Book of Numbers Chapter Thirty-Two Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Cross The River
Verses 1-5: "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.'" The Jazer and Gilead of Verse 1 were names given to areas east of both the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Those places also were south of the River Jabbok, and north of the River Arnon. The names in Verse 3 were actually towns and cities located within the lands of Jazer and Gilead. Reuben (Genesis 29:31-32) was Jacob's (Israel's) oldest son by his first wife, Leah, and Gad was Jacob's seventh, born to Leah's maid, Zilpah, as part of Leah's continuing rivalry with her sister, Rachel, for the affection of Jacob (Genesis 30:9-10). During the wilderness wanderings of Israel after God released the nation from slavery in Egypt, the descendants of Reuben and Gad camped on the southern side of the tabernacle of the Lord, bracketing the tribe of Simeon. The observed goal of the nation was to cross the Jordan River and conquer the land of Canaan, but now the Reubenites and Gadites wanted to stop their march and stay on land east of the Jordan, not crossing the river, but instead once more living as ranchers who traveled no more.
Israel at that time was like a great spear, pointed across the Jordan River, ready to be flung into the heart of Canaan. But here were two of Israel's tribes saying, "Let's not go; we'll do something else; let's stay right here!" And the question is—before we go on to Moses' response—How often do WE stop short of God's revealed will for our lives? The heritage of the nation was faith in the Lord. In Genesis 15:6, we find Abram, later called Abraham, the father of Isaac, and through him the father of Israel, learning that "he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness." He had honest faith in the Lord. Our relationship with God is to be the same. We learn that "This is the work (that God requires), that you BELIEVE in Him whom He sent", the Lord Himself (John 6:29). And yet we stop on our journey of faith, substituting programs, rituals, meetings and other kinds of works, instead of having simple, saving faith in our Lord and trusting in the intentions of our God. We stop short of crossing the river. Moses, who had lived by faith for a long time, understood all this, as we see his response in Verses 6-7: "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?'" ALL the tribes of Israel were called by God to invade and conquer the promised land, and faithful Moses knew that none were to sit on the sidelines when it happened. The call of God on your life is that you have faith in the Lord and in His intentions for you, and this is not only about you—others are to see your faith and be encouraged to give their lives to Him like you did. None of us are on the sidelines.
Verses 8-13: "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." The written account of the events mentioned here by Moses may be seen in Numbers 13. Twelve spies were sent into the land of Canaan. All of them agreed that it was, at that time, a fertile, beautiful land. Ten of the spies were frightened by the powerful inhabitants of Canaan and feared their walled, fortified cities. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, had the faith to see that when God is leading us, He is the One who will have the victory, in and through ordinary people like us. We are weak but He is strong. A generation died in the desert of old age and other causes, except for Caleb and Joshua, who continued to live in the strength of the Lord, and He is our strength also.
Moses continued, in Verses 14-15: "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.'" From Moses' perspective, the people were doing it again, letting fear instead of faith rule their lives, but there was more to these men than the ten who gave the bad report. Verses 16-19: "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 leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad had found the place they desired for their possessions and families, but they also understood that God wanted a united Israel to invade the holy land and they would do it. Their wives and little ones would remain behind, tending the flocks and building lives, but the men would go with Israel and invade Canaan, making sure that all the tribes were at full strength for the invasion. They would cross the river.
Verses 20-24: "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.'" When we make a promise, to the Lord and also to other people, we, as God's faithful children are to do what we have said. If we don't, we sin against the Lord, a very dangerous thing to do.
Verses 25-27: "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 men of Gad and Reuben had obviously been discussing the issue of these verses for some time, likely around campfires after the days work was completed. Also, as marriages and families often are, the wives of those men would likely have been encouraging their men: "This is a great place for the children, let's stay here..." And so the leaders of the tribes of Gad and Reuben would do what so many people do—they hedged their bets—promising to go and not go at the same time. They would send their citizen-soldiers into Canaan, just as they promised in Verses 16-19, but establish their lives east of the Jordan River.
Moses had come to understand people and in that regard, he knew that many will promise to do something and then not do it. He also knew that God was soon going to take him out of this world, and so we have Verses 28-30: "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 had known for some time that his days on earth were few, and so he carefully instructed his successor, Joshua, who was to lead the nation, and Eleazar, the current high priest, making SURE Israel's future leaders would hold the Reubenites and Gadites to their word. The fate of the nation might depend on it. Those tribes would only be able to settle the land east of the Jordan River if they kept their promise.
Verses 31-33: "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.' 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." The leaders of the Gadites and Reubenites once again promised they would keep their part of the deal, after negotiation and the ruling of Moses, sending troops into Canaan alongside the other ten armies of Israel. They would fight as long as it took to subdue the various tribes and nations of that place, ultimately winning the promised land for Israel. That goal, like everything else in life, would not be so simply or easily accomplished, but the issue was settled, at least for the moment. They would cross the river.
In Verses 34-42, we find the Gadites and the Reubenites excitedly conquering, fortifying and building up the areas they had been allotted east of the Jordan River: "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." The tribes continued to subdue as much as possible of the areas awarded to them, changing the names of certain places as it suited them, and they sought some modification from Moses to the original agreement. You have to wonder: Were they within God's will by stopping short of what seems to be His original intention for them? Gad was later taken captive by Assyria and the Ammonites seized their lands and territories. A similar fate awaited the Reubenites. The half-tribe of Manasseh settled near them but more to the north, and they, too, were ultimately lost to captivity in Assyria. They got what they wanted and then lost—everything.
What looks good to us, what is attractive, what we can work out in some kind of negotiation, is not necessarily what we need. What is in front of us may seem desirable, but we cannot see the future. God can see the future—He is already there. When things go wrong, we can't change the past, except that God can and will work out everything for the good. Should you cross some kind of "river" as God directs you and plunge into the reality that only He knows about? If the Lord has called you to a ministry and you know it, I challenge you—don't stop short! Cross the river! That which is your reality right now may well turn out badly. God's will might seem hard, but the result is His glory and your ultimate joy, as you hear His words, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Crossing the river will be worthwhile because He will make it so.
Lord, are You calling me? I want to serve You, but I am afraid. Give me the strength and courage to do what You have called me to do. I surrender, Lord. Lead me and I will go. In Jesus Name. Amen.