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!
Numbers 32 - 34
32:1 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. 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.”
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, none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the LORD.’ 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. 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! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”
Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, 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. We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. 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.” So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the LORD for the war, and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the LORD, until he has driven out his enemies from before him 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. But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the LORD to battle, as my lord orders.”
So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers' houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And Moses said to them, “If the people of Gad and the people of Reuben, every man who is armed to battle before the LORD, will pass with you over the Jordan and the land shall be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession. However, if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben answered, “What the LORD has said to your servants, we will do. We will pass over armed before the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan.”
And Moses gave to them, to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land and its cities with their territories, the cities of the land throughout the country. And the people of Gad built Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, Atroth-shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran, fortified cities, and folds for sheep. And the people of Reuben built Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, and Baal-meon (their names were changed), and Sibmah. And they gave other names to the cities that they built. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he settled in it. And Jair the son of Manasseh went and captured their villages, and called them Havvoth-jair. And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its villages, and called it Nobah, after his own name.
33:1 These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them. On their gods also the LORD executed judgments.
So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days' journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. And they set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. And they set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. And they set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. And they set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. And they set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. And they set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. And they set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. And they set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. And they set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. And they set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. And they set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. And they set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. And they set out from Terah and camped at Mithkah. And they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. And they set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. And they set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. And they set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. And they set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. And they set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. And they set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. And they set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh). And they set out from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom.
And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the LORD and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. And Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Mount Hor.
And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the people of Israel.
And they set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. And they set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. And they set out from Punon and camped at Oboth. And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab. And they set out from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. And they set out from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. And they set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. And they set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho; they camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.
And the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. 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.”
34:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders), your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom, and your southern border shall run from the end of the Salt Sea on the east. And your border shall turn south of the ascent of Akrabbim, and cross to Zin, and its limit shall be south of Kadesh-barnea. Then it shall go on to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon. And the border shall turn from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt, and its limit shall be at the sea.
“For the western border, you shall have the Great Sea and its coast. This shall be your western border.
“This shall be your northern border: from the Great Sea you shall draw a line to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor you shall draw a line to Lebo-hamath, and the limit of the border shall be at Zedad. Then the border shall extend to Ziphron, and its limit shall be at Hazar-enan. This shall be your northern border.
“You shall draw a line for your eastern border from Hazar-enan to Shepham. And the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain. And the border shall go down and reach to the shoulder of the Sea of Chinnereth on the east. And the border shall go down to the Jordan, and its limit shall be at the Salt Sea. This shall be your land as defined by its borders all around.”
Moses commanded the people of Israel, saying, “This is the land that you shall inherit by lot, which the LORD has commanded to give to the nine tribes and to the half-tribe. For the tribe of the people of Reuben by fathers' houses and the tribe of the people of Gad by their fathers' houses have received their inheritance, and also the half-tribe of Manasseh. The two tribes and the half-tribe have received their inheritance beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, toward the sunrise.”
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Of the tribe of the people of Simeon, Shemuel the son of Ammihud. Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. Of the tribe of the people of Dan a chief, Bukki the son of Jogli. Of the people of Joseph: of the tribe of the people of Manasseh a chief, Hanniel the son of Ephod. And of the tribe of the people of Ephraim a chief, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. Of the tribe of the people of Zebulun a chief, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. Of the tribe of the people of Issachar a chief, Paltiel the son of Azzan. And of the tribe of the people of Asher a chief, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. Of the tribe of the people of Naphtali a chief, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” These are the men whom the LORD commanded to divide the inheritance for the people of Israel in the land of Canaan.