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Doug Van Meter - 13 November 2022

Living on the Fringe (Numbers 32:1–42)

Numbers 32 records what at first blush seems to be a common-sense and harmless idea by the leaders of two tribes of Israel. Yet as we dig into their request, and as we study the outcome of this decades and even centuries later, we see that it was not a harmless suggestion at all. The decision to live on the fringe apart from the community of faith is rarely a good idea. Living on the fringe can be dangerous to the spiritual welfare of both the individual Christian and to the local church. May God teach us and protect us. We consider this chapter under the following headings: (1) An Indifferent Request (vv. 1–5) (2) An Indignant Rebuke (vv. 6–15) (3) An Innovative Response (vv. 16–32) (4) An Instructive Result (vv. 33–42)

Scripture References: Numbers 32:1-42

From Series: "Numbers Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Numbers by Doug Van Meter.

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It’s amazing how often the more things change, the more they remain the same. Though much has changed for God’s new covenant people from God’s old covenant people, so much remains the same, such as the temptation to make superficial and selfish decisions to our own detriment as well as the detriment of others. We see an example of this in Numbers 32.

Numbers 32 records what, at first blush, appears to be a common-sense and harmless idea by the leaders of two tribes of Israel. But as we dig into their request, and as we study the future consequences, we see that it was far from a harmless request. The decision of two-and-a-half tribes to live on the fringe of the Promised Land was a pragmatically good but principally bad and even dangerous choice. Living on the fringe, dislocated from God’s larger community, is rarely a good thing. It is dangerous to the spiritual welfare of both the individual Christian and the local church. May God teach us and protect us.

We will study this matter of living on the fringe under three headings of exposition, followed by one heading of application.

(1) An Indifferent Request (vv. 1–5)
(2) An Indignant Rebuke (vv. 6–15)
(3) An Innovative Response (vv. 16–32)
(4) An Instructive Result (vv. 33–42)

An Indifferent Request

In the opening verses of this chapter, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad approached Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chiefs of the tribes with a request that, on the surface, seemed rather reasonable and very logical, and yet it was unbiblical. The request was tainted with selfishness and contained the seed of potential sedition.

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 and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the LORD struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” And they said, “If we have found favour in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.”

(Numbers 32:1–5)

These raisers of livestock observed that the topography of the area just east of the Jordan was perfect to meet their grazing needs. Any horticulturalist or agriculturalist of the day would have agreed. Moreover, the land had already been conquered by Israel, with God’s blessing (chapter 21). It would require very little effort to settle there. In fact, as this passage informs us, fortified cities would suit these tribes well. This situation could only be interpreted as divine providence and hence his blessing on their plan. They felt much like Jonah must have felt when fleeing from the Lord’s call when he providentially secured a ticket for one of the last ships to Tarsus (Jonah 1:3)! But just as thing did not end well for Jonah, neither would they end well for these people.

To their credit, they acknowledged the Lord as the giver of gifts, including the land and their livestock (v. 4). We must give them some benefit of the doubt about their potentially divisive request. Nevertheless, if this seems like a harmless request, consider their last statement, “Do not take us across the Jordan” (v. 5). Wow. What a statement. What short-sightedness. What selfishness. It is as if they were saying, “We have what we need, good luck to you!” Whatever we might say in their defence, they displayed a selfish indifference to God’s word and to the welfare of God’s people. Reuben and Gad had succumbed to the temptation to individualism. Let me explain.

Six hundred years earlier, Yahweh had made a promise to Abraham concerning Canaan, the land west of the Jordan. “Go west, old man!” was the Lord’s command, “And I will give this land to you and to your descendants.” The land west of the Jordan River was the Promised Land (Genesis 12:1–9).

For six hundred years, the patriarchs and their descendants clung to this promise and now, finally, Israel was on the verge of securing it, crossing the Jordan. But two tribes (plus half of another tribe [v. 33]) do not wish to do so. Like Lot centuries earlier (Genesis 13), they liked what they saw east of Jordan and seemingly doubted what they could not see on the west of Jordan. Seemingly indifferent to God’s revealed will, seemingly thoughtless about the welfare of their brethren, they had a better idea. Though all of history to this point had recorded that living east of Eden was never God’s plan for human flourishing (see Genesis 4:16; 13:11), that was their plan. Brothers and sisters, settling for less than what God has prescribed—and promised—never makes for a good decision in the long run, regardless of how good it seems at first sight (v. 1). “Sight is content with the best that this world has to offer” (Duguid). The chose the fringe rather than God’s fullness.

It is significant that, whereas chapter 31 is grounded in what God commanded (v. 1), chapter 32 opens, not with the God’s instruction, but rather with human initiative. Of course, initiative is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it contradicts God’s word. Whether conscious of it or not, their request reveals an indifference—an ignoring of God’s promise and precept. This was not only potentially destructive for these tribes (as we will see below), but also potentially divisive for the people. Ashley writes, “The proposal meant nothing short of a divided Israel, with a part of Israel settling outside the land of promise.”

An Indignant Rebuke

Moses was apoplectic. That vein in his forehead was probably throbbing. He was indignant at their seeming indifferent display of selfish individualism. Wenham helpfully comments, “That any Israelite tribe should consider settling outside the land promised to Abraham showed a disturbing indifference to the divine word, the word on which Israel’s existence entirely depended.” No wonder Moses was upset.

But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the LORD has given them? Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the people of Israel from going into the land that the LORD had given them.  And the LORD’s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me, none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the LORD.’ And the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone. And behold, you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the LORD against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”

(Numbers 32:6–15)

I imagine that these leaders were surprised by Moses’ response. After all, it was such a great idea! But their bright idea was a trigger to him as his thoughts returned to an event some 38 years earlier. He’d been here before—with the first generation—and he was determined to not let it happen again.

Moses recounts that horrible scene of disobedience that led to a four-decade delay. The painful and destructive unbelief of the former generation was still fresh to the Lord’s servant. Grieved over that failed generation, he had much higher expectation of this one. He envisioned a new beginning with hopes of a much better future, but now it seemed that history was repeating itself. It was therefore time for a history lesson. And Moses delivered it, we can assume, with much passion. No one was going to fall asleep in this class!

Having sent the twelve spies across the southern Jordan to bring back an accurate and affirming report of God’s Promised Land, ten returned and “discouraged the heart of the people of Israel” so much so that they did not go into the land the Lord had given to them (v. 9; cf. Numbers 13–14). They wanted a new leader to lead them back to Egypt.

Moses was horrified to see history recapitulating. He assumed the worst (with good reason), interpreting their idea as a rejection of God’s idea. These tribal leaders were thinking reasonable and resourceful while Moses heard rebellion and ruin. These tribal leaders were thinking flourishing while Moses was thinking failure. They were thinking ingenious while he concluded indifference. Therefore, while the people made what they deemed to be a reasonable and dispassionate request, he responded with righteous rage.

When Moses concluded, he used strong language, calling them “a brood of sinful men” (v. 14). He accused them of being the unbelieving offspring of an unbelieving generation. Ouch.

We should pause and ask whether Moses’s indignation was justified. After all, do we really know the full motive of these who remained on the other side? I would argue that these were not a bunch of rebels set on apostasy or a group unconcerned about the rest of God’s people. After all, from the people’s response that follows, we can commend them for assisting the other tribes in the conquest of the land. They followed through with their commitment (Joshua 4:11–12). Further, in the providence of God, the territory belonging to the nation of Israel expanded. Their initiative seems to have led to the expansion of the kingdom. There is little in the text to suggest that they were indeed “a brood of sinners” intent on emulating the first and failed generation of those who came out of Egypt. And so perhaps indeed Moses overreacted. These were not bad people. And yet, as we will see, his response was perfectly understandable and even justifiable. I so appreciate the observation of Ronald Allen: “He flashes here in rage, it seems, before he knows fully what is being asked. But his rage is based on a lifetime of disappointment, a generation of waste, and the ever-present desert.” It is also based on a lifetime of seeing the consequences of bad choices. But I think another factor justified Moses’ response.

Moses was a part of the first and failed generation. His sin in striking the rock (Numbers 20) resulted in him being condemned to die in the wilderness outside the Promised Land. The Lord had irrevocably refused him entry. How do you suppose he felt when he heard those who could enter choosing rather to remain on the fringes of this great and gracious privilege? I would imagine that he was astounded at what seemed to be both ingratitude and indifference, if not insolence. This made no sense to him! We know from Deuteronomy 3:21–29 how he begged the Lord to relent, and he would not. No wonder Moses was so indignant! Like a parent who is dumbfounded that their child does not appreciate privileges that they themselves did not enjoy, Moses could hardly believe his ears!

Finally, Moses was indignant as he contemplated the possibility that the assumed ingratitude, indifference, and even insolence of these tribes would spread like leaven and ruin the loaf of God’s people. He was righteously angered by the temptation that those content with living on the fringe might have on the rest.

We would do well to listen to this angry prophet of God’s people. His concern was for the community, not merely for some individuals. His greatest concern was for the effect that their not crossing over Jordan would have on the other tribes rather than primarily for themselves. If you want a biblical example of the whole being more important than the individual parts, here is Exhibit A.

One cannot read the New Testament without detecting a great concern for the unity of God’s people and the dangers of disunity. The local church needs frequent exhortation concerning the dangers of living on the fringe. God-appointed leadership and a God-centred congregation must be willing to be misunderstood in their zeal for the unity of God’s people. Expect biblical shepherds to exhort you to “cross over” with the rest of God’s people. Expect a local church, which takes God’s promises and purposes seriously, to take church membership seriously, not content with Christians experiencing less than they can. Let each member of the church be passionately perceptive about the dangers of indifference and individualism. The health of the whole is at stake.

An Innovative Response

The leaders of Reuben and Gad responded to Moses’s strong rebuke with an offer of a compromise.

Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land.  We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the LORD for the war, and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the LORD, until he has driven out his enemies from before him and the land is subdued before the LORD; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the LORD and to Israel, and this land shall be your possession before the LORD. But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out.  Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands.  Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead,  but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the LORD to battle, as my lord orders.”


So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And Moses said to them, “If the people of Gad and the people of Reuben, every man who is armed to battle before the LORD, will pass with you over the Jordan and the land shall be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession. However, if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben answered, “What the LORD has said to your servants, we will do. We will pass over armed before the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan.”

(Numbers 32:16–32)

The people pledged to go to war across the Jordan with the other tribes, assisting in the corporate conquest of Canaan. They would do so leaving their families on the Transjordan, secure in the villages. Not only would they accompany the other tribes, but they offered to lead the way (v. 17). While we appreciate their commitment, this was something of a problem since, according to Numbers 2, the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were to lead the way, as prescribed by God. There is a hint here that once we begin to neglect the word of God in one area, we are not far away from neglecting more of it. Anyway, these tribes made it clear that they would not settle in the Transjordan until they had fought alongside the other tribes in securing the Promised Land. Contrary to Moses’ allegation, they would not merely “sit here” while the other tribes did the hard work of holy war (v. 6). This was an innovative response. That is, it was not fully in accordance with God’s word, but it came close. And that, of course, was the problem.

Moses agreed to their proposal. Perhaps he wearily accepted their compromise, or perhaps the proposal was accepted by God. We don’t know for sure. We do know that Moses, while agreeing to these terms, issued a stern warning that, if they did not fulfil this commitment, they could be sure that their sin would find them out (v. 23). “Sin itself is virtually personified as one who will wend its way through any obstacles to find the guilty…. In other words, the consequences of sin are unavoidable” (Ashley). That is, their sin would catch up with them. Their sin would have consequences. We need to unpack this.

Just what sin was Moses speaking about?

Clearly, their sin related to their promise to fight with God’s people. If they failed to keep their word, they would suffer the consequences. But underlying such promise-breaking are the sinister seeds of indifference to God and his people, a sinful individualism that chooses to live on the fringe, identifying as God’s people but not with God’s people. Such sin continues to find out people today. The consequences remain real. We will look at some of these later, but consider a few.

Discipleship of the wider body is often hindered because people choose to live on the fringe rather than moving towards others in ministry. Various needs go unfulfilled because of church members financially on the fringe. Church members grow bitter, critical, and feel neglected, even though they have created their own reality by stubbornly staying on the fringe. Christians live unstable lives because the refuse to put aside their individualism and join the local church. The fringe may be comfortable, but it is far from commendable.

Taking this warning seriously, the people of Reuben and Gad committed to do what they had been commanded to do. All seemed well. They committed to go to holy war “before the Lord” (v. 27); that is, in his presence and hence accountable to him.

In the covenantal formula of “if/then” statements, the peoples of Reuben and Gad committed to do as they had suggested and as Moses had agreed (vv. 28–32). By doing so, they also agreed to the sanctions recognising that, if they went back on their word, their sin would find them out (v. 23). Nevertheless, as noble as this seems (and is), it is disturbing to read their resolve: “The possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan” (v. 32). That is, they were determined to continue staying on the fringe, isolated from the rest of God’s people. This would prove an unwise decision. It always does.

An Instructive Result

The compromise having been offered, and the contract having been entered into, Moses granted what they requested. But interestingly, the half-tribe of Manasseh now joined the tribes of Reuben and Gad. They also wanted to live on the fringe.

And Moses gave to them, to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land and its cities with their territories, the cities of the land throughout the country. And the people of Gad built Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, Atroth-shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah,  Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran, fortified cities, and folds for sheep. And the people of Reuben built Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim,  Nebo, and Baal-meon ( their names were changed), and Sibmah. And they gave other names to the cities that they built. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he settled in it. And Jair the son of Manasseh went and captured their villages, and called them Havvoth-jair. And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its villages, and called it Nobah, after his own name.

(Numbers 32:33–42)

Commentators suggest several possibilities for the half tribe’s inclusion here, some suggesting that this is perhaps an editorial insertion from a later editor. I don’t think so. Rather, I am of the view that them appearing later in this passage is due to fallen human nature. The indifference of those who chose to remain on the fringe had the exact effect that Moses feared: It spread to others. Any way you wish to look at this, any positive spin we might want to place upon the stated intention of Reuben and Gad to remain in the Transjordan, at the end of the day, they chose to live on the fringe—removed from God’s people—and others followed suit. Beware of persuading others by your insistent independence, your insistent individualism, and your inward-looking indifference. Like gangrene, it can spread to others. Especially to your children.

I literally could write a book on this, from both positive and negative examples. Though there are exceptions to the rule, nevertheless the rule holds: Live on the fringe of the local church and reap the fruit of children who live on the fringe.

Though the passage ends here, the subsequent results do not, and they are deeply instructive for you and me who live under the new covenant. I want to spend our remaining time making some relevant applications from the subsequent consequences of the decisions by these two-and-a-half tribes to live on the fringe.

Disconnected on the Fringe

Fast forward several years. The land had been conquered and the Lord had given to Israel all he had promised to Abraham and his descendants (21:43–45). The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh returned home to settle on the fringe. Trouble soon arose—trouble, quite literally, of their own making.

In Joshua 22, the Transjordan tribes “built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size” (v. 10). This was not a good sign, and the rest of the tribes, located where they should be, noticed. Verses 16–20 record their angry response. They assumed the worst of those who were living on the fringe. They assumed they were seeking to establish false worship. The tribes were ready to go to war against them, treating them like pagans. They made the appeal for them to come over the Jordan and live among them in “the Lord’s land” (v. 19).

The offending tribes protested that they had no intention of engaging in false worship. (Yet neither did they intend to move from the fringe!) Rather, they had built this large altar so that, in the future, those in the Promised Land—on the correct side of the Jordan!—would not dismiss as rebels those who are living on the wrong side of the Jordan. Their concern was for their children (vv. 21–29). This was so revealing and instructive. Their earlier, innovative decision to live on the fringe had morphed into innovation in worship. They still worshipped the true God, but in a way he had not prescribed. Their individualism persisted.

Is it not interesting that they were aware of the negative consequences from their decision to live on the fringe? They realised that living distant from the community of faith jeopardised them and their children from being dismissed as unfaithful. That is, living on the fringe gave the appearance that they were not team players, that they had a completely different worship agenda.

Now, the people were satisfied with their explanation and so they laid down their weapons, returning to the Promised Land. But that’s the point. They were still living on the fringe with the risk that they would miss out on what God’s people were experiencing in God’s appointed place of worship.

The making of this altar must not be lightly dismissed. It was wrong. It was extrabiblical. But we should not be surprised. When you compromise in one area, it becomes easier to compromise in another. We can learn that living on the fringe, when it comes to corporate worship and the corporate work, rarely ends well.

Don’t be surprised when, choosing to dwell on the fringe, people treat you like you are on the fringe. Yes, we are to pursue those who move to the fringe, but there comes a time when the church may have to leave well enough alone. As in this case, there is a very real danger that those gathered where they should be will forget you. The fringe is often eventually forgotten.

Beware that, if you choose to live on the fringe, your children may be the ones who suffer the most (vv. 24–25). Parents, your isolation will have consequences, and your children may bear the brunt. Beware that the sin of indifferent isolation will find you out, and often it will do so by finding your children.

The main takeaway from this episode is not “be careful not to overreact” or “don’t be judgmental.” There is truth to these lessons, but the major takeaway from this text is “don’t cut yourself off from the corporate gathering and expect everyone to understand and merely accept it.” If you behave like you don’t belong, don’t be surprised when you are treated like you do not belong.

It is worth noting that, much later in Israel’s history, Jeroboam also established altars where he ought not (1 Kings 12:25–16:34). He did so deceptively to protect his own kingdom. I wonder where he got the idea. After all, his argument seemed to be merely pragmatic to serve the people. But, in the end, as history reveals, it was the death of the southern kingdom. More on that later.

Disinterested on the Fringe

When Deborah and Barak composed a song of praise in honour of God’s victory over the Canaanites (Judges 5), they mentioned how “the clans of Reuben,” along with “Gilead beyond the Jordan,” did nothing to help their brethren in the battle (vv. 15–17). They specifically mentioned how Reuben merely sat “still among the sheepfolds.” They were at ease on the fringe while their brothers fought the fight of faith. The Reubenites had “great searching of heart,” seeming to suggest they were troubled in their conscience. They should have been. Doubtless, they wanted to avoid the conflict, so they remained on the fringe. Had they been gathered with their people, they would have been strengthened to stand to the battle.

God has given to Christians the ordinary means of the biblically ordinary local church to help us to persevere amid spiritual warfare. But when we choose to live on the fringe, we will become spiritually flabby and hence unfit for the fight. And, by the way, this puts the rest of the “army” in potential peril. Therefore move from the fringe with a commitment to leave no one behind. Brothers and sisters, move from the fringe and join in the fight. Otherwise, be sure that your sin will find you out. It will catch up to you and your “comfortable fringe” will end in uncomfortable failure. And as you move to the centre, challenge and help others to move from the fringe.

Destroyed on the Fringe

Though as we have seen in Numbers 32, the tribes’ original intent may have stemmed from innocent ignorance, nevertheless the decision by these Transjordan tribes sowed seeds of both division and destruction. This is clearly revealed in 1 Chronicles 5:23–26, which records the beginning of the Assyrian captivity of the southern kingdom of Israel. Though all ten tribes had become a spiritual mess, the writer of Chronicles lays particular blame at those living on the fringe, outside the Promised Land. They “broke faith with the God of their fathers, and whored after the gods of the peoples of the land” (v. 25). They are specifically identified as “the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh” (v. 26). No one could make this up. Those who chose to the live on the fringe in an earlier generation sowed the seeds for the falling away of a future generation. Their sin found them out.

Brothers, sisters we need to pay heed to the warning of Numbers 32. The decision to remain on the fringe because of a better idea rarely ends well. It will no doubt provide immediate comfort. After all, living an isolated, individualistic “Christian” life of indifference to the sins and struggles of others is quite attractive. Who wants to be hurt by others? Who wants to take such risks? Isn’t it easier to smugly have all the answers, sitting back and criticising rather than constructively engaging to build others up? Sure. But what an empty way to live. The truth is that those who choose to live on the fringe are, in the end, choosing a fruitless existence.

Jesus, Crossing Over

I am grateful, as are you, that the Lord Jesus Christ did not live on the fringe. We who have been saved by our Lord Jesus Christ should reflect on the reality that Jesus Christ was not indifferent to either the Father’s purpose and promise, or to our predicament. We should rejoice that Jesus refused to isolate himself from the chosen people of God. We should celebrate our Lord who resisted the temptation to individualism (see Matthew 4). Rather, Jesus chose to cross over into our world. By his incarnation, he entered our world, lived a holy life in our place, and then died under the wrath of God in our place.

Having chosen the hard thing of crossing the celestial boundary, entering our sin-cursed world, living faithfully, fighting the good fight of faith both to and on the cross, he saved us from our sins. Jesus refused the easy path choosing rather the difficult, life-giving sacrifice on the cross for sinners like you and me, whose sin found us out, killing us spiritually.

Carried away by our idolatry to serve self, sin, and Satan, Jesus rescued us by his death, burial, and resurrection. He put us right where we need to be: in the family of God. How foolish to then choose to live on the fringe!

May God help us to cross over with one another. As Christian soldiers, let us together go onward, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Yes, let each of us repent of living on the fringe and let us with new zeal live by faith.