Numbers 32 – The Tribes Settling East of the Jordan
A. The request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
1. (1-5) The request to settle on the east side of the Jordan River.
Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of livestock; and when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that indeed the region was a place for livestock, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Shebam, Nebo, and Beon, the country which the LORD defeated before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” Therefore they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not take us over the Jordan.”
a. If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession: Israel had conquered the Moabites and the Midianites, and the ideal grazing lands on the east side of the Jordan River were laid out before them. Seeing that the region was a place for livestock, the tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad were content with these lands and asked to be given them as their tribal inheritance.
i. “Unexpectedly the abundant gains in livestock resulting from successive victories over the Amorites Sihon of Heshbon and Og of Bashan, as well as the miraculous defeat of the Midianites, precipitated a crisis for the Israelites.” (Cole)
ii. A place for livestock: “Extensive excavations and surface surveys have been done in these areas of Transjordan in the 1970s and 1980s. The consensus is that these were not regions of a high population density in the period of the Exodus (however this period may be dated); the biblical evidence of this chapter accords well with the archaeological evidence. This was an ideal place for the running of large flocks and herds.” (Allen)
iii. A land for livestock, and your servants have livestock: “The repetition of the word ‘livestock’ (miqneh) is for emphasis; their herds must have been exceptionally large.” (Allen)
iv. The land of Gilead: “Gilead designates a variety of areas in the Old Testament. Its primary meaning (as here) is the hilly district south of the Jabbok…and sometimes it designates the whole of the Transjordanian territory held by Israel (e.g. Joshua 22:9, 13, etc.). These high lands (c. 2500 ft) overlooking the Jordan valley enjoy a good rainfall and are therefore very fertile.” (Wenham)
b. Do not take us over the Jordan: For some 400 years, the tribes of Israel longed to go over the Jordan into Canaan. Now, it seemed, that these two tribes were content to stop short of crossing the Jordan and they seemed to be satisfied with settling for less.
i. “That any Israelite tribe should consider settling outside the land promised to Abraham showed a disturbing indifference to the divine word, the word on which Israel’s existence entirely depended.” (Wenham)
ii. “But it was, in a sense, the fringe of the garment. It was not the heart and soul of the land. To settle in the fringes was a mixed blessing…. because they were somewhat removed from the center of the life of the land, they were the most prone to be influenced by outsiders.” (Allen)
iii. G. Campbell Morgan was among those commentators who saw this desire of the tribes of Reuben and Gad as only a bad thing. There was certainly the potential for great evil to come of it, but here in Numbers 32 it seems that the eastern tribes adequately answered the concerns of Moses. Taking this land definitely expanded the territory of the tribes of Israel, and gave them a buffer against threats coming from the east.
2. (6-7) Moses reacts to the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
And Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: “Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here? Now why will you discourage the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD has given them?
a. Why will you discourage the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD has given them? Moses feared that the attitude of the tribes of Reuben and Gad would keep the other tribes from going into Canaan. Their attitude said, “We’ve fought enough and have suffered enough already. Let’s just settle down where we are.”
i. The fear of Moses had a foundation. When we keep company with those who are satisfied with what they have, and have no desire to go deeper or press on further, their contentment often influences us. If these tribes were guilty of complacency, it could dangerously influence the other tribes.
ii. The land which the LORD has given them: “The phraseology referencing the Promised Land as ‘the land the Lord has given them,’ used here and in Numbers 32:9, recalls the language of Numbers 13:1; Numbers 14:8, 16, 30, as well as the other numerous promises of the land throughout the Pentateuch.” (Cole)
b. Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here? Moses wanted them to know that there was a battle to fight and they had a responsibility to fight that battle together with the other tribes. Just because these tribes were content with staying where they were did not relieve them of the responsibility to share in the battle as their brethren went to war.
3. (8-15) Moses fears they are following in the footsteps of the previous generation of unbelief, the generation which perished in the wilderness.
Thus your fathers did when I sent them away from Kadesh Barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them. So the LORD’s anger was aroused on that day, and He swore an oath, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and above, shall see the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because they have not wholly followed Me, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the LORD.’ So the LORD’s anger was aroused 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 gone. And look! You have risen in your father’s place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the LORD against Israel. For if you turn away from following Him, He will once again leave them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.”
a. Thus your fathers did: The generation that died in the wilderness didn’t have the faith to boldly enter the Promised Land, and they decided they would rather stay where they were. Moses worried that this same unbelief was present among the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
i. Allen, Wenham, and Cole point out that there are many “word associations” with Numbers 32 and Numbers 13-14, the chapters describing the first generation’s refusal to trust God to take the Promised Land by faith.
ii. “The nation stood poised to cross the Jordan and take up its inheritance, when suddenly three of the tribes announced their intention of opting out. It looked like the spy story (Numbers 13-14) all over again.” (Wenham)
iii. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land: “In this preaching Moses presents an example of a biblical use of history for the instruction of the people of God. He speaks with specificity, with passion, with historical insights, and with a contemporary feel—the tying of the experience of the past into the present of his hearers. In some ways this section may be thought of as a model of biblical exhortation.” (Allen)
b. They discouraged the heart of the children of Israel: Moses reminded the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad why Israel failed to enter Canaan some 38 years before. The bad report of most of the spies so discouraged the heart of God’s people that they lost their desire to take the land by faith.
i. It is a terrible sin to discourage the heart of another believer.
c. Because they have not wholly followed Me: This was why the discouragement of the ten unfaithful spies worked on the men of that generation. If they had wholly followed the LORD, the discouraging report would not have overly influenced them.
i. What made Joshua and Caleb different was that they wholly followed the LORD. They did not bend to the discouraging report of the ten unfaithful spies.
ii. When we have not wholly followed the LORD, we are much more likely to be influenced by the worldly-minded and discouraging people around us.
d. If you turn away from following Him, He will once again leave them in the wilderness: Perhaps this generation supposed that they had a guaranteed passage to inherit Canaan, thinking that the price had already been paid by the generation of unbelief. This was not true. If they failed to press in by faith, God would once again leave them in the wilderness.
i. A brood of sinful men: “In the phrase ‘brood of sinners’ (Numbers 32:14), he is prescient of the preaching of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 12:34; cf. Matthew 3:7).” (Allen)
e. You will destroy all these people: It was as if Moses said, “Your discouragement of the nation would mean that you have destroyed them, just as the ten unfaithful spies destroyed the previous generation.”
i. Moses perhaps felt that the tribes of Reuben and Gad made a bad choice for themselves; that is, they hurt themselves by settling on the lands east of the Jordan River. What concerned Moses was that their potential complacency would corrupt the other tribes. If a believer hurts themselves through unbelief and complacency it is bad; if they influence others by their unbelief and complacency, it is far worse.
B. The issue of the eastern tribes is settled.
1. (16-19) The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad offer to send their troops to help conquer the land west of the Jordan River.
Then they came near to him and said: “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we ourselves will be armed, ready to go before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place; and our little ones will dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the children of Israel has received his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this eastern side of the Jordan.”
a. We ourselves will be armed, ready to go before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place: This effectively answered the issue of discouragement. None of the tribes would envy Reuben or Gad, resting in ease, while the rest of them fought to conquer their territory. The men of Reuben and Gad would fight right beside them.
b. We will not return to our homes until every one of the children of Israel has received his inheritance: The leaders of Reuben and Gad promised that they would continue to fight with the other tribes on the west side of the Jordan River until the conquest of Canaan was complete.
2. (20-24) Moses receives their offer – providing they fulfill it.
Then Moses said to them: “If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, and all your armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven out His enemies from before Him, and the land is subdued before the LORD, then afterward you may return and be blameless before the LORD and before Israel; and this land shall be your possession before the LORD. But if you do not do so, then take note, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out. Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what has proceeded out of your mouth.”
a. If you do this thing: If they did as they said, then they would be blameless before the LORD and before Israel. But if they did not, they would be guilty.
i. Before the LORD: “The phrase lipne YHWH (‘before Yahweh’) occurs four times in Numbers 32:20–22 and is highlighted.” (Cole)
b. But if you do not do so, then take note, you have sinned against the LORD: If they failed to do as they said, they would sin. The sin specifically spoken of here is the sin of doing nothing. Failing to serve their brethren, to fight on their behalf, to join in their struggle, would be a sin, the sin of doing nothing. This was something Moses wanted them to take note of.
i. If the tribes of Reuben and Gad did nothing – if they stayed at home while their brothers battled to take possession of the Promised Land – then their sin of doing nothing would surely find them out.
ii. “If you take the text as it stands, there is nothing in it about murder, or theft, or anything of the kind. In fact, it is not about what men do, but it is about what men do not do. The iniquity of doing nothing is a sin which is not so often spoken of as it should be.” (Spurgeon)
iii. In his sermon titled The Great Sin of Doing Nothing, Charles Spurgeon mentioned several ways that doing nothing was and is a sin:
· This would be a sin of God’s people, not of the pagan nations.
· This would be a sin of idleness and self-indulgence.
· This would be a sin of selfishness and unbrotherliness.
· This would be a sin of ingratitude.
· This would be a sin of untruthfulness, breaking a promise made.
· This would be a sin that caused serious injury to others.
iv. “Spiritual self-indulgence is a monstrous evil; yet we see it all around. On Sunday these loafers must be well fed. They look out for such sermons as will feed their souls. The thought does not occur to these people that there is something else to be done besides feeding…. These people want pleasant things preached to them. They eat the fat and drink the sweet, and they crowd to the feast of fat things full of marrow, and of wines on the lees well refined—spiritual festivals are their delight: sermons, conferences, Bible-readings, and so forth, are sought after, but regular service in ordinary ways is neglected.” (Spurgeon)
v. “A do nothing professor is a merely nominal member, and a nominal member is a real hindrance. He neither contributes, nor prays, nor works, nor agonizes for souls, nor takes any part in Christian service, and yet he partakes in all the privileges of the church. Is this fair? What is the use of him? He sits and hears, and sometimes sleeps under the sermon. That is all.” (Spurgeon)
c. Be sure that your sin will find you out: The sin of doing nothing would be exposed. In fact, there was something in that sin that would actively work to be exposed; in some sense the sin itself would find you out.
i. Your sin will find you out: “The language is striking: it is not just that their sin will be discovered but that their sin will be an active agent in discovering them.” (Allen)
ii. “Sin is like the boomerang…it comes back on the hand that has launched it forth. The brethren accused Joseph of being a spy, and cast him into the pit; and on the same charge they were cast into prison. King David committed adultery and murder; so Absalom requited him.” (Meyer)
iii. “The guilt will haunt you at heels, as a bloodhound, and the punishment will overtake you” (Trapp)
iv. Spurgeon suggested several ways in which our sin might find us out:
· We become ill at ease.
· We feel ourselves to be low and despicable.
· We become weakened by our own inaction.
· We have little joy in the progress and prosperity of the church.
· We lose our appetite for the gatherings of God’s people.
v. “When sin comes to find you out, like a sleuthhound on the track of the criminal, be sure that it finds you in Jesus. ‘That I may be found in Him.’ Nothing will avail to intercept the awful execution of sin’s vengeance, except the blood and righteousness of Jesus. Put Him between you and your sins, between you and your past, between you and the penalty of a broken law.” (Meyer)
3. (25-27) The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad agree.
And the children of Gad and the children of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying: “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our livestock will be there in the cities of Gilead; but your servants will cross over, every man armed for war, before the LORD to battle, just as my lord says.”
a. Your servants will do as my lord commands: This showed a surrendered, submitted attitude. The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad did not try to negotiate with Moses and work a more favorable agreement.
b. Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our livestock will be there in the cities of Gilead: This was also a step of faith. The other tribes had to trust God to fight the battles needed to occupy the land of Canaan. The tribes of Reuben and Gad had to trust God to preserve and protect their families while a substantial portion of their fighting men helped the tribes settling west of the Jordan River.
i. Adam Clarke notes that more than a third of the available fighting men went to help the tribes on the western side of the Jordan. “Now from Joshua 4:13 we learn that of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half of the tribe of Manasseh, only 40,000 armed men passed over Jordan to assist their brethren in the reduction of the land: consequently the number of 70,580 men were left behind for the defence of the women, the children, and the flocks.”
4. (28-42) The agreement is settled, and cities are given to the tribes settling on the lands east of the Jordan River.
So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest, to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the chief fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel. And Moses said to them: “If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben cross over the Jordan with you, every man armed for battle before the LORD, and the land is subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead as a possession. But if they do not cross over armed with you, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.”
Then the children of Gad and the children of Reuben answered, saying: “As the LORD has said to your servants, so we will do. We will cross over armed before the LORD into the land of Canaan, but the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us on this side of the Jordan.”
So Moses gave to the children of Gad, to the children of Reuben, and to half the tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land with its cities within the borders, the cities of the surrounding country. And the children of Gad built Dibon and Ataroth and Aroer, Atroth and Shophan and Jazer and Jogbehah, Beth Nimrah and Beth Haran, fortified cities, and folds for sheep. And the children of Reuben built Heshbon and Elealeh and Kirjathaim, Nebo and Baal Meon (their names being changed) and Shibmah; and they gave other names to the cities which they built.
And the children of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he dwelt in it. Also Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its small towns, and called them Havoth Jair. Then Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages, and he called it Nobah, after his own name.
a. If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben cross over the Jordan with you…then you shall give them the land of Gilead as a possession: The possession of the land of Gilead was on the condition of their faithfulness to their promise. Moses told Eleazar to make sure they honored their promise before granting them Gilead.
i. “The listing of towns such as Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, Atroth Shophan, Jazer, and the like are important, not just for cartography, but for theology. This land was now really theirs. The cities that had been destroyed were now being rebuilt, and in some cases they were being renamed (Numbers 32:38).” (Allen)
b. So Moses gave to the children of Gad, to the children of Reuben, and to half the tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph: Numbers 32:33 introduces another tribe – actually, half the tribe of Manasseh – who were likewise content to settle on the lands east of the Jordan River. In total, two and one-half tribes received their possession of land east of the Jordan River.
i. “It could be that the representatives of Manasseh took no part in the negotiations until Moses had approved in principle a settlement in Transjordan.” (Wenham)
c. The children of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it: We don’t have a detailed explanation of why the tribe of Manasseh divided into two parts, with one part living on the east side of the Jordan and the other part on the west side. It probably had to do with the children of Machir conquering significant and good land east of the Jordan and deciding it would live on that land.