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Saturday, July 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 32

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad. In this narrative we behold, as in a glass, that whilst each individual is but too attentive to his own private interests, he forgets what is just and right. Those, indeed, who seek their own advantage, do not reflect that they are doing injury to others; but it is impossible for them to avoid seeking more than is their due, and preferring themselves to others; and thus they sin against that rule of charity, that we should not seek our own. The sons of Gad and Reuben, who had a great quantity of cattle, see a tract of rich and fertile land; self-interest takes possession of them, so that it does not occur to them that they were under an obligation to their brethren not to covet for themselves anything peculiar, or separate from them. Nevertheless, there was a specious pretext for this, whereby their eyes were blinded, viz., that nothing was taken away from the others, but rather that so much addition was made; for by these means the whole country on the other side of Jordan continued to be theirs; and, besides, they were rather relieved of an inconvenience than exposed to a loss; since the progress of their expedition would be less difficult, if the body of persons, who were charged with the cattle, should stay there, and thus should cease to be an incumbrance to the army, which would be in lighter condition for advancing. Their association, however, for the war had been established by God, and bound them by an indissoluble tie not to desert the rest of the people: whilst it was also a solemn duty (religio) imposed upon them not to alter the bounds of the inheritance promised by God. The land of Canaan was assigned to the whole race of Abraham, in which they were to be enclosed, and to inhabit it as a peculiar world, the tribes of Gad and Reuben now transgress those limits, and, at the same time disunite themselves from the body of the Church, as if they desired to be emancipated from God. Hence ought we to be the more on our guard, lest we should go astray after our own lusts. And when Moses says, that they saw, or considered, the land, let us learn to beware lest our eyes, by unlawful looks, should lead us into snares, and blind our minds; and thus that our senses should be so deceived by the envenomed sweetness, as that reason and equity should be utterly overthrown.

The Hebrew word, (212) which we have rendered peculium, signifies not only cattle and herds, but also flocks of sheep. Almost all the Israelites were indeed possessors of cattle; but we gather from the words of Moses, that these two tribes were especially rich in them; perhaps, because the district which they inhabited in Egypt, being more suited for pasture, had invited them to apply themselves more earnestly to that mode of life, which was common to all, and had been handed down to them by their fathers; for it is not probable that they had thus surpassed the rest in this respect, during the course of their march.

(212) מקנה , mikneh.

Verse 2

2.The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came. Their request was apparently a reasonable one, that, since God had driven out the inhabitants of the land, and its fertility invited them to dwell there, the possession of these empty and deserted fields should not be denied them. Their modesty also was praiseworthy, in that they neither detach themselves from the people, nor seditiously and violently seize upon the places which were so suitable for them; but seek to obtain them by the permission of Moses and the elders, as if they submitted their cause to their decision. But as I have just said, their private interest had so laid hold of their minds, that the main point did not occur to them, viz., that the land of Canaan was set before them all, in order that they might dwell together there separate from heathen nations; and, again, that it was unjust for them not only to enjoy repose, whilst the others were fighting, but also to be settled in an assured and peaceable habitation, while the ten tribes were still advancing to the conquest of the promised land.

Verse 6

6.And Moses said unto the children of Gad. So sharp and severe a reproof shews us the greatness of the wrong: for neither did inconsiderate warmth carry away Moses into such violent anger, nor did he fall into error, so as to deliver his opinion on a point which he did not well understand. He knew, therefore, what the sons of Gad and Reuben asked; and hence he inveighed against them thus vehemently, because they desired to lacerate the body of the Church by this wicked severance. He begins by expostulating with them with regard to their sinful and unreasonable covetousness, in that they sought to indulge in idleness, when their brethren were about to march through a hostile land; for they were possessed of no rightful superiority, so as to throw upon the others all the labors, perils, and burdens of the war. Since, therefore, God had imposed the same condition upon all, (213) it was not right that part of them should be exempted from it, as if by privilege. More severely, however, is their ingratitude and perverseness towards God chastised, than their injustice towards their brethren, whilst he alleges to their reproach, that thus the hearts of the children of Israel would be broken, (214) so that they wouht refuse to obey the call of God.

(213) “Que Dieu les avoit conjoints ensemble, afin que les uns teinssent compagnie aux autres;” that God had united them together, so that they should keep company with each other. — Fr.

(214) See Margin, A.V., Numbers 32:7, “Heb. break.”

Verse 8

8.Thus did your fathers. He amplifies their crime by reference to their continued perverseness: for so far is the imitation of ungodly parents from being an excuse for their children, that it rather doubles their guilt. Thus also does Stephen allege against the Jews of his days, their persevering in the sins of their fathers; as if he had cried out against them, that they were “the bad eggs of bad birds.”

“Ye stiff-necked (he says) and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.” (Acts 7:51.)

So also the Prophet, when he is exhorting their posterity to obedience, recalls these same circumstances to their memory:

“Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness, when your fathers tempted me. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation,” etc.
(Psalms 95:8.)

It is not without cause that Moses now complains that there was no end or limit to their impiety, whilst the sons inherited their fathers’ iniquity, and ceased not to resist God: and, in order that the similarity and affinity of their crime may be more apparent, he reviews their history at some length. He does not, however compare the Reubenites and Gadites to the whole people, but to the ten spies, from whom the sedition arose, because, as far as in them lay, they turned aside the people from the right way. Secondly, he connects with this the punishment which ensued, that, at least, he might inspire them with terror, since it was hardly to be expected that they would amend of their own accord. He reminds them, therefore, that, when God so severely dealt with their fathers, He had given them a signal proof that their descendants would not be unpunished, unless they were teachable and submissive. The expression is remarkable, “Because they fulfilled not after me;” (215) whereby he signifies that there is nothing praiseworthy in the most vigorous course, unless men persevere even to the goal. And, although this had happened forty years ago, still, inasmuch as the vengeance which God had threatened had been before their eyes even to that day, it behoved them to be just as much affected by it, as if they saw the hand of God still stretched forth. For, whenever any died in the desert, so often did God set His seal to His vengeance,lest it should be at any time buried in oblivion. (216) If, then, God had been so wroth with the multitude in general, how much less should the instigators themselves escape?

(215) See Margin, A. V. Numbers 32:11.

(216) “Or, il conclud du plus petit au plus grand;” he argues then from the less to the greater, that, etc. —Fr.

Verse 14

14.And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers’ stead. He signifies that, by their evil doings, they were “filling up the measure” of their fathers, as Jesus spoke of the Jews of His own time. In this sense he calls them an addition (accessio,) which word I take to mean a climax (cumulus.) For their translation is a poor one, who render it education, or offspring, or foster-children. With the Hebrews, תרבות, (217) tarbuth, is literally an increase, or multiplication; and thus is applied to usury. This passage, however, requires that it should be explained as a heap, as much as to say that a new body of persons were springing up afresh, who carried impiety to its very height. In a word, he intimates that fuel was added to the fire which was now smouldering, whereby a new flame was excited: for he says that they were furnishing materials for God’s wrath, so that it should burst forth more and more against the whole people.

(217) תרבות is a noun heemantic, from רבה to increase and multiply. The V. has “incrementa et alumni,” as though the Latin translator thought the first word insufficient to express the whole meaning of the Hebrew noun. — W

Verse 16

16.And they came near tinto him, and said. It is probable that they returned after having held a consultation: and now, — when they had considered what they ought to do, before promising what they had not previously thought of, — they assent to the decision of Moses, in accordance with their general opinion. From their reply itself we gather how usefully the severity of Moses had influenced their minds. If he had dealt with them with greater mildness and gentleness, his kindness would perhaps have been received with contempt. It was more profitable, therefore, that their stubborn hearts should be smitten with shame and fear, in order that they might lay aside their rebelliousness. Still, they do not altogether abandon their request, but devise a middle course, whereby, whilst they do not forsake their brethren, they may still occupy the land. They promise, then, to accompany them throughout the whole expedition, and to unite with them in the war; nay, to be the first to undergo danger, and expose themselves to the attacks of the enemy, provided a settled abode should be granted them for their families and their herds. Thus they would be exempt from guilt, since the rest would not be held back by their bad example, nor the strength of the people for carrying on the war be diminished; in one respect only they would have the advantage, that, by depositing their wives and children in a peaceful spot, they would have the opportunity of improving their domestic finances.

Verse 20

20.And Moses said unto them. Moses might seem to err on the side of excessive good-nature, in that he extends the boundaries prescribed by God, in complying with their wish. For, since their inheritance had been promised them in the land of Canaan, they ought to have been contented with that as their abode; nor was it allowable for Moses to make any alteration in the Divine decree. There is also another thing no less inconsistent, that in a point of so much perplexity, Moses does not, as usual, consult God, but gives an immediate answer, which indirectly overthrows the previous ordinance of God. And, in truth, their desire was by no means excusable, since it would have never entered their minds, if they had borne in memory the covenant of God, and had been satisfied with this goodness: since it cannot be but that the flesh should be constantly running riot, unless kept under restraint by the calling of God. But God, who knows how to bring light out of darkness, not only pardoned their error, but takes occasion also to extend His liberality. Thus the land of Bashan, and its neighborhood, were added to the former boundaries. At the same time, however, He shewed on the other hand how much better it would have been for them to have been kept together, so that they might have mutually protected each other, and dwelt securely in their appointed habitation. And, after the lapse of a long period, the Reubenites and Gadites learnt from experience that they had been too hasty in wishing for the land which they obtained; nevertheless, through God’s indulgence, that which might justly have been injurious to them, turned out for their advantage.

We may gather, however, from the result, that Moses was guilty of no rashness in his interference with the ordinance, of God, both because he commands that which he now determines to be ratified and maintained after his death; and when, in the book of Joshua, it is recorded that the several tribes had their inheritance assigned to them, this country beyond Jordan is excepted, as having been granted by Moses to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh. Hence it is evident that his decision was approved by God. Moreover, since he is there often honored with the title of “servant of God,” we are taught that nothing was done by him in this matter without the authority of God, and the guidance of His Spirit. Neither is it at random that he here so often makes use of God’s name, but rather does he thus imply that whatever he does is suggested by Him.

Verse 23

23.But if ye will not do so. He makes a solemn protestation that they will deal wickedly, if they break their promise: and at the same time denounces punishment against them, as if he were summoning them before the tribunal of God. But, although he speaks conditionally of that particular engagement, whereby the two tribes had voluntarily bound themselves, still we may derive from his words the general doctrine, that, unless we abide by our promises, God will always be the avenger of fraud and treachery. The expression, “Sin will find you out,” is more emphatic than as if he had simply said, You shall not escape God’s hand; for the meaning of it is that vengeance is so connected with sin, that it cannot be severed from it. Thus, in Genesis 4:7, it is said, “Sin lieth at the door,” to lay hold at length of the guilty. For, such is our propensity to sin, that we too often find from experience that we are encouraged to audacity by God’s forbearance, whilst we think that we have escaped, if He makes as though He saw us not for a time.

Verse 28

28.So concerning them Moses commanded. Moses annexes these conditions to his decision, lest, when the Reubenites and their companions had performed their military tasks:, they should be falsely alleged to have passed over Jordan for the purpose of seeking a new home; whilst at the same time, if they should deceive the other tribes, he provided that their cowardice and deceit should not profit them. In short, if they assisted their brethren in pursuance of their agreement, he commands that the territory, which he now grants them, should always remain theirs; but, if they departed from their promise, he would have them forced against their will to participate in the common allotment. For he does not assign them this portion in the midst of Canaan as a reward for their inertness, in case they should stay behind; but signifies that they should be forcibly and authoritatively carried onwards, so as to be subject to their brethren under all circumstances; since it, was not lawful for them to consult their own separate interests.

In laying down rules for the division of the land, as if it were soon to happen, he encourages the minds of all to confidence, so that they should more cheerfully hasten to pass over; as if the victory were not only already in their hands, but that the fruits of it were soon to be enjoyed.

Verse 33

33.And Moses gave unto them. We must understand that Moses gave it in such sort, as that, relying on God’s command, he laid down an inviolable law. For, although it is not expressly stated that God interposed His authority, still His subsequent approbation fully assures us of it. So also, although no mention is made of Eleazar and the elders, still it is certain that they were not passed over, but that they were united with him in the decision; especially since the case had been brought before them by the sons of Gad and Reuben, (ver. 2.) There is only an implied contrast between the old covenant which God had made with Abraham, and this new and special privilege, wherewith He condescended to enrich His people.

At first only the two tribes had been named; half the tribe of Manasseh is now added, inasmuch as the descendants of Machir, and Jair, and Noball, who were all of the family of Manasseh, had seized upon certain cities, and men. The rendering which some give, as if they (218) had obtained these victories after Moses had permitted the Reubenites and Gadites to inhabit this side of Jordan, does not appear to me suitable; but rather the reason is given why that portion is excepted, which came to the sons of Manasseh, viz., because they were not to be defrauded of the lands which they had separately acquired. Nor is it probable, that, when the country beyond Jordan had been given to others, they afterwards made their incursion so as to appropriate what did not belong to them. The order of the narrative does not make this necessary; for it is common with the Hebrews to transpose the order of occurrences, especially when something before omitted is incidentally added to give a reason for what is done. If, however, any should prefer to believe that they were attracted by the advantage that presented itself, I will not pertinaciously contend the point.

But how does it accord that cities are said to be built which were still standing undestroyed? for we have already seen that the people who had taken them, were dwelling in them. I reply that, inasmuch as it seldom happens that cities are taken without the walls being destroyed, it is not unreasonable that the restoration of these should be called building. It was necessary that the cities should be fortified lest the unarmed multitude (219) should be exposed to the assaults of every enemy. To this end they repaired what had been thrown down, and thus in a manner renewed the cities which were a mass of ruins.

(218) C. translates the verbs in Numbers 32:41 in the pluperfect tense, “Jair, the son of Manasseh, had gone and taken, etc.”

(219) “La troupe des femmes et des petits enfans;” the multitude of women and little children. — Fr.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 32". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/numbers-32.html. 1840-57.
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