1 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. 2 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, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, 4 the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” 5 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.”
6 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? 7 Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them? 8 Your fathers did this, 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 heart of the people of Israel from going into the land that the Lord had given them. 10 And the Lord‘s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, 11 ‘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, 12 none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the Lord.’ 13 And the Lord‘s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone. 14 And behold, you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! 15 For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”
16 Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, 17 but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. 19 For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” 20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the Lord for the war, 21 and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the Lord, until he has driven out his enemies from before him 22 and the land is subdued before the Lord; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the Lord and to Israel, and this land shall be your 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 cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” 25 And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do 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 but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my lord orders.” – Numbers 32:1-27 ESV
This chapter contains one of those familiar and oft-quoted verses that are often taken out of context and applied to all kinds of situations.
But if you fail to keep your word, then you will have sinned against the Lord, and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. – Numbers 32:23 NLT
That last line has been used as both a threat and a word of encouragement over the centuries, but few who quote it realize its original context or meaning. We’ve all heard before, but probably never knew where it came from.
“Be sure your sins will find you out!” are words that have flowed from the lips of many a parent and usually in the direction of a disobedient child. But it may surprise you to see these familiar words in their original context. Many of us have forgotten or never known just why Moses spoke these words in the first place.
As the people of God prepared to enter the promised land, the land of Canaan, Moses was approached by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. They possessed a lot of flocks and had taken note that the land east of the Jordan had some great pastureland. So they asked Moses for permission to settle their tribes on the east side of the river instead of crossing over with everyone else into Canaan.
Moses was flabbergasted by their request. He viewed it as a form of insurrection and compared it to the time 40 years earlier when the people of Israel had refused to enter the land. That event was a sore spot for Moses because it had resulted in the deaths of an entire generation of Israelites because they had chosen to disobey the command of God. Moses reminded the Reubenites and Gadites what had happened.
“Why do you want to discourage the rest of the people of Israel from going across to the land the Lord has given them? Your ancestors did the same thing when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to explore the land. After they went up to the valley of Eshcol and explored the land, they discouraged the people of Israel from entering the land the Lord was giving them. Then the Lord was very angry with them…” – Numbers 32:7-10 NLT
Moses had sent spies into the land of Canaan to bring back news of its fruitfulness and the military strength of its occupants. But ten of the 12 spies had convinced the people that while the land was rich and plentiful, its occupants were undefeatable. So, the people decided to disobey God and return to Egypt. But that decision resulted in God’s wrath and punishment. Now 40 years later, that generation had died off and their descendants stood on the edge of Canaan, preparing to enter the land.
When Moses heard the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle outside the land of promise, he was incensed.
“Are you trying to discourage the rest of the people of Israel from going across to the land the LORD has given them? This is what your ancestors did when I sent them from Kadesh–barnea to explore the land.” – Numbers 32:7-8 NLT
For Moses, this was déjà vu all over again. He saw their request as selfish and short-sighted, and another instance of rebellion against God. But the Reubenites and Gadites assured Moses that they were not abandoning the people of God or attempting to persuade them from entering the land. They simply wanted to take advantage of the better pastureland on the east side of the river. They were willing to fight alongside their brothers and assist them in conquering the land of Canaan until every tribe had gained their portion of the inheritance promised to Abraham.
They made a vow not to settle east of the Jordan until that happened. This assurance calmed Moses’ fears, but he still issued a stern warning.
“But if you don’t do what you say, you will be sinning against GOD; you can be sure that your sin will track you down.” – Numbers 32:23 MSG
Moses expected them to keep their word and reminded them that if they failed to do so, their sin would be against God, not the people, and God would remember their sin. He would deal with them severely if they broke their commitment.
In the end, these tribes held up their end of the bargain.
The armed warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh led the Israelites across the Jordan, just as Moses had directed. 13 These armed men—about 40,000 strong—were ready for battle, and the Lord was with them as they crossed over to the plains of Jericho. – Joshua 4:12-13
But their plan was not necessarily God’s plan. They were motivated by greed and self-interest and their decision to settle east of the Jordan overshadowed the promise that God had made to provide them with abundant land on the west side of the Jordan. They were attracted to what looked good physically and materially. Rather than wait for what God had promised, they chose what they could see with their own eyes.
There seems to be an assumption on their part that there might not be any land on the west side of the Jordan useful for raising flocks. So they chose to settle outside the land of “promise.” And their decision, while approved by Moses, would prove to be a problem in the years to come. Distance from the other tribes would end up producing misunderstanding and disunity (Joshua 22). It also created a hole in the defensive lines of the Israelites. This area was often the first to experience invasion, and Israel would lose control of it several times in its later history (2 Kings 15:29).
So what’s the point? First, there is truth to the adage that my sins will find me out. They will track me down and come back to haunt me. So, I need to take my commitments and my sins seriously because God does. Also, I need to look closely at the motivation behind my decisions. Why am I doing what I am about to do? Am I being motivated by selfishness and greed? What will be the long-term ramifications of my decision if it is wrongly motivated? My sins will find me out. So will my selfish decisions. And both can have a tremendous impact on the lives of others.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.