It’s hard not to see a parallel with Lot’s choice of a fertile valley some hundreds of years earlier:
Numbers 33:1-5 The tribes of Reuben and Gad owned vast numbers of livestock. So when they saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were ideally suited for their flocks and herds, they came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the other leaders of the community. They said, … 5 If we have found favor with you, please let us have this land as our property instead of giving us land across the Jordan River.
These tribes were obviously very wealthy, and the first concern was to protect their wealth rather than occupy the land God had given them.
Moses was initially horrified, likening this request to the Israelites’ refusal to enter the promised land some 40 years earlier:
Numbers 32:13-15 The Lord was angry with Israel and made them wander in the wilderness for forty years until the entire generation that sinned in the Lord’s sight had died. But here you are, a brood of sinners, doing exactly the same thing! You are making the Lord even angrier with Israel. If you turn away from him like this and he abandons them again in the wilderness, you will be responsible for destroying this entire nation!
They negotiated a settlement in the end, but the negotiation was revealing. It suggested they valued their own wealth above their families:
- Reuben and Gad wanted to build: pens for our livestock and fortified towns for our wives and children (vs 32:16)
- Moses said: build towns for your families and pens for your flocks (vs 32:24).
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one.
The long-term results started to show when Joshua distributed the cities of refuge across Israel:
- For ten tribes on the western side of the river: three cities of refuge (Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron)
- For two tribes and a half tribe on the eastern side of the river: three cities of refuge (Bezer for Reuben; Ramoth for Gad; Golan for Manasseh).
Why would these 2.5 tribes have needed as much help in upholding justice—three cities of refuge— as the rest of the Israelites combined? Was the new society created by these 2.5 tribes so much more violent?
In the end, these 2.5 tribes were amongst the first to be lost to Assyria and scattered through exile:
2 Kings 15:29During Pekah’s reign, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria attacked Israel again, and he captured the towns of Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor. He also conquered the regions of Gilead, Galilee, and all of Naphtali, and he took the people to Assyria as captives.