I recently read Numbers 32, in which the tribes of Reuben and Gad prefer to settle in the Transjordan rather than the land of Canaan. They agree, however, to assist the rest of Israel in conquering Canaan.
The first time that this story became solidified in my mind was when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. I did a lot of private quiet times while I was there, and there was a time when I was going through the Book of Numbers. But I think that I might have heard the story before, when I was a child. If so, then it was probably in a sermon by David Antion or Ron Dart, because they actually touched on some of the lesser known stories in the Hebrew Bible.
But, as a child, if my memory serves me correctly, I didn’t know exactly what to do with the story. Why’s that? Because it’s not entirely clear what is right and what is wrong within it. In many of the Bible stories that I heard as a child, there were good guys and there were bad guys, or (since the good guys didn’t always do good) there was at least God’s standard about what was right and what was wrong. But my vague recollection is that the story in Numbers 32 struck me as different. We’re not explicitly told what God thinks about the desire of Reuben and Gad to locate in the Transjordan. Reuben and Gad don’t seem to be malicious in their request: they just like the Transjordan for its pastureland. But I had the impression that there was something wrong with what they were doing, only I wasn’t being told what that was. And, as a child with Asperger’s (though Asperger’s wasn’t exactly on my family’s radar at the time), I liked to be told things explicitly rather than shown.
Years later from my childhood, I heard plenty of preachers who would tell me (well, not me personally, but me as a listener or as someone in their audience) what they thought was wrong with the request by Reuben and Gad: that Reuben and Gad were pursuing an alternative to God’s plan for Israel to inherit the Promised Land, or that Reuben and Gad were cutting themselves off from the larger body of God’s people by striking out on their own. Points of application for Christians were drawn from the story. For example, one claim that preachers made was that, in the same way that Reuben was taken out early by Assyria, so Christians who cut themselves off from the church body are especially vulnerable to Satanic attack. (Never mind the attacks that Christians may receive inside of the church walls—-judgmentalism, authoritarianism, etc.) Another claim made was that Reuben and Gad, by separating themselves from the larger body of Israel, were missing out on the glorious things that God was doing for his people. Similarly, I was told, Christians who forsake the assembly of the brethren miss out on seeing and hearing about what God is doing in people’s lives. (This may be a valid point, but God is everywhere, not just in the church.)
The thing is, though, that God tolerated what Reuben and Gad did. I don’t think that it was considered to be ideal within the larger story of the Bible, for it’s interesting to note that Ezekiel 48’s prediction about the division of Israel gives Reuben and Gad land in the Cisjordan, not the Transjordan. But God tolerated Reuben and Gad’s preference for the Transjordan. That didn’t make much sense to my Aspie mind when I was a child: that there is not always black and white, but there is often better and worse. Come to think of it, I’m not sure to what extent a number of religionists would be comfortable with shades of gray, as they seek in the Scriptures clear rules of what is right and what is wrong for all time.
I found that my latest reading of Numbers 32 was different from some of my previous readings, and I mean as an adult. During my previous readings, I somewhat identified with Reuben and Gad because I myself was a lone-ranger Christian. Even though I went to church and a small group in the past, I recoiled from Christian community, since I had a hard time fitting into social settings, plus I felt more at ease when I was reading the Bible by myself. Part of this was my Asperger’s, and part of it was my religious heritage, for I came from a family and associated with people who felt disconnected from church and decided to avoid the trap of organized religion by reading the Bible on their own, or with their families. And that was considered to be all right. It was mainly when I entered evangelicalism that I heard that it was not all right (though even evangelicalism had stories of people finding God alone in their hotel rooms as they read a Gideon’s Bible, or similar occurrences).
But, this time around, when I read Numbers 32, I felt sad, especially by v 22, in which Moses tells Reuben and Gad that, after they fight the Conquest, they will be exempt from their obligations to the LORD and to Israel. Moses may have meant that they didn’t have to fight the Conquest anymore, but perhaps he meant that Reuben and Gad didn’t have to serve the larger body of Israel at all after the Conquest, if they chose not to do so. (And Judges 5:16-17 may suggest that Reuben didn’t feel an obligation to Israel after the Conquest and sat out of Israel’s war against Sisera.) For some reason, it saddens me that Reuben felt so disconnected from the rest of Israel—-as if it could care less about what happened to the LORD’s people.
I wonder if Reuben and Gad felt marginalized within Israel even before they chose to settle in the Transjordan. I can’t really speak about Gad, for I don’t know much about that tribe, but Reuben in the Hebrew Bible is criticized because Reuben slept with Jacob’s servant-girl (Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4; I Chronicles 5:1), and Reubenites led a revolt against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1). The Reubenites were once a prominent tribe within Israel, for Reuben was called Jacob’s firstborn, but Reuben declined in number, according to Numbers 26 (if one compares the census there and the census in Numbers 1) and perhaps Deuteronomy 33:6. Did Reuben get to the point where it did not feel that it had a home within Israel—-that it was not valued, and so it might as well go off on its own rather than have a second-class status within the larger Israelite community?
In terms of where I am now, I still value having an individual faith—-of believing that God has a relationship with me personally and loves me, whether or not I fit into a Christian community (and, right now, I have an excellent church home). For me, it’s important for my faith to be my own, not something that group-think imposes on me. But I also think that it’s good to be connected with other people, on some level—-to care about them, to be invested in them and their success, to care about the LORD’s cause and whether or not people’s lives are being improved for the better (as people come to know a loving God, or the poor are fed). Unlike a number of evangelicals, I don’t make this into some iron-clad rule about how to please God, for there are many people who have difficulty finding a church community where they fit in—-and beating them up with self-righteous platitudes like “Well, you need to reach out to people, too” (when an outsider reaching out to people in church may then be looked on as a freak by the in-crowd) or “You need to be the change that you want to see” does not really help matters. In my opinion, they can find comfort in a one-on-one relationship with God, and God does not look down on them for going that route.