Forty years after leaving Egypt, Israel finally arrived at the border of the Promised Land and were poised to take possession of the land to fulfill a promise given to their progenitors centuries earlier. God had made this promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel’s patriarchs now long deceased. It was a historic moment, the climax of all the events that had marked their unique journey, which had left a king and his entire nation devastated at its inception. Pharaoh had made the fatal mistake of daring to obstruct the fulfillment of this age-old promise by refusing to free the people of Israel held in slavery by his nation for centuries. Striving and railing against God’s plans ultimately leads to dire and calamitous consequences. God freed His people by the hand of Moses and Aaron using stunning miracles. It took Israel forty years to walk to the Promised Land. That was not an easy journey. The individuals who had rebelled against God’s leadership along the way, and had threatened to undermine the progress of the journey had died. As a matter of fact, only two of the adults who left Egypt made it into the Promised Land. God always performs His word.
When the time came for Israel to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad made a puzzling request to the leadership. They saw the goodly Jordanian valley, the land of Jazer and Gilead as a perfect grazing pasture for their abundant livestock. These tribes approached Moses, Eleazar the priest and their community leaders and said to them, “…the country which the LORD defeated before the congregation of Israel, is a land of livestock, and your servants have livestock. If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession. Do not take us over the Jordan,” (Numbers 32: 4-5). What??? You call voluntary forfeiture to seize God’s prize for you favor when it is within your reach? Moses was appalled!!! He understandably interpreted this request as emanating from a selfish, self-serving, and rebellious spirit. It sounded unjust and insensitive. It was outrageous to him since he himself had been forbidden from leading the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land as punishment for his failure to glorify God in the presence of the congregation when he had struck a rock which he had been instructed to speak to when the people strove with him for water (Numbers 20: 7-12). How could these people trivialize what he earnestly yearned for and begged the Lord for? But Moses was not crossing over!! End of discussion. And now these people dared spurn the climax of four decades of walking! In the mind of this aged leader lurked another sad memory: the tragic events that had ensued from Israel’s refusal to enter the Promised Land earlier in the journey (Numbers 13 and 14). Moses had sent 12 men to go and spy out the land so that a workable and proper strategy could be designed for its conquest. When they came back ten of the twelve men gave a bad report that emphasized the formidable stature of the people of the land and how inconceivable it would be for Israel to conquer and dispossess them. Rebellion had ensured, and many people had died as a consequence. Furthermore, God had ordered the people to turn back and wander for 38 years in “a great and terrible wilderness.” And now, at the end of the journey, an eerily familiar scene was threatening to unfold right before Moses, and to undermine the people’s resolve to cross over and possess the land. The reason given by these two tribes for not wanting to cross into the Promised Land was their large numbers of livestock. Using their own reasoning, they concluded that the land before them would be better for their livestock than the land of Canaan. They were willing to risk being separated from the rest of the nation, and to deviate from God’s original directive and plan for them because of their riches. They did not stop to consider the impending perils their brothers would encounter in the forthcoming wars for possession of the land.
In their initial request when the tribes of Reuben and Dan asked Moses not to take them into the land, they had no intention of going beyond the Jordan River whatsoever. It was after Moses remonstrated and chided with them about the injustice they were exhibiting in thinking to let their brothers cross over to fight on their own while they stayed behind that they modified their request. This time they said they would function as the vanguard of their brethren and would fight with them to help them possess the land: “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…we will not return to our homes until everyone of the children of Israel has received his inheritance (Numbers 32: 16-18). According these tribes, the separation and the settlement on the east of the Jordan was a done deal. This apparently selfless revision of the petition addressed the issue of a discouragement, which mollified Moses’ resistance and resentment. An agreement was reached, and Moses allowed them together with the half tribe of Manasseh who were also apparently pleased, to settle in the land east of the Jordan. To be separated from the main body is to slide into slow alienation and irreversible estrangement no matter how noble and innocent the intention might be. What is incomprehensible is the relentless proclivity of the human heart to stubbornly pursue its own inclination even when it means rebellion against God’s directives no matter the cost. This voluntary spatial severance from the main body was a formula for weakening the cohesiveness of the nation of Israel. The ties between the eastern and western tribes would inevitably wane with the passage of time. The 2 ½ tribes that settled on the eastern side would not be able to participate in the daily religious events at the national worship center at Shiloh and ultimately in Jerusalem, which were critical for the very survival and sustenance of the Israelite nation. We do not read from Scripture that God did as many astonishing miracles among the eastern tribes as He did in the Promised Land. It was in Canaan that the heavily fortified city of Jericho miraculously collapsed before Israel. It was in Canaan that the sun stool still and the moon stayed in its place for almost and entire day until Israel had vanquished the enemy. It was also in Canaan that an elaborate and majestic structure was erected as the temple that housed the name and glory of God and in which the most sophisticated and meticulous form of worship was practiced. It was in Canaan that God chose a shepherd boy to bring down a daunting giant who had intimidated God’s people for forty days with a single stone from a sling. This lad became one of Israel’s greatest kings who ushered the nation into a Golden Age due to his unwavering faith in God. The climax of all the miracles in the Promised Land was the advent of the Messiah, God in the flesh, as Savior of the world who redefined the state and status of humanity and the history of the entire universe.
In 1 Chronicles 5:26, we read that, eventually, “…the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgath-pilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river of Gozan, unto this day.” They never came back to the land they had valued so much.
It is always dangerous for God’s people to be partially obedient, to choose what appeals to their flesh than to obey God all the way. Believers cannot have the best of the natural world and then claim the best of the spiritual realm. No human being can serve two masters, Jesus taught. Any such attempts will result in straddling the fence, as it were, which constitutes lukewarmness, something that is repugnant to the Lord (Revelation 3: 16).
Christians face their own Jordanian experience in their lives. They can choose to have a lukewarm relationship with Jesus or they can say with the apostle Paul, I “count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:8). Straddling the fence is an uncomfortable position that leads nowhere and has no reward, literally and otherwise.