said they to Moses and the princes of Israel, “if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given to thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan.” Hearing, Moses was vexed and greatly alarmed. He understood them to mean that, in addition to their being allowed to settle at once in that territory, they be freed from the obligation of assisting the other tribes in the conquest of Canaan. His reply to them was severe. He first struck at their unbrotherly thought and its glaring injustice. “Shall your brethren,” said he to them, “go to war, and shall ye sit there” (v. 6)? ‘How can ye want to be following the peaceful pursuits of life with your brethren wrestling with the adversary for the possession of their inheritance?’ Then he upbraided them for the demoralizing effect of their proposal on the people. “And wherefore discourage ye the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord hath given them” (Num. 32:7). He held up their conduct as akin to the evil doing of the spies who disheartened the people before hand through their evil report and brought upon them the judgment of God by which the entire generation had perished in the desert, Joshua and Caleb excepted. “Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. For when they went up unto the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land which the Lord had given them. And the Lord’s anger was kindled the same time, and he sware saying, Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I sware unto Abraham….because they have not wholly followed me: . . . . and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed” (Num. 32:9-13). He tells them finally that they now arise in the room of their fathers, as an aftergrowth, a sinful brood, of such sinners to bring to a climax the fierce anger of Jehovah toward Israel in the destruction of the people altogether. Such will be the outcome, if they draw back behind Him; and the doom of the people will be laid to their charge, (Num. 32:14, 15).

This speech was hard. The Gadites and the Reubenites reply. They say: “We will build pens for our cattle, and cities for our little ones (families); but we will arm ourselves with haste in the presence of the sons of Israel until we have led them to their places; and our little ones will dwell in the fortified cities from the presence of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our houses until the children of Israel have inherited each his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on yonder side of Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side of Jordan eastward.” (Num. 32:16-19).

They meant no wrong, then. But if not, the rebuke of Moses was ill-deserved. He should now confess this and: extend to them his apologies.

But Moses makes no amends. He holds him to his original interpretation of their speech, continues to regard it as expressive of their intent to withdraw from the rest of the tribes and to settle at once in Gilead. Though they now have promised to be loyal, he is still ill at ease with respect to them, so much so that he thinks it necessary to warn them that, if they will not go armed before the Lord to war, they may be sure that their sins will find them out. “If ye will do this thing …. and the land be subdued before the Lord, then afterwards ye shall return and be guiltless before the Lord, and this land shall be your possession before the Lord. But if ye will not do so, you have sinned against the Lord: and. be sure your sin will find you out.” (Num. 32:20-24).

The Gadites and the Reubenites, perceiving that Moses still distrusts them, once more repeat their promise: “Thy servants will do as the Lord commandeth. Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our cattle, shall be there in the city of Gilead: but thy servants shall pass over, every man armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my Lord saith.” (vv. 25-27).

Moses now gives assent in the shape of a command addressed to the high priest, to Joshua, and to the elders of Israel, since he knows that he would not live to accomplish it: “If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over Jordan, each armed to battle, before the Lord, and the land shall be subdued before you; then ye shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession.” (v. 29).

But Moses still has his misgivings. He is yet afraid that they will refuse to proceed before them, armed for the conquest. For he now adds an alternative: “But if they will not pass over with you armed they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” (v. 30).

Moses reasons that their desire for the land east of the Jordan is that strong, that, rather than lose this country and be compelled to settle in Canaan on account of disloyalty, they will choose to assist their brethren in the conquest of Canaan. This is revealing. It shows that they continue to stand out in his mind as men who are reluctant to be joined with their brethren in the war that must still be fought and who therefore must be held to the line of duty by the prospect of losing the land of their desire.

Once more therefore do they solemnly promise that they will do as the Lord has said, will pass over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, that the possession of their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan might be theirs, (vv. 31, 32).

Then Moses “gave unto them, even to the children of Gad, and to the children of Rueben, and to the half tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Rashan, the land with the cities thereof in the coasts; even the cities of the country round about.” (32:33).

It is to be noticed that the half tribe of Manasseh, though they did not sue for their inheritance east of the Jordon, were nevertheless given possessions in that region.

As to Rueben and Gad, it is plain that Moses continued to distrust these tribes. He remained apprehensive. He seemed to be incapable of being convinced that they would hold them to their word. He treated them harshly throughout the entire transaction. They did not by their promise, twice repeated, change his first impression of them.

Did Moses do right here? This depends on whether they had given him grounds for suspecting them. This they had. They therefore deserve the treatment which he afforded them. Let us go over the case from the beginning.

First, why was this territory divided among these tribes? Verse 33 scq. contains the answer. “And the children of Machir the son of Manasseh went down to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites which was in it. And Jair the son of Manasseh went down and took the small towns thereof …. And Nobah went down and took the villages thereof.” According to this notice the land east of the Jordan had been conquered by the tribe Manasseh and, it must be supposed, by the two tribes Dan and Reuben. However, according to Num. 21, the conquest of this territory had been the fruit of a military campaign against Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan in which all the tribes had participated. “And Israel,” mark you Israel, “smote him (Sihon) with the edge of the sword and Israel took all the cities” (21:24, 25). “So they (Israel) smote him (king Og) and his sons and all his people, until there was none left alive; and they possessed the land” (v. 35). The difficulty is easily removed. The exploits of these heroes from the tribe of Manasseh formed a part of the military campaign as conducted by all the tribes; and the reason therefore that the sacred narrator singles out at Num. 32:39 these few heroes from the tribe of Manasseh is that this tribe, together with Reuben and Gad, had been conspicuous in that conquest. This may account for the peculiar wealth of these tribes in cattle.

Having thus taken the lead in these earlier wars, the tribes Dan and Reuben (the tribe of Manasseh keeps silence about the matter) asked Moses that he give them their possessions east of the Jordan. They think that, as compared with the other tribes, they have acquired a special claim to this region. The part of their request that offended Moses is the final sentence: “Bring us not over Jordan.” These words are equivocal. They can be taken as setting forth merely the desire of the speakers not to receive their inheritance on the west of the Jordan without the wish to withdraw their assistance from their brethren in the conquest of Canaan; or they may be understood to be expressive of the wish to settle east of the Jordan at once and to leave the conquest of Canaan to the other tribes. Moses understood the words in the latter sense and rightly so. Had these men meant differently, they would have expressed themselves differently at the beginning. Their manner of speech was calculated to obscure the real intent of their heart, yet not so completely as to leave Moses in the dark as to what they wanted, yet just enough to allow them to put themselves in the clear by complaining of their being misunderstood, should their proposal be ill-received. Their veiled speech betokens caution. They plainly doubted the rightness of their request and feared that it would call forth strongest rebuke. And it did so. And their reactions show that Moses understood them aright and that they were guilty of what he accused them. Had they not entertained the meaning that he attributed to their words, they would have become indignant and in their indignation vigorously resent these accusations as untrue. They didn’t do this. But neither did they admit guilt and denounce their proposal as sinful and regrettable. Having heard themselves taken severely to task, they simply told Moses what they now planned on doing, to wit, settle at once east of the Jordan and assist their brethren in the conquest of Canaan. Moses, therefore continued to distrust them.

Fact is that he had more reason for persisting in his distrust of them. These men were overbold; and their replies bespeak a carnal spirit. They laid out the law to Moses. They said: “For we will not inherit with them (the other tribes) on the west of the Jordan; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side of Jordan eastward.” How did they know. They didn’t, of course. They spake here not as they knew Moses to have decreed but as they had decided among themselves.

They also said: “(But) we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them to their place . . . These are boastful and martial words. The tribes of Reuben and Gad were conspicuous in the earlier war. And they thought they had done enough. Besides, mindful of their easy defeat of the two mighty kings of the Amorites, they concluded perhaps that the other tribes should be strong enough to conquer the land on the west of the Jordan. But if Moses thought otherwise, and if he insisted they would consent to lead also in the war that still awaited the nation and they would bring them to their places. They would do all this. They seemed to forget that the Israelites were the army of Jehovah, that at His command they waged war, that the battle and the victory is His, and that Israel’s help cometh from the sanctuary. The speech of these tribes strangely contrasts with the truly theocratic reply of Moses: “If ye will go armed before the Lord . . . until he hath driven out his enemies before him, and the land be subdued before the Lord. . . then we shall be guiltless before the Lord. . . . . and this land shall be your possession before the Lord.” Then, too, their words betoken an overpowering love for their cattle and pastures, which lie closer their hearts than their children even. They say: “We will build pens here for our cattle and cities for our little ones . . .’’Hence they will first protect their herds, then when they are secure, their families. Moses in his reply reverses the order: “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep.” It is clear that it would be wrong to say that Moses ascribed to these tribes thoughts and intents that were not in the beginning present in their soul and that, therefore, this reproof was uncalled for and should have been recanted. Not Moses but these tribes were in the wrong. To adopt the opposite view is to hold up Moses as a shepherd who had no regard for his people and who was wont to ride roughshod over their feelings; as a man unwilling to admit his mistakes and to make amends for wrong done thus as a man proud and overbearing and groundlessly suspicious, whose habit it was to misjudge the motives of others. Moses, certainly, was not this kind of a man; but, according to God’s own testimony, he was a man of remarkable meekness.

These tribes were in the wrong. Their demand was, in the highest degree, dangerous. It could have worked great harm and brought on another disaster of the first magnitude. For there can be no doubt that the original intention of these tribes was to settle at once east of the Jordan and to leave to the other tribes the conquest of Canaan. Had these tribes not been checked in their wrong ambition, had their intention crystallized and passed into action, the law of unity in heart and conduct of the army of God, as the indispensable condition of the conquest of the promised land, would have given way to the law of disruption and moral disintegration. This Moses perceived. He realized what was at stake. And he took a firm stand. Seizing upon the sinful element in their request, he held it up in full view and exposed and denounced it for what it was, unsparingly and without mincing words. (Let us honor the man for it. And let us understand that always the crying need of the church is for men of this courage.

The request itself, as freed from its wrong element, was not sinful. It was not overhasty in the time at which it was made. There was nothing wrong in the thought that it was peculiarly adapted to the habits of life of the two tribes. So far was Moses from denouncing the request as such, that he sanctioned it. What he frowned upon was the wrong spirit that led to the request—the wrong intention expressed in the words, Bring us not over this Jordan, to leave their brethren in the lurch and to withdraw themselves from the leadership of Moses and Jehovah.

But praise is also due to these tribes;. They did not become angry and loud-mouthed when reproved; justify themselves in their wrong ambition, (which they could have done with some show of fairness,) and serve Moses notice that they were holding them to their original intention. They did not ask for their papers and leave the church. To the contrary, they received his words of rebuke and allowed themselves to be reprimanded and corrected: they put from them their wrong intention; and they solemnly promised over and over to assist their brethren in the conquest of Canaan. It need not be supposed that, when they first opened their mouth to speak,—their intention was standing out in their minds in all its sinful implications and dangerous possibilities. They had failed to weigh properly their own proposition. They were not wicked men at heart. If so, they would have reacted to the words of Moses’ rebuke differently, as wicked men are wont to react to words of correction. Fundamentally they were good men. Only their trouble was that they had allowed themselves to be ensnared by the lust of the eyes. The land was pleasant to the eye; it was good pasturage; and they had much cattle. So they fell temporarily into the sin—the sin of the flesh—of seeking their own things and not the things of Jehovah, of Christ. But when reproved, they were immediately willing to see their sin and to promise not to separate themselves from the tribes. Thus they made the wise concessions and brotherly sacrifices. Their response is noble. They are spiritually pliable and tractable, capable of easily being led. They even correct immediately their errors of speech. Their first reply contains language such as this: “But we ourselves will go armed before the children of Israel; until we—mark you, we—have brought them (the children of Israel to their place.” In replying, Moses speaks of them as going armed before the Lord. They take notice of this. When they again open their mouth to speak, it is to once more assure Moses that they will ‘‘pass over every man armed for war, before the Lord.” At first they put their cattle before their families. Moses reverses the order. Again they take notice and do likewise. And their promise to be loyal is made in all sincerity. For they hold them to their promise after Moses’ decease, so that, at the close of his campaigns Joshua (22:1 scq.) can dismiss them with the testimony that they have fulfilled their word. So, after all, these were likeable men, when once brought to their senses.

But if these men—the Gadites and the Reubenites—were fundamentally good men, did Moses do right in continuing to suspect them? The proof that these men could be trusted, is that they fulfilled their promise, so solemnly made. We have this proof; Moses did not have this proof. It is especially in the light of the after history of these tribes, that they stand before us as a generation of men, fundamentally sincere and honest and fearing God.

The distribution of the land east of the Jordan among these tribes had greatest significance. As the conquest of this land precedes the conquest of Canaan, so the distribution of this land was to Israel a pledge of the victory in the war still to be fought and thus of the possession of the promised land. It was the earnest of the inheritance.