Two and a Half Tribes Reject God’s Promised Land (Art by Rivka Korf Studio)1
Introduction. This is a story of two tribes with two minds. At first, they fell in love with their wealth and the things of the world. They then resist entering the Promised Land. Later, they promise to lead the fight for God’s army. Yet, they still ultimately wished to settle outside God’s Promised Land. They were double minded. Jesus warns that we cannot serve two masters. Ultimately, you will love one and hate the other (Matt. 6:24). These two tribes ultimately chose the world over God’s promises. Years later, their tribes would be defeated, taken into captivity, and they became part of the lost tribes of Israel. From this account and the events that followed later, God reveals several consequences that follow from being double minded in your faith.
The tribes of Reuben and Gad covet worldly things over God’s Promised Land. After almost 40 years of preparation to take the Promised Land, two tribes decided that they were not interested in what God offered: “Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had a very large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, 2 the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, 3 ‘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.”’ (Nu. 32:1-4). These tribes were seduced by what they could see. They failed to have full faith in God’s promises.
Reuben was a double minded believer who squandered his inheritance. To understand why these tribes made poor choices, we need to learn more about them. Reuben was the son of Leah and Jacob’s firstborn son (Gen. 29:30-32). Normally, Reuben would be entitled to a double blessing as the firstborn (Dt. 21:15-17). Yet, out of a lust for power, he slept with his step mother, Bilhah, Rachel’s maid servant (Gen. 35:22). He then lost his firstborn status (1 Chr. 5:1-2). Rueben’s tribe later joined in Korah’s rebellion against Moses, possibly to regain their pre-eminent role (Nu. 16:1). Yet, those who desire to be first in power will be last in God’s Kingdom (Mk. 10:31). By the beginning of the book of their journey, the tribe had 46,500 fighting men (Nu. 1:22). Yet, after more than 38 years in the wilderness, their numbers totaled only 43,730 (Nu. 26:7). This was a decrease of 2,770 or 5.95%. Jacob previously warned that Reuben would be unstable like water (Gen. 49:3-4). Water takes the path of least resistance. Like unstable water, Reuben’s tribe gave into various sins in the wilderness. It then stood on the edge of the Promised Land and decided that the world was better than God’s Promised Land. Reuben was double minded between the things of God and the world. If we love things of the world, we are also double minded. Like Rueben, this will only lead to our decline.
Gad kept bad company and also became a double minded. Gad was the son of Zilpah, Leah’s maid (Gen. 30:11). Leah had Jacob sleep with her maid Zilpah out of jealousy to have more children than her sister Rachel. Gad, like his other brothers, was guilty of selling Joseph into slavery out of jealousy. Although Gad was Jacob’s seventh son, God gave the tribe an undeserved honor. He listed it as the third tribe in the census counts. Like us, Gad was a child of the flesh whom God adopted by grace into His holy line (Eph. 1:5). Yet, Gad kept bad company and it stumbled him in his walk. Gad guarded behind Reuben on the southern flank of the Tabernacle (Nu. 2:14-15). Rather than being a light to its wayward brother, it participated in Reuben’s sins. Both tribes participated in the multiple revolts against Moses and God while in the wilderness. Like Rueben, Gad also declined while in the wilderness. At the beginning of the journey, Gad’s fighting men totaled 45,650 (Nu. 1:25). Yet, at the end of the journey, their numbers dropped to 40,500 (Nu. 26:18). This was a decrease of 5,150 or 11.28%. Sadly, some use God’s mercy and grace as a license to sin (Ro. 6:1). A believer who associates with carnal friends may ultimately be brought down in his or her walk (1 Cor. 15:33). Are you hanging out with the wrong people? Are you monitoring what company your children are keeping or where they are going?
Being double minded, Reuben and Gad failed to discern the purpose of God’s blessings. God blessed the Jews with the wealth from three wars. First, God helped them defeat the Amorite King Sihon (Nu. 21:23-31; Dt. 2:24-37; Jdgs. 11:19-22). Second, He helped them defeat the Amorite King Og (Nu. 21:32-35). Third, God helped them defeat the Midianites (Nu. 31:7-11). From Midian alone, the Jews captured 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys (Nu. 31:36-37). The Jews most likely captured even more animals from the Amorites. With the one exception of Moab in the south, the Jews controlled all of modern day Jordan. God gave the Jews these things to prepare them for the Promised Land. James tells us that “every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above . . .” (Jam. 1:17). Yet, the tribes of Rueben and Gad assumed that God gave them this wealth for their own benefit. Like the wicked servant who buried his talent, these tribes decided to bury their talents in a foreign land instead of watching them grow in God’s Promised Land (Matt. 25:14-30; Lk. 19:12-28). For those to whom much is given, much is expected (Lk. 12:48). Maybe God has blessed you with an ability to sing, to write, to organize, to lead, to encourage, or He has given you wealth. Are you using your gifts or your wealth (your talents) for your benefit or for God’s Kingdom?
Being double minded, Reuben and Gad coveted their wealth and the foreign lands. After receiving God’s many blessings, the tribes of Reuben and Gad noticed that they had “an exceedingly large number of livestock.” (Nu. 32:1). They also noticed that the conquered land that they were staying in “was indeed a suitable place for livestock.” (Nu. 32:1, 4). By coveting these things, they broke the Tenth Commandment (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21). Their lust for wealth and foreign lands was also from the evil one: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” (1 Jo. 2:16). Although he was the richest man on earth, Soloman once prayed: “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me. Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” (Prov. 30:8-9). The love of money is the root of many evils (1 Tim. 6:10). Coveting is also a sin that grows if unchecked (Hab. 2:5). Unsaved coveters also cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Eph. 5:3-6). The tribes of Rueben and Gad would have had no reason to worry about the growth of their flocks if they had stuck to God’s plan and settled in the Promised Land. If you seek God first, do also have no reason to worry about money or anything else (Matt. 6:33). Where have you placed your trust?
Being double minded, Reuben and Gad were not willing to fight for the Promised Land. After failing to realize the comfort of God’s blessings, the tribes of Reuben and Gad pleaded with Moses: “do not take us across the Jordan.” “5 And they said, ‘If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as our property; do not take us across the Jordan.”’ (Nu. 32:5). They only sought after their own interests. Unless compelled to do so, they had no desire to fight God’s battles: “For they seek after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 2:21). Being slothful, neither Moses nor the other tribes could trust them.
Don’t let God’s blessings make you slothful. Living in western world, even the poorest members of society have things that most people in the third world lack. For most, we have been blessed with too much food, too many sources of entertainment, and too many forms of abundance or comfort. Have God’s blessings made you complacent in your walk? Like the tribes of Reuben and Gad, have you settled for less than your full potential in your service to God? Or, are you looking to fight for God’s Kingdom?
Moses rebuked the tribes of Gad and Reuben. Moses pointed out that the tribes of Gad and Reuben threatened to weaken the Jewish army. Their actions further dishonored God’s plan for them: “6 But Moses said to the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, ‘Should your brothers go to war while you remain here? 7 And why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the Lord has given them? 8 This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. 9 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. 10 So the Lord’s anger burned on that day, and He swore, saying, 11 ‘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, 12 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun; for they have followed the Lord fully.’ 13 So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness for forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the Lord came to an end. 14 Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, born of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the Lord against Israel. 15 For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more leave them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.”’ (Nu. 32:6-15). When a believer turns against God, the believer causes pain to God, their families, their friends and themselves.
The two tribes rejected God’s prior allocation of land for them. God previously directed Moses to divide up the Promised Land into 12 randomly selected lots without regard to merit (Nu. 26:56). Then, to prevent the smaller tribes from having more land per capita, Moses adjusted the map with the final census count to expand the territories of the larger tribes and to shrink the territories of the smaller tribes (Nu. 26:54). This ensured fairness. Yet, it had another implication. Because growth was tied to obedience, the Jews experience in the Promised Land was in part based upon grace (they did not deserve to be there in the first place) and it was in part impacted by their faith-led works (some got more land than others). The tribes of Reuben and Gad both shrank in size because of their disobedience while in the wilderness. Thanks to God’s mercy and grace, these two tribes still had a place in the Promised Land. Yet, God slightly reduced their allotment to give more to His faithful servants. From the text, it appears that God had also given them a part of Israel that may not have appeared to them to be the best grazing land. We can infer this because they told Moses that the land of Jordan “is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” (Nu. 32:4). They presumed that the land of Jordan was better than the portion of Israel that they were given for raising livestock. Knowing also that their allotment in the Promised Land would be reduced because of their prior disobedience, the tribes of Reuben and Gad thought that they had a better solution. They believed that they could live outside the Promised Land and receive even more land that appeared better suited for grazing. They may have tried to justify their decision by reasoning that their brothers in the faith would benefit by receiving an increased share of the Promised Land. Yet, this was not God’s plan. Solomon warned: “There is a way that seems right to a man. But it ends in the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). Jesus also warned: “. . . the way is broad that leads to destruction . . . the way is narrow that leads to life.” (Matt. 7:13-14). Are you following God’s path or your own?
Disobedience can remove God’s protection and His blessings. Some Christians bristle at the thought that God will allow anything negative to happen to us because of our works. We are saved by faith, not by works (Gal. 2:21). This is true. Yet, God still has blessings and protections to offer to those who are obedient. He warns that an “unbelieving heart” will cause a person to fall away from Him (Heb. 3:12). He also warned Abraham to obey God’s angel: “Be on your guard before him [God’s angel] and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him and obey his voice . . But if you obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” (Ex. 23:21-22; see also Lev. 26:7-8; Nu 10:9, 35; Isa. 54:17). He repeatedly made conditional promises. Abraham had to obey to receive God’s blessing. In this story, Moses reminded the tribes of Reuben and Gad that the last generation of Jews were barred from entering the Promised Land and forced to wander in the wilderness because of their unbelief and disobedience (Nu. 32:6-15; Heb. 3:19; 4:6, 11). Moses warned that the last generation lost the Promised Land “because they did not follow Me [God] fully.” (Nu. 32:11). Does your faith show the fruit of obedience?
Disobedience can have consequences for future generations. God warned that He would vomit the Jews out of the Promised Land if they did not keep His statutes (Lev. 20:22). In this story, Moses prophesied: “For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them to the wilderness; and you will destroy these people.” (Nu. 32:15). The two tribes’ decision to stay outside the Promised Land would hurt them later. Years later, the tribes of Reuben and Gad abandoned Israel and broke away from Judah after David’s grandson Rehoboam became king around 930 BC. They felt content enjoying their own territories outside the Promised Land. Jesus, however, warns that a divided kingdom cannot stand (Mk. 3:25). And that is just what happened. In 723 BC, the Assyrians conquered the tribes of northern Israel and deported them. The Church has become increasingly torn between the world and God. People are increasingly choosing the things of the world over God. Should we expect to fare any better than these tribes?
The tribes of Reuben and Gad later became part of the lost tribes of Israel. After being deported, the tribes of Reuben and Gad never returned. They became part of the lost tribes of Israel. Because they did not live in the Promised Land, returning to it had no meaning to them. More importantly, because God never promised Jordan to them, He did not clear it of foreign armies to allow for their return. The tribes of Reuben and Gad most likely form parts of the Diaspora that still live today in Iraq and Iran. Yet, they have lost their identity. Thus, their fateful decision on the edge of the Promised Land still has consequences today. If you make decisions against God’s will, you may suffer a lifetime of hurt and anguish as well. Even worse, your decisions can impact future generations.
Satan attacks those who live away from the herd. Satan acts like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8). Like a lion, he attacks the members of the herd who have strayed from the flock. Thus, we are told not to forsake the fellowship (Heb. 10:25). Jesus also warns that He is sending us as “sheep” amongst the wolves (Matt. 10:16). We have no natural defenses outside of the flock. By choosing to live outside the Promise Land, Rueben and Gad opened themselves to attacks by foreign armies. If we live outside of the protections of God’s Word by being disobedient, we also open ourselves to spiritual attack.
Sin spreads when left unchecked. All of the tribes had livestock. The logic used by the tribes of Reuben and Gad could have justified a mass decision of all the tribes not to enter the Promised Land. The Jews previously turned back because they were afraid of the giants that stood before them (Nu. 13:32-33; 32:10). Moses made the prior mistake as a leader in failing to silence the voices of doubt. Fear spread like a disease across all the tribes, and they all rebelled. This time, Moses rebuked these two tribes for being selfish. “Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which God has given them?” (Nu. 32:9). If you complain to others about the directions of your church leaders, can there be any good from this for the rest of the congregation?
The entanglement of half of Manasseh’s tribe in their sins. Later, we learn that Moses agrees to the requests of Reuben and Gad. God cannot force people into His Promised Land if they don’t want to be there. Yet, with the final division, we learn of something very sad. Half of the tribe of Manasseh decided that it would also live outside of the Promised Land (Nu. 32:33, 40-42). Unlike Rueben and Gad, Manasseh was the most obedient of all the tribes in the wilderness and it grew the most. By the beginning of their journey, the Manasseh tribe had fighting men totaling 32,200 (Nu. 1:35). By the end of their 38-year-journey, their fighting men totaled 52,700 (Nu. 26:34). This was an increase of 20,500 or 63.66%. Apparently, even the most zealous believers can be enticed and brought down by sinful believers (1 Cor. 15:33). Half of this tribe gave up God’s blessings for a counterfeit promise of a better life outside the Promised Land.
Your brothers and sisters need committed believers on the battle lines. Moses complained that the tribes of Rueben and Gad were forcing the rest of the Jews to fight the battle without assistance. Matthew Henry paraphrases Moses’ indignation as follows: “‘What!’ (says he, with a holy indignation at their selfishness) ‘shall your brethren go to war, and expose themselves to all the hardships and hazards of the field, and shall you sit here at your ease? Do not deceive yourselves, you shall never be indulged by me in this sloth and cowardice.’” You might also find the actions of these tribes to be selfish. Yet, you must first look at yourself before you cast stones. Are you actively serving God?
The halfhearted offer to fight. Rather than repenting of their decision, the tribes of Reuben and Gad tried to sell a dual life to Moses. They would build their homes and cities outside the Promised Land: “16 Then they approached him and said, ‘We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our little ones;” (Nu. 32:16). Leaving their most valuable things and people behind, they would then lead the armies into Israel: “17 but we ourselves will be armed, hurrying ahead of 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. 18 We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has gained possession of his inheritance. 19 But we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”’ (Nu. 32:17-19). They believed that they would be the perfect dual citizens. But, “their heart[s] [were] divided.” (Hos. 10:2). Like a believer who dutifully shows up to church on Sundays, they would serve God only when needed. There was only one problem with this. They left what they loved the most outside the Promised Land. They would fight while looking back with a longing to return to their families outside the Promised Land. They were like Lot’s wife. God has no use for these believers. Jesus warned that: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62).
The presumption of Reuben and Gad that they would lead the fight. Rueben and Gad believed that they had made an attractive offer. They would be the heroes as they led the fight in front of all the other tribes: “but we ourselves will be armed ready to go before the sons of Israel.” (Nu. 32:17). They would receive the highest glory in battle for leading the charge. Yet, in the battles that the Jews fought, God only helped the Jews when they submitted before Him and allowed Him to fight their battles for them. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18). He also warns: “I hate pride and arrogance.” (Prov. 8:13). Thus, a double minded believer can at times be “on fire” for the Lord. This is not the same as being lukewarm in your faith, an even worse sin (Rev. 3:15-16). A believer is double minded if his or her faith is hot and cold or bipolar. He or she is on fire on Sunday morning, but worldly the rest of the week.
Moses allowed the tribes to stay behind if they helped the other tribes. God’s invitation to His Promised Land is based upon free will. Thus, Moses agreed to let the tribes settle outside of the Promised Land if they helped the others: “20 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 Him, 22 and the land is subdued before the Lord, then afterward you may return and be free of obligation toward the Lord and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours as property before the Lord. 23 But if you do not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure that your sin will find you out. 24 Build yourselves cities for your little ones, and sheepfolds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.’ 25 Then the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Your servants will do just as my lord commands. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, 27 while your servants, that is, everyone who is armed for war, cross over in the presence of the Lord to battle, just as my lord says.’ 28 So Moses gave the command regarding them to Eleazar the priest, to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the heads of the fathers’ households of the tribes of the sons of Israel. 29 And Moses said to them, ‘If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, everyone who is armed for battle, cross with you over the Jordan in the presence of the Lord, and the land is subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead as their property; 30 but if they do not cross over with you armed, they shall instead be settled among you in the land of Canaan.” 31 And the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben answered, saying, “As the Lord has said to your servants, so we will do. 32 We ourselves will cross over armed in the presence of the Lord into the land of Canaan, and the property of our inheritance shall remain with us across the Jordan.’ 33 So Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad, 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. 34 And the sons of Gad built Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, 35 Atroth-shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, 36 Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran as fortified cities, and sheepfolds for sheep. 37 The sons of Reuben built Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 38 Nebo, and Baal-meon—their names being changed—and Sibmah, and they gave other names to the cities which they built. 39 The sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. 40 So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he lived in it. 41 Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its towns, and called them Havvoth-jair. 42 Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages, and named it Nobah, after his own name.” (Nu. 32:20-42). Jesus also offers a path to the eternal Promised Land. But He will not force anyone to go there who rejects what He has to offer.
God could not force Reuben, Gad, or Manassah to live in the Promised Land. After Reuben and Gad agreed to fight with their brothers, Moses gave them their wish and agreed to their request to forgo the Promised Land (Nu. 32:20-23). Joshua later honored the agreement and gave these two and a half tribes their place outside the Promised Land (Josh. 13:15-33). God also will not force anyone into His eternal Promised Land. He gives us free will. If you long for your old life (being double minded), Jesus says that you are not fit for the Kingdom (Lk. 9:62). A life outside the Promised Land offers only counterfeit pleasures. The devil can only offer illusions that end with pain and misery.
God will allow a double minded believer to be given over to their sins. Moses warned the tribes of Reuben and Gad that if they did not live up to their commitments to God: “be sure your sin will find you out.” (Nu. 32:23). God also warns us that if we voluntarily give into sin, He will hand us over to our sins (Rom. 1:26). If we live a dual life with our hearts divided between the things of the world and the things of God, do we have any reason to believe that our sins won’t find us out?
God hates double minded believers. Double minded believers who love the world, like Reuben and Gad, do not have the love of God in them: “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 Jo. 2:15). For this reason, God warns us: “I hate double-minded men.” (Ps. 119:113). Thus, God does not take being double minded lightly. Nor should we.
A double minded believer will not succeed. Jacob warned Rueben that because he was double minded: “you will no longer excel.” (Gen. 49:4). Elijah also told Israel to stop being double-minded by following both God and Baal (1 Kgs. 18:21). The double minded person lacks a clear focus. Paul said, “I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.” (1 Cor. 9:26). If we wish to receive God’s blessings in our endeavors, we must purge ourselves of our double minded ways.
A double minded believer will not have his or her prayers answered. If we ask for things from God with doubt in our hearts, we are like the turbulent sea (Jam. 1:5-6). If we pray with doubt, we become “double minded” between our faith and our doubts. God may not answer those prayers: “That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jam. 1:7-8). You are saved by mercy and grace. But your prayers may be hindered if you are double minded. Are your prayers going unanswered? If so, are you praying with doubt?
God can cleanse a double minded heart when you repent. When we are born again, the desires of our old lives should pass away (Ro. 6:6; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9). Yet, we all at times become double minded because our flesh wars against our Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Thankfully, we can be cleansed of these sins when we repent: “Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (Jam. 4:8). Thomas was an example of a double minded believer who repented. At first, he was skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection and demanded proof (Jo. 20:25). After he saw Jesus’ hands, he repented by calling Christ: “My Lord and my God” (Jo. 20:28). If you have doubts about God’s promises, repent of those doubts.