To understand the lesson of this chapter we need to know what the land represents and what the wilderness side of the Jordan represents. The land of Canaan is the land in which the people may enjoy the blessing of God. For the Christian, Canaan is a picture of the heavenly places, in which God blessed him “with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3).
To enter the land, you have to cross the Jordan. That river is a picture of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Only he who believes in Him is seated in Christ in the heavenly places. Heavenly blessings are the specific blessings of the believer. Only those who are aware of this will enjoy them.
The wilderness side of the Jordan is the land on the east side of the Jordan. The wilderness side of the Jordan speaks of the earthly blessings. With earthly blessings we can think of things like health, clothing, shelter, work and family. For these blessings you don’t have to cross the Jordan. Earthly blessings can also be enjoyed by non-Christians.
The difference in enjoying the earthly blessings between the believer and the unbeliever is that the believer will thank the Lord for those blessings (1Tim 4:3), while the unbeliever appropriates those blessings as a right acquired by himself. So earthly blessings are not specific to the Christian. The Christian who is satisfied with only the earthly blessings, ignores what God has given him there above to enjoy together with Him.
The wilderness side of the Jordan first belonged to the Ammonites and was then conquered by the Amorite kings Sihon and Og. Therefore, the Israelites have received permission to conquer it (Num 21:21-35). Sihon has ruled in the south (Gilead) and Og in the north (Basan). It is God’s intention that His people will inherit a part of the wilderness side of the Jordan. In the kingdom of peace, all tribes are assigned a part in the land and each tribe also receives a part in the wilderness side of the Jordan. However, it is not God’s intention that His people will settle there completely. He does not want His people to be content with it alone, without interest in the land of which He says: “The land belongs to me” (Lev 25:23). It is His land.
1 - 5 The Wilderness Side of the Jordan as a Possession
1 Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had an exceedingly large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, 2 the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, 4 the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” 5 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 across the Jordan.”
Reuben and Gad are stationed under the same standard. They will have considered the situation together and have come to the conclusion that there is much to be gained if they can stay where they are now: the plains of Moab. They have an exceedingly large number of livestock. And the area in which they are currently located provides what their livestock need according to their perception. They are guided by their eyes: the land is pleasing to their eyes and good for their livestock (cf. Gen 13:10-11).
Therefore they ask Moses, Eleazar and the leaders to give them this land as their possession. In doing so, they ask to not have to go across the Jordan. They are asking, as it were, for a favor not to have to move into the land. That must have hurt Moses, who so desperately wanted to enter the land, but was not allowed to. And how this would have hurt the heart of the LORD. He has chosen this land for His people, and these tribes say they do not want to enter it.
The Gadites and Reubenites have experienced all the trials of the wilderness, they have been spared, and just before the Jordan they refuse to cross over. This is tragic. They use their large livestock as an excuse not to have to enter the land. Their property is their everything. If we use our earthly blessings for ourselves, they become an excuse not to occupy ourselves with the heavenly blessings.
There is also some impatience in the attitude of both tribes. Why wait for blessings of which you have to wait and see how they please you, if you can already enjoy them here and now? One bird in the hand is always better than ten in the air. This attitude can be found with us when we live for what we possess on earth, what we can touch and taste with our natural senses.
6 - 15 The Indignation of Moses
6 But Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here? 7 Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them? 8 This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. 9 For when they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the sons of Israel so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them. 10 So the LORD’s anger burned in that day, and He swore, saying, 11 ‘None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, 12 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.’ 13 So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed. 14 Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the LORD against Israel. 15 For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.”
Moses points out the dangers of their wish. He points out the negative influence that their wish can have on the rest of the people. Moses sees again a reluctant people who do not want to enter the land. It reminds him of what happened forty years earlier, and that is how he represents the two tribes. Then the whole people did not want to enter because some spies misrepresented things (Num 13:27-33; 14:1-4). The two tribes also misrepresent the situation by indicating that they do not appreciate the promised land.
Moses is not flattering about their ancestry. He calls them “a brood of sinful men” (verse 14). Out of the fullness of his heart he expresses his indignation about the unwillingness of the people at the time to enter the land. Now the children from these ‘sinful men’ come and they also say that they do not want to enter the land. He is afraid that the same unwillingness is present in these men, this new generation.
16 - 19 Promise to Help in the Battle
16 Then they came near to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; 17 but we ourselves will be armed ready [to go] before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance. 19 For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”
The Reubenites and Gadites “came near to him”. In order to avoid misunderstanding or to explain something, we need to go to each other to listen to each other and to understand each other. Then the differences may not be gone, but the conflict is.
Both tribes make it clear that it is not unwillingness. They want to enter the land, but prefer the area they are in now. They prove that they are not afraid to enter the land by promising to help conquer it first. They are believers, not rebellious. Instead of discouraging their brothers, they want to encourage them by promising to fight even in the front ranks.
Their wives and children they leave at home. They will never get to know and appreciate the land. On the contrary, they ensure that their children are provided with all the comforts of their own choice. They will build cities for them. In this way they use their powers to make life in that area so pleasant that their children do not even think that there are higher things. Parents are an obstacle for their children to seek the heavenly things if they give all their time and strength to the earthly things.
They refuse a permanent residence in the land, even after they have helped to conquer it. When they have gone through it in its full length and width and have seen everything the land has to offer, they still return to the other side of the Jordan. They are so attached to it, they have attached their hearts to it so much, that they sacrifice the land for it.
In this way we can tell others about the heavenly blessings, help them to enjoy them, while we ourselves do not live in them. That’s because we’re completely absorbed by earthly things. There are excuses for not accepting the invitation to enjoy what God wants to give. The excuses are not wrong things in themselves, but they make clear what our hearts really are about.
In Luke 14 the Lord Jesus mentions in a parable a number of lawful things that were used as an excuse not to accept the invitation for a meal (Lk 14:18-20). The fact that Christians often see earthly blessings as the highest delight, and occupying themselves with heavenly blessings as a tiring activity, is because they do not know what their true portion is. They appropriate what is from another and is only entrusted to them to be stewards of it, and they do not appropriate what is given to them as their possession (Lk 16:12).
The Gadites and Reubenites have chosen for delight here and now, not only for themselves, but also for their families. Later they are among the first to be carried away into exile by the Assyrians: “But they acted treacherously against the God of their fathers and played the harlot after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God had destroyed before them. So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul, king of Assyria, even the spirit of Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away into exile, namely the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara and to the river of Gozan, to this day” (1Chr 5:25-26; 2Kgs 15:29).
Earthly blessings are not a protection for spiritual dangers. If they lose them, they have nothing left. Christians who connect their faith experience to earthly blessings, go up and down in that faith experience, like the fluctuations of stock market prices. And their children have no footing whatsoever. We often see them disappear into the world.
20 - 24 Moses Agrees with the Pledge
20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, 21 and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, 22 and the land is subdued before the LORD, then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward the LORD and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before the LORD. 23 But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 Build yourselves cities for your little ones, and sheepfolds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.”
Moses agrees to the guarantee that they will help first. He will no longer stop them and gives them the space to act according to their own desires. But he warns them not to sin against the LORD by not keeping their promise. He presents sin not only as something that will be discovered, but as an active person who will discover them, who will know how to find them. They will not be able to separate from their sin, nor will they be able to escape the punishment of sin.
25 - 27 Confirmation of the Appointment
25 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, “Your servants will do just as my lord commands. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our livestock and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead; 27 while your servants, everyone who is armed for war, will cross over in the presence of the LORD to battle, just as my lord says.”
The Gadites and Reubenites confirm the appointment. They will leave everyone and everything behind in Gilead and go to battle themselves.
28 - 30 The Appointment Is Passed On
28 So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest, and to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the heads of the fathers’ [households] of the tribes of the sons of Israel. 29 Moses said to them, “If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, everyone who is armed for battle, will cross with you over the Jordan in the presence of the LORD, and the land is subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession; 30 but if they will not cross over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.”
Moses will not be able to be present at the fulfilment of the promise and exercise control over it. But he has a competent successor. He passes on the appointment made to Eleazar and Joshua to act accordingly. Joshua acts on it later (Jos 22:1-4).
31 - 32 Repetition of the Promise
31 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben answered, saying, “As the LORD has said to your servants, so we will do. 32 We ourselves will cross over armed in the presence of the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance [shall remain] with us across the Jordan.”
In a summary, the Gadites and Reubenites confirm once again what they will do and will get in return.
33 - 42 Division of the Wilderness Side of the Jordan
33 So Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Joseph’s son Manasseh, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og, the king of Bashan, the land with its cities with [their] territories, the cities of the surrounding land. 34 The sons of Gad built Dibon and Ataroth and Aroer, 35 and Atroth-shophan and Jazer and Jogbehah, 36 and Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran as fortified cities, and sheepfolds for sheep. 37 The sons of Reuben built Heshbon and Elealeh and Kiriathaim, 38 and Nebo and Baal-meon—[their] names being changed—and Sibmah, and they gave [other] names to the cities which they built. 39 The sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. 40 So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he lived in it. 41 Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its towns, and called them Havvoth-jair. 42 Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages, and called it Nobah after his own name.
Moses divides the wilderness side of the Jordan between the Gadites, the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh. This is not done by the lot, as will happen in the land (Jos 14:1-2). He gives them the land of their own choice. In the land every tribe gets the portion of God’s choice.
It seems that, after the two tribes have received the coveted pledge, half of the Manasseh tribe joins them. They also prefer to have their inheritance in the wilderness side of the Jordan. Their choice may have been influenced by the arguments of the two tribes. This would then mean that the attitude of the two tribes has caused a division in another tribe. To make known our desires and our efforts to acquire them always influence others.