Living on the border of the promised land
Drawing to the end of the 40 years in the wilderness, which extended the 11-day journey to reach the promised land to the extent of their lack of faith, an interesting request was made by 2½ tribes, to not actually lay claim of the gift of God, but to live on the border of the promised land (East of the Jordan). Could this be idiomatic of some borderline believers today?
Let us recap the first setting: Numbers 32:1-5, 7-9, 11-12, 16-19 (NKJV)
Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of livestock; and when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that indeed the region was a place for livestock, the children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar, the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, “… the country which the Lord defeated before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” Therefore they said, “If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not take us over the Jordan.”
[Moses initially replied] Now, why will you discourage the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord has given them? Thus your fathers did when I sent them away 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 children of Israel, so that they did not go into the land which the Lord had given them. ‘Surely none of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and above, shall see the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because they have not wholly followed Me, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the Lord.’
Then they [persistently] came near to him and said: “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we ourselves will be armed, ready to go before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place, and our little ones will dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the children of Israel has received his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this eastern side of the Jordan.”
Back in Numbers 21, Israel conquered Sihon and Og (the kings of ‘Transjordan’). The tribes claimed that, since the Lord had given them victory over them the land with ample pasturage for their animals should be allowed to take full possession. The land was about 762 m sea level which made it ideal for cattle to graze. The children of Reuben and Gad, having such a great multitude of livestock probably saw it and considered it to be their best bet and therefore made the first bid on the land.
Moses confronts the real reason for them wanting to settle in the highlands: a reluctance to go to war, which is equivalent to rebellion against God’s plan for the nation’s possession. His promised land was across the Jordan to the west, not the east. Moses saw that the request could (again) stir up a rebellion in which Israel rejects God’s gift of the land and lead to yet another wilderness experience. He vividly remembered how the previous generation whom he now outlived lacked faith for crossing into the promised land (Numbers 32:6–15).
Then the request makers persisted with bartering a better deal – they promise to support the conquest of Canaan with their fighting men fully and only return afterwards (vv. 16–27). Moses accepts this compromise (vv. 28–32). Half of Manasseh also gets mentioned to settle on that side of the Jordan, because it probably seemed reasonable to Moses, since their other half would be directly across from them on the other side of Joran.
After Moses died and Joshua took up leadership, the time came to substantiate their prior bargaining.
The second setting: Joshua 1:12-16
“Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land.’ Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land which Moses gave you on this side of the Jordan.
However, you shall pass before your brethren armed, all your mighty men of valour, and help them until the Lord has given your brethren rest, as He gave you, and they also have taken possession of the land which the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and enjoy it, which Moses the Lord’s servant gave you on this side of the Jordan toward the sunrise.”
So they answered Joshua, saying, “All that you command us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go.”
These 2 ½ tribes had 136,930 men available (Numbers 26:7, 18, 34). According to Joshua 4:12-13 only 40,000 assisted in war, even though the soldiers from these tribes totalled 110,580. With 40,000 gone to war, this left 70,580 to guard the families and flocks while Canaan was being conquered. When the soldiers returned home, they shared the spoils of war with their brothers (Josh 22:6-8).
It is interesting that they would:
- Choose their interpretation of inheritance, based on their possessions, before even seeing the fulfilment of the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.
- Choose to prosper, rather than dwell with their brothers and sisters in the inheritance God had given them. They were so far from the place of worship; they had to set up a monument to remind their children of their heritage (Josh 22:10ff).
- Choose to send some soldiers to fight for others, but return to their prior position.
Could this be idiomatic of some borderline believers today? These borderline believers:
- Make up their mind about how far they would go for God. Their possessions determine their decisions, and they lack the patience to see a prophecy fulfilled.
- Are very busy with work and independent from church and accountability. They uphold a Christian ethos and teach their children the Bible, but they don’t live in fellowship with other believers.
- Pray for and minister to others for a breakthrough up to a certain point, but then take the claim of the victory and return to doing their own thing.