In Summary: The Israelites have wandered in the wilderness. They have conquered nations. They have defended their people, avenged their losses, and come toward the Jordan River. Soon, they will enter the Promised Land. It should be a time of celebration and unity.
It’s not. The Twelve Tribes of Israel start to come apart in Numbers 32. The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh take a look at the eastern side of the Jordan River, where the Israelites are right then and decide “We like this.” They are within sight of the Promised Land, but choose to settle with what they have.
This is certainly a test of Moses’ patience. He knows that his time on earth is short (Numbers 31:2 tells of his impending death), and he has dedicated his last forty years to bringing Israel into the Promised Land. Now, again, some of the people are rejecting God’s gift to them. This has to be frustrating to him. It shows in his response. Numbers 32:15 has Moses warning the leaders of Reuben and Gad that “you will destroy all these people!”
After some discussion, the issues are sorted out, though. The warriors for the two and a half tribes will go with the rest of Israel, help secure the Promised Land, and then come back. They will leave their people who are not warriors in the conquered territory of Gilead. Moses and the people agree. I find some concern in the absence of any “consulting of YHWH” by either Moses or anyone else. It reads like a straight-forward political compromise, and I’d like to think theocratic Israel was better than that.
In Focus: The overall concern here is that the Reubenites and Gadites are going to discourage the people by staying. This might cause the rest of the nation to suffer God’s judgment for not going forward, while these tribes are happily not going forward. There’s also an inherent unfairness: all Twelve Tribes have worked to conquer the Gilead region—should the Ten that go forward now work without the help of the Two that stay?
These are the roots of division among the people, and this is a danger for the people of Israel. It shows up again at the end of Joshua, and we’ll look at it again there as the people settle into the land.
In Practice: Division continues to be a problem among God’s people. What is the cause of it? Typically this: we decide to stop short of God’s command, being satisfied with where we are rather than where we are going. How does this connect? Let us not forget that the Exodus and trip to the Promised Land was not just to bless Israel.
It was a command of God that they go do it.
Stopping with almost obedience brings division. Settling for nearly there brings division. Even if it looks good, if you are not where you ought to be, you must keep going. We must all do that. Now, the compromise is instructive as well—there are those who need protection from certain issues. The youngest, for example, are not exempted from the commands of God. They are simply insulated while preparing to fulfill them. As such, a wise parent may insulate a child from certain challenges with a goal of releasing them into full responsibility in appropriate time. (That assumes this: an intent to release. Another discussion, another day.)
How much farther do we have to go? That is a question that I cannot answer for you right now. I cannot truly answer it for me, either—but I know this: for long years, Christianity has used Promised Land imagery, crossing over Jordan imagery, as the picture of death and passing into eternity. I am not dead yet—and neither are you.
It is not time to park it in a pew, behind our Ebenezers, and leave the work to others. Sharpen your swords, folks, and let’s go.
In Nerdiness: Take a little excursion with me on this Nerd Time. You’ll need either an NRSV Bible or access to a digital view of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Take a look at 1 Samuel 10 (try here: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Samuel%2010&version=NRSV) and look at the last bit about Nahash the Ammonite. It appears that old Nahash was causing quite the ruckus in Gilead, and that this is one of the major immediate causes of Israel asking for a king.
You know, the king they rejected God in favor of having? The king that was a whole lot of trouble, not much good, and had to be replaced fairly soon by a king labeled as “after God’s own heart?” Then there was the First Dynastic War of Israel between Saul’s house and David’s house—
All sorts of trouble. And going forward, you still have a lingering difficulty because of the distance of the separated tribes.
Now, take a second excursion, this time in concept, to Gilead. God had instructed and empowered the people of Israel to eliminate the pagan kingdoms in the region of Gilead. The Israelites had conquered a fairly decent eastern buffer from paganism. The Negev guarded the southern approaches to the nation of Israel. The two threat points were from the sea (The Philistines) and from the northern stretches (Assyrians, Hittites, depending on when.)
By occupying Gilead, the two-and-a-half tribes connected Israel with the pagan nations on the east side. Like the Moabites and their detestable god, Chemosh/Molech. The settling here also split the attention from the threat axis on the west side, and caused the nation to be sandwiched between theological and practical enemies.
All for grazing land, all for maintaining wealth. Folks, eat a cow and stay united.