Thursday, September 15, 2016

Where Would You Rather Live?

Not all choices come out the same
God brought thirteen tribes out of Egypt to be a people for his own possession, but only ten-and-a-half of those tribes actually settled in the Promised Land.

The remainder seized the opportunity to claim land they had won from unexpected battles on the far side of the Jordan River rather than wait to receive an inheritance in Canaan.

This was not the best idea they ever had.

You Call This “Finding Favor”?

Still, we read:
“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 ... ‘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.’ ”
While not entirely happy with this request, Moses eventually gave Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh permission to settle in Jazer and Gilead, despite the potential dangers of distributing the people of God over an area which God had never actually designated to them.

Their Own Land of Which They Had Possessed Themselves

When we come to the book of Joshua, we find this historical choice — the choice to do something kind of like what God had intended, but not quite — reflected in a very interesting turn of phrase:
“So the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh returned home, parting from the people of Israel at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan, to go to the land of Gilead, their own land of which they had possessed themselves by command of the Lord through Moses.”
The land of Gilead, in which the two-and-a-half tribes settled, was indeed given to them by command of the Lord, and through Moses, but only after they insisted to the point that God, through Moses, finally allowed them to have their own way rather than his. So after winning Canaan for their fellow tribes, they went home to “their own land of which they had possessed themselves”.

I find that a sad statement, actually. When God has already made his will clear to us about something, announcing, “Hey, Lord, I’ve just had this great idea!” is not generally what we call “best practice”, as these eastern tribes eventually discovered.

A Mixed Blessing

Having our own way is certainly possible. We do not have a God who forces his will on us at every turn. He allows those who seek his will to benefit from it, and those who seek their own to learn the hard way that human beings — even redeemed human beings — are not always good judges of what is best for us.

Taking an inheritance outside the land of promise turned out to be a mixed blessing. The land itself was indeed exceptional and appealing. Even Moses said so when he blessed the tribe of Gad:
“He chose the best of the land for himself, for there a commander’s portion was reserved.”
Sounds good, but remember what the Lord said about people who choose the best for themselves. Earthly “best” and spiritual “best” are two dramatically different things. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.

And Reuben got this rather qualified blessing:
“Let Reuben live, and not die, but let his men be few.”
I guess living rather than dying amounts to a blessing most of the time, but this hardly sounds like a best case scenario.

The Downside of My Own Way

East of the Jordan, there were greater numbers of idolatrous neighbours to contend with. Any attempted invasion from the direction of Egypt would inevitably come their way first. And the Reubenites and Gadites quickly realized there was a danger their own children might come to be estranged from the worship of Jehovah because of the natural barrier of the Jordan River. Jewish history records that Reuben became small and nomadic, while Gad was constantly at war to preserve its territorial claim. In the end, it was the tribes east of the Jordan that were the first tribes taken into captivity and distributed throughout the Assyrian kingdom.

But hey, you know, Gilead was a great place for livestock.

Still, the Reubenites and Gadites were not doing anything Christians don’t do all the time. How many young men over the years have opted to marry the more physically attractive girlfriend rather than the more spiritual one, or chosen the job that pays better rather than the one that provides greater opportunity to serve the Lord?

Sometimes we find out after the fact that the blessing was a mixed one indeed.

Their Land or the Lord’s Land

Fearing that Reuben and Gad had become idolatrous, the rest of the tribes gathered and again generously offered them an inheritance in Canaan with their brothers:
“But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us.”
Note the difference in the language. Reuben, Gad and Manasseh are said to have chosen “their own land of which they had possessed themselves”. The remainder of the tribes are said to have passed over into “the Lord’s land”.

So where would you rather live?

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