The Eastern Tribes – Numbers 32

Read the Passage: Numbers 32

Request and Rebuke (32:1–15)

Numbers 21 recorded Israel’s defeat of several kings and nations who dwelt south and east of the Promised Land—namely, the king of Arad (cf. Num. 21:1–3), the king of the Amorites (cf. Num. 21:21–32), and the king of Bashan (cf. Num. 21:33–35). Similarly, Numbers 31 reported Israel’s defeat of the Midianites. In Num. 32:1–5 we read that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who were two of the smaller tribes of Israel, asked Moses if they might dwell in the land captured by Israel on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The rationale these two tribes gave Moses was that “the country which the Lord defeated before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock” (Num. 32:4). Indeed, Num. 32:1 noted that these two tribes “had a very great multitude of livestock,” thus their desire to dwell east of the Jordan River seemed to be quite logical.

While the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad may have been logical, and arguably even good stewardship, perhaps they erred in the way they petitioned Moses, saying, “Do not take us over the Jordan.” Having just been reminded about his own impending demise (cf. Num. 27:12–23), Moses’ mental state was likely not as settled as was normal. In any event, the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad clearly reminded Moses of the actions of the ten Hebrew spies whom had made a similar statement almost forty years earlier (cf. Num. 13–14). Recall that the spies concluded Israel should not cross over the Jordan River. This conclusion had so discouraged the nation that they rebelled against God, resulting in an entire generation dying in the wilderness. This, in turn, had led to Moses’ own sin at Kadesh, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, as well as God’s decision that Moses would not enter into the Promised Land.

Clarity and Caution (32:16–32)

Moses’ warned the tribes of Reuben and Gad that their petition could lead God to “once again leave Israel in the wilderness, and you will destroy these people” (Num. 32:15). In light of this caution, in Num. 32:16–19 Reuben and Gad clarified, or perhaps adjusted, their request, stating that if they were allowed to inherit the land east of the Jordan, they would cross over the Jordan with the other tribes and aid in the conquering of the Promised Land. In Num. 32:20–24 Moses granted this request; however, with his own impending death in view, Moses knew he could not ensure or verify that these tribes would honor their promise to assist their brethren in vanquishing Canaan. In light of this uncertainly, Moses warned the tribes of Reuben and Gad that if they did not keep their promise, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23; cf. Gen. 44:16; Prov. 5:22).

With Moses’ approval of the conditions suggested by the tribes of Reuben and Gad, all parties were in agreement that these two tribes could settle east of the Jordan. These tribes were to prepare dwellings for their families and fences for their livestock, then the men of war would cross over the Jordan River, along with their brethren, and assist in the conquering of the Promised Land. In Num. 32:28–30 Moses publicly endorsed this plan before Eleazar, the high priest, and before Joshua, the next leader of Israel. We can note that in the then near future, after the death of Moses, the eastern tribes were reminded by Joshua of their obligation to participate in the vanquishing of Canaan (cf. Josh. 1:12–18). Indeed, Joshua records that these tribes kept their promise and only returned home, after many months, when Israel’s possession of the Promised Land was secure (cf. Josh. 22).

Settling and Spreading (32:33–42)

The settling of the eastern tribes is described in Num. 32:33–42 and is also reiterated in Josh. 13:8–33. In Num. 32:3 we learn that in addition to the tribes of Reuben and Gad settling east of the Jordan River, half of the tribe of Manasseh also settled there. It is unclear what led half of this tribe to request an inheritance near Reuben and Gad; however, it may be that, like their brethren, they held much livestock. Alternatively, it may be that some from Manasseh desired to dwell east of the Jordan, for they were one of the larger tribes of Israel. In fact, of all the twelve tribes of Israel, Manasseh had grown the most during the forty years of wilderness wandering. This chapter concludes with a note that several families from the tribe of Manasseh conquered and were granted additional land by Moses east of the Jordan, which had belonged to the Amorites (cf. Num. 32:39–42).

Application Questions:

  1. Do you find it difficult to accept gifts from others? Why do we often feel the need to reciprocate when given a gift?
  2. How do the concepts of logic, rationality, stewardship, and planning fit into the idea of knowing and doing the will of God?
  3. What did Moses mean in warning the eastern tribes, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)? Does any sin ever go unpunished?
  4. Do you think the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to dwell on the east side of the Jordan River was a sinful request? Was it a wise request?
  5. While the geographic Promised Land held great significance in the Old Testament era, is the land occupied by Israel important today?