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Obedience is the simplest course of action. When we start to compromise and introduce our own wisdom as if we have devised a better plan than God, it opens the door to complexity and ethical challenges. The given in this passage must be the foundational understanding that God had clearly revealed the boundaries for the promised land. The request to settle down in the Trans-Jordan pasturelands represents the introduction of man’s wisdom in conflict with those instructions. However, this scenario is not presented as a clear case of rebellion. The two tribes make their case and Moses (after the plan is fine-tuned to include their responsibility in the conquering campaign) accepts the plan and Israel moves forward. (There can be debate about whether Moses inquired fully as to the will of God in this decision.) Some commentators argue that the outcome is totally positive since Israel has now expanded her territory and has a buffer zone against future invasions. But that would require us to conclude that man’s wisdom can improve on the plans of God.

I look at this case study as parallel to NT church government issues. I believe that God’s revealed agenda is plurality of elder government without a designated senior pastor who functions in an elevated leadership role. However, Christendom has chosen to reject the simple biblical model and has offered some compelling arguments (based largely on expediency) in favor of the senior pastor model which now predominates. God still chooses to bless that altered model; but you cannot therefore conclude that man has improved upon the revealed plan of God. There is complexity when it comes to motivation and when it comes to the interaction of a wide number of divine objectives.

So this chapter is an interesting and complex study. It follows shortly after the story of Balaam — another occasion where the will of God had been expressly communicated, but God allowed the prophet to pursue his alternative path and meet with Balak. Everything cannot be painted as black and white. There seems to be more involved than a simple substituting of instant gratification for faith in the promise of God. The reasonable arguments made by the two tribes, the endorsing role of Moses, and the resulting blessing of God must all be evaluated along with the initial proposal that seems misguided.

Peter Wallace: [very helpful analysis] God said that Israel was to inherit the Promised Land. Reuben and Gad want an inheritance outside the Promised Land. That’s at least somewhat distressing. In Numbers 34, God will describe the borders of the Promised Land – and he draws a line from the Sea of Galilee, down the Jordan River, to the Dead Sea. Reuben and Gad want to stay on the east side of the Jordan River. Moses wants them to come with Israel into the Promised Land. They reach a compromise.

How should we think of this? Is compromise always wrong? Sometimes a compromise can be reached on the basis of a principled moderation. Other times a compromise can repudiate principle entirely. Of course, some principles matter more than others! . . .

the whole narrative fits into a basic chiasm – with the acceptance of the compromise at the heart of the text.

Ronald Allen: All this affords Moses the opportunity to preach a brief homily on the history of the national experience in the desert. In this preaching Moses presents an example of a biblical use of history for the instruction of the people of God. He speaks with specificity, with passion, with historical insights, and with a contemporary feel – the tying of the experience of the past into the present of his hearers. In some ways this section may be thought of as a model of biblical exhortation. . .

The underlying theology is based on the notion that the land is the gift of God. How would it be possible for the Israelites to spurn his gift? Even though their fathers had done this despicable act, is it really possible that such a act of cowardice and ingratitude might be done again? In asking these questions, Moses is developing the central message of this book. The new generation has a new opportunity to be other than their parents. They may be the people who succeed. They do not have to repeat the failure of their parents.

Gordon Wenham: To appreciate the significance of this episode it should be noted that Transjordan lay outside Canaan, the land promised to the fathers. Its boundaries are defined in chapter 34, where it is clear that from the sea of Galilee southwards the Jordan marks the eastern frontier of Canaan. That any Israelite tribe should consider settling outside the land promised to Abraham showed a disturbing indifference to the divine word, the word on which Israel’s existence entirely depended. The nation stood poised to cross the Jordan and take up its inheritance, when suddenly three of the tribes announced their intention of opting out. It looked like the spy story (chapters 13–14) all over again. That time the whole nation except Caleb and Joshua had cold feet, refusing to trust in God’s promises. This time the tribes of Gad, Reuben and part of Manasseh declared they were uninterested in settling in the promised land. This led to a heated exchange with Moses in which their attitude is explicitly compared to that of the earlier generation (6–15), and throughout the story implicit allusions are found to the events some forty years earlier at Kadesh. Gad and Reuben then proposed that their fighting men should accompany the other tribes across the Jordan and return home only when the conquest of Canaan was complete. This proposal satisfied Moses and he therefore allocated them the land they had requested (16–38).

Robert Rayburn: Calvin, on the other hand, regards this narrative as a story of God’s providence bringing good out of human sin. By the repentance of the two and a half tribes and their willing contribution to the conquest, the boundaries of the Promised Land were enlarged. The plan may have been sinful and unbelieving in its origin, but it was sanctified by faithful obedience and became a means to a good thing. Moses, in fact, accepts their plan as soon as they promise to help the rest of the nation conquer Canaan. There is flexibility to God’s plan. He had defined the Promised Land long centuries ago, but was willing to enlarge it here so long as his people did that in the right way.


A. (:1a) The Situation = We need grazing land for livestock

“Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad

had an exceedingly large number of livestock.”

Robert Rayburn: It is an interesting detail of the text that though Reuben is mentioned first here in v. 1, in the rest of the chapter Gad is mentioned first. Apparently Reuben is mentioned first at the beginning because of that tribe’s seniority, Reuben having been Jacob’s first son, but elsewhere Gad’s leadership in the plan to remain on the east side of the Jordan is reflected in the order in which the tribes are mentioned.

Raymond Brown: The Reubenites may have been ‘claiming their rights’ as the direct successors of Jacob’s eldest son. The firstborn in Israel had distinct privileges and, although these had been forfeited because of Reuben’s sin, they may have hoped that family privilege would give them the right to choose the best for themselves. For many people, self-interest is the primary determinative feature in life’s choices. Oswald Chambers used to define sin as ‘my right to myself’. Christians have other priorities; their thinking is determined and controlled by God’s right to themselves. Selfishness is a recurrent danger in a postmodern society. Millions of our neighbours are urged to pursue courses of action that actively foster self-gratification as a primary goal in life. Nothing could be more contrary to the biblical presentation of the Christian ideal. Christ had no desire to please himself, and he is every believer’s perfect model. Their dominant ambition is to glorify God and to serve others. Anything that actively encourages us to magnify self is suspect.

B. (:1b) The Opportunity = This land meets that need

“So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead,

that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock,”

walking by sight rather than by faith; opportunity does not always translate to conformity to the will of God

Gordon Keddie: The defeat of the transjordanic kings, Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan, left Israel in sole occupation of land that was “suitable for livestock” (32:1; 21:21-35). This lay outside the borders of Canaan and was not part of the promised land. . . It was a clear case of self-interest triumphing over known duty.

Iain Duguid: The key word in the first verse is the verb, “They saw.” Seeing in the Bible is definitely not believing. On the contrary, sight is often the exact opposite of faith. Seeing is frequently the prelude to bad decisions because our eyes tend to make superficial judgments. Eve “saw” that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and so she ate the forbidden fruit instead of believing God’s Word that this fruit was not good (Genesis 3:6). The result was disaster for humanity. Later, when Lot “saw” that the plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the Garden of the Lord or like the land of Egypt, he chose to separate from Abraham and settle in the unpromised land to the east of the Jordan (Genesis 13:10). Before long he found himself living in Sodom and in danger of sharing in the judgment that was coming on that place (see Genesis 19). Choosing with our eyes often leads us into spiritually dangerous places—places that may then be hard to leave because our possessions weigh us down and hold us there. Wherever our possessions are, there our heart is also.

This was exactly what happened with the Reubenites and Gadites. Their wealth of cattle combined with the grazing potential of the Transjordanian plain prompted them to ask if they might receive the area of the Transjordan that they were then occupying as their inheritance, rather than crossing the Jordan with the remainder of the people into the Promised Land proper (32:5). To be sure, they made their request sound spiritual by arguing that the Lord was the one who had subdued this territory before his people (v. 4), but it was ultimately economics that was driving their request, not theology. In effect they were asking to settle down somewhere other than where God had called them to live because it was more suitable for their lifestyle.

The temptation to choose with our eyes rather than by faith is one that we also face. We are tempted to choose spouses based on looks rather than Christian character, or careers based on their income potential rather than the opportunity to use our gifts to serve our community. We are tempted to spend vast amounts of money on clothing, cars, and the accessories of an affluent lifestyle instead of investing our treasure in heavenly causes. Our affluence constantly poses a temptation to us to settle down here and invest ourselves in this world instead of setting our hearts on the things that are above.

C. (:2-5) The Petition = Please give us this land and grant us an exemption from crossing over the Jordan

1. (:2) Addressing the Leaders

“the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation, saying,”

2. (:3-4) Arguing Their Case

“Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, 4 the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock; and your servants have livestock.”

3. (:5) Appealing for a Favorable Decision

a. (:5a) Give Us this Land Here

“And they said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight,

let this land be given to your servants as a possession;’”

b. (:5b) Exempt us from the Military Campaign Across the Jordan

“do not take us across the Jordan.”

They should have been more careful at this point in their request to explain that they were not abandoning their responsibility to the community at large.


“But Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben,”

A. (:6-7) Denial Based on Two Fundamental Objections – Visceral Response

1. (:6b) Compromises the Solidarity of the Mission

“Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here?”

Why should you be exempt from the struggle and the risk?

We should all be in this together as brothers – sharing the struggle and the risk.

Gordon Keddie: First of all, this was a betrayal of their own people. . . They thought only of their prosperity in Gilead and their avoidance of the cost of taking Canaan. They wanted to quit while they were ahead – an understandable impulse to be sure – but a cheap and wholly unjustified abandonment of those to whom they were bound in fellowship as the people of God. They would be spectators of the struggle for Canaan, without so much as raising a finger to help.

2. (:7) Compromises the Commitment Needed to Pursue the Promise of the Lord

“Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel

from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them?”

Wiersbe: A successful community or nation depends not only on keeping our word and trusting God for victory; it also depends on the loyalty of people to each other.

Gordon Keddie: Secondly, this was also an incitement of others to sin. It as good as suggested that the Lord need not be obeyed and that his promises could be set aside. . . If it was all right for Reuben and the others to drop out, then why not all? An example was being set – and it was a bad one. It proclaimed the primacy of self-interest, immediate gratification, avoidance of responsibility and unilateral reneging on solemn commitments.

Iain Duguid: It is the same way with our self-centered affluence. The decision to settle down comfortably to enjoy what we have, without any thought of God’s call on our lives, never simply affects ourselves. It affects our brothers and sisters in the church as well. Each of us has a part to play in setting the spiritual temperature of our own congregation. If I am cool toward God, comfortably satisfied with what I already have, then that coolness will dampen my neighbor’s enthusiasm for God. Equally, if I am on fire for the Lord, passionately pursuing a life of holiness and service, then something of that heat will radiate out to those around me. We never live our lives in a vacuum. Our commitment, or lack of commitment, affects the body as a whole.

B. (:8-13) Denial Based on the Historical Example of Previous Failure and Judgment – Reasoned Response

1. (:8) Experience of Moses in Sending the Spies

“This is what your fathers did

when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land.”

2. (:9) Failure of the Spies in Undermining Faith in the Lord’s Promise

“For when they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land,

they discouraged the sons of Israel

so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them.”

3. (:10-13) Judgment of the Lord

a. (:10) Anger of the Lord

“So the LORD’s anger burned in that day,

and He swore, saying,”

b. (:11-12) Disposition of the Judgment

1) (:11) Denial of the Blessing of the Promise

“None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully,”

2) (:12) Exemption for Faithful Caleb and Joshua

“except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.”

c. (:13a) Anger of the Lord

“So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel,”

d. (:13b) Disposition of the Judgment

“and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years,

until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed.”

C. (:14-15) Denial Based on Assumption of Evil Motives and Expectation of Destructive Outcome

1. (:14) Assumption of Evil Motives

“Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the LORD against Israel.”

Cf. references of Jesus – Matt 12:34

2. (:15) Expectation of Destructive Outcome

“For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all these people.”


A. (:16-19) Revised Proposal by the Two Tribes

1. (:16) Commitment to Dwell in Trans-Jordan Territory

“Then they came near to him and said, ‘We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones;’”

It appears that they no longer are presenting their case to the entire body of Israelite leaders (including Eleazar the priest), but are making a private argument to Moses alone.

2. (:17) Commitment to Lead the Canaan Conquest Campaign

“but we ourselves will be armed ready to go before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land.”

3. (:18) Commitment to Solidarity with Inheritance Hopes of Fellow Israelites

“We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance.”

Dennis Cole: The two positive statements of building and contributing troops for the upcoming conquest are balanced by two negative statements that confirm their intent to aid their fellow tribesmen. They would not return home to their newly allotted Transjordan inheritance until the conquest was complete, and they would not expect to receive an inheritance in the land of Canaan, though its territory proper was the Promised Land. The eastern border of the Israelite inheritance, as delineated clearly in 34:11–12, was the Jordan River and the eastern shorelines of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The land they desired and eventually occupied was across the Jordan from “the land that the Lord had given to them” (vv. 7, 9).

4. (:19) Commitment to Restrict Inheritance to Trans-Jordan Territory

“For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”

R. K. Harrison: Convinced that their well-thought-out plan had nothing to do with either secession form the twelve tribes or rebellion against God’s will, the petitioners approached Moses and reassured him of their integrity as member tribes of the nation. Their primary concern was to take advantage of the rich terrain as a source of food and to construct sheepfolds of stone as well as rebuild some of the ruined cities. This proposal could be of tactical importance for the nation, since it would afford protection for Israel’s eastern flank once the other tribes had possessed Canaan.

Iain Duguid: It is important to hear the different tone of voice that was present in their response. This was not merely a grudging acquiescence to Moses’ rebuke on their part but rather a complete change of heart. The Reubenites and Gadites promised to hasten to equip themselves to lead Israel into the conflict (v. 17) and to remain on the field of combat until every single one of the Israelites received their inheritance (v. 18). They thus took up the challenge to provide leadership for the community of faith in the ongoing struggle and to persevere in that struggle until every one of their brothers and sisters had received what God promised.

B. (:20-24) Release from Long Term Canaan Obligations Issued by Moses

1. (:20-23) Carry Out Your Obligations to Israel

a. (:20-22) Permission

1) (:20-22a) Fulfil Short Term Obligations to Conquer Canaan

“So Moses said to them, ‘If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, 21 and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, 22 and the land is subdued before the LORD,’”

2) (:22b) Freedom from Long Term Canaan Obligations

“then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward the LORD and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before the LORD.”

b. (:23) Warning

“But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out.”

Iain Duguid: The passage also reminds us of a fundamental certainty of the universe when it says, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (v. 23). Sin is a tireless pursuer when it comes to seek its just payment: like a shark that smells blood, it will never leave a wounded swimmer alone. It comes on relentlessly, seeking its wages, which are nothing less than eternal, spiritual death. Yet the fact is that for all of us who are in Christ, our sins will never find us out. On the cross every one of those sins found Christ, and they tore him apart physically, emotionally, spiritually. That is why he hung there alone, abandoned, empty. All of our unbelief, all of our self-centeredness, all of our self-serving, all of our lust and gossip and lies, all of our pride and our grumbling—all of our sin descended on him and assaulted him on the cross, extracting the due penalty from him for our failures.

Robert Rayburn: [Points out that this phrase actually is designed for believers – so he offers an alternative interpretation to that of Duguid which I would agree with]

“Be sure your sins will find you out,” is a reality for Christians, for you and for me. Now, to be sure, this is, like so many other biblical statements like it, a generality. Everyone of our sins is not found out, every one of our secrets is not eventually disclosed, though, of course, it can be said that everyone will be accounted for at the Judgment Day. But it remains a truth of life and Moses is reminding us of the fact. We can’t hide our sins from God and we can’t prevent him from disclosing them to others or forcing us to face the consequences of them. I don’t know how many times I have seen this truth – the truth that Moses so memorably encapsulates in a single line: “Be sure your sins will find you out” – I say, I don’t know how many times I have seen this truth demonstrated to the devastation of Christian lives. God will not be mocked. Whatever a man sows that shall he also reap. Paul wrote that to Christians and meant much the same by his words as Moses meant by his here.

2. (:24) Carry Out Your Plans to Possess the Trans-Jordan Territory

“Build yourselves cities for your little ones,

and sheepfolds for your sheep;

and do what you have promised.”

C. (:25-27) Response of Commitment by Two Tribes

1. (:25) Summary Commitment

“And the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Your servants will do just as my lord commands.’”

2. (:26) Commitment to Occupy Trans-Jordan Territory

“Our little ones, our wives, our livestock and all our cattle

shall remain there in the cities of Gilead;”

3. (:27) Commitment to Participate in Canaan Conquest Campaign

“while your servants, everyone who is armed for war, will cross over

in the presence of the LORD to battle, just as my lord says.”


A. (:28-30) Spelling Out the Terms of the Compromise Agreement

1. (:28) Summary of the Agreement

“So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest,

and to Joshua the son of Nun,

and to the heads of the fathers’ households of the tribes of the sons of Israel.”

Moses did not solicit their input; he did not inquire of the Lord via the Urim and Thummin of Eleazar the priest; he just dictated the terms of the agreement.

Timothy Ashley: The group that Moses summons as witnesses is the same group that will divide the land in 34:16–29. Moses commanded. He brought this group in not only as witnesses to the agreement between Israel and Gad and Reuben, but also as the people who would be responsible for carrying out the stipulations of the covenant, since he was soon to die (cf. 27:12–14). If Gad and Reuben comply with the terms as agreed, then Eleazar, Joshua, and the other leaders are to make sure that they are allowed to return to Transjordan to their dependents there, receiving it as their inheritance.

2. (:29) Conditions Meriting Possession of Trans-Jordan Territory

“And Moses said to them, ‘If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, everyone who is armed for battle, will cross with you over the Jordan in the presence of the LORD, and the land will be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession;’”

3. (:30) Conditions Defaulting to Possession of Canaanite Territory

“but if they will not cross over with you armed,

they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.”

B. (:31-32) Stipulating to Obey the Terms of the Compromising Agreement

1. (:31) Viewed as Obedience to the Lord

“And the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben answered, saying, ‘As the LORD has said to your servants, so we will do.’”

2. (:32) Viewed as Acted Out in the Presence of the Lord

“We ourselves will cross over armed in the presence of the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us across the Jordan.”

R. K. Harrison: The result was an oral contact containing all the stipulations of the one negotiated privately with Moses and ratified by an oath sworn by the petitioners in public. As events turned out, these two tribes were as good as their word (Josh. 4:12-13; 22:1-6).


A. (:33) Summary of Possession Granted to Tribes of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh

“So Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Joseph’s son Manasseh, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og, the king of Bashan, the land with its cities with their territories, the cities of the surrounding land.”

MacArthur: Once the agreement was reached with Reuben and Gad concerning settlement on the E side of the Jordan, the half tribe of Manasseh, also rich with flocks, joined in seeking land in that territory. However, vv. 39-42 indicate that Manasseh conquered cities not yet taken and settled in the northern area of Gilead.

B. (:34-38) Possession Granted to Sons of Gad and Sons of Reuben

1. (:34-36) Sons of Gad

“And the sons of Gad built Dibon and Ataroth and Aroer, 35 and Atroth-shophan and Jazer and Jogbehah, 36 and Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran as fortified cities, and sheepfolds for sheep.”

2. (:37-38) Sons of Reuben

“And the sons of Reuben built Heshbon and Elealeh and Kiriathaim, 38 and Nebo and Baal-meon– their names being changed– and Sibmah, and they gave other names to the cities which they built.”

Raymond Brown: An intriguing postcript says that some of the old cities conquered in the east Jordan region were given new names (38). It was not appropriate for committed Israelite people to live in towns such as Nebo and Baal Meon, dedicated to pagan deities. These people who settled on the east side of the river wanted to make a fresh start by living in communities that removed all traces of paganism. They acknowledged the Lord’s goodness in giving them a new land.

C. (:39-42) Possession Granted to Sons of Manasseh

1. (:39-40) Sons of Machir

a. (:39)

“And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead

and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it.”

b. (:40)

“So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh,

and he lived in it.”

2. (:41) Jair

“And Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its towns,

and called them Havvoth-jair.”

3. (:42) Nobah

“And Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages,

and called it Nobah after his own name.”

Robert Rayburn: If you have a map in the back of your Bible that shows the territory allotted the twelve tribes, you will find that Reuben settled east of the northern half of the Dead Sea, Gad north of Reuben, and Manasseh north of Gad from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee southward and eastward.