God’s Word for You
Numbers 32:1-5, 20-27, 33 This side of the Jordan
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 24, 2022
I beg the reader’s indulgence to permit us to spend only a single day and devotion on this chapter, the request from certain tribes to remain east of the Jordan, outside the land of Canaan.
The Transjordan Tribes
32 The descendants of Reuben and Gad had very large flocks and herds of livestock. They saw that the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead was ideal for livestock.
Before we discuss the implications of what these tribes were looking at, let’s notice the place. Gilead was everything east of the Sea of Galilee, but is also defined as “half of Gilead” when in conjunction with southern Gilead, which was the region the Israelites were now in, and which used to be ruled by King Sihon from Heshbon (Joshua 12:5). Heshbon is not far from Jericho. The northern part had been the land of Og King of Bashan (Joshua 12:4).
Jazer was a city about 15 Roman miles north of Heshbon, but its exact location is disputed today. Ancient writers like Jerome thought that it was between the desert city of Philadelphia and the Jordan. When they saw that this was good grazing land, they were right. But it was not really part of Canaan.
2 The descendants of Gad and Reuben came and spoke to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the tribal chiefs of the community. They said, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— 4 the land which the LORD struck down before the community of Israel—is an ideal land for livestock. We, your servants, have livestock.” 5 They continued, “If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not require us to cross the Jordan.”
The land these tribes were looking at was east of the Jordan River. It was outside the boundaries of Canaan, the land that the Lord was giving to Israel. Were they driven by fear, by doubt, or because they coveted what they thought was the best grazing land? Were they worried about their wives and children? Did they think that, having already won this land, they would get a good possession? Did they think it was in a good defensive position, with virtually uncrossable desert to the east and their brother Israelites to the west?
At this point, Moses challenged the tribes. Were they trying to neglect their duty to the other tribes? Would they refuse to go to war with the Canaanites, living over here in comfort in land already won? This is the question of verses 6-19. The response from Gad and Reuben (Gad seems to have taken the lead in all this) was that they would build cities and ranches (“pens”) for their livestock, but the men would certainly come and help in the wars.
20 Moses said to them, “If you will do what you have said, if you will arm yourselves before the Lord for battle, 21 and if every one of you who is armed will cross over the Jordan before the LORD until he has driven out his enemies before him, 22 and until the land has been subdued before the LORD, then after that you may return home. You will be guiltless toward the LORD and Israel. This land will be a possession for you in the presence of the LORD. 23 “But if you will not do this, look, you will have sinned against the LORD. Know that your sin will find you out. 24 Build cities for your children, and pens for your flocks, but keep the promises that have come out of your mouth.”
Moses bound them with a promise and an oath: If they would come to the aid of their brother Israelites, then they could take possession of the land east of the Jordan: Gilead would be theirs. But if not; if they broke their oath, they would be sinning, and they would be accountable for that sin. Moses very thoughtfully and correctly associates Gad and Reuben as being in danger of the same sin as their fathers, the sin that caused the forty years’ wandering (verse 13).
25 The descendants of Gad and Reuben spoke to Moses: “We, your servants, will do as my lord commands. 26 Our children, our wives, our livestock, and all our animals will stay here by the cities of Gilead, 27 but your servants, every man who is armed for war, will cross over before the Lord for battle, as my lord says.”
These words bound the tribes of Gad and Reuben to fight with the Israelites against the Canaanites. Years later, when the wars were nearly over and Joshua was nearing the end of his life, there was another heated debate over this move on the part of Gad and Reuben (and half the tribe of Manasseh, who joined them). Would they permit the Jordan to be a barrier? The tabernacle would be across the river, and not always very easy to cross. Would they fall into worshiping false gods? Phinehas the priest crossed the river to consult with them, and bound them with a similar oath; this time, to remain faithful to the one true God. They built a ceremonial altar and gave it the name: “A Witness Between Us that the Lord is God” (Joshua 22:34).
33 Moses gave the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan to the descendants of Gad, to the descendants of Reuben, and to half of the tribe descended from Manasseh, the son of Joseph—the land including its cities with the territories surrounding them.
Both Isaiah and Jeremiah would weep for Jazer when it was destroyed by the Assyrians (Isaiah 16:8-9) and again by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 48:32). But those days were many centuries away, and those woes were part of the trouble felt by all of Israel. The request of Gad and Reuben was granted. They could stay where they were, if only they would come to help their brothers in their time of need.
Moses and Phinehas were especially concerned about the spiritual well-being of the tribes. This is the realm of the first table of the law, the first three of the Ten Commandments: Not to have any other gods, not to misuse God’s name, and to remember the Sabbath day. But at least two other commandments came up in this exchange: the Fifth and the Ninth. The application of the Fifth Commandment (not to murder) is to help our neighbor in every bodily need, the way Phoebe and other women did in the days of the early church (Romans 16:1-2; 1 Timothy 5:16). Gad and Reuben needed to be willing to help their neighbor Israelites in every need. And then the application of the Ninth Commandment (not to covet our neighbor’s house) is to urge our neighbor’s people to do their duty (Luke 17:10), even when they have a wicked master or teacher (Matthew 23:3). Moses and Phinehas were doing that now, but Gad and Reuben would need to urge one another to help these Transjordan tribes to do their duty and not forsake their brother Israelites. As Solomon said: “Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart so you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people” (Proverbs 3:3-4).
Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh did remain faithful to the Lord for a long time. Four centuries after this, they sent a large army, 120,000 strong, to David’s coronation at Hebron (1 Chronicles 12:37). But in the end, they fell subject to the wickedness of King Jeroboam, who caused most of Israel to turn away from the Lord (1 Kings 16:26).
When we make choices that will remove our family from good access to the Word of God, we must consider: What will that mean a generation from now? Who will look after the faith of my children when I am gone? Will my grandchildren know Jesus? Will they have a Sunday school to go to? “Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation” (Joel 1:3). “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation” (Psalm 71:18).
Pastor Timothy Smith