When we’re done today, maybe you can tell me whether this was a good deal or a bad deal. But we certainly see deal-making in action here.
The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad – and later from half of the tribe of Manassah – went to Moses to suggest that they not cross the Jordan and settle in the Land of Canaan. They had lots of sheep and cattle, and the land on the east side of the Jordan was good for grazing.
The region – which stretched from the border with Moab to what is now the Golan Heights – was land that was taken in the defeat of the Amorites and Bashanites. It included the Plains of Moab, Gilead, and Bashan. The land was especially good for raising cattle, which these two and a-half tribes had plenty of.
They seemed to be shocked by Moses’ response. Moses blew a gasket – comparing them to the Israelites who refused to obey God’s command to go into the Promised Land and take it from the Canaanites. He reminded them that God had punished their parents for their lack of faith and disobedience by decreeing that no one 20 or older would enter that Land except Joshua and Caleb. He also accused them of cowardice – suggesting that by taking the land that had already been conquered on the east side of the Jordan, they would leave the other nine and a-half tribes to fight for the land on the west side of the Jordan.
Moses’ rage came out of 40 years of disappointment with God’s persistently unfaithful people – a wasted generation. It may have had its roots in the fact that Moses was not allowed to enter Canaan – and these tribes that could enter it were going to take a pass.
Or it could have been that the first generation in the desert sinned, and Moses was afraid that the next generation was going to make the same mistake – especially if the other tribes joined them in settling for “a bird in hand” instead of “two in the bush.” God had promised them so much more.
Moses feared the people were losing faith again and were unwilling to obey God’s commands, and were betraying their fellow Israelites – maybe even cowards. Or worse – by rejecting God’s plan for them.
He reminds them in verse 8, “This is what your fathers did!” In verse 14, he calls them a “brood of sinners” – as Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.”
What happened next may have been clarification – or it may have been backpedaling. Reuben and Gad responded with a promise that their men would join the rest of the Israelites in doing battle with the Canaanites after settling their families, flocks, and herds safely in Gilead. They insisted this was their plan all along – but it’s interesting that they committed themselves to the conquest of Canaan only after Moses read them the riot act.
Husbands – how many of us have announced that we’re going fishing or to shoot some pool or to watch the ballgame at a friends’ house, and then our wives remind us that the leaves need raking or we promised to paint the garage? And then we jump back with, “Of course, we were going to do that first.” Wives – how many of you believed us – even when we were telling the truth?
Because it just doesn’t sound genuine, especially when the first proposal included the words, “Do not make us cross the Jordan.” Nevertheless, Moses agreed to the new terms – and told them that God would hold them to their terms: “If you do what you say, you may return to the land your requested.” But he also gave them a stern warning that, should they fail to help their fellow Israelites take the land of Canaan, they would be sinning against the Lord and “your sin will find you out.” They would suffer the consequences. Specifically, they will not get the land they asked for – but they get land in Canaan.
Moses’ decision reminds them that their victory will be God’s victory – and that going into battle would be confirmation of their faith in God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises.
The tribes moved into the Gilead, chased out the Amorite residents, and renamed the towns and cities. They built homes for their families and pens for their livestock – and then they joined the other Israelites in crossing the Jordan and taking the Land of Canaan.
But why did they try to make a deal with Moses – and God – in the first place? It could have been pride or a sense of entitlement. The tribe of Reuben was descended from Jacob’s first-born son, and may have thought they should first pick of where to settle.
It could have been rebellion – or just pragmatism. Were they actually turning up their noses at God’s gift? Did they forget their past and were doomed to repeat it? Or did they convince themselves that the land they wanted was also conquered with God’s help – so God must consider it part of the Promised Land?
Or was it simply reluctance to rise to their spiritual destiny, so they wound up settling for less than what God wanted for them. It has been said that the good is the enemy of the best.
Regardless of their reasoning or their sincerity, in the end, their choice was short-sighted. When the enemies of Israel attacked in later years, Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh repeatedly bore the brunt of the attack – took the first hit – because they did not have the Jordan River to protect them – the river they did not want to cross.
And today – that part of ancient Israel – with the exception of the Golan Heights, which is still contested land – is not part of modern Israel. It’s part of Jordan. Almost all of the land that they made a deal for was lost.
How often do we as Christians try to negotiate with God’s will – trying to take the easier or the more comfortable way, rather than doing the hard work of obeying? Think of the rich young ruler in Luke 18. He kept God’s Law – pretty much to the letter – but could not go the extra mile that Jesus asked of him: “Go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.” He went away sad.
How sad it is for us, too, when we know what God expects of us and what God has in store for us – and we try to negotiate what seems to be a better deal.
Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians in our New Testament Lesson for today:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
We have a share in the inheritance of the saints. Jesus has redeemed us and bought our forgiveness, and God has brought us into Jesus’ kingdom of everlasting light. That is our spiritual destiny.
Do we honestly believe we can negotiate a better deal?
Do we dare even try?