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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Numbers 32

 

 

Verses 1-42

Reuben and Gad

Numbers 32:1-5

This is too often the prayer of prosperous men. They find upon the earth what they regard as heaven enough. Having found plenty of pasturage and deep wells of water, they say,—This is enough,—why not build here, and here remain during the rest of our lives? This has, sometimes, quite a religious look; it seems to breathe the spirit and to bear the image of a serene and pious content. They would leave whatever is beyond Jordan to other people; they are quite willing to let well alone; give them grass enough, cattle enough, water enough, and who will may pass beyond the river and realise the mystery of the unseen. Is it not so written in the history of nearly every man to whom a considerable measure of prosperity has been accorded? Yet how he soliloquises and lets out the bitter truth in his mournful talk! Says Hebrews ,—If I could be rid of this pain, I should be quite content to toil year after year and age after age upon the green and sunny earth;—if I could extract the sting of this one disappointment, I should be in all the heaven I need;—if I could see the prodigal return, and so complete the circle of the family, so that there might be no vacant chair in the house, I should order music and dancing and fatted calf, and enter into the inheritance of all the joy I shall ever require. Song of Solomon , when he talks over the matériel of his estate, we find everywhere the slimy line, the touch of weakness, the signature of guilt; and the whole speech, which was meant to be so musical, is broken up, to the ear which can hear its inner sounds, into dissonances that distress the soul. We will not let God alone: we will punctuate him by our mischievous suggestions. He is writing a long book,—there are hundreds of pages yet to be added to it; yet, when we come to some little amusing paragraph, or some grand and solemn period, we arrest the divine pen and practically say,—Write no more: put the full stop here. This is so profoundly human as to constitute a continual temptation to many men. If they could but double their income, they would sigh for no bluer heaven;—if they could but have health without increasing the income—simply increase of physical energy,—they would desire no better paradise than they can find on earth. Who likes to cross the Jordan that lies before every man? It is a black river, so deep and so cold, and altogether so mysterious;—better be content even with a little hut on this side than plunge into that awful stream. There is a point at which it becomes very difficult to say to God,—We are still ready to go on; whatever next may come—great wilderness, or cold river, or high stony mountain,—we are still ready to go on; thy will be done, and thy way be carried out to its last inch. Yet, until we reach the resignation which becomes triumph and the triumph which expresses itself—not in loud sentiment, but in quiet and deep obedience, we have not begun to realise the meaning of the kingdom of heaven.

What was the answer of Moses?—"Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?" ( Numbers 32:6). It was a soldier"s taunt; it was a tremendous retort to those who could read between the lines and to those who understood the lower tones of human suggestion and reproof. It was not a question put for consideration; it was a question and an answer in one—an interrogative tone, a query,—long, sharp, terrible as a sword forged in heaven. The matter was not put before Reuben and Gad for purposes of consideration and debate and the statement of reasons on the one side or the other. "Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here? "What suggestion there is in the colour of every tone! What sublime mockery! What a hint of cowardice! What an infliction of judgment upon meanness! Sometimes the only way in which we can put a rational rebuke is in the form of an inquiry. We remit the case to its original Proverbs -pounders, and by putting the case into the form of an interrogation we confound their counsels. It is well to hear how other men can put our case. We may talk ourselves into sophistical conclusions; we may become so accustomed to our own voice as to be quite enamoured with it, and to regard it as the dual voice of the plaintiff and the defendant. It is good to hear how other men take up our words and send them back with new accent and new colouring. The answer of Moses was instantaneous; it was a quick, sudden spark; it was a question which revealed his own mettle, as well as tested the quality of Reuben and Gad; it never occurred to his martial soul that any man could sit down whilst a battle was to be fought—whilst a conquest was to be won; Song of Solomon , he expressed his amazement, and perhaps his contempt, in the form of a martial inquiry.

But there was more to be considered. "And wherefore discourage ye the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord hath given them?" ( Numbers 32:7). Take the word "discourage" in any sense, and it is full of meaning. Perhaps a stronger word might have been inserted here—a word amounting to aversion and utter dislike to the idea of going forward. Our actions have social effects. There are no literal individualities now; we are not separate and independent pillars;—we are parts of a sum-total; we are members one of another. Consider the social effects of certain actions. It is possible for men to say,—We will not go to church; we have really outgrown the whole idea represented by the Church;—not that it is a vicious idea, but by culture, by reading, by progress of every kind, we have practically outgrown the Church;—we will sit down outside in the wood where the birds sing, by the stream where the wild flowers grow, clear out in the blue morning; and there we will be glad with a kind of mute religiousness. Does the matter end there? Finding you sitting outside, what are those who have not outgrown the Church to do? It is easy for you to say they should go on; but you have miscalculated your own influence: you have undervalued your own social importance. When men like you do certain things, your doing of them must have an effect upon inferior minds. It might be well, perhaps, to sacrifice yourselves somewhat, lest you discourage other men, or avert their attention from those things to which you, may be, owe more of your own manhood than you are at first disposed to acknowledge. A great deal is assumed in this reasoning—namely, that a man can outgrow the Church. Personally, I have never known a man outgrow the sublimity of prayer; I have never seen a man who need no longer sing God"s praise; but for purposes of argument, assuming that outside the Church you can find room for your cattle, pasture for your flocks, water enough for all the purposes of your life, remember that you are not all Israel or the sum-total of humanity, and that sometimes even persons who have outgrown the Church—at least, in their own estimation—would show the better side of their nature by sacrificing themselves and passing through a process which may amount to tedium, rather than repel, discourage, or avert men who have not yet attained that sublimity of mental altitude or moral compass. The answer of Moses was not only military but shepherdly. At first, he taunted Reuben and Gad with being cowards, and then, with a shepherd"s solicitude, thinking of the larger Israel, he said,—How can ye discourage the hearts of your brethren, and hinder them morally from going over into the land which the Lord hath given them?

Then Moses utilised history. Beginning at the eighth verse, and going to the thirteenth, Moses brings to bear upon Reuben and Gad a tremendous historical impeachment, commencing—"Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land" ( Numbers 32:8). They belonged, therefore, to an ancestry not only physically but morally akin. Who can tell the origin of the desires, ambitions, propositions, and programmes of his life? The past speaks in the present. Our fathers come up in a kind of resurrection in our own thinking and our own propositions. Meanness of soul is handed down; disobedience is not buried in the grave with the man who disobeyed. This is a broad law; were it rightly understood and applied, many a man"s conduct would be explained which today appears to be quite inexplicable. Appetites descend from generation to generation; diseases may sleep through one generation, and arise in the next with aggravated violence. Men should take care what they do. The great scheme of life—whether it be a scheme invented by chance or originated and governed by God—asserts, in the soul of it, a principle of criticism and judgment and penalty, which makes the strongest men afraid. Argument Isaiah , of course, lost where the heart is predisposed to evil. There are men who would drink wine if they knew by a writing of heaven that all their progeny would through that act go to the devil; argument has no relation to such men: the fire that is within them consumes all reasoning, as the open volcano might consume a shower of rain. Still, there may be some who have not gone so far along that ruinous line, and to them this word of caution may be fittingly addressed: What you do will reappear in your posterity. No man liveth unto himself; no man dieth unto himself. In the name of an unborn generation; in the name of children who may be born and may live to curse you, beware, be wise; you are sowing seed which will bring forth a disastrous harvest.

Then Reuben and Gad said they would fight:—they would build sheepfolds for their cattle, and cities for their little ones: but they themselves would go ready-armed before the children of Israel, until they had brought them unto their place: and then their little ones should dwell in the fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land. They said, in these plain words,—"We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on yonder side Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side Jordan eastward" ( Numbers 32:18-19)-Moses said, in effect,—So be it: if you complete the battle, you shall locate yourselves here: but you must complete the battle, and when the conquest is won, you may return and enjoy what you can here of green things and flowing water; but, let me tell you, "if ye will not do Song of Solomon , behold, ye have sinned against the Lord;" this is not a covenant between you and me—between man and man; but your sin will be against the Lord, "and be sure your sin will find you out." The matter was not easily arranged; Heaven was invoked, tones of judgment were employed, a covenant was entered into which bore the seal eternal. That law still continues. Supposing there to be no Bible, no altar, no invisible judgment-seat, no white throne,—as has been conceived by sacred poetry—there is still, somehow, at work, in this mysterious scheme of things, a law of a constabulary kind, which arrests the evil-doer, which makes the glutton sick, which makes the voluptuary weak, which stings the plotter in the very time which he had planned for his special joy. There is—account for it as we may—a ghostliness that looks upon us through the cloud, so that we feel the blood receding from the face, or feel it returning in violent torrents, making the face red with shame. But there is the law, give it what name we may, shuffle out of religious definitions as we like: the wrong-doer lays his head on a hard pillow; the bad man stores his property in unsafe places. This may not seem to be so today, or to-morrow, or the third day; but that it is so in the long run and summation of things, history has too clearly testified to leave the matter open to wordy disputation.

The relations were thus settled; Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh would locate themselves as inhabitants of cis-Jordan, Israel might become inhabitants of trans-Jordan. We remember Lot having made a very fortunate choice. With a sharp keen commercial eye he saw the country was well-watered; so he said he would locate himself there, and his uncle Abram might go where he pleased. Lot seemed to have the best of it. Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh seem to have escaped very considerable possibilities of misadventure,—they had a bird in the hand, and they thought that bird better than any two that might be in the trans-Jordan bush. There was no mistake about the land—its greenness, its fruitfulness, its plentiful supply of water and its favourable conditions generally. It was indeed a very excellent bargain. As to fighting, by this time they had become so accustomed to it that fighting itself was a kind of recreation; they would soon complete what was required in the way of battle; then they would come back to the cis-Jordan heaven. Listen! Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh were among the very first that were taken captives by the king of Assyria! Separate not yourselves from the Father; do not set up little heavens of your own; fall into the great harmony of things; be part of "the whole family, in heaven and on earth;" and the end will justify the wisdom of the choice. "Wisdom is justified of all her children." What is God"s plan? Where would he have me located? If I can receive an answer to that inquiry, that answer shall determine my policy and course. There may be no individual reply; we may have to study the history of the Church and acquaint ourselves with the direction of a certain grand historical line, and we may have to learn to hold our tongues in moments of temptation and to keep down our ambition, when we think we see the throne which we could easily seize and permanently occupy. The solemn lesson—yet a lesson full of sacred and tender joy— Isaiah , that the bounds of our habitation are fixed; the place of our feet is appointed: the very ground in which the grave shall be dug is already outlined. We have nothing to do with things which offend, vex, and harass our attention and our noblest faculties. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." We have one business; and when we are consecrated to it, devoted to it; when we have settled down to it with concentrated energy, and men ask us to explain our "fanaticism," our reply is prepared, our reply is divine,—"Wist ye not that I must be about my Father"s business?"

Selected Note

The Reubenites, like their relatives and neighbours on the journey, the Gadites, had maintained through the march to Canaan, the ancient calling of their forefathers. The patriarchs were "feeding their flocks" at Shechem when Joseph was sold into Egypt. It was as men whose "trade had been about cattle from their youth" that they were presented to Pharaoh, and in the land of Goshen they settled "with their flocks and herds and all that they had." Their cattle accompanied them in their flight from Egypt, not a hoof was left behind. The tribes who were destined to settle in the confined territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan had, during the journey through the wilderness, fortunately relinquished their taste for the possession of cattle, which they could not have maintained after their settlement at a distance from the wide pastures of the wilderness. Thus the cattle had come into the hands of Reuben, Gad, and the half of Prayer of Manasseh , and it followed naturally that when the nation arrived on the open downs east of the Jordan, the three tribes just named should prefer a request to their leader to be allowed to remain in a place so perfectly suited to their requirements. When the Reubenites and their fellows approach Moses with their request, his main objection is that by what they propose they will discourage the hearts of the children of Israel from going over Jordan into the land which Jehovah had given them. It is only on their undertaking to fulfil their part in the conquest of the western country, the land of Canaan proper, and thus satisfying him that their proposal was grounded in no selfish desire to escape a full share of the difficulties of the conquest, that Moses will consent to their proposal.

Prayer

Almighty God, thou art the God of our life. Our life is hidden with God in Christ. In God we live and move and have our being. Without Christ, we can do nothing: we can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can we bear fruit except we abide in Christ. Did he not say,—"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman"? We are but branches,—thank God, we are branches. No man can pluck away the branch; it abides by its fruitfulness, and, being fruitful, it is eternal. Prune us, if thou wilt, that we may bring forth more fruit. Do with us as thou pleasest, for we are not husbandmen; we will submit intelligently, lovingly, hopefully. We know thy purpose: thou dost not wound even the branch merely to give pain: thou dost cut that we may be improved; thine object is purification, enlargement, health, immortality. God"s will be done; thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Then shall we be fruitful branches, and the Lord shall have pleasure in our abundance. We thank thee for this life. Now and again we find a fountain in it, and we sing gladly. Sometimes we find no well, and there is nothing but hot sand, and a disappointing sky without cloud or hint of rain; and then we are gloomy, sad of heart, and apt to be rebellious of will. Then the old man dies, and we say,—The head of Israel is cut off, and the remainder must decay. Song of Solomon , we are led on from station to station, from point to point, in all the curious way;—may we ever see the lamp of fire by night, and the pillar of cloud by day; then no matter where we are, we are still on the right road, under God"s guidance, and, at last, we shall find house and home and welcome in heaven. The Lord"s light be on us a perpetual summer, our Father"s blessing be upon us a continual delight, and the Cross of Christ ever magnify itself above our sin, and the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son ever show its preciousness as applied to the sins of the soul.

This is our prayer, our psalm of adoration and thankfulness, our anthem of triumph and hope; whilst we say, on earth, Amen, do thou, in heaver, say Amen.


Verse 38

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Their names being changed."Numbers 32:38

Many persons live in names.—This is fatal to the grasp of complete truth and relation.—The poet asks, "What"s in a name?"—The name of a friend may be necessary to his identification, but the name is not the man.—Character is to be studied, motive is to be understood, purpose is to be appreciated, then whatever changes may take place in the mere name, love and confidence will be undiminished.—The change of names, both in the Old Testament and the New, deserves careful study.—The name of Abram was changed, so was the name of Jacob, so was the name of Saul of Tarsus.—Those changes of name symbolise changes of trust and vocation in life.—The name should enlarge with the character, but the character should be always more highly valued than the name.—The solemn application of this text is to the matter of great evangelical truths and doctrines.—For want of attention to this matter, bigotry has been encouraged, and men have been separated from one another.—Some persons do not know the gospel itself, except under a certain set of names, words, and stereotyped phrases.—This is not Christianity, it is mere literalism; it Isaiah , in fact, idolatry, for there is an idolatry of phrase as well as of images.—It is simply despicable, when men trickle about names, or details of any kind, in other words when they pay tithes of mint, anise, and cummin, and forget the weigh tier matters of the law.—Literalism was the sin of the scribes.—The truth is not in the letters which print it, the letters but stand to express the inexpressible.—All life is symbolic.—God has spoken in little else than parables.—Revelation addresses the imagination, when imagination is used in its highest senses.—It is not the faculty of mere cloud-making, but the faculty of insight into the largest meanings and the innermost relations of things.—Many persons have less difficulty with the miracles than with the parables, simply because the one requires unquestioning assent, and the other continually discloses new aspects, colours, and suggestions of meanings. The parable will be found to be at once the hardest and pleasantest reading of the spiritual future.—The parables represent the kingdom of heaven, and in proportion to the dignity of that which they represent, is the rapture of following all their suggestion.—Your child is not a mere name to you; see that you be not a mere name to God.—The letter in which you endeavour to express your love, is a poor substitute for the living voice, and the living touch; it is indeed invaluable in the absence of the living personality; but what, letter was ever written that quite satisfied the writer when love was the subject and devotedness the intention?—There is a change of names that inspires the soul with hope.—God is to give his servants a new name in the upper world; their name is to be in their foreheads; but, in the changing of the name, there is. no changing in the burning love, and the rapturous adoration.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 32:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-32.html. 1885-95.

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