Wollen and Linen - Following the path of Christ - chapter 12 - The Two Tribes and a Half

Woollen and Linen - J G Bellet

The Two Tribes and a Half

Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh 
The history of the two tribes and a half has its peculiar instruction for us. They do not stand in company with the Lot of the days of Abraham, though in some respects they may remind us of him. For, as I have just said, it is wonderful what a variety of moral character and of christian experience puts itself before the soul in the histories of Scripture; the lights and shades are to be traced as well as the leading features. This strikes us forcibly in the history of this people.
They are not Lot but they remind us of him. Like him their history begins by their eyeing well-watered plains good for cattle. While yet on the wilderness side of the Jordan they think of their cattle: Abraham their father had never been on that side of the river. Moses had said nothing to them respecting those plains of Gilead . Nor did their expectations when called out from Egypt stop short of the land of Canaan . But Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had cattle, and they ask for an inheritance there on the eastern or wilderness borders of the river, for there cattle might graze to advantage.
They had no thought whatever of revolting, of sacrificing the portion of Israel , or of separating themselves or their interests from the call of God. But their cattle would be nicely provided for in Gilead and there they desired to tarry, though, of course, only as Israelites under the call of God. How natural! How common!
They hold to the hope of the people of God though not walking in the suited place of that hope. In power of character and conduct they were not a dead and risen people but they are one in faith with such. They would declare their alliance with the tribes which were to pass the Jordan though they would remain on the wilderness side of it themselves.
They were not, like Lot, a people of mixed principles who deliberately form their lives by something inconsistent with the call of God; but they were a generation who, owning that call and prizing it, and resenting the thought of any hope but what was connected with it, are not in the power of it. Again I say, how common! This is a large generation. We know ourselves too well to wonder at this.
Moses is made uneasy by this movement and he expresses his uneasiness with much decision. He tells this people that they bring to his remembrance the conduct of the spies whom he had sent out years before from Kadesh-barnea, and whose way had discouraged their brethren and occasioned forty years’ pilgrimage in the wilderness. There was something so unlike the call of God out of Egypt , in the hope of Canaan , thus to linger in any part of the road, and Moses resents it.
And it is bad when this is produced, when the first instinctive thought of a saint walking in the power of the resurrection of Christ is that of alarm at what he sees in, or hears from, a brother: and yet how common!
Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh have to explain themselves and to give fresh pledges that they by no means separate themselves from the fellowship and interests of their brethren; and they do this with zeal, and with integrity too.
In this they are not like Lot . They would not have taken the eastern Gilead had this been the forfeiture of their identity with those who were going to the western – the Canaan inheritance.
But Moses cannot let them go as Abraham parts with Lot ; they are not to be treated in that way.
Neither does the judgment of God visit them as it did the unbelieving spies who brought up an evil report of the land. But Moses eyes them and fears for them and has his thoughts anxiously and uneasily occupied about them.
What shades of difference do we find in these different illustrations of character! What various textures may we inspect in these woollens and linens! Different classes among the people of God and shades of difference in the same class.
We have Abraham and Moses and David; we have Lot and Jonathan and the tribes in Gilead ; we have Jehoshaphat and Obadiah – and yet these are the people of God.
Sodom was Lot ’s place, Saul’s court was Jonathan’s place, and the palace of Ahab was Obadiah’s; while Abraham dwelt in a tent, David in a cave of the earth, and Elijah with the provisions of God at the brook Cherith or in the Gentile Sarepta. Here were distances!
And so as between Jonathan and others, for Jonathan was – strictly speaking or distinguishing – neither Lot nor Obadiah, though we generally set them together as a class. Neither was Obadiah Lot exactly.
And as between Lot, Jonathan and Obadiah on the one side, and Moses, Abraham and Elijah and such like on the other, we see the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh – a generation who will not admit the thought of their separation from the call and the people of God, but who betray in moral action that which is inconsistent with that call. And this is indeed a common class; nay, this is the common class, Numbers 32. One’s own heart knows it full well.
Joshua, who had the spirit of Moses, holds this same people in some fear and suspicion, just as Moses had done before. He calls them to him and he addresses to them a special word of exhortation and warning when the time of action in the camp of God begins. Little things of Scripture are at times very symptomatic. It is so, I doubt not, in Joshua 1. As to the tribes generally, Joshua has but to say, “Prepare you victuals, for within three days ye shall pass over this Jordan to go in to possess the land which the Lord your God giveth you to possess it”. They were free; they were in travelling order; they had but to know the hour of departure. Like Noah all was ready for the voyage into another world and he needed only time to put himself and his family into the vessel.
The two tribes and a half were not so equipped in travelling order. They were encumbered, and instinctively, as it were, Joshua acted towards them as towards a heavy baggage in the hour of decamping. He had to challenge them – at least he felt he had – to remind them of their pledges to Israel , for they were not under his eye as if they had been altogether Israel themselves. In measure he is to them what the angel who came to Sodom was to Lot .
So mark this same people again in Joshua 22. The ark had gone over, the feet of the priests bearing it had divided the waters of the Jordan, and the ark had gone over conducting and sheltering the Israel of God; and it is true that Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had gone over too.
But Israel and the ark remained there and the two tribes and a half return – return to settle where their brethren had but wandered; return to present this questionable and strange sight – Israelites finding their place and their interests outside the natural boundary of their promised inheritance, finding a home where the ark had never rested.
Ere they set out on the return Joshua seems to feel this and specially warns and exhorts them; and as soon as they make the passage and but touch the place which they had chosen they begin to feel it also. They are not quite at ease in their souls, and they raise an altar. This is full of language in our ears. An Israelite in the land of Gilead at this living day of ours understands it.
Jehoshaphat was after this manner uneasy when he found himself on the throne with Ahab, and under the pressure of that uneasiness – which attends on the heart of a true Israelite in an uncircumcised place – he asks for a prophet of the Lord. This is the language of the renewed mind in a foreign land.
The two tribes and a half raise an altar and call it “Ed”. It was a witness, as they purposed, of this: that Israel ’s God was their God; that they had part in the hopes and calling of the Israel of God.
But why all this? Had they taken up their portion in Canaan they would not have needed this; they would have had the original and not a reflection. Their souls would have had the witness within, and “Ed” would not have been needed without. But they were not in Canaan , but in Gilead . Shiloh was not in view and they had to give themselves some artificial, some secondary help, to prop up their confidence by some crutch of their own devising, that it might be known that they and the Israel of God were one.
All this is full of meaning and is much experienced to this day. Some witness of what we are and who we are as saints is craved by the soul, and called for by others, when we get into a position in the world with which the call of God does not fully combine.
Some artificial or secondary testimony is felt desirable; the countenance or acceptance of others, the examination of our own personal condition, with many a restless action of the soul, reasonings with ourselves about it all, remembrances of better days invoked now and again.
Something of this secondary character like the altar at Ed is needed where the soul is not fully simple and faithful: all this is still known, and all this I judge is the writing on this pillar in the land of Gilead .
Lot ’s wife, the pillar of salt, has a writing upon it which the divine Master Himself has deciphered for us; and I doubt not the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth, would have us under His anointing read and learn the writing on this pillar which Israelites outside the natural bounds of the promised inheritance once reared.
It may warn our souls, if we love quietness and assurance of heart and deep peace of soul, not to return and find a settlement where the church of God has duly found a pilgrimage. Does my soul read this writing?
Every heart knows its own humiliation. These disturbances of spirit, this demand of Jehoshaphat for a prophet of Jehovah, this altar of Ed, witness both for and against us. They bespeak the saintly or renewed mind, but they bespeak it in such conditions, such exercises and experiences, as a more single-eyed and full-hearted love to Christ would have spared it.
Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh are challenged a second time. Joshua and the tribes in Canaan have to challenge them now as Moses had to do before. Their altar in Gilead awakens suspicions now as their desire to settle in Gilead had awakened suspicions then. This is all natural and common, and all symptomatic.
Saints in Gilead are not such as “make their calling and election sure” to the hearts of their brethren, at least without some inquiry. A great stir is made among the tribes who were now in Canaan and within the conscious possession of Shiloh and of God’s tabernacle there, and an embassage is formed to inquire into this matter.
Something, they know not what, struck their eye which appeared to be at variance with the common call of Israel ; and it must at least be explained. What a living picture this is. We are surely at home in such a spot as this and know the customs of the place.
I believe the apostle in the epistles to the Corinthians is very much, in the New Testament form, a Phinehas, a son of Eleazar the priest, crossing the river to inquire after the pillar in the land of Gilead .
There were things at Corinth which alarmed Paul, symptoms of sad departure from the common call of the heavenly saints. They seemed to be “among the princes of this world”, to be “reigning as kings on the earth”. His ministry in the meekness and gentleness of Christ was getting to be despised and others were getting to be valued because of their place and advantages in the world. The way of the schools, the way of wisdom of men, was regaining its authority, and saints seemed as though they were returning to settle where the church was to be but an unknown stranger.
In the zeal of Joshua 22, Paul crosses the river, and whatever the discovery may be the action is a painful one and the need of it a scandal in the history of the church.
The tribes of Gilead may satisfy Phinehas and his brethren more than the Corinthian saints satisfy the apostle; all such differences and varieties in the conditions of the people of God are known at this hour, but there is this common sorrow and humbling, that the calling and election is not made sure, and we have either to take journeys or to occasion journeys that our ways, our Ed, our altars, our pillars, the bleating of our flocks in the plains of Gilead, may be inspected and inquired after instead of our resting and feeding together, and together gathering around and learning the secrets of the tabernacle and altar at Shiloh.