I have often been bothered by the fact that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh decided not to cross the Jordon River and take part in their inheritance in the Promised Land. After their miraculous deliverance from Egypt by the intervention of God, and God continuing to miraculously feed and sustain them in the desert by preserving their clothing and giving them water, manna, meat, leaders, and … promise, they made the fateful decision to stay, build their cities, and tend their flocks in the pasture lands east of the Jordon River and not settle in the Promised Land. They did agree to be on the front lines with the rest of the tribes of Israel as they fought to take possession of the Promised Land, but then return to their families and herding lifestyle in a land taken by the Israelites, but not promised to them by God as a habitation. (Numbers 32)
Why would they do this? Why did they decide to opt out of this important aspect of the covenant with God. Was this decision okay with God? After all, He did give man a free will to choose. Was this decision a sin of disobedience like when Saul disobeyed God after the conquest of the Amalekites and spared King Agag (1 Sam. 15.15 (Saul was specifically commended to put to death all inhabitants)); was it a sin of rebellion as when the children of Israel rebelled against God in the wilderness and made an idol to worship and to sacrifice to (Ex. 32); or perhaps it was a sin of transgression against the Law as the sin of adultery or murder?
No, their sin is more subtle than that. It was not deliberately transgressing the law, or worshipping false Gods, preaching false doctrine, or stealing from their neighbor. These 2 1/2 tribes would fully retain their Jewish identity, try to keep the Law, with all its feastdays, sacrifices, rituals, and commandments; they would raise their families in the Jewish traditions, to sacrifice and worship at Jerusalem, and keep all other responsibilities of the covenant. They would be Jews both by race and by religion. They simply decided not to enter into the land of inheritance, but to stay in a land more pleasing to their eyes and desires for prosperity.
You see, there are times when God’s ways are illogical to our ways, and our reasoning actually seems higher than God’s way of thinking. Certainly, they must have thought that God has blessed them with this prosperous land more suitable to their herding lifestyle; and now His promise is expanded to include the possession of this prosperous land.
It is never acceptable to stretch or mold the promises of God, as revealed in His word, to somehow fit the desires of our hearts. We can never distort or enlarge upon the promises or call of God. No matter how “logical” or “rational” something may appear, no matter how much we are emotionally drawn to it, regardless of how the circumstance just seems right, or how much we feel we will be doing God’s will, it is always sin to do so—it is missing the mark, it is a loss of spiritual reward; it is settling for something less than the high call of God.
How often I have heard people say that, “God will give to them the desires of their heart.” Really? The psalmist writes, “Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” Ps. 37.4 So, because I “delightfully” go to church, read my Bible, and sing His praises He will now bless me with whatever my heart desires? Not really. We cannot naively read scriptures from a childish man-centered perspective without considering the intent of God and what is on His heart. It is written, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Is. 55.9 Jesus said, “…for I always do those things that please Him.” Jn. 8.29 This approaches the root of what it means to be Christ-like, that is, to lay aside our own druthers and self-desires, our own ambitions and good intensions, and say, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Lk. 22.42
God’s will for these tribes was much higher, to be viewed from a divine perspective and not man-centered. It was not just a land and a people He desired for Israel, but a lasting kingdom, a theocratic government under God’s guidance ministered through His priests and His prophets. Their prosperity was first to be spiritual then the natural will follow; but first they had to be obedient to all God’s directions and mandates. Otherwise, it would be anarchy in which eventually everyone does what is right in their own eyes. After all, His covenant with these people, as revealed to Moses was specific: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Ex. 19.5-6
Obedience is to “hit the target.” It is better than sacrifice.
Missing the Mark
Sin, regardless of type or degree, is always self-originated and outside the will of God; it is always an offense to God. There is never a neutral sin. Sin is always bad and comes into judgment. It is very meaningful to understand the Greek root word for sin (hamartia); it implies not just missing the mark (or target), but more properly having “no share,” or a “loss” or reward because of not hitting the target. Something is forfeited. Thus, there is always a consequence for sin, a forfeiture, a loss of reward. If you hit the target, you receive a reward; if you miss the target, you are at a loss. First and foremost It is written that sin separates us from God,
“But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.” Is. 59.2
How terrible this consequence of sin. One may still have a relationship with God, as His special or chosen people, or as sons and daughters as under the New Covenant in Christ, but it is the all-important fellowship with God that is broken. There is an emptiness to life of having a relationship without true fellowship As the prodigal son broke fellowship with his father by leaving home and squandering his inheritance, he could never lose his relationship with his father who looked for his son’s return. In order to have fellowship, the prodigal son had to repent of his ways, draw near to his father, and willingly come under his sovereignty.
Like the prodigal son, this decision by the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh was based on their lust to have what they saw as the most advantageous to themselves. Their eyes were upon what they saw as being so much to their own benefit that they were willing to forego the immediate possession of the promise land. To them, the adage, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” seems to have applied. They could only take God’s word that they would be better off somewhere in the land west of the Jordon River, but here, they could have what they wanted…now. They first conquered the area; they settled their wives and children in fortified towns and then left them there while they accompanied the rest of the army of Israel to conquer the land of Canaan. Having fulfilled their contract with Moses and Joshua and the leaders of Israel, they returned to live on the East Bank territory of what had formerly been the land of Jazer and Gilead and Bashan. (Numbers 32:1-5)
The early prophecy of Reuben seems to have repeated itself again here. His dying father, Jacob tells him; “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you shall not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it.” Gn. 49.3-4
What role did the 2 ½ tribes play in the subsequent history of Israel? I have tried to find them in the scriptural account, and I cannot. They are mentioned in the book of Judges and there are some individuals with those names mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, but I see no mighty deeds by any of those tribes. I have found no mighty warriors or prophets from them as well. There is no mention of great events happening in their territory. It is possible that I may have missed something, but I think it is safe to say that they were not major players in what happened in Israel.
History records that In 740 B.C. Tiglath-Pileser III, King of the Great Assyrian Empire, whose capital was a complex of four cities, the composite later named Nineveh, carried away the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half of Manasseh, placing them as captive slaves in cities of Assyria. Some continued to meet in Jewish tradition in secret, some assimilated into pagan Nineveh, some converted to Islam. Sadly these 2 ½ tribes of Israel reaped trouble and captivity instead of the blessing that God had intended for them.
History Repeats Itself
There is a proverb that history repeats itself. Things that have happened in the past will tend to happen again in one way or another, unless we learn the lesson from them and avoid the pitfalls. It is written in 1 Corinthians, “Now all these things happened to them (Israel) as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” 1 Cor. 10.11 The Church today, which supernaturally includes you and me, must take note of the failings of Israel, their disobedience, their idolatry, their grumbling, their desire to satisfy the flesh, and the rest of the sins that befit them, less we also come to the same judgment of missing the mark. It was not just the 2 ½ tribes that settled for less and fell short of God’s promise, but a whole generation of Israel, save a few (namely Caleb and Joshua), who came out of Egypt also fell short, never making it to the Promise land. Even though they too were delivered from the bondage of Egypt, in their unbelief and disobedience they died in the wilderness, and never even made it as far in their journey to the Promise Land as the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half of Manasseh, who went as far as the Jordon River. These too fell short of God’s higher calling, as it is written,
“For who, having heard (of the promise), rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years (a whole generation)? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. (Heb. 3.16-19)
Disobedience and unbelief is never rewarded. A disobedient student is unteachable and is a disruption to the class; a disobedient soldier is unreliable and a detriment to the platoon; a disobedient child is self-centered, empty of empathy, and brings discord to the family. A disobedient believer is carnal in all his ways and unable to perceive and receive spiritual guidance, and is a weight on the Church. Disobedience is not just what is written in the Old Covenant Law, and what is written in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament, but importantly what is now all of which being written upon our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Falling Short of the High Calling of God.
The Church must take note of the behavior, or rather misbehavior, of these Israelites; we are to learn from their examples. As a people, they were all delivered from bondage, were donned “God’s special people,” witnessed mighty miracles of deliverance, of supernatural supply of food and water, of protection against their enemies, and of pestilence. Yet, they all fell short of God’s Promises. It is important to note that they fell short for two different reasons. The one entire generation fell short because of disobedience and unbelief, not unbelief in God, but unbelief that He would fulfill His promises. The second group, the 2 ½ tribes, fell short by their own decision to do so; they allowed Satan to convince them that life in a good pasture land was higher than what God had promised them. So, they settled a good, falling short of God’s highest.
It is a terrible thing to fall short of God’s intended will for our lives. There are consequences; there are losses to our souls that cannot be made up for. How often we look at attaining heaven as our ultimate goal, yet the comfort of this paradise drastically pales in light of the heavenly high calling to fellowship with the living God. For what do I gain to inherit a beautiful mansion but to live in it lonely, and without divine fellowship. Luke quotes the psalmist David when he wrote prophetically of Christ,
”For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.” Acts 2.27-28
To rephrase, “In Your presence is fullness of Joy.” “Fullness here, properly means to fill to individual capacity. Striving to anything less is “falling short.” It means a loss of well-being. Though one may know the joy of coming into a relationship with God, of becoming His children and a “special people,” yet fall short of the fullness of joy in the intimacy of His holy fellowship.
The Church Has Fallen Short
This Biblical account of Israel is not just a history lesson, but a lesson directed to the Church; it warns of the pitfalls of enticements of the Church to settle and fall short of God’s high calling; and it unveils the drastic consequences for disobedience. Satan has no fear of those who settle in life, those who fall short of God’s promises for they are no threat to him or his kingdom. Thus he will do all in his power to blind, to entice, to deceive the Church, and to convince them that God’s promises are too spiritual, too high, and unapproachable, and to settle in comfort for less. I have heard it said this this teaching is “too heavy” and that the Church must “lighten up” and be a joyful place. This “joy” however is carnal and temporary. Those Satan fears most are those who would enter into the promises, defeat the enemy, and establish the Kingdom of God in their lives and in the Church.—the overcomers.
Today, the Church, for the most part, lies in the deceit of Satan that the Christian “religion” is the best God has to offer man; but in reality, it is the “religion” aspect of our faith in Christ that causes the Church to settle for the good which pales to God’s highest for His people. They have settled for a practice of observing holydays, of rituals, of sacrifices, of programed worship services, and canned preaching. When challenged with truth, the Church today would rather just form another denomination or sect and settle there than to embrace to truth in its true light and life by faith. This faith always transforms a soul towards the purposes of Christ and unto a measure of the stature of Christ—always, without exception.
The lost generation in the wilderness fell short by unbelief and disobedience. Though they came out of the land of Egypt, far too little of the culture, the customs, and the ways of Egypt did not come out of them. That generation had to die off and fail to enter into the promise of God. In similar manner, those of the Church have been delivered out of the world into the Kingdom of God, but too much of the world, and all it has to offer remains in the believer. So much so they desire to bring more of the worldly influence, its way, its methods, its practices into the Church, defiling it with practices foreign to the Kingdom of God. This is sin: missing the mark.
The 2 ½ tribes of Israel fell short of the Promise of God because they settled in a place of their preference and not God’s. They believed to have it all, both the Jewish faith and culture and the best land for their herds. But religion as a practice is deceiving as it brings no lasting rewards in its practice, and the lust of the eyes and pride of life brings forth darkness and death; as it is written.
“For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”
1 Jn. 2.16
I have heard it said, “God wants you saved and going to heaven;” “God wants you well;” “God wants you to prosper;” and so on. The important thing is the clause: “God wants you”…period. He wants you in relation and fellowship today and into eternity. The Father desires the intimacy of you as the son and daughter in His family; the Son desires you to be in union with as a functioning member of His Body, the Church; and the Holy Spirit desires of you something far greater, far higher than being a member of a church congregation; His desire is for His presence in your life, to be a Holy dwelling place. The Godhead desires a living relationship, to be in spiritual fellowship with you. Seek this with all your hearts and you will never be disappointed, the joy of His fellowship will never pass away, never fail, the world can never stain nor Satan take away.
As a last encouragement, do not settle in the place where you are spiritually. The comforts and safety of religion will always fall short of God’s calling. for its focus is in the natural and not in the transformation of the inner man in union with the living God.