Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Numbers 32:20-32] Whether or not Reuben and Gad saw claiming the east side of the Jordan as an easy way out of war is immaterial—their brothers did. All the Israelites were on pins and needles about who would be the next to break the covenant. This passage is about their efforts to insist on their commitment to all of Israel and Moses’ demands for accountability. We too should care about how our accountability affects others.
"Build cities for your dependents and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” Numbers 32:24
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Spoiler. This passage is about tension between the tribes of Israel, particularly with those who wanted to stay on the East side of the Jordan. Your leader guide makes this a lesson about why we need to keep our promises to God. And that’s fine! We need to keep our promises to God! But if that’s all you talk about, your class won’t understand why we care about this obscure event in the Bible. I want you to give your class the bigger picture behind this passage: living in community is complex and difficult. In our pas-sage, we see for the first time a tribe realize that they can do what’s best for themselves, or they can do what’s best for the whole nation. As the other tribes realize that Gad and Reuben might abandon them, it creates tension and mistrust. Even though Gad and Reuben ultimately did the right thing, the seeds of doubt had already been sown. For us to-day, we need to realize that our commitment to our family or our church family is a big deal—if we aren’t “all in”, our family members will be affected. I’ll point out some ways that you might be able to teach this point to your class members.
Being Tempted to Bail on Your Obligations
A long time ago, when I was much younger, I learned two funny “maladies”: “senioritis”, and “short-timers’ disease”. Senioritis is what happens to high school seniors, particularly after they’ve been accepted to a college. They stop caring about their assignments or studying for tests because they don’t think it really matters any more. Short-timers Disease is what happens between when you resign from your job and when you actually leave (the “two weeks”). You start taking longer lunch breaks and maybe a lot of sick days, and you don’t put in the quality of work you did before. Ask your class if they can ever remember being affected by something like senioritis or short-timers disease. What happened? Did they do any damage to their future? (For me personally, it hasn’t been a thing—if I have a job, I’m going to do it the same way if it’s my first day or my last day. I never understood my slacker workmates.) Ask them if they can think of any other scenarios in which you might be tempted to slack off in your commitment to a responsibility. What if you accidentally got paid before the job got done? (I hate that I hold a payment until I’ve inspected a final product—do the job we agreed to!—but I’ve been burned a few times.) Or you know you’re going to move in a few months? In our passage, two tribes of Israel are going to claim land that had already been conquered. Why should they risk life and limb to help their brothers win more battles? It’s an important question. The point: as Christians, we should be committed to our obligations no matter what. Our life circumstances should never change our commitment to our job/family/church.
This Week's Big Idea: Location of the Tribes of Israel
When you look at this map, it’s much easier to see the problem. The Israelites marched up from the southeast of the Dead Sea and entered the Promised Land from the east. In other words, by the time they were ready to cross the Jordan, they had already conquered the land that Reuben and Gad were requesting to have. There are a number of explosive matters in play here. First, the east side of the Jordan was not a part of the land described by God to Moses in Exodus 23:31, and in the subsequent boundaries described in Numbers 34:1-12, the territory east of the Jordan is explicitly isolated. In other words, I get the distinct sense that God had said “This is the Promised Land” but then Reuben and Gad came back with “Nah, we’re good over here”. It seems to me to smack of the same kind of rebellion the Israelites had already been full of. Why did Reuben and Gad want that territory? Well, they had been blessed with large herds, and the land on the east was good for cattle. So why go and compete for land with other Israelites when they could just take this land? Doesn’t that sound like the mentality of scarcity that David warned us about in last week’s sermon? Isn’t that saying to God, “God, we don’t think this land you picked out for us is going to handle us”? It’s exactly the same kind of “we should go back to Egypt” complaint because they didn’t really trust God.
At least a few of the other Israelites interpreted this request from Gad and Reuben in that way, and it opened a rift that would linger. We know that to be true because in Joshua 22, when the fighting was over, the eastern tribes decided to build an altar commemorating their return home. But the rest of the tribes immediately assumed that it was a pagan offense and got ready to go to war against them! No benefit of the doubt there! Now, in the verse immediately following our passage, we learn that half of the tribe of Manasseh also decided to stay east of the Jordan. We aren’t told anything about how they got involved. Stepping back, is claiming that land itself sinful? Clearly not, because Moses approved it, and the kingdom of David reached that far and farther! I think the rift began because this action—being so early in the game—comes across as a way to watch out for their own interests and not care about the rest of the people, and to me it really seems to be a act is mistrust against God. That God goes along with it doesn’t that it was a good idea. After all, those tribes were the first to be conquered, and they were endlessly harassed by Ammon and Moab; had they settled within the protected borders like their kin, things would have gone much better for everybody.
All of that said, the lesson’s focus on “keep your promises to God” holds just fine because the tribes of Gad and Reuben and Manasseh do indeed fulfill all of their oaths to the rest of Israel. In fact, I see their building of an altar in Joshua 22 as proof that perhaps they had learned their lesson and had maybe even changed their hearts. My suggestion is that when you read the first section of verses, give your class a little of this background so they understand why Moses sounds so stern with them.
The Larger Context of Numbers
I personally think that the background I explain above is the most important thing for you to share with your class. The rest of the events of chapters 28-32 (from last week’s lesson on) aren’t quite as helpful. Chapter 29 includes God’s continued description of the annual feasts; chapter 30 describes how God understands vows made by different Jews. Chapter 31 is one of the toughest in the entire Bible. In it, God tells Moses to wipe out the Midianites. They kills all the men and take all of the women and children and property as spoils. Moses then commands the Israelites to kill all of the non-virgin women and all boys, and he ex-plains how they will divvy up the girls and the herds and valuables. It’s quite grisly and upsetting. And I don’t encourage you to bring it up! We talked about it when we covered 1 Samuel in 2016, Joshua in 2017, and 2 Samuel in 2018. I think we’ve talked about it plenty. However, if someone in your class insists on bringing it up, I’ve given you the Aside below and the back page with a summary of what I’ve said about the idea of a “holy war”.
Part 1: Warning Issued (Numbers 32:20-24)
Moses replied to them, “If you do this—if you arm yourselves for battle before the Lord, and every one of your armed men crosses the Jordan before the Lord until he has driven his enemies from his presence, and the land is subdued before the Lord—afterward you may return and be free from obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will belong to you as a possession before the Lord. But if you don’t do this, you will certainly sin against the Lord; be sure your sin will catch up with you. Build cities for your dependents and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”
These verses really don’t make much sense if you haven’t read the rest of the chapter. Even if you don’t want to take the time to read the first 19 verses during class, you should be familiar enough with them to summarize what’s going on quickly. [Note about two of Moses’ complaints that I haven’t touched on: in verse 7 he says “why are you discouraging the Israelites?”. In other words, the rest of the tribes have lost heart and faith at the idea of a war at less-than-full strength. In verse 15 he says “you will destroy all of them”. In other words, Moses believes that the Gad/Reuben choice is disobedience at the level of causing God to withdraw His presence from the people leaving them to die in the wilderness. In other words, Moses really took their choice seriously.] The two tribes responded to Moses saying that they will indeed march with their brothers into battle, and they won’t return to their new home until all of the tribes are settled in the Promised Land. It is exactly what they should have said, and—because we know that they also followed through—proof that they realized the appearance of their choice.
From this point on, the lesson is pretty simple from Lifeway’s perspective: Just as Moses expected the two tribes to keep their oaths to the Lord, we are also expected to keep our oaths to the Lord. Your class members really shouldn’t have any trouble following the very-straightforward verses to that conclusion. I really don’t have a whole lot more to add!
Here’s a simplified wording of Moses’ warning: “If you indeed send your fighting men to help your brothers conquer their portions of the land, then you can consider your obligation to the Lord fulfilled. But if you don’t, then every-thing is off.” Note Moses’ repeat of “before the Lord” as a reminder that their promise is not to Moses and the other Israelites but to God Himself. And then there’s the “your sin will catch up to you” that we all better know as “your sin will find you out”. You might remember a few weeks ago when I suggested talking about the popular idea of “what goes around comes around”/”you reap what you sow”. Bring that back up (this is the entirely negative version of that idea). Ask your class how/if it is true. Most importantly, ask them in what way is it true? (Of course, the final answer is the eternal consequences of sin without forgiveness in Jesus. No one can escape God’s judgment. It is only by the blood of Jesus that when our sin finds us out it does not find us wanting.) But for your class’s purposes, ask if there are ways it is true in this life. How would it have played out for Gad and Reuben? How does it play out today?
Finally, note that Moses was not callous to their responsibilities to provide for their families. “Take care of your families; but we expect you to get to your promises.” This is why Jesus told the man who said to Him “First let me go and say goodbye to my family” to which Jesus replied “no one who looks back is fit for service” (Luke 9:61). That sounds harsh, but Jesus was calling out the man’s duplicity. He said that his intention was just to say goodbye, but clearly he planned on using that as an excuse not actually to follow Jesus. Moses wanted the tribes to know that they could not hide behind their responsibilities to their family.
Aside: What Did Midian Do That Was So Bad?
This really is the question. On the back page, I mention the “holy war” that dominates the times of Joshua and Samuel. In particular, I think of the very-difficult verse, “Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Sam 15:3) But the previous chapters had explained clearly the actions taken by the Amalekites for which that kind of divine judgment would respond. What about the Midianites? What did they do?
It’s rather subtle in the Bible, and it has to do with the plague that I mentioned decimating the numbers of the tribe of Simeon back in chapter 25. You have to read Numbers 25:1-18 and 31:1-24 very carefully. The peoples of Midian and Moab, who lived together, enacted a scheme in which they would use their women to seduce the Israelite men and get them engaged in pagan fertility rites. (The Israelites men were willing participants.) The idea was to destroy Israel from the inside and assimilate them so Israel would not be a military threat. Clearly, it almost worked.
For our purposes, what matters is that we are not talking about “innocent bystanders” here but people who were actively trying to bring about the destruction of Israel. They were a clear and present threat to God’s people, and their tactics were insidious and an affront to God. While we would never use these tactics today (on this side of the cross), it was clearly a kill-or-be-killed scenario for these warring tribes. This is why Moses’ instruction not to kill a virgin is so helpful—those are the people who did not participate in this scheme. I find their solution of “claiming” the girls and virgins very distasteful, but it was how things worked in those days. There were no governments to organize relief for them, so to leave them would be to commit them to death or worse.
Part 2: Agreement Given (Numbers 32:25-27)
The Gadites and Reubenites answered Moses, “Your servants will do just as my lord commands. Our dependents, wives, livestock, and all our animals will remain here in the cities of Gilead, but your servants are equipped for war before the Lord and will go across to the battle as my lord orders.”
Again, these two tribes answer appropriately. They say right everything they could possibly say. I don’t know what to add. Ask your class if they’ve ever been in a position where they have agreed to something/made a promise, but the person they are dealing with doesn’t believe them. How did they handle it? What guarantees did they give? Was there any kind of additional assurance they could make? What more could Reuben and Gad say in this situation?
Aside: The Human History of Conquering Land Belonging to Others
I’ve heard some individuals talk about how it wasn’t “fair” for God to give the land of Ca-naan to the Jews. That’s simply not true! God had made it clear to the inhabitants of the region (through Abraham) that He was giving this land to Abraham’s descendants. That information had stayed in the local lore for centuries. When the Jews showed up, they knew what was going on. They knew they were defying God by staying in the land.
A more sobering thing to do is to think about the rest of human history. I recently read a history of Georgia. The way settlers made treaties with the native tribes and then changed those treaties when they had the upper hand was nothing short of astonishing. That wasn’t “fair”. The entire idea of “manifest destiny” was that God wanted English-speaking white people to conquer the entire North American continent (except without the words of God to support that claim). All of human history is replete with the idea that land is scarce; when we need to spread out, we will have to take land from you. This happened in the Caribbean, in South America, in northern Europe, in central Asia, and probably everywhere in the world at some point in history. Very few civilizations have managed to hold on to a spot of land for more than a few centuries without either being conquered or being assimilated. And those civilizations got that spot of land in the first place by conquering it from someone else. That is the nature of humanity after the fall.
That’s why it matters that Christianity isn’t a political nation. We aren’t supposed to be about “conquering land for the cause”. We spread throughout the world as salt and light, sharing the message of Jesus.
Part 3: Accountability (Numbers 32:28-32)
So Moses gave orders about them to the priest Eleazar, Joshua son of Nun, and the family heads of the Israelite tribes. Moses told them, “If the Gadites and Reubenites cross the Jordan with you, every man in battle formation before the Lord, and the land is subdued before you, you are to give them the land of Gilead as a possession. But if they don’t go across with you in battle formation, they must accept land in Canaan with you.” The Gadites and Reubenites replied, “What the Lord has spoken to your servants is what we will do. We will cross over in battle formation before the Lord into the land of Canaan, but we will keep our hereditary possession across the Jordan.”
This passage is simple and ironic. Moses calls all of the future leaders of the people (his replacement Joshua, Aaron’s replacement Eleazar, and all of the new tribal heads) to let them know about this arrangement. If you have time, take your class to Joshua 22 (at the very least, you should get familiar with it to summarize it). There, Joshua acknowledges that Reuben and Gad (and Manasseh by then) have fulfilled their oaths to Moses, and they can now go back to their homes in peace.
The following sequence is very instructive, though. Those Transjordan tribes decide to build an altar to commemorate their experience. The rest of the tribes immediately interpret this to be some sort of pagan rebellion to God and mobilize for war without much deliberation. The words they speak indicate that they never really gave trust to the eastern tribes. In 22:19, the western tribes specifically make a distinction between “your land” and “the Lord’s land” (!!). And in their response in 22:25, the eastern tribes admit to worrying about future generations thinking that the Jordan River was a barrier between themselves and the Lord. Now, cooler heads prevailed, but the fact that everyone leapt to that conclusion makes it clear to me that all was not well in Israel. This is one of those times where a decision that had bad optics (Reuben and Gad wanting to stay east) would have lasting effects.
I can think of two discussion ideas to wrap up this lesson. (1) How difficult is it to explain a previously-made agreement to incoming leaders? How nerve-wracking is it to worry that the future leaders will go back on that agreement? It happens all the time, and it can cause challenges in any organization or business. (2) How important is it for other people to help keep a group committed to its agreements? I’m thinking of the whole story of the Transjordan tribes here—it ultimately took a lot of people talking through things for the whole group to honor their previously-held agreement. I think of today where it can take a bunch of people getting involved in a discussion/negotiation to eventually bring about the right outcome. Certainly for Christians, we should not be hesitant to listen to one another when it comes to our responsibilities, our accountability, and how we follow leadership.
In summary, this passage is about not only the importance of keeping your promises to God, but also the importance of making it apparent that you are keeping those promises. Reuben and Gad didn’t think about the optics of their choice, and it had long-term consequences. Over and over, people said to them “God is going to punish us again when we fail Him again”, which means that they were all quite worried about failing to keep their promises to God.
For us today, an easy application is the idea that we too should keep our promises to God, but I think it goes far beyond that. We need to be concerned with how our own relationship with God affects the people around us. When we slack off on our responsibilities, other people suffer. How? Who might be the most affected? And then, with respect to your class, what are ways that we can help one another stay true to those obligations? How can we keep one another accountable? Ask your class to identify something in their life where they are not following Jesus as they should—and then have them think of someone they can talk to to help them get back on track.
[Aside on Gilead. A phrase you will read is “Transjordan”, which refers to the land east of the Jordan River (where Reuben and Gad wanted to settle). This seems to be a name given to the region by the Hebrews—the Hebrew word means “rugged”. These are the highlands and mountain slopes that are very conducive to grass growth—not fields suitable for farming, so no competition, but the mountains would cause cloud buildup that led to more rain than usual, funneling down the slopes where the grasses could easily grow. Perfect for herds.]
Aside: What Do We Do with a "Holy War"?
In the Old Testament, we have several places where God commands the Israelites to wipe out a people group. (Deuteronomy 7:2: “when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” Also the 1 Sam 15:3 I mentioned and the Numbers 31 passage I mentioned.) How can we serve a God who would suggest that? Well, I think of three responses to this situation.
(1) Tribal warfare was the way of life in Canaan. The ideas of “self defense” and “preemptive strike” are very real in a kill-or-be-killed place. I thank God that I don’t live in those conditions.
(2) The enemies of Israel were not innocent puppies. Today, I cannot say that someone deserves to die for any reason. But I believe that God can and should mete out judgment and punishment and execute vengeance for those things that defame Him. In the days of the Old Testament, God chose to use the Israelites to enact punishment on people who had clearly rebelled against Him (just as He brought severe punishment on His own people when they rebelled). These enemies, whom God had sent Israel into slavery for 400 years to give them time to repent and turn to Him, were not going to relent and they were very interested in killing all the Jews.
(3) Our mission is different today. Then, had the Israelites been wiped out, that would have been it for humanity. No hope. Now, on this side of the cross, we have a message that cannot be killed, even if we can. The Crusades were wrong. We are not to go to war for the purpose of “converting” pagans. We are to overcome hate with love, violence with peace. Our eternal future is secure; we “fight” evil so more souls will be saved.