Text: Joshua 1:12-18
In 1:10-11, Joshua commanded the Israelites to get ready to cross the Jordan River. In 1:12-15 he addressed a particular group of Israelites. They were the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh (i.e. half of the tribe of Manasseh). Who on earth were they? There is a background to the story which we need to look at. The 12 tribes of Israel were named after Israel’s (Jacob’s) 12 sons. The eldest was Reuben, from whom came the Reubenites. Their fifth son was Gad, from whom came the Gadites. If you remember, Jacob adopted the two sons of Joseph, born to him in Egypt, Manasseh and Ephraim. The tribe of Manasseh came from Manasseh.
When the Israelites came up from the south to enter the land, they came to the east side of the Jordan. Map 1 shows the west and the east sides of the River Jordan, with the Jordan flowing from the Sea of Galilee in the north, to the Dead Sea in the south. The area west of the Jordan was Canaan, and the east of the Jordan was known as the Transjordan. This territory was occupied by two kings, Sihon the Amorite king of Heshbon in the south, and Og king of Basham further north (Map 2). Moses asked permission to pass through the territory of king Sihon, but he was refused. Sihon attacked Israel but was defeated (Numbers 21:23). Later, Og king of Bashan also fought against the Israelites, and he was also defeated. Og king of Bashan was the last of the Rephaites (the ‘terrible ones’). His bed was 13.5ft long and 6ft wide (Deuteronomy 3:11)! The Rephaites were giants and fierce fighters, but Og met his match when he took on the God of Israel!
After these battles, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh decided they would like this territory east of the Jordan for themselves, because, they had very large herds and flocks, and saw that the lands of Jazer and Gilead where suitable for livestock (Numbers 32:1). At first Moses was very angry with these tribes. He thought they were turning away from following the LORD. But when they promised they would help the rest of Israel to possess the land, then Moses agreed to allocate the Transjordan area to them (Map 3). In our passage Joshua was holding them true to their promise.
It is important to note that the unity of Israel was at stake. The unity of Israel, or perhaps we should say the disunity of Israel, became a big issue later on. Eventually the 10 northern tribes split from the two southern tribes. The importance of unity among God’s people emerges again in the New Testament. It was a strong emphasis in the teaching of both Jesus and of Paul, which is especially significant in the light of Israel’s history. Paul taught, Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). The last thing Joshua could afford was disunity or for resentment to bubble up among God’s people at the very beginning, at the foundation of the nation as they were entering the land. So Joshua said to the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh, Remember the command that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you (Joshua 1:13). What follows (1:13-15) is a near word for word quote of Deuteronomy 3:18-20, the same words Moses had spoken to these tribes earlier. I want to pick up on just three of these words, all which are important themes in the book of Joshua.
- Rest (1:13,15). First, Joshua reminds these tribes that God’s purpose for them, and for all Israel, was that they may enjoy rest in the land (1:13b). Who doesn’t want to live in a land of peace and safety? In Genesis 2:2 we see that rest is the goal of creation. This rest was to be celebrated week by week on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:9). Israel’s history was a chequered one, with some spiritual highs and many spiritual lows. In the book of Judges, which comes immediately after Joshua, we can see that Israel didn’t exactly enjoy rest in the land. In fact, there is little Biblical evidence that Israel ever really kept the Sabbath in any meaningful way before the exile. The prophets were very critical of Israel on this point. But it was not just about keeping one day of the week special. It was about their relationship with God. Isaiah cried out, In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15). Israel had to learn, just as we have to learn, that we can only enjoy God’s blessing and rest when we live according to His Law/His Word. But when we really come to God, we will realised quickly we are sinners. This should make us recognise our need for a Savior. In the Bible, the Saviour is one who is greater than Joshua. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us, For if Joshua had given them rest, then he [God] would not afterwards have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into the rest, lest any man fall after the same manner of unbelief (Hebrews 4:8-11). This is the Sabbath rest we enjoy, that comes through faith in Jesus our Saviour.
- Help (1:14). The second word is help. Joshua told the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh to help their brothers. There’s a well-known expression, “I’m alright Jack!” It refers to a kind of self complacency about our own circumstances, while being unconcerned about anyone else’s! The Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh could just have sat back and said, “We’re alright, we’ve already got our inheritance, thank you very much!” But they were part of all Israel, of God’s people, and Joshua insisted they must keep their promise to help their brothers. It is very easy for us as Christians two slip into an “I’m alright Jack!” mentality, while our brothers and sisters in Christ are struggling in their battles. Over and over again, the New Testament teaches us that we are called to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats, For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:35-36, see also Acts 16:9, Hebrews 13:3 and many other exhortations to help our fellow believers).
- Obey (1:17). The third word is obey. How did the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh respond to Joshua? Then they answered Joshua, “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” (Joshua 1:16-17). The words of the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh in 1:16-18 quite possibly represent a public ceremony in which there was a transfer of loyalty from Moses to Joshua. It reminds me of our baptism, where we publically transferred our loyalty from our own selfish and sinful ways to Jesus. Their transference of loyalty here, from Moses to Joshua, seems to me to foreshadow our new loyalty to Jesus. John 1:17 says, For the law was given through Moses; grace truth came through Jesus Christ. Moses had died. Moses was unable to lead the people into the Promised Land. But what Moses could not do, Joshua did. What Moses cannot do, Jesus has done for us. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Romans 8:3). Just as the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh were fully committed to the leadership of Joshua, so we should be fully committed to following Jesus through His Word and Spirit.
Finally, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half tribe of Manasseh encouraged Joshua. Only may the LORD your God be with you as he was with Moses (1:17). And, Only be strong and courageous (1:18). Both of these encouragements simply reflected the promises that God had already given to Joshua earlier on. So this shows that these tribes really were trusting in God and in His Word.