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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 32

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here are reported the events that led to the settlement of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan. As Noth said, “The content is fairly simple and clear… and the basic form of the chapter is neither `deuteronomistic’ nor `priestly’.”(F1) The significance of this is that we have here another one of those scores of chapters in the Pentateuch which are incompatible with the theories about the so-called “sources” of the Pentateuch. It has been known for almost a hundred years that whole sections of the Five Books of Moses are impossible of being fitted into the current unbelieving theories about the origins of these books. Gray stated in 1903 that, “A strict analysis of the chapter as between JE and P cannot be satisfactorily carried through.”(F2) This basic fact, however, does not prevent the eager-beaver critics from attempting it. Keil’s comment on all such futile efforts is that “the arguments are all weak,”(F3) and of no force whatever.

Verses 1-5

“Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had a very great multitude of cattle: and when they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; the children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spake unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying, Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeth, and Sebam, and Nebo, and Beon, the land which Jehovah smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle; and thy servants have cattle. and they said, If we have found favor in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan.”

“A great multitude of cattle” (Numbers 32:1). Owens seems to have had some question of this in his remark that, “It seems strange that they could have had such a great abundance of animals after such a long period of wanderings in the desert.”(F4) We find no cause whatever for surprise. Israel had received almost incredible numbers of animals after the conquest of Midian; and the assumption that these vast herds of cattle remained equally divided among the tribes could not be correct. The herds would have to go to the tribes equipped to care for them and where pasture was available. Reuben and Gad came to have the majority of the cattle.

“A place for cattle” Even as recently as 1924, Wade quoted a traveler in that section thus: “We should never have believed the amount of the flocks had we not seen and attempted to count them.”(F5) Cook also mentioned an Arab proverb concerning wealth and desirability of this section called by them “the Belka.” “Thou canst not find a country like the Belka.”(F6)

It is rather curious that this Trans-Jordan area is referred to here as “The land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead” (Numbers 32:1). Gray noted, “The word `Gilead’ is a very elastic term,”(F7) and it was applied loosely to practically all of the country east of the Jordan river. Thompson narrowed down the area requested here to the area between the Arnon and the Jabbok rivers where the nine towns mentioned here were located,(F8) Carson agreed with this and identified “the land of Jazer” as the “northern half of the territory between the Arnon and the Jabbok.”(F9) Bible students will remember that when Jacob left Laban to return to Canaan, “Laban pursued him and caught up with him in Gilead,”(F10) where a final covenant between Jacob and Laban was celebrated.

Was this a sinful request on the part of these tribes? Differences of opinion are expressed, but in the light of Moses’ severe rebuke in the next verses, our own conclusion is that their request represented a fundamental departure by those tribes away from the true will of God. It has been the same in all generations where men looked on present advantages and temporal benefits and elected instead of following God’s will to choose their own changes and walk in their own ways instead of God’s. We shall return to this question later.

Verses 6-15

“And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben, Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall ye sit here? And wherefore discourage ye the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which Jehovah hath given them? Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up unto the valley of Eshcol, and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the children of Israel, that they should not go into the land which Jehovah had given them. And Jehovah’s anger was kindled in that day, and he sware, saying, Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed me: save Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun; because they have wholly followed Jehovah. And Jehovah’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander to and fro in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of Jehovah, was consumed. And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers’ stead, an increase of sinful men, to augment yet the fierce anger of Jehovah toward Israel. For if ye turn away from after him, he will yet again leave them in the wilderness; and ye will destroy all this people.”

In our view, Moses’ anger and frustration were fully justified. True, he listened to the glorying promises of these potential rebels and permitted them to do as they wished, but there can hardly be any doubt that Moses’ first and immediate response to this was correct. This response, of course, was a rehearsal of events following Kadesh-Barnea and the sending out of the spies which resulted as follows: (1) it discouraged Israel; (2) Jehovah’s anger was kindled against Israel; (3) God forbade any of that generation except Caleb and Joshua to enter Canaan; and (4) the Lord punished the whole nation by some forty years of aimless wanderings in the wilderness. Now, forty years later, once more standing on the verge of entering Canaan, here the sons of those original sinners once more appear with a plan of their own. They would NOT enter Canaan at all, but settle EAST of Jordan! What a fine place to pasture sheep!

Moses’ rebuke did not frustrate the dissident tribes. They at once continued the request, making glorying promises about how they would, after all, enter Canaan with their armed troops, and after the land was conquered, they would, of course, return EAST of Jordan, leaving more room for the rest of Israel WEST of the Jordan! It was the kind of request that would probably have been supported by the vast majority of the whole nation. Here is what they proposed:

Verses 16-19

“And they came near unto him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones: but we ourselves will be ready armed to go before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance. For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, and forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side of the Jordan eastward.”

“We will not inherit with them on the other side of Jordan” Here is the essential departure from God’s will, based upon the same grounds that always underlies disobedience, “We will not!” Oh yes, the promises were excellent, no doubt made in good faith, and with the approving support of the whole nation; so Moses yielded. After all, it was the end of the line for him, and Israel would face the responsibilities of the future WITHOUT Moses. Therefore, he granted their request but included a final warning of what would be involved if they failed to keep their promises.


No! They certainly did not. The women and children left behind under this arrangement could by no means have manned and defended the fortified towns and villages where they lived.

“Many of the men of war from these tribes were, of course, left behind. The total roster of the men of war for Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh was 110,580, according to the census in Numbers 26, but how many actually aided in the conquest? From Joshua 4:13, we learn that of those two and one half tribes, only forty thousand armed men passed over Jordan, meaning that 70,580 armed men remained at home for the defense of the women and children.”(F11)

The actual key to the full success of God’s plan of moving Israel into Canaan was the driving out of all the original inhabitants. Only this could have saved the Israelites from their intermarriage with the native pagan peoples and the ultimate acceptance of their gods. The very serious loss of the powerful forces of these two and one half tribes had a doubly hurtful effect. Without these two and a half tribes Israel was not large enough to require the removal of all the pagan peoples, which, of course, was left undone. Also, these reluctant tribes were not strong enough, unaided, to drive out the pagan populations they dispossessed, with the result that all Israel was ultimately corrupted by the events recorded here. As Whitelaw said, “The subsequent history of the trans-Jordanic tribes is a melancholy commentary upon the real unwisdom of their choice.”(F12) “These two tribes (Reuben and Gad) were the very first to go into captivity because they transgressed against the God of their fathers and went a-whoring after strange gods.”(F13) Thus, as Matthew Henry put it: “There was much amiss in the principle upon which they acted: they consulted their own private convenience more than the public good. To the present time, many seek their own things more than the things of Christ, and being led by worldly interests and advantages, pull up short of the heavenly Canaan.”(F14)

Verses 20-27

“And Moses said unto them, If ye will do this thing, if ye will arm yourselves to go before Jehovah to the war, and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before Jehovah, until he hath driven out his enemies from before him, and the land is subdued before Jehovah; then afterward ye shall return, and be guiltless toward Jehovah, and toward Israel; and this land shall be unto you for a possession before Jehovah. But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against Jehovah; and be sure your sin will find you out. Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep; and do that which hath proceeded out of your mouth. And the children of Gad and the children of Reuben spake unto Moses, saying, Thy servants will do as my Lord commandeth. Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our cattle, shall be there in the cities of Gilead; but thy servants will pass over, every man that is armed for war, before Jehovah to battle, as my lord saith.”

Note the repetition of the words “every man that is armed for war” in Numbers 32:21 and Numbers 32:27. What these tribes actually did amounted to far less than half of what they promised. See Joshua 4:13.

Instead of the words “men armed for war” in Numbers 32:17; Numbers 32:21, and Numbers 32:27, some follow the rendition found in Jewish versions, namely, “shock-troops.”(F15)

“Be sure your sin will find you out” The meaning here is not, “Be sure your sins will be found out, or discovered,” but that your sin will get to you and punish you. “Note also that the sin warned against here is primarily a sin of omission.”(F16) “The implication here is that their sin would eventually bring its own punishment along with it.”(F17) Also, there seems to be the meaning here that, “When Israel would have cause to rue their folly, then they would recognize their sin.”(F18) .

Verses 28-32

“So Moses gave charge concerning them to Eleazar the priest, and to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the children of Israel. And Moses said unto them, If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over the Jordan, every man that is armed to battle, before Jehovah, and the land shall be subdued before you; then ye shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession: but if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan. And the children of Gad and the children of Reuben answered, saying, As Jehovah hath said unto thy servants, so will we do. We will pass over armed before Jehovah into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan.”

This paragraph recounts the public proclamation of this important decision and its solemn ratification by the tribes concerned. They no doubt meant it in good faith, but they never did what they promised to do.

Verses 33-42

“And Moses gave unto them, even to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuben, and unto the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land, according to the cities thereof with their borders, even the cities of the land round about. And the children of Gad built Dibon, and Ataroth, and Aroer, and Atroth-shophan, and Jazer, and Jogbehah, And Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran: fortified cities, and folds for sheep. And the children of Reuben built Heshbon, and Elealeh and Kiriathaim, and Nebo, and Baal-meon, (their names being changed,) and Sibmah: and they gave other names unto the cities which they builded. And the children of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead, and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites that were therein. And Moses gave Gilead unto Machit the son of Manasseh; and he dwelt therein. And Jair the son of Manasseh went and took the towns thereof, and called them Havvoth-jair. And Nobah went and took Kenath, and the villages thereof, and called it Nobah, after his own name.”

In these verses there first emerges the ambitious, aggressive, and egotistical Josephites who eventually rebelled against the Davidic monarchy and established themselves under Jeroboam I as “The Israel.” The leaders of that coup were Ephraimites, and they gave their own name also to the northern kingdom. One may see the same attitude here in the Manassehites.

The statement in Numbers 32:29 regarding Israel’s giving other names to the cities “they builded” should be understood as their changing the names of the cities which they rebuilt. This reference obviously was associated with this chapter at a time subsequent to the death of Moses, the person responsible for it, no doubt being Joshua, who, it will be remembered had the same inspiration that Moses had. The account of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy was also doubtless added by Joshua. Here also is the explanation of why the half-tribe of Manasseh suddenly appears in this chapter as sharers in Gilead, along with the two tribes which had requested it. “It seems clear from Numbers 32:39 here, and from Joshua 17:1, that the claims of Machir were honored because of their military exploits.”(F19) It is said here that Gad built Dibon (Numbers 32:34), “it was later assigned to Reuben (Joshua 13:9), and after being recovered by the Moabites, it became one of their strongholds. The Moabite Stone was found here at Dibon.”(F20) This indicates, of course, that these two tribes alone were not able to hold all of the territory they seized under the permission they sought and received here. This is another indication of the folly in the choice they made. Israel’s “building” these cities should be understood as their “rebuilding them,” since “Some of them existed already (Numbers 21:30; Numbers 33:3).”(F21) “The word `build’ as used here means to reconstruct or to fortify.”(F22) The Israelites were very diligent to change any names founded upon pagan deities. Even the names of two of King Saul’s sons, Esh-Baal, and Merib-Baal in 2 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 4:8, were changed to Ish-bosheth and Mephibosheth. “Bosheth means shame; and it replaced the pagan Baal in these Biblical names.”(F23) Such alterations of ancient names has made it exceedingly difficult to identify certain places mentioned in ancient writings.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 32". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-32.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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