Many readers will know that the OT contains a rich vein of teaching for the believer, for it was “written for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15: 4). The history of the two and a half tribes is no exception to this rule—although more in keeping with what is said in 1 Cor. 10: 11 (“Now all these things happened to them [as] types, and have been written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come”). Still, warning is as valuable as encouragement, and it will be good, therefore, to see what the Spirit of God would have us learn from the tragic record of the tribes who refused to inherit over the river Jordan.
It may be as well to state some things very clearly before we proceed with our subject. The wilderness (or desert) is what this world should be to the Christian, who has nothing here, and has all his resources in heaven. The Promised Land is not, as often thought, typical of heaven, because the land was marked by fighting and war. It is, rather, a picture of heavenly blessings that the believer enters into now despite the opposition of spiritual powers (see Eph. 1: 3; 6: 12 etc.). The land settled by the two and a half tribes, represents the world in a different light to that of the wilderness, for “the place was a place for cattle” (Num. 32: 1) and, by implication, relatively lush. It is typical of the world viewed by the believer as a place to prosper, rather than him depending on the promises of God.
The Wrong Choice
The land of promise was the land over the river Jordan (see Num. 34: 12). As God had told Moses at the burning bush, “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and spacious land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey, unto the place of the Canaanites” (Exod. 3: 8). Despite this, in Numbers 32 we read that the children of Reuben and Gad appealed to Moses to “bring us not over the Jordan” (v5, my emphasis). Now could any heart that thought, felt, and judged with God have entertained the idea of selecting a portion other than that which God had allotted? Impossible. Therefore it was clearly a great failure. Reuben and Gad were governed by the sight of their eyes and by carnal motives. They “saw the land of Jaazer, and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle” (v1). They estimated it entirely according to their own interests, and without any reference to the judgement and will of God. Had they been simply looking to Jehovah, the question of settling down short of the divine mark would never have been raised at all, and had they been looking to the promises of God then there would have been no looking at the land of Gilead. Rather than investing their wealth in the land of promise (for they “had much cattle, a very great multitude”—v1), they wanted to invest it in the place of their own choosing. All is very logical: “the country that Jehovah smote before the assembly of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle” (v4). Did God not know that they had cattle? Of course He did, but they would rather trust to their own wisdom than depend on the promises of God. A little later we find half the tribe of Manasseh associated with the proposal (see v33)—and thereafter ever divided between those in the land and those not. What a picture of the half-heartedness that was to be so characteristic of these two and a half tribes: mere borderers who sought their own things, and not God’s!
It is very evident that Moses had no sympathy with the proposal of Reuben and Gad. His own heart was in the Promised Land, and he longed to go there in person—and yet it was a judgment upon his conduct that God did not allow him to go over the Jordan (see Deut. 3: 23-28). How could Moses then approve of the conduct of men who were not only prepared, but actually desirous, to take up their abode somewhere else? Indeed, Moses drew an uncomfortable parallel with Israel’s earlier history: “why do ye discourage the children of Israel from going over into the land that Jehovah has given them? Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land: they went up to the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, and discouraged the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land that Jehovah had given them … And behold, ye are risen up in your fathers’ stead, a progeny of sinful men, to augment yet the fierce anger of Jehovah toward Israel. If ye turn away from after him, he will yet again leave them in the wilderness; and ye shall destroy all this people” (vs. 7-9, 14-15). The ten spies saw problems for themselves with going into the land; Reuben and Gad saw advantages for themselves in staying out.
Moses only relaxed his position when Reuben and Gad promised to cross the Jordan with their brethren to fight for them, so meeting in part the challenge of v6: “shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye abide here?”. Indeed, on the surface, it seemed an extraordinary manifestation of unselfishness to “go with diligence armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them to their place … we will not return to our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited each one his inheritance” (vs. 17-18). Reuben and Gad were even prepared to leave their “little ones” (v26) behind in order to fight for their brethren. But where had they left those loved ones? They had left them short of the divine mark on the other side of the river. They had deprived them of a place and a portion in the true land of promise—that inheritance which God had repeatedly spoken about to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And for what? Just to get good pasture for their cattle! The new proposal of Reuben and Gad is not a return to faith, but mere expediency. Yes they promise to “pass over armed before Jehovah into the land of Canaan” but the real objective is that “the possession of our inheritance on this side the Jordan shall be ours” (v32). It was a matter of will: “for we will not inherit with them on yonder side the Jordan” (v19).
In summary, we have a group of people who, while not denying the promises of God, prefer their own plans. Furthermore, while they are happy to be associated with God’s people who are seeking to realise those promises, their hearts are naturally back in the land to which they have allocated themselves a possession, and where, indeed, their families are firmly established. The modern-day parallel is not difficult to discern. These are earthly-minded Christians, whose horizon is this world and whose possessions and comforts are their treasure. They may actively participate in the spiritual battles of God’s people, but have no real interest in making the ground won their own. Saddest of all, the generations following them are left in the world, and, as we shall see later, held captive by the world “unto this day” (1 Chron. 5: 26). What more saddening spectacle can there be than those who make a lofty profession, talk loudly of death and resurrection, boast of their high doctrines and heavenly privileges, but whose walk and ways give the lie to their words? Serious damage is done to the testimony of the Lord, by Christians denying (in a practical sense) their heavenly calling and character, and acting as though they were citizens of this world. People ask why Gospel preaching is so ineffective these days while ignoring the fact that the answer is in themselves. Many of us are not epistles of Christ anymore (see 2 Cor. 3: 3)—at least, men do not read us that way. What we urgently need today are earnest, whole-hearted, unmistakable witnesses for Jesus Christ—men and women who declare plainly by their unworldly lives that they seek another country (see Heb. 11: 14).
“We will not inherit with them” (Num. 32: 19) had been the declaration of the two and a half tribes, and so the sorrowful day eventually came for the backward journey of their warriors from the Land of Promise: “Then Joshua called the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and said unto them … Jehovah your God hath given rest to your brethren, as he said unto them; and now return, and get you unto your tents, unto the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of Jehovah gave you beyond the Jordan” (Josh. 22: 1, 4). Solemn moment! Joshua commended the two and a half tribes for their faithfulness and obedience, and entreated them to love the Lord and to walk in all His ways. He then sent them away saying: “Return unto your tents with much wealth, and with very much cattle ... divide the spoil of your enemies with your brethren” (v8). Sharing in the spoil of the nation’s warfare cannot, however, take away the solemnity of that word “return … beyond the Jordan” (v4, my emphasis). Still, there is a sense in which the Lord accepted them in the position which they had chosen (see the end of v9), even though it fell short of what He had in mind for them. “He abides faithful” (2 Tim. 2: 13) even when His people are in a false position.
The Altar of Witness
As these men of war from the two and a half tribes journeyed to their inheritance, they came to Jordan, and there they made a halt. The sight of the river surely recalled memories of God’s ways with Israel: they had entered Canaan by the dry bed of the river which they were about to ford on their homeward way, and they had helped to erect the memorial in Gilgal of the passage of the Jordan by the nation (see Josh. 3, 4). Were they really going to leave the Promised Land? Were their own feet about to put the river between themselves and the twelve stones of Gilgal and the tabernacle of Shiloh? No wonder they had a concern that their children would one day be told “Jehovah hath made the Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad, ye have no portion in Jehovah” (Josh. 22: 25)! In response, they could have adopted the course which the nine and a half tribes later proposed—“come over into the land of the possession of Jehovah, where Jehovah’s tabernacle dwelleth, and take possession amongst us” (v19)—but no. Instead, they built “an altar of grand appearance” (v10).
This altar was not the Lord’s altar—it was merely a memorial. Its perceived value consisted in evidencing that those who had erected it had once been at Shiloh! Such a necessity demonstrated the untenableness of the position on the other side of the Jordan. Grand in appearance the altar may have seemed, but in reality, what a poor thing it was! It was not for worship, for the two and a half tribes did not mean that “burnt-offering and oblation” or “peace-offerings” (v23) should ever be placed upon it. What then was this great altar for? To look at! To witness that, in days gone by, those who had built it had once been soldiers in the Promised Land and had once been gathered to Jehovah’s tabernacle in Shiloh! And so people talk of what they used to be, how they served God, how they enjoyed seasons of heartfelt worship—and, by the sign of the past, would prove the soundness of their present condition. Traditions and memories, not the living energy of the present, possess such souls. Our conflict is not over until life is ended—therefore let our daily life testify for us, not some altar of witness, however grand.
The two and a half tribes could not have “Jehovah’s tabernacle” except by going over into “the land of the possession of Jehovah” (v 19). However, their affections, their families, and their possessions were on the other side Jordan, and so there they had returned. We have already noted their reasoning for building this new altar, and their words are worth quoting more fully: “in future your children will speak to our children, saying, What have ye to do with Jehovah the God of Israel? Jehovah hath made the Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad, ye have no portion in Jehovah! And so shall your children make our children cease from fearing Jehovah” (vs. 24, 25). Certainly the Jordan was a border, and it was clear to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh that crossing it might appear to others like leaving the Lord. Yet upon considering this danger, they ungraciously placed the burden of their children’s forsaking Jehovah upon those who remained near His tabernacle! Sadly, the believer who leaves his more devoted companions for some worldly association will often, as here, lay the blame for the consequences upon those who abide with God. The nine and a half tribes had never spoken of division, or that the children of Reuben and Gad would cease fearing the Lord. It was completely unjust even to suggest it.
Conflict and its Resolution
When the news of the altar of witness reached Israel, the whole congregation assembled itself at Shiloh where the altar that was by Jehovah’s tabernacle was (comp. Josh. 18: 1; 22: 12, 19, 29). They saw the erection of a second altar as nothing less than rebellion against the Lord of the twelve tribes. The zeal of the nation was stirred—and when the heart is zealous for God in the contemplation of the failings of others, it remembers with a chastened spirit its own sins. Hence the iniquity of Peor and the trespass of Achan (see vs. 17, 20), along with all their bitter fruits, were refreshed in the national memory. They judged themselves before attempting to judge the wrong-doers, for they felt that the seeds of the very evils they mourned over in the two and a half tribes, and which they were assembled to root out, were even among themselves. Again, the nine and a half tribes charged the sin of the two and a half tribes as a transgression involving all Israel: “ye rebel this day against Jehovah, to-morrow he will be wroth with the whole assembly of Israel” (v18). Yet how little do Christians appreciate the solemn truth of the sin of one affecting the prosperity of the whole: “did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing and wrath fell on all the assembly of Israel?” (v20). The Christian is not a mere unit—he is one with all the saints and his behaviour affects others, and the behaviour of others affects him.
The altar of witness seemed destined therefore to bring about civil war. However, “when Phinehas the priest and the princes of the assembly and the heads of the thousands of Israel that were with him heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their sight” (v 30). Disaster was thus averted—but there would have been no danger at all if the two and a half tribes had wholly followed after Jehovah in taking their possession in the land of promise.
The Long Decline
Years pass, and in a day of weakness, a woman is raised up as a judge in Israel (see Judges 4: 4), and another woman, not even an Israelite, is taken up to bring about the national deliverance (see v21). Where were the two and a half tribes then? Did the great altar of witness inspire them to devote their lives to the cause of the Promised Land? Not a bit of it. “Gilead abode beyond Jordan” (Judges 5: 17)—remained at home at ease. Certainly “in the divisions of Reuben there were great resolves of heart”, but nothing was done! “Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, To hear the bleating of the flocks?” (v16). The sarcasm is palpable.
Time rolls on, and the sad day arrived when “Jehovah began to cut Israel short; and Hazael smote them in all the borders of Israel; from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites” (2 Kings 10: 32, 33). In such a day of declension, when the people of God are afflicted under the government of God, it is those elements on the fringes—“the Jordan eastward”—that are most at risk. And thus the two and a half tribes were smitten.
Now Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had “mighty men of valour” even “famous men” (1 Chron. 5: 24), and some of their battles are noted as being when “they put their trust” in God, for “the war was of God” (vs. 20, 22). All these things are commendable, for even a Christian in a wrong position may be used of the Lord. Eventually, however, we read that “they transgressed against the God of their fathers, and went a whoring after the gods of the people of the land, whom God had destroyed before them. And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgath-Pilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan,—unto this day” (vs. 25, 26). So ends the sad history of those who refused to inherit “on yonder side the Jordan” (Num. 32: 19). Eventually, of course, all of the Northern Kingdom were taken by the Assyrians into captivity, but these borderers were the first to go. It is hardly surprising that those who are only half and half believers are the most vulnerable to being taken captive by the god of this world. What then of their “cattle” and “their little ones” (Num. 32: 16? What then indeed!
How solemn is this history of the two and a half tribes—and how pregnant with meaning! Let us ensure then that we take the lesson to heart, as being for ourselves and not for others, and let us determine with God’s help to be preserved from any spirit that distracts from our going to possess “the good land that is beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 3: 25). Let us resolve never, ever to be mere borderers!