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Numbers 32:1-42

As we begin our reading this evening we are five chapters from the end of the book. We are finishing up the history of Israel in the wilderness and preparing for her entrance into the Promised Land.

Text Comment

v.1       It is an interesting detail of the text that though Reuben is mentioned first here in v. 1, in the rest of the chapter Gad is mentioned first. Apparently Reuben is mentioned first at the beginning because of that tribe’s seniority, Reuben having been Jacob’s first son, but elsewhere Gad’s leadership in the plan to remain on the east side of the Jordan is reflected in the order in which the tribes are mentioned.

The name Gilead is used variously in the Bible to refer to larger or smaller areas of the Transjordan, sometimes referring to the whole of the Transjordan held by Israel. In any case, these highlands overlooking the Jordan River enjoy good rainfall and are very fertile. One biblical geographer, writing in the later 19th century, said this about the land of Gilead:

“We should never have believed the amount of their flocks had we not seen and attempted to count them…. The scenes which throng most our memory of Eastern Palestine are…the streams of Gilead in the heat of the day with the cattle standing in them, or the evenings when we sat at the door of our tent near the village well, and would hear the shepherd’s pipe far away and the sheep and the goats, and cows with the heavy bells, would break over the edge of the hill and come down the slope to wait their turn at the troughs. Over Jordan we were never long out of the sound of the lowing of cattle or of the shepherd’s pipe.” [G.A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 523-524; cf. Milgrom, 266-267]

He also speaks of forests and orchards and vineyards. In other words, the land was suitable for livestock, well watered with good grass. It was natural for these Israelites to want to stay. It was the first really fertile, attractive land they had come to in their long journey through the wilderness.

v.3       Most of these place names cannot now be identified.

v.15     Moses is not only furious with the two and a half tribes, he is afraid of the effect of their opting out on the rest of the people. If the people repeat their refusal at Kadesh again here on the Plains of Moab he figures the Lord will destroy Israel and that will be that.

v.19     In view of Moses’ objections the two and a half tribes modify their proposal and offer not only to send their men with the army, not only to lead the van – placing their troops at the front of the column –, not only to remain in Canaan until the conquest is complete, but also to forsake any inheritance west of the Jordan. They ask for some time to prepare places to live for their wives and children while they are gone. The time frame being what it is, the pens and cities must have been only makeshift. [Wenham, 215] They planned, of course, only to send a portion of their available warriors into Canaan, perhaps their elite guards. If you compare the fighting strength of Reuben and Gad as it is given in Numbers 26 (vv. 7, 18, 34) with the number of soldiers from their tribes that Joshua had at his disposal according to Joshua 4:13, it appears that only about a third of the military strength of the two and a half tribes crossed the Jordan with the rest of Israel. [Milgrom, 270]

v.30     That is, if they do not keep their word and do their part in the conquest of Canaan, they will be forced to give up Gilead and take their possession with the rest of the tribes in Canaan.

v.33     It is not entirely clear why only here do we learn that half of another tribe, Manasseh, was also involved in these deliberations.

v.38     The names had to be changed because both Nebo and Baal Meon were names of pagan deities.

v.42     If you have a map in the back of your Bible that shows the territory allotted the twelve tribes, you will find that Reuben settled east of the northern half of the Dead Sea, Gad north of Reuben, and Manasseh north of Gad from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee southward and eastward.

It is clear that when the proposal of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh was made to Moses he thought he had another full-blown crisis on his hands. He was being presented with what was effectively a plan for two and half tribes of the twelve to forego the invasion of the Promised Land. As Moses makes clear in his initial response, he regarded this as tantamount to what the Israelites had done at Kadesh almost 40 years before: refuse to enter the Promised Land. And that is certainly what they were proposing. It has already been made clear and will be again in chapter 34 that the Transjordan lay outside the borders of Canaan, the land the Lord had promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The River Jordan marked the eastern boundary of that land and Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh were planning to stay east of the Jordan. What was this but simply opting out of claiming an inheritance in the Promised Land? And what difference did it make whether the reason was cold feet as it had been at Kadesh forty years before or a desire to settle in the attractive areas east of the Jordan?

“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.” [Wenham, 213]

It is this that leads to Moses’ heated words reported in vv. 6-15. It certainly appears from the exchange that the two and a half tribes were intending to opt out of the conquest and that Moses convinced them that they should and could not. Moses’ success in changing their mind is still more evidence of the better spiritual condition of this second generation  than that of the first: they repented of their idea insofar as it was faithless and disobedient and agreed to undertake on the entire nation’s behalf.

“Early Christian commentators likened the tribes of Gad and Reuben, who preferred material prosperity to living in the Promised Land, to those in the Gospels who gave similar excuses for ignoring Christ’s call. [Wenham, 216]

So Gregory the Great writes:

“[There are people who] defend the heavenly fatherland but they do not love it. In the books of Moses, the sons of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh exemplify these men as well…. While they were beyond the Jordan, they wanted the pastureland that they saw…. Those who have many entanglements in this world do not seek a dwelling in the heavenly fatherland. Those entanglements hold them by their appearance…. By their example, they keep others from putting up with work and from dedication to patience…. By analogy many people, although they are believers, are occupied with present cares, as if they were feeding flocks across the Jordan.” [In ACCS Old Testament, vol. III, 261]

In this view, what Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh did was sinful and worldly. It was an instance of unbelief. It is hard not to believe that there is something of this in the account we have read. The point is made at the outset that these Israelites had very large herds. They saw the land, realized its potential for both farming and ranching, and began to think, “Why leave this place. We’ve conquered its former masters. Let’s settle here.” They were thinking about their own prosperity, not about the Promised Land. The promise of the Lord, his calling to his people, at that moment did not mean very much to them. Notice the verb “they saw” in v. 1. Seeing and believing are often at odds. This is what Paul means when twice he reminds us that we live by faith and not by sight. Eve, remember, saw the fruit of the tree, how delectable it was, and the sight drove other considerations out of her mind. Her sight led her to a catastrophic disobedience. Lot saw how lush and well-watered was the area around Sodom and chose it for himself over the Promised Land even though it was a deeply sinful society that lived there. Choosing with our eyes can often get us and others into terrible trouble. [Duguid, 338] Clearly Moses, referring to them as a “brood of sinners” thought that their motivation was worldly and selfish. What is more, by comparing their behavior to that of the scouts or spies in Numbers 13 and to the people at Kadesh Barnea, Moses clearly judges their plan to be a product of unbelief, a lack of confidence in God. They do not think they will be better off in the Lord’s Promised Land.

Calvin, on the other hand, regards this narrative as a story of God’s providence bringing good out of human sin. By the repentance of the two and a half tribes and their willing contribution to the conquest, the boundaries of the Promised Land were enlarged. The plan may have been sinful and unbelieving in its origin, but it was sanctified by faithful obedience and became a means to a good thing. Moses, in fact, accepts their plan as soon as they promise to help the rest of the nation conquer Canaan. There is flexibility to God’s plan. He had defined the Promised Land long centuries ago, but was willing to enlarge it here so long as his people did that in the right way. So much for the context.

What I want to consider with you this evening is Moses’ argument. He persuades the two and a half tribes to alter course with two considerations and both of them are as important for us to consider today as they were for Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to consider those long years ago.

What we have here, in fact, is a group of believers under temptation, beginning to crumble under a strong temptation. They were tempted to abandon Israel’s calling – their calling as Israelites in covenant with Yahweh – and go for the prosperity and ease the world was offering them. And Moses braced them with two arguments and, as it were with a slap to the face, brought them again to their senses and to a course of obedience and faithfulness. The chapter’s subject then is temptation – the temptations Christians face – and the considerations to be reckoned with that ought to persuade believers not to sin, and the happy and holy influence of those considerations.

As I said, there are two considerations Moses raises, but perhaps we can consider them as one. The first, mentioned in v. 7, is that the sin of one believer has a deleterious effect on the faithfulness of other believers. No man is an island. Faithless behavior affects more than the sinner himself. Moses’ fear was that the disinterest in the Promised Land by the two and a half tribes would discourage the whole people from entering Canaan.

The second consideration is the one Moses mentions in v. 23: “be sure your sin will find you out.” That is, the Lord will make sure that you don’t get away with your disobedience and he has a way of uncovering it and punishing it.

Now before we proceed to examine these two arguments Moses deploys in his dealings with Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, we have to answer the question: are these arguments valid for us, for Christians, for believers.

I have a very fine commentary on Numbers written by a PCA minister. I have used the book extensively in preparing these sermons on Numbers. He is a representative of what is called the “redemptive/historical” school of interpretation and preaching (it is part of a commentary series designed especially for preachers, designed that is to teach a pastor how to preach through Numbers, how to turn the text into a sermon). In the approach to the understanding of the biblical text and the proper way to preach it, this man believes that every text provides us a window on the redeeming work of Jesus Christ and every text ought to take us to a consideration of him and what the Lord Jesus did for us to save us from our sins.

So, predictably, in regard to our sins finding us out, this good man says this:

“Sin is a tireless pursuer when it comes to seek its just payment: like a shark that smells blood, it will never leave a wounded swimmer alone. It comes on relentlessly, seeking its wages, which are nothing less than eternal, spiritual death. Yet the fact is that for all of us who are in Christ, our sins will never find us out. On the cross every one of those sins found Christ, and they tore him apart physically, emotionally, spiritually. That is why he hung there alone, abandoned, empty. All of our unbelief, all of our self-centeredness, all of self-serving, all of our lust and gossip and lies, all of our pride and our grumbling – all of our sin descended on him and assaulted him on the cross, extracting the due penalty from him for our failures.” [Duguid, 343]

Now I hope we all agree with that. That is what happened on the cross and that is why Jesus went to the cross. We are delivered from sin and its punishment because Jesus bore that punishment in our place: our sins found him out. Let there be no doubt about that!

However, that is not what Moses is talking about. Is it? Should Moses’ statement that our sins will find us out really be taken to mean that they will, in fact, never find us out? When he says “be sure your sins will find you out,” is he talking about the eternal judgment of our sins on the cross or in hell, depending upon whether we trust Jesus and his finished work for our salvation? I think it is very clear that he is not talking about that. He is talking about how believers, how Christians, in other words, are wise to remember that the Lord knows their ways, he knows when they sin, and can bring their sins to light, even those sins that he has forgiven by his grace. There can be consequences in this life for sinning against God, even the God who is your heavenly Father by true faith. Is this not what Moses means and very clearly means?

  1. He is speaking to believers here. The men of Gad and Reuben have already repented of their foolish and unfaithful original idea. They have promised themselves to aid the nation in its conquest of the Promised Land and even have, as it were, promised to do more than their fair share. Put us at the head of the column, they said. We won’t return across the Jordan until the last Israelite has his inheritance. And the other tribes can have the territory that would have come to us, even though we will contribute to the conquest of that territory as much as any other Israelite. When Moses says to them, “be sure your sins will find you out,” he is not talking to unsaved men who need the forgiveness of God in Christ; he is talking to the saints, to the church, to the company of the already redeemed.
  2. Second, Moses doesn’t say what the commentator says he said. He doesn’t say that sin relentlessly pursues us and will destroy us which is why Christ was destroyed by it in our place. His sentence cannot fairly be made to be a statement about the inevitability of the judgment of our sin. That isn’t what his words mean. In fact, if they did mean that, it wouldn’t make any difference whether these Israelites kept their word or not. Their sins would still find them out. They would still be judged and sent to hell unless Christ intervened. Moses is talking to them about what will happen to them if they do not obey in this particular case. If they do not keep this particular promise they can be sure that their sins will find them out. If you turn that sentence into a statement about Christ’s redemption you gut it of its obvious meaning as a warning against disobedience. If Moses’ remark about sin finding us out is about Christ’s redemption, then our obedience or disobedience in one case or in a hundred cases is utterly irrelevant. If all Moses means is that our sins are going to find us out, all our sins are going to find all of us out, which is why Christ must suffer for them in our place, then he is not, in fact, warning Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh against breaking their word at all. Indeed, he is simply telling them that they need to be saved. They can’t handle their sins and so Christ must handle them on their behalf. That, very obviously, is not what Moses said. It is not a gospel invitation he issued to these Israelites but a warning of consequences if they should break their word.


What Moses then is telling believers, telling the church, telling the people of God, telling us, is that we must obey God, we must keep our promises to God or bad things will happen in our lives and in the lives of others. He is not talking about the bad things that will happen to Christ because of our sins, he is talking about the bad things that will happen to us and to others in this world because of our sins. This text is not about God punishing our sins in Christ our substitute; it is about our heavenly Father punishing our sins in the here and now! He is warning us not to think that our forgiveness in Christ means that we will not suffer some punishment in this world for our misbehavior, for our unfaithfulness, or that others will not suffer for our sins as well.

“Be sure your sins will find you out,” is a reality for Christians, for you and for me. Now, to be sure, this is, like so many other biblical statements like it, a generality. Everyone of our sins is not found out, every one of our secrets is not eventually disclosed, though, of course, it can be said that every one will be accounted for at the Judgment Day. But it remains a truth of life and Moses is reminding us of the fact. We can’t hide our sins from God and we can’t prevent him from disclosing them to others or forcing us to face the consequences of them. I don’t know how many times I have seen this truth – the truth that Moses so memorably encapsulates in a single line: “Be sure your sins will find you out” – I say,  I don’t know how many times I have seen this truth demonstrated to the devastation of Christian lives. God will not be mocked. Whatever a man sows that shall he also reap. Paul wrote that to Christians and meant much the same by his words as Moses meant by his here.

A pastor friend of mine had an affair with a parishioner and, so it seemed, no one was the wiser
after it had ended. But it came to light years later in a way calculated to do maximum harm to his reputation. His sin had found him out. A well-known evangelical preacher and author some years ago was undone by the discovery of his adultery four years after the fact. He was repentant, but his sin found him out. The sexual sin that destroyed the ministry of one of our Presbytery pastors years ago occurred some years before its discovery. His sins found him out. Another married pastor acquaintance was pursuing a woman in his congregation, continuing to pursue her after the fact of the relationship had been discovered. He had been instructed not to make any contact with the woman whatsoever. He thought he had hidden his tracks by changing the nature of the church’s cell phone bill so that it would simply report total usage and not provide any detail of the calls made on the phones provided the church staff. But the bill, for some reason – no one ever knew why – didn’t get changed and when it arrived there was the evidence of scores of calls he had made to the woman he was not supposed to contact. His sins found him out as Moses said they would.

And then we add to this Moses’ warning that our sins can have a very deleterious effect upon others. Our sins may find us out in that way too. Parental sins may find parents out when their children get older and show little or no interest in walking with the Lord. A fellow’s sins may find him out in the pregnancy of his girlfriend. A spendthrift’s sins may find him out when his loved ones are left destitute after his death. Christians can commit and do commit all of these sins and it is an altogether common thing for others to pay the price of those sins, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next.

There are many reasons to do the right thing, to live faithfully, to serve the Lord, to aspire chiefly to those things you know are the Lord’s will and your Savior’s delight. There is first the love of your heart for him and the desire to please him and to express your gratitude to him. Surely this is the first reason for Christians to do the hard work of living a faithful Christian life, of killing their sins, of resisting their temptations, and of investing themselves in the work of the kingdom of God and in the salvation of others.

But there are other reasons given us in Holy Scripture to do all of those things. One of them is that the Lord will cause our sins to be found out. We cannot indulge the illusion that the cross will absolve us of all penalties in this world. It does not. It didn’t David after his sin, or Hezekiah after his, or Peter after his, or the wicked man in Corinth after his…true believers all. All people tend to imagine that they can sin in many ways with impunity and Christians are sorely tempted to think they can as well for the additional reason that Christ has already borne the punishment of their sins on the cross. But it is not so and mature Christians realize it. Just as the speeder may well get a ticket, and the drinker may well get drunk and embarrass himself; just as the liar may well be caught in the web of his deceit and the cheater discovered, so the Christian is warned here in Holy Scripture itself that God may very well cause his sins to rise up and bite him, and bite hard. I’ve seen it far too many times to think that Moses was not speaking the truth and a truth very important for us to heed. Nothing hurts as much in this life as having to face the consequences of sins we know full well we should never have committed and, perhaps especially those sins we thought for a time we might have escaped the consequences of only to find that we did not.

And another reason for doing the right thing, for resisting our temptations is that others depend upon our faithfulness and others are damaged by our sins. Parents especially must face this grim fact and should be galvanized by it. Even Christ’s mighty redemption will not necessarily spare your children from the consequences of your parental sins. If you fail to instruct them and correct them, if you fail lovingly and cheerfully to insist on their behaving as becomes the followers of Christ, if you set a bad example for them, those sins will find you out in the heart and life of your children as they grow older. Life is serious business; so is parenting. Faithful parenting of covenant children is, by the grace and promise of God, the means of their ascending to heaven. Unfaithful parenting, even by parents who are real Christians, the Bible teaches us with dismal regularity, is the means of their descending to hell.

In his high priestly prayer, the Lord Jesus tells his Father in heaven, “For them [he is speaking of his disciples] I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” In saying that, the Lord Jesus has given us an example that we should follow in his steps. “For them I sanctify myself.” That is, I live a faithful Christian life, I fulfill my duties to God and man, I live out my devotion to the Lord, I keep his commandments for the sake of those I love, for the blessing of others. There is a reason to live rightly as a Christian: the great good it does your children, your friends, and the unsaved who know you.

Say to the Lord when you get up in the morning, “For them I sanctify myself.” I offer my life and my obedience to you, not for myself only, but also for my children and their salvation, for my friends and their salvation, for my unsaved acquaintances and their salvation. I don’t want my sins to find me out in some harm done to others, especially to my loved ones. I want my righteousness to be found out in the eternal blessing of others. Thinking that way will lead to a more holy life and to strength in the teeth of temptation.

By your faithfulness and obedience, by your Christian integrity, give your thanks to God by all means and love the Lord Jesus who loved you and gave himself for you. But also by that same obedience and faithfulness, by the resisting of your temptations, spare yourself the grief, the humiliation, the pain that comes from having your sins find you out. And by that same faithful obedience do the great good to others that they need you to do and do them no harm as, alas, it is all to possible to do.

This chapter is all about motivation and good reasons to obey the Lord and keep the promises you have made to him. It is a chapter that trades in honest reckoning about human life and about the Christian life. Those who heed its teaching will live much more happily and fruitfully and those around them will as well. Surely that is what you want. Of course it is.