The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Mark Twain
Do you recall the final episode in Israel’s wilderness wanderings? It is under-reported in our churches and under-taught in Sunday school, but the event has much to teach us. Numbers 32 records a not-so-sensational account of an incident that takes place right before the people are to go into the Land of Promise. The nation’s journey had started in Egypt, and it ended—almost—in Gilead, a fertile plot of land east of the Jordan River and adjacent to the land God had promised his people. Gilead was a good land, but it was not God’s Promised Land. It was close, but far from what God had for his chosen ones.
By the time they got to Gilead, the nation had camped out for the better part of forty years. The people had been bitten by snakes, gone without water, and been attacked by nomadic warriors. Each time, though, Yahweh delivered them. Each time, God was faithful to his promises. Now, in Numbers 32, the nation is poised to cross the Jordan River and begin taking the land. The people have witnessed the glory of God on Mt. Sinai, and they have experienced his wrath, being forced to wait for the older generation to die in the desert before they could enter Canaan. Finally, they are almost there, and Yahweh himself will lead them and defeat their enemies in battle. Think of the excitement they must have felt. At last, a land flowing with milk and honey will be theirs! They will dwell in cities they didn’t build and eat crops they didn’t plant (Deut. 6:10ff.). Forty years of waiting and now the time has come!
Incredibly, two tribes don’t want to go: Reuben and Gad want to settle in Gilead. After forty years of anticipating this milestone event, two of the twelve tribes saunter up to Moses saying, Ehh. . . we like it here. . . Gilead is just fine. We’ll stay here while you take the land. . . Don’t forget to write. Their exact words are telling: Do not make us cross the Jordan (Num. 32:5). They prefer the comforts of Gilead to the conquest of Canaan. And, really, who can blame them? They already have large herds and flocks. They already are comfortable and affluent. Why not relax and be happy?
Reuben and Gad were, to borrow from Mark Twain, almost obedient. They were almost there. For forty years they had obediently followed their Lord, but now they chose comfort over obedience. And the difference betweenobedience and almost-obedience is a large matter: it’s the difference between God’s blessing and God’s wrath.
So Moses confronts them about their indolence: Will you sit here while your brothers go to war? Recognizing that their seemingly trivial request is a grave matter, he calls these tribes a brood of sinful men. Their request will increase the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! In fact, if Reuben and Gad persist, God will destroy the whole nation (32:15)!
What lessons does this drama have for us? What does the misstep of Reuben and Gad teach us? As we hone our new year’s resolutions, what can we glean from these two tribes and their failure? Consider two points.
First, we see in Reuben and Gad our own tendency to think that little things are little. The leaders of Reuben and Gad probably thought they would receive Moses’ approval. After all, if two tribes stayed east of the Jordan, then there would be more land for the other ten, right? Perhaps the Reubenites and Gadites even thought themselves noble as they offered to stay behind in Gilead. Furthermore, they were able shepherds and farmers, providing for their wives and making a good future for their children. Not going into the Promised Land was, surely, a little thing.
When God’s will is clear, however, little things are never little. Little things will actually set the course of our lives. A flirtatious look across the office can destroy a family. The failure to give generously to the things of God can lead to spiritual oblivion (Matt. 13:22). Lingering over wine can land one in the gutter (Proverbs 23:30-32). Credit-card debt can lead to the loss of home and happiness. Little things are never little when it comes to sin and righteousness.
Reuben and Gad clearly knew God’s perfect will for them. Yahweh had been promising the land of Canaan from the time of Abraham, some four centuries earlier. When Reuben and Gad ask to remain in Gilead, they are asking out of selfishness and cowardice. They show their preference for personal peace and affluence to the trials of battle. Reuben and Gad are claiming their right to a good life free from turmoil. What could be wrong with that? What was wrong was that this was not God’s will for his people. Oswald Chambers often defined sin as “my right to myself.” In Numbers 32, Reuben and Gad claim the right to themselves and then tiptoe toward the precipice of disaster. When God calls us to himself, however, we become his private possessions. We were, in fact, bought with a price, and we belong to him. Accordingly, our supreme ambition should be to give God glory regardless of the cost or the consequences.
Second, we see in Reuben and Gad our own tendency to forget the past. The irony of Numbers 32 is that Reuben and Gad wouldn’t even have known about Gilead had their parents been faithful to God. Thirty-eight years earlier they would have entered the Promised Land from the south and lived, happily, under the blessing of God. Their parents, though, chose to disobey God and not believe in his promise. The younger generation was therefore confined to four decades of wilderness wanderings during which they buried their parents. And now Reuben and Gad want to repeat the same sin! They have forgotten the past. But Moses assures them—and us—that they will reap what they sow. In verse 23 he says, Behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out. God will not be mocked. Our sins always have consequences. Sin separates us from the love of God, and it causes us to forfeit his blessing over our lives. Sin never benefits us. Whenever we sin, we become its slave, and we find—too late—the taskmaster to be harsh. Sin causes us to miss the feast God has planned for us and settle instead for a bowl of porridge. Reuben and Gad had spiritual amnesia, and the consequences were nearly disastrous.
As you read this essay, a new year has arrived. According to custom, this is the time for resolutions and commitments. In January, we make promises to ourselves, promises to exercise more, eat less, or spend money efficiently. Would you consider adding to your list the commitment to flee the Gilead temptation? Will you flee from almost-obedience?
One purpose of the Bible is to teach God’s people to avoid the sins of the past. Paul says the story of Israel in the wilderness was given as an example for us, that we might not desire evil as they did (1 Corinthians 10:6). Will we learn from Reuben and Gad as we begin a new year marked with all kinds of questions? Will our economy rebound? Will Obama govern well? By the end of the year, will oil cost $200 a barrel or stay in the high thirties? Will Hugo Chavez take over the Caribbean or be sent into exile? Will the stock market recover or crash completely? And the list goes on…
Rest assured, though, that it’s a good time to be alive because God is working, and he has great plans for those who trust him. All that is required if we are to be a part of those good plans is to leave Gilead and instead go wherever he tells us. May we never settle for almost-obedience.