A Main Reason For The Split
1. After Israel left Egypt, forty years had gone by. The second census had already taken place, the battle lines were also set, and the time was nearing for them to cross the Jordan and to enter the promised land. But, then at this stage, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, which were among the several tribes of Israel, which had been walking in unity until this point, were wanting to break off because of the [additional] traveling out to the promised land and the battles to acquire the land. When you look at verse thirty-three, a half of the tribe of Manasseh was joined up with these two tribes. They were hoping to stay back on the near side of the River Jordan without having to cross it. Thus, while the national body of Israel had the promised land before their gaze, they faced a crisis of division.
2. The division of the national unity and community- this could happen in any body of people. Does it happen in faith communities as well? The history of Israel shows that it can, and even the history of the church shows the same state of affairs. The issue we see in today's passage of scripture is familiar. We must learn from today's passage how a crisis of division comes to be. -- Because the way they were then may be the way we will be tomorrow.
Materialism And Pride
3. First, I would like for us to be careful to note that this chapter begins with the following words: "The Reubenites and the Gadites had an abundance of livestock," (verse one). The crisis of division did not come into being because of needs and deficiencies. They came from having more than enough. They certainly were not poor; it appears that wealth made it easier for the division to come up. It was immediately after the Solomonic period when [Israel] reached its highest glory and prosperity that the kingdom of Israel would later come to split in a most decisive way. With the church as we find it in the New Testament, the many references written regarding division and quarreling among [church members] are in regard to the Corinthian church, a wealthy church. We often hear stories of churches, though once poor, everybody was united and they were evangelistic, then the church got a huge sum in an offering from the outside and it gradually divided. In having wealth lies a danger of division. We should never forget that.
4. As a matter of fact, the tribes of Reuben and Gad had a lot of livestock and had no need to stay walking on with the other tribes for their survival at this point. They could make it fine from here on without them. They had good land suitable for cattle on the near side of the Jordan. They didn't need to cross the Jordan with the other tribes for anything. Instead, crossing the Jordan with the other tribes would lead to their sharing in too many more problems and hardships. To proceed further with the others would just be a heavy burden and result in losses and would not prove beneficial to them in any [visible] way. This decision seemed a wise one according to sound logic. But, by such seemingly "wise" decisions, by saying "We can do it by ourselves. We like it better that way," a community will be laid open to crisis.
5. As we go another level in our thinking, the Reubenites and the Gadites are being offered here as an especial example, and as I've already mentioned, a half of Manasseh was joined in with them, but now we have something terribly interesting in this. As you know, the several tribes of Israel have stories associated with their roots. The names of each tribe come from the sons of their forefather Jacob. Going from Genesis chapter twenty-nine to thirty are stories written pertaining to the births of Jacob's sons. As we look at these, Reuben is the eldest son born from his mother Leah. He is the first born of all the sons. Then, Gad is the eldest son from Zilpah, a maid servant of Leah. However, though Joseph is the eldest son born from Rachel, whom we are told is the [wife] Jacob loved, Joseph's name does not remain as the name of [one of the twelve tribes]. Instead of [his name], Joseph's sons Manasseh and Ephraim remain on as tribal names. The eldest son is Manasseh. Will you please get this part for me? In today's passage, the forefathers of the tribes trying to break off from the community body, if we say it another way, all correspond to the eldest sons according to each respective maternal line.
6. The stories pertaining to the tribal origins, as might be expected, are inseparably connected to a mentality of tribalism, a mind set of rivalry and superiority of one over the other. We can see that these tribal origin stories show how that Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh kept up their pride in thinking they were fundamentally by nature in a superior position over the rest of the tribes. But in actual fact, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh did not stand in any leadership positions. Moses was of the tribe of Levi and later it would be the tribes of Judah and Ephraim to stand at the top positions. As we think along these [lines], it does not appear to be by chance at all that the ones who tried to separate from the collective walk of the body were Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh. [That's] because when the people with a mentality of superiority do not stand in the top positions in the collective group, then it will come to pass that preserving oneself as a member of that group will be more difficult to do. A sense of superiority and pride will always work in a direction of destruction on the larger group. Thus then, the body came to be exposed to the crisis of division.
Not Fathoming God's Purposes
7. As [we've seen] above, materialism and pride often come to be primary factors of exposing a collective body to crisis. The biggest problem was not that they were wealthy or that they had a sense of superiority, but it was in that they did not focus their attention on the promised land to which God was pointing. What was God trying to give them and what was God's purposes there for them? [Their biggest problem] was that they did not give it any thought.
8. Let's listen again to the words of the Reubenites and the Gadites. They came to Moses, the priest Eleazar, and the other top leaders and said, " ... the land which the Lord has overthrown in the presence of Israel is a land suited for livestock, and we have livestock. If we have your blessing, give us this land as our possession. Please don't make us cross the Jordan River," (verses three to five).
9. They had hoped to take possession of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan because it was a land suited for cattle. Of course, if the purpose of acquiring land was just for raising a lot of livestock, there would be no need to even cross the river. If it was just about supporting every day practical living, the promised land, the land of Canaan, hardly mattered to them. They were completely right on that point. But, was the reason the Lord set them free from Egypt, led them to the promised land, and was trying to give them that land just for them to make a living? Was it just to make them richer? Was it just so they wouldn't need to make a living on eating mannah any more or busying themselves there with cattle and crops? No, I don't think so.
10. The covenant with God was given to them at Sinai way before the land was given to them. The main point of the covenant is the ten commandments. The law God gave was pointing to the fact that "You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." [The law pointed to] the fact that"You will love your neighbor as you love yourself." In other words, before they were given the land, they were already living with God, and they were given lives to live with their neighbors. Also, the land was given to them when they were under [those conditions]. The reason the land was given to them was for them to make a living on that land, but a living as the people of God. That's what God's purpose was for them. (Therefore, by separating themselves from that purpose, they would come to lose the land too, and that's exactly what happened.)
11. The Reubenites and the Gadites questioned why they needed to stay in their walk with Israel or why they needed the land of Canaan in order to preserve what was given to them and the conclusion they came to was "it was unnecessary." But, they had overlooked something important. It was that the cooperative body of Israel, in which they were led to the promised land, had been a true gift of God. God was the one who made them into the collective body of Israel and it is in their living together where God's purpose for them could be found. When they had lost sight of God's purposes, the collective body would be exposed to the crisis of division.
12. As we look at it this way, we see the same thing even in the body of the church which is given the new covenant in Christ. Christ put himself on the cross, atoned for our sins by shedding his blood, and gave us the covenant by his blood. Therefore, the collective body of the church as joined together through the blood of Christ is a gift of God. God's purposes for us are found in living with God there and living with other [believers]. The kingdom of God is actually but a completion of God's purposes from that.
13. But, when we lose sight of God's purpose, we start to wonder why we need the church for our practical living, or if we need fellowship with other Christians. When we feel hard up and in need, we are thankful to be with others and we may be appreciative of the fact we need them. But, when people get so rich, when they get to where they don't need the help of others any more, being with others becomes a burden and a big inconvenience. If's fine while [people] are getting their act together and working on getting on top. But, when that is no longer being done, people wind up losing the meaning in their being connected to the body. When that happens, they will face a crisis soon in their church life. Or it may even be that they not only not have a church life established any more, but they become church splitters or even destroyers of the church body. That kind of thing happens by losing sight of God's purposes.
14. Moses spoke with a very harsh tone to the Reubenites and the Gadites wanting so much to stay on Jordan's east bank, and he told them it was a rebellion against the Lord and they were exposing the entire body to a crisis. They accepted Moses' rebuke and offered a proposal, which was that they leave their children behind on the east bank, but that they go out to battle with the other tribes. Thus, upon obtaining the promised land together, they would return back and inherit their land on Jordan's east bank. The proposal sounded good to Moses so he accepted it. Thus, the crisis of the body was averted. Moses accepted the proposal and spoke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and his message in which the phrase "before the Lord" was repeatedly used was impressive. This phrase clearly shows the difference between Moses and the two tribes, the difference between how the Reubenites and the Gadites had only been thinking of the problem of the acquisition of the land and their relationship to the body in so far as what stood right in front of their physical eyes and how that Moses was looking at this whole thing as a situation that stood right before the Lord.