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Occasional Letters - Living on the Edge

D Newell, Glasgow

There’s a great moment in one of the 1950s’ BBC radio Goon Shows where Eccles (the programmers’ resident idiot), acting as the look-out on board a sailing ship, calls out, "Land ahead!" This is immediately followed by a splintering sound as the ship crashes into the rocks. Comments Eccles, "I should have said that sooner, shouldn’t I!" Well, the last few chapters of the book of Numbers signal the message "land ahead" in good time and with no uncertain note, because Israel, camped in the plains of Moab east of Jordan, were on the very border of Canaan. Soon they would be making their way over the Jordan to take up residence in the territory God, the sovereign landlord of the universe, had allocated to them. But before the crossing, the leaders of two of the twelve tribes approached Moses with the unexpected proposal that they, Reuben and Gad, should make their homes on the east bank. Here’s the account:

"Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying, Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Shebam, and Nebo, and Beon, Even the country which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle: Wherefore, said they, if we have found grace in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession, and bring us not over Jordan" (Num 32.1-5).

How are we to view this request? God’s original covenant with Abraham recorded back in Genesis 15.18 indicates that the land grant awarded his descendants reached on its eastern perimeter as far as the Euphrates. The spot chosen by Reuben and Gad was therefore well within that extensive portion of real estate. On the other hand, the boundaries of the land specified so precisely in Numbers 34 are clearly marked out as the Mediterranean on the west and the Jordan on the east. It is evident, too, from his severe reply that Moses saw the petition as a potential rebellion against God’s purpose. How then do we reconcile this apparent discrepancy? Because the final chapters of Numbers are greatly expanded in the following book, which records Moses final address to the nation, it may be that Deuteronomy will enlighten us. And there we learn that if the people, once established in Canaan, obeyed the Lord they would be so unconquerable that they would be able to expand eastwards: "If ye shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you…Then will the Lord drive out all these nations from before you, and ye shall possess greater nations and mightier than yourselves. Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be. There shall no man be able to stand before you" (Deut 11.22-25).

The echo of the Abrahamic covenant is unmistakable. Perhaps we can best understand the position as this. Israel was first of all to invade Canaan, executing divine judgment upon its wicked inhabitants (Gen 15.16), so that from that base it could later increase its territorial possessions in accordance with the original promise. Although failure prevented Israel from entering fully into these blessings, when Christ returns in glory that great covenant promise will be completely fulfilled.

But back to the plains of Moab. Why did Reuben and Gad seek to settle in Gilead? There is an element of convenience in their petition. Those with plenty of livestock naturally coveted an area rich in pastureland. But choices based simply on sight are notoriously unreliable (Gen 3.6; 13.10). The physical senses are no safe guide for the child of God, for we "walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5.7) – that is, our decisions are to be governed by the Word. Again, their desire betrays a spirit of independence, isolating them from the rest of Israel. Yet God saw His people as a unity (Ex 4.22-23; Num 27.21). No believer is self-sufficient; we all need one another in the fellowship of the local assembly (Heb 10.24-25). There is no free-lance service for the Lord. And is there a disturbing suspicion of indolence in an unwillingness to cross the Jordan? The land of Gilead must have seemed rather tempting as it had already been cleared of hostile occupants in the battles recorded in Numbers 21.24-26; Reuben and Gad could therefore take possession without a struggle. Surely a desire to avoid conflict and carnage is commendable? But for the believer spiritual warfare is a constant, necessary engagement (Eph 6.11). Unlike Israel, Christians do not fight physical battles. Rather, we seek to overcome the wickedness within our own hearts, and put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8.13; Col 3.5). Our demob awaits the Lord’s return. Keil and Delitzsch sum up the case against Reuben and Gad as "an utter want of brotherly feeling, and complete indifference to the common interests of the whole nation". Moses’ bristling rebuke shows how much he feared their motivation, accusing them of causing division (v.6), discouragement (vv.7-13), and potential destruction to the entire nation (vv.14-15). Do I encourage or discourage the saints in the assembly where God has placed me? A lovely New Testament model for all of us is Barnabas ("son of encouragement"), a man who lived up to his name (Acts 11.22-24).

Moses’ dire warning had its effect. "They came near unto him" (v.16) – presumably they had shrunk back from his anger – and assured him of their good intentions. And here I have to admit that they spoke well. First, they would settle their families safely on the east bank (v.16). They took their domestic responsibilities seriously – and so should we. If God has graciously entrusted us with a family, we are accountable to Him for its well-being. My mother used to talk sometimes about "assembly widows", by which she meant those womenfolk whose husbands were so immersed in spiritual labours that they neglected their home duties. A man constantly away from his family can never be an effective husband or father. It is a false piety that offers to the Lord what rightfully belongs to others. Second, they pledged themselves to take the lead in crossing the Jordan with the Israelite army: "…we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place" (v.17). Joshua 4.12-13 records that they faithfully discharged this commitment. Interestingly, while they spoke of going "before the children of Israel", Moses speaks of going "armed before the Lord" (v.20). The preposition "before" has a range of meanings. Yes, they would march in the vanguard of Israel’s troops, but more important, they were going to battle in the very presence of their Commander-in-Chief, Jehovah Himself. We are never alone in the fight. Third, they would stay to the end (v.18), till all was won. And – to do them justice – they did (Josh 22.1-4). It is good to be people of our word. Then they returned to their homes.

And yet, admitting all this, they were still living dangerously on the edges of the land God had told them to inherit. Instead of being in the heart of Israel, they elected to settle on the borders, at a distance from the tabernacle centre of worship, and history sadly records that they were among the first to be taken into captivity (2 Kings 10.32-33; 1 Chr 5.26). Those who lurk on the periphery of the local assembly make themselves vulnerable to temptation, dissatisfaction and cold-heartedness. The best, the safest course of action for every believer is to throw himself wholly into the fellowship of the saints. Avoid living on the edge!

To be continued.


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