12 “When we took possession of this land at that time, I gave to the Reubenites and the Gadites the territory beginning at Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, and half the hill country of Gilead with its cities. 13 The rest of Gilead, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og, that is, all the region of Argob, I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh. (All that portion of Bashan is called the land of Rephaim. 14 Jair the Manassite took all the region of Argob, that is, Bashan, as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called the villages after his own name, Havvoth-jair, as it is to this day.) 15 To Machir I gave Gilead, 16 and to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave the territory from Gilead as far as the Valley of the Arnon, with the middle of the valley as a border, as far over as the river Jabbok, the border of the Ammonites; 17 the Arabah also, with the Jordan as the border, from Chinnereth as far as the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, under the slopes of Pisgah on the east.
18 “And I commanded you at that time, saying, ‘The Lord your God has given you this land to possess. All your men of valor shall cross over armed before your brothers, the people of Israel. 19 Only your wives, your little ones, and your livestock (I know that you have much livestock) shall remain in the cities that I have given you, 20 until the Lord gives rest to your brothers, as to you, and they also occupy the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you.’ 21 And I commanded Joshua at that time, ‘Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. 22 You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.’” – Deuteronomy 3:12-22 ESV
After God had given Israel a decisive victory over Og and his forces, Moses found himself faced with yet another test of his leadership capabilities. Over the last 40 years, while serving as Israel’s deliverer, guide, and spiritual advisor, Moses had been forced to deal with a variety of unwelcome and unwarranted attacks on his leadership.
There had been countless occasions when the people grumbled and complained to Moses over their circumstances. They had blamed him for their lack of food and water. Then, when God had miraculously provided them with quail and manna to eat, they ended up whining to Moses about the lack of variety in their diet.
At one point, Moses was even forced to deal with an attempted coup led by his own brother and sister. Aaron and Miriam had become jealous of his power and authority, and set themselves up as equally anointed by God to lead the people of Israel, claiming, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2 ESV). But their inflated sense of self-worth proved to be unwarranted because God stepped in and shut down their unjustified rebellion.
But the greatest test of Moses’ leadership had been the refusal of the people of Israel to cross over into the land of Canaan. That had been the primary point behind God’s call of Moses. Not only was he charged with redeeming the people from their captivity in Egypt, but he was to lead them to the land of promise. And when the first generation had refused to take possession of the land, the stock value of Moses’ leadership had taken a precipitous fall. It had to have been extremely demoralizing to walk away from the land he had worked so long and hard to reach. His confidence had to have taken a tremendous blow as he watched the people turn their backs on the very land God had promised to give them. And while he had been successful at getting the people to the land, he had failed at getting them to take possession of it.
All of this background is important if we are going to understand the significance of the scene presented in Deuteronomy 3:12-22. After the victory over Bashan, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses with a surprising request.
Now the people of Reuben and the people of Gad had a very great number of livestock. And they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for livestock. So the people of Gad and the people of Reuben came and said to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” And they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.” – Numbers 32:1-5 ESV
As Moses listened to the words of the people of Gad and Reuben, he had to have thought to himself, “Here we go again!” Right when they were poised to take possession of the land, he found himself facing yet another rebellion against his leadership. And his shock is evident in his response.
But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them? Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the people of Israel from going into the land that the Lord had given them. And the Lord‘s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me…’” – Numbers 32:6-11 ESV
As far as Moses was concerned, this was a case of deja vu. He had been here before and he didn’t like what he was hearing or seeing. Their request reeked of mutiny. To Moses, it sounded like these two tribes were balking at the idea of entering the land and had chosen instead to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan.
And Moses told the Gadites and Reubenites just what he thought of them.
“…you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.” – Numbers 32:14 ESV
He saw the handwriting on the wall. He knew exactly what would happen if these two tribes decided to renege on their commitment to take possession of the land. It would be an unmitigated disaster. And Moses was unwilling to witness yet another debacle on his watch. He knew these two tribes were going to be essential to any success Israel would have in conquering the land. According to the census recorded in Numbers 26, the tribe of Gad consisted of 40,500 fighting men and the tribe of Reuben could field 43,730. Those are not insignificant numbers. And while Moses knew that God was going to go before Israel and fight on their behalf, he also knew that every single man was going to be needed in their conquest of the land. But more than anything, he knew that God would not tolerate another refusal on the part of the people to take possession of the land.
But a compromise was reached. In exchange for the right to possess the land east of the Jordan, the members of the two tribes agreed to keep their commitment to fight alongside their brothers until the and of Canaan was completely conquered. They would not abandon their solidarity with the other ten tribes until each had received its allotted portion within the land of promise.
Moses agreed to allow the two tribes to occupy the land east of the Jordan, as long as they kept their word to fight alongside their brothers, “until the Lord gives rest to your brothers, as to you, and they also occupy the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you” (Deuteronomy 3:20 ESV).
And Moses used the God-given victory over the lands east of the Jordan as incentive to Joshua and the people of Israel. It was a sign of what was to come. What God did east of the Jordan, He would do again when they crossed over into the land of Canaan.
“Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.” – Deuteronomy 3:20-21 ESV
In a display of godly leadership, Moses attempted to focus the attention of the people where it needed to be: On God. He didn’t want the Gadites and Reubenites fixating on the land east of the Jordan. He didn’t want the rest of the tribes to grow jealous and take their eyes off of the prize that God had promised to give them. What God had done to Og and Sihon was just a glimpse of what God had in store for the Israelites. The rich land east of the Jordan was just an appetizer, meant to whet the appetites of the other ten tribes and encourage them to step out in faith. God had given land to the tribes of Gad and Reuben, but he had even more in store for rest of His people.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.