As we approach the end of Numbers, the new generation of Israelites is approaching the day when the LORD opens the Promised Land to them. Today’s readings center on this, beginning with a crisis of national unity.
Chapter 32 is a dialogue-rich story concerning the tribes of Gad and Reuben. As Israel has settled the East Bank of the Jordan River, representatives from these two tribes approach Moses with a proposal: “Let this land be given to us for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.”
This raises serious questions for Moses: “Are Reuben and Gad giving up on God’s promise?” “Will you allow the other tribes to fend for themselves in Canaan?” And “Isn’t this the same kind of self-seeking that bought us 40 extra years in the wilderness?” Echoes of Numbers 13 and 14 abound as Moses warns forcefully about rekindling the wrath of the LORD. But then Reuben and Gad make an appealing promise, and a peace is made that will be tested later.
You might notice here that the LORD is absent from this negotiation, and the author offers no commentary on the resolution. He only presents the characters and dialogue. Remember that most Biblical narratives don’t offer an obvious “moral of the story.” On the one hand, Reuben and Gad appear to be settling for less than what God has promised them. On the other hand, this is a substantial expansion of Israel’s territory. It’s possible that we’ll have to be patient to see if this was a good idea or not.
Chapter 33 is a history lesson and Chapter 34 is a geography lesson. First, the entire journey from Goshen to the banks of the Jordan is recounted. Next, the boundaries of the land are set. Of keen historical note is that these boundaries of Canaan match those found in Egyptian records of the same time period.
But in the middle of these is an ominous warning:
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”
This warning, attached to the command to drive out all the inhabitants of Canaan, will stand in the background for centuries to come.
Our verses for this week are Matthew 22:37-38: “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”
Numbers 32 through 34. Now let’s read it!
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.