It was back in chapter 20 that we noted how the Israelites had entered their fortieth, and last, year in the wilderness. And we noted that they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land.
However, since chapter 20, lots of things have happened. It was in the fortieth year that Moses and Aaron disobeyed the Lord; and forfeited the right to enter the Promised Land. It was in the fortieth year that Edom denied them the right to travel through their land. It was in that year that Aaron died and was buried. It was in that year that many of them died because of the poisonous snakes which bit them; and the Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze snake so that they would not all perish. It was in that year that Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, attacked them; but the Lord helped them to defeat these enemies. And it was in that year that Balak hired Balaam to curse them. It was in that year that Moab seduced them; and many of them were killed by a plague. It was in that year that they took the second census. It was in that year that they took vengeance on the Midianites.
Lots of things happened that year; and still they haven’t entered the Promised Land. It seems they’ve been on the verge of entering the Promised Land for ages; and lots of things have happened, in this, the final leg of their journey. But still they’re not there yet. Still they haven’t entered the Promised Land.
And in today’s chapter, it seemed to Moses that the tribes of Reuben and Gad were proposing something which would wreck everything for them. The tribes of Reuben and Gad wanted to remain on the wrong side of the River Jordan. Instead of crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, they wanted to settle where there were, on the east side of the Jordan. And Moses was worried that they would provoke the Lord’s wrath once again. However, by the end of the chapter, they were able to sort things out and reach an agreement. So, let’s study the chapter together.
Verses 1 to 5
In verses 1 to 5 we have the request. We read that the Reubenites and the Gadites had very large herds and flocks. Even though they’d been travelling through the wilderness for forty years, these two tribes had been very successful at looking after their herds and flocks. They were master shepherds. And they saw that the land of Jazer and Gilead was just right for their livestock.
So, they came to Moses and Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the people and asked if this land could be given to them as their possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan, they said. Let us stay here.
Jazer was a city which the Israelites defeated whenever they fought against Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of Bashan. Gilead was the area south of Jabbok and came into their possession after they defeated Sihon. Apparently it benefitted from lots of rain and was therefore very fertile. One writer in the late 19th century described seeing streams of Gilead with cattle standing in them; and hearing the sounds of shepherds and their sheep and goats in the evening. Another writer describes the land as beautiful pastureland. Joseph was sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites coming down from Gilead, whose camels were loaded with spices and balm and myrrh. It was a fertile and fruitful land. No wonder the Reubenites and Gadites — with all their herds and flocks — wanted to settle in it. And so, they asked Moses and Eleazer and the other leaders if they could take possession of this land.
Verses 6 to 15
In verses 6 to 15 we have Moses’s response. And he responds by asking them two questions, which are really accusations. First he asks them:
Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here?
Everyone knows that they’ll have to fight against the nations in Canaan; and go to war against their enemies. And Moses is therefore accusing these two tribes of wanting to sit out the war. While the rest will be risking their lives to take the land, these two tribes want to stay where they are and avoid the risks of war. The second question is in verse 7:
Why do you discourage the Israelites from from going over into the land the Lord has given them?
There are really two accusations wrapped up in this one question. He’s accusing them of discouraging the others and of preventing them — or making it harder for them — to take over the Promised Land. But then he’s also accusing them of rejecting the Lord’s gift. The Lord had promised to give them the land of Canaan, not the land of Gilead. They’re rejecting God’s good gift.
And then Moses goes on in the next verses to argue that what they’re proposing is just a repetition of what happened all those years ago when they first came to the border with Canaan and sent men into the land to spy it out; and as a result of their discouraging report, the Israelites began to talk about turning around and returning to Egypt. They therefore provoked the Lord’s wrath, who promised that none of that generation would enter the Promised Land. And the Lord’s anger burned against them; and he made them wander in the wilderness for the next 40 years.
That’s what happened in the past, Moses says. And here you are — he says in verse 14 — a brood of sinners, standing in the place of your fathers, and making the Lord even more angry. You’re repeating the sins of your fathers! And if you turn away from following the Lord, he’ll leave all of us in the wilderness; none of us will reach the Promised Land. And it will be your fault.
Verses 16 to 19
In verses 16 to 27 the Reubenites and Gadites respond to these accusations and complaints. And they make clear that while they want to build pens for their livestock and cities for their wives and children in the land of Gilead, they’re also ready to arm themselves for war; and they’re even prepared to lead the other Israelites into battle, and to do so until they’re taken over all of the Promised Land. We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance. Furthermore, they will not take any of the land on the west side of the Jordan, but will be satisfied with the land on the east side, the land of Gilead.
Verses 20 to 32
After they made this clear, Moses makes an agreement with them. And really, he’s proposing a covenant with them. If they keep to the terms of the covenant, they can have the land of on the east side. If they do not adhere to the terms of the covenant, then they cannot remain on the east side; and must join them on the west side.
What are the terms of the covenant? It’s just what they themselves suggested: if they arm themselves for battle; and if they will go armed across the Jordan; and remain with the Israelites until all their enemies are driven out of the land, then they may return to the east side. However, if they fail to do this, you’ll be sinning against the Lord — says Moses — and be sure that your sin will find you out. Moses personifies sin. That is, he depicts sin as a person who will pursue them relentlessly, until it finds them and punishes them for what they have done.
And according to verse 25, the Reubenites and Gadites agree. Their women will remain where they are; but the men will cross over, armed for battle.
And having come to an agreement about the terms, Moses called together Eleazer the priest and Joshua and the family heads to witness the covenant and to agree to it as well.
Verses 33 to 42
And in the remainder of the chapter — verses 33 to 42 — we have a kind of formal land grant by which Moses assigned to them the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan. You’ll notice too that the half tribe of Manasseh is also included. This tribe hasn’t been mentioned before in this chapter, but it seems that they too jumped on board; and land was given to them on the east side of the Jordan. In verse 34 we have the cities given to the Gadites. In verse 37 we have the cities given to the Reubenites. And in verse 39 we have the cities given to Manasseh.
This chapter shows us the generosity of the Lord, because though he had originally promised to give his people the land of Canaan, which was an Eden-like land, flowing with milk and honey, he had also given them even more land: all this land on the east side of the Jordan which was also a rich, fertile land, and a suitable place for these tribes to keep their herds and flocks. The Lord is not stingy or mean, but generous and good; and he provided for his people richly, so that they had all that they needed. Gilead was a good land and he was prepared to give it to his people for their enjoyment.
However, we should note carefully that whether they Reubenites and Gadites could possess the land or not depended on what they did. They had to keep the terms of the covenant and do all that was required of them. So, they had to arm themselves; and go to war; and continue to fight until all their enemies were driven out. If they failed to keep the terms of the covenant, they would forfeit the right to the land. But if they kept the terms, then the land would be theirs.
And the Lord has promised to give us possession of the Promised Land of Eternal Life. He’s promised to bring us into the new heaven and earth to live with him forever and ever in peace and safety. It too is an Eden-like land, because it contains the Tree of Life and the river of the water of life, which we may drink from and live forever. In this Eden-like new heaven and earth, they will be nothing to harm or hurt us; and we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest.
But our entrance into this wonderful Promised Land does not depend on us and on what we do. If it did, none of us would reach the Promised Land or would inherit eternal life, because all of are sinners who fall short of doing what God requires. But — thanks be to God — our entrance into the Promised Land of Eternal Life depends not on us, but on the Lord Jesus Christ, who has done all that was required of him in order to save us. On our behalf, he lived a perfectly obedient life, obeying God’s moral law fully and completely. On our behalf, he offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins to reconcile us to God. On our behalf, he was raised from the grave and exalted to the Father’s right hand, where he lives to intercede for us. On our behalf, he will come again in glory and with power to raise us from the dead and to bring us into the new heaven and earth.
If entrance into the Promised Land depended on us, none of us would ever enter it; and we would be eternally lost. But Christ our Saviour has done all things necessary to deliver us from our sin and misery and to bring us to God. He even gives us the faith we need to believe in him.
And so, we ought to give thanks to God for him; and trust in him and him alone as the only Saviour of the world. And out of gratitude for all that he has done for us, we ought to obey him and honour him in all we say and do.