It is difficult to know what is going on in chapter 32. On the surface, it would appear the Rubenites and the Gadites were rejecting the land promise of God in favor of what they considered land better suited to them. But we must be careful. While the land promise certainly focused on the land east of the Jordan from Zoar to Dan (Deuteronomy 34:1-4), the area we usually think about when we thing of Israel, the promise actually extended from the wadi of Egypt in the south and west, all the way to the Euphrates in the east. In the north, it extended from the Euphrates to Lebanon (see Joshua 1:4).
Though the promised land of Canaan was a land “flowing with milk and honey,” and though it was a present the Lord was giving Israel, The tribes and Reuben and Gad said: “No thanks.” After all, they weren’t farmers, but cattlemen. They asked if they might have land outside Canaan, east of the Jordan.
This didn’t mean that the land of promise was not suitable for flocks and herds. It only meant the Reubenites and Gadites were satisfied with where they were. Rather than take a chance the Lord’s blessings would be better, they were willing to settle for what they knew and what they could see. In addition, their requested land was already conquered and therein lay the real problem.
Moses saw their request for what it was: a deliberate attempt to go their own way, looking after themselves rather than being united with the community of the Lord. He rebuked them in such blunt language that the two tribes came back with an alternative proposal: they would enter the land and help to conquer it, but they didn’t want it for themselves.
The divisive spirit of Reuben and Gad was infectious. No sooner are their demands met than the half-tribe of Manasseh asks for a share of land outside Canaan too.
Today in the Church there are always those who want to go their own way rather than keep company with the community of Faith. They always have what seems to be good reasons – at least to them – but they are always divisive. Eventually, they end up like these tribes, cut off from the people of God and absorbed into the world. I’ve heard Christians say: “I’d rather not go to church than go to one I disagreed with.” Then, they do. And the next thing you know, they are not a part of the Church at all except in name and claim.