Strength for the Journey: “The Politics of Compromise” – Numbers 32

Washington Shut Down

Strength for the Journey: “The Politics of Compromise” – Numbers 32

washington shut down1You cannot look anywhere in the news and not see a reference to the current political showdown happening in Washington. As I write, the United States government is partially shut down, or to hear some say it “slimmed down”. In any case, they are in some way furloughing many employees. The media is filled with blame, fear and hostility. To CNN it is obvious that Republicans are to blame, particularly their arch enemies found in the “Tea Party Movement”. To Fox News, it is the so-called “Obamacare” and the Democrats that are the divisive, intransigent ones. Pundits are prognosticating and Facebook is alight with one part of America telling the other part of America how truly dumb they are. It is so heartwarming, when the nation strains against itself, isn’t it? My favorite story came this week from a busload of cranky World War II vets that pushed their way into their officially closed memorial in Washington, D.C. and then told the Capitol police “not to bother them” or they’d have another war on their hands! How wonderful to see Brokaw’s “greatest generation” about to launch another military maneuver, albeit this one closer to home. It seems everywhere we hear the voices of those who are affected by the current situation saying in unison: “For Heaven’s sake, find a COMPROMISE!”

When we come to worship and study God’s Word, we don’t gather to heal the nation’s rifts, nor do we want to even begin to suggest the solution to its various policy issues. We are believers, and among us are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and most of all… a mass of people who are SICK of hearing about dysfunctional government. Why did I open this “can of worms” as I propped open my Bible today?

In the great irony of God’s timing for our study, the text of Numbers 32 is all about a political compromise.

The compromise called for by men in the Israelite camp, and eventually condoned by their leader, Moses – was the wrong kind of compromise. It was the WORST KIND of compromise. It took advantage of an aged and retiring leader’s weariness, and negated God’s specific commands to get the people into the land of promise and settle them there.

Key Principle: Political compromises are to be expected, but spiritual compromises are to be rebuffed. Compromise that defies God’s directions isn’t compromise – it’s called something else… SIN!

Let’s just be honest. Political decision making is ALWAYS about compromise. Horse trading is the stuff of a Congress. That’s what they do, and that’s what we should expect. Ideologues don’t always make the best legislators, because political life is about finding the common ground, not forcing everyone to accept only your ground. That is the reason I do not personally want to create a “Christian nation” – because it would never truly be one, and it would shift a personal walk with God to the drift of following a Christian culture. Because I don’t want the country to be hostile to the Bible doesn’t automatically mean I want to run the country. I don’t – and I don’t think I would make a particularly good politician. The work of a Pastor is about representing a Monarch and His Sovereign absolutes – not about finding “common ground” moral tenets. I accept the need for political compromise and coalition building, while I reject that method of determining ultimate truth and morality. I work for One Master, and my opinions must increasingly be conformed to His – because His are the only ones that will stand in the end.

One of the great benefits of any believer seeking to live in conformity with the fixed principles of the Scripture is that they are ever learning to resist a compromise caused by placing ultimate trust in their feelings. The Bible teaches that one of the byproducts of Eden’s failure is that the heart has become untrustworthy, often deceptive and morally fickle. As our nation promotes popular “feeling-based” decision making, we increasingly expose the inconsistency of that logic. The same society that counsels an anorexic through illness considers gender to be defined by inner feeling. A young woman who starves herself or “purges and binges”, based on her inner feelings of obesity may seek a radical surgical removal of sexual organs because they “see themselves emotionally as a different gender than their body’s biological components. That is their unquestioned right in some states. Worse yet, any attempt to counsel caution concerning such a radical approach is met with scathing rebuke and even legal action. The error of trusting feelings as the key baseline of decision making will extract a toll on our society – because it is rooted in a lie. Our feelings are not the best compass for our path. Our compass comes from God’s revealed record of truth.

Here is the point: Politicians can compromise on policies, but no one can afford to compromise on ethics that are rooted in absolute truths from God’s Word.

Let’s look at an example that will shed some light on the problem and its solution… Go back three thousand five hundred years in time, and sit down beside the camp fire of the elders of Israel. Look around. Moses looks exhausted. He has at least forty years more on his body than the oldest person to hear this lesson. He has been at this leadership thing for an entire generation, and the people he has been leading were not the light-hearted compliant types. He looks like a bearded Charlton Heston on a bad hair day, and that was before he heard what the Reubenites and Gadites were proposing. Listen in…

The Request (32:1-5)

Numbers 32:1 Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had an exceedingly large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, 2 the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, 4 the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” 5 They said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.”

The men who came to Moses represented some of the front line troops of the second wave of any attack. In Numbers 2 the order of the march was given:

• Issachar, Judah and Zebulon lead the campaigns as the tribes situated at the EAST of the camp.
• Reuben, Gad and Simeon were second in the campaigns as the tribes to the SOUTH of the camp.
• With an interlude for the Tabernacle and the Levites, the camp continued its march bringing on line those WEST of the camp – Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh.
• Finally, the NORTH side of the camp brought up the rear – Asher, Dan and Naphtali.

To Moses and the children of Israel, going into battle without the men of Reuben and Gad was like going in with one boot off – it felt incomplete. That played into Moses’ first reaction to their request. Look closely at the request, and take it apart – because its reasoning should trouble you:

First, the desire to stay east of the Jordan seemed to be based primarily on the fact that God had already blessed them with a large herd and flock between them. The men of these tribes had already traversed the slopes of the Gilead uplift, and the Jordan Valley’s fertile plain. The PUSH for the decision is revealed in the words: “had an exceedingly large number of livestock” in verse one. Isn’t it strange how God’s recent additions to their flocks from the Midianite raid, and His continual good hand on them made them conclude they should solve the issue apart from His already stated truth found in His Word?

Some may counter, “Wait! Isn’t this PART of the Land of Father Abraham’s promise?” Lots of believers think so, but that doesn’t fit what Moses and the men of his time thought. Moses reached the land Reuben and Gad wanted, and Moses wasn’t – according to God’s own revealed Word – going into the Land of Promise that was their destination. Living on the east of the Jordan was living on the edge of the promise, but not inside it. It was living with one foot in the Lord’s will, and another in the world’s way. They chose it because they had a practical problem that came from the blessing of God – but they chose a path in violation of God’s stated will. If it was fine with God to settle BEFORE reaching the Land of Promise, they were fine in Egypt, or Sinai, or Paran, or Zin or Edom’s Wadi Rum, or Moab’s plateau. Those WEREN’T OK WITH GOD. – and neither was this choice.

The second thing to notice is the choice was based on what appeared to be good pastureland. They couldn’t look forward to see what their choice would mean to the future. They didn’t know that they would be a people that suffered more bloodshed than other tribes because of their choice. They couldn’t know that when the time came for invasion, they would fall eight full years before any other region. They made a choice because they saw their CURRENT STRENGTH to stand against enemies, and the CURRENT PROSPERITY of the region. They judged on appearance, like Lot chose the Sodom and Gomorrah. They chose of practicality that defied Biblical principle. They chose wrongly.

Thirdly, note they used GOD TALK but not revealed principles of God’s Word when they fashioned their request. They said: “the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock!” (32:4). The openly acknowledged God’s empowering in the wars, but overlooked God’s clear call to bring the people into the Land of Promise. The logic of the compromise was pragmatism – since this works, it must be acceptable to God (32:3-5). The problem is that what works must always be placed in the context of God’s revealed Word – but they weren’t doing that.

Moses’ First Reaction (32:6-15)

Moses heard the words and they hit him like the stone that knocked down Goliath. He was “floored” by the request. From his toes the red rash of boiling anger rose within him. He got warmer in a moment than he had been able to get in his tent for the last twenty years! Look at the reaction:

6 But Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here? 7 “Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them? 8 “This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. 9 “For when they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the sons of Israel so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them. 10 “So the LORD’S anger burned in that day, and He swore, saying, 11 None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, 12 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.’ 13 “So the LORD’S anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed. 14 “Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the LORD against Israel. 15 “For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.”

Take apart Moses’ issue with the request – because it is revealing in what it OMITS:

1. Moses assumed the tribes of the second wave were “bowing out” of their responsibility to fight the war ahead with their brothers (32:6). That wasn’t what they wanted, but that is what he heard.

2. Moses expressed fear that a splinter off would cause the remaining people to face discouragement to do what God wanted – to enter and take the Land of Promise (32:7). He underscored the idea that he KNEW God wanted them across the river displacing the Amorites and other Canaanites.

3. Moses immediately connected the request with the past – because he had both the benefit and the hindrance of aged thinking (32:8-9). He automatically connected the request with another time in which the plantiffs called the whole congregation to forsake acquiring the land – but that wasn’t justified. His analysis was flawed.

4. Moses feared the wrath of God falling anew on the people because of what appeared to be a peaceful insurrection (32:10-15). He saw his life’s work evaporating in front of him.

The problem with Moses reaction was that it wasn’t the real problem. It was all about the practicality and mechanics, but not about the central issue: THEY WERE ON A MISSION FROM GOD. The real problem was that God didn’t tell them it was fine to peel some tribes off on the way to the objective God gave them. Don’t forget, also, that Moses DIDN’T stop and talk to God about this affront to the plan of the Holy One of Israel. He didn’t call out the line as “Follow ALL of what God told us, or their will be trouble.” Moses threw down the practical reasons, and that opened the door to compromise based on pragmatism – based on filling the needs Moses could calculate. Keep reading, and more of the “heart problem” of the tribes making the request will become CLEAR…

A Second Attempt (32:16-19)

Having survived the initial reaction of Moses, they came back to assuage his fears and answer his objections…

16 Then they came near to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; 17 but we ourselves will be armed ready [to go] before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 “We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance. 19 “For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”

I cannot help but smile at the record of the conversation, and marvel at the obtuse view of the Reubenite and Gadite spokesmen. Did you hear what they said? Look again at the words:

First, we will provide a place for our sheep, THEN we will provide a place for our children (32:16). Seriously? You will build the SHOP for your business and THEN make sure a roof is over the head of you offspring? Well, that’s good to know that the children will EVENTUALLY get a place. What’s next, we’ll feed the kids next week because this is SHEARING SEASON? Note that Moses gets the order correct in the reply in 32:24. He said: “OK guys, build a place for your children and THEN a place for your animals. Reuben and Gad’s children may have known how to raise flocks, but I truly wonder about their priorities concerning their children.

Second, note the promise they made in 32:17-18. Essentially they said this: “OK, Mo, we get it. We will build a place for our children and flocks, and then we will leave our families for HOWEVER LONG IT TAKES to fight. Yes, Mo, all the fighters will go. Don’t worry, mom will be fine without us for a few months, years or decades. No matter – whatever it takes, our family will make due without us!” Seriously! How do you think this story will “play out” when dad is gone for a generation or so? Stay tuned…

Third, as if the practicality of their promise wasn’t so short-sighted to be absurd, they snuck the critical line at the end in 32:19 – they wouldn’t have the inheritance God directed – but the one they wanted.

Let me paraphrase the whole passage: “Moses, here is the deal. We will get our shop put together, and then, oh, yeah, we will fix a place for our families. We will build it STRONG since we won’t stick around to, you know, raise them and protect them. Instead, we will go off and help the other tribes for as long as it takes on our way back to doing what we want and ignoring what God said to do – to live together in the Land of Promise. We found our own, thanks.”

Moses’ Second Response (32:20-24)

As stunning as it seems, Moses BOUGHT IT. The wear on the man must have been tremendous…

20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, 21 and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, 22 and the land is subdued before the LORD, then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward the LORD and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before the LORD. 23 “But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 “Build yourselves cities for your little ones, and sheepfolds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.”

Moses was about to pronounce aloud one of his most famous sayings, and he offered it in the middle of a totally wrong solution to the proposed compromise. Look at the progression ramping up to it:

First, he told them the terms were not negotiable – they had to suit up and fight (32:20) and they could not abandon the army until the job was complete (32:21-22a). Then he stepped right on God’s command and told them they were FREE of obligation to the Lord toward the other tribes, and they could have the land they wanted (32:22b)! Stop for a second and consider what was happening.

If they could possess the land later, why not COME with Israel – ALL OF THEM – and return after the battles were fought? Would someone else occupy the land in the interim? Maybe, but wouldn’t their wives and children face that same problem with the army off fighting a war?

Let me ask another question: When did God turn the promises and covenants over to Moses to write an addendum?

When we compromise on God’s Word, we aren’t compromising our OWN WORD. His principles, His promises and His prescriptions are HIS TO ASSIGN. Moses may have gotten to write down the Word, but he was NEVER THE AUTHOR.

Some of you can see where I am heading. The pulpit today is the repository, the guardian, the mouthpiece of His Word – not ours. We can compromise on many things that don’t violate His principles. Not every believer has the same political outlook – and there is no reason why they should. We can have differing opinions on a great many things. God’s Word doesn’t specify how much time a child should spent studying mathematics per day, or what should be included in a child’s lunch. Healthy debate isn’t un-Christian or devilish. We learn from listening to each other, from hearing another view point, from considering life from another’s window view. Yet, we must also be careful to filter all of what we read, see, hear and believe through the screen of God’s stated Word. We can’t cancel Hell because it offends, or remake marriage because more people would “feel comfortable” with our stance. Our work is to study carefully and proclaim clearly – not make everyone happy with God’s position on issues.

Moses made the classic mistake that so many of us do – he gave away in compromise what was NOT HIS to give. He made OK something God said was NOT OK.

It wasn’t over… the compromising tribal sons spoke again…

The Promise (32:25-27)

25 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, “Your servants will do just as my lord commands. 26 “Our little ones, our wives, our livestock and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead; 27 while your servants, everyone who is armed for war, will cross over in the presence of the LORD to battle, just as my lord says.”

They essentially said: “We shall live by the rules we have proposed, that you have so graciously accepted. We are ready to fully and completely live this agreement that has been molded around our own desires and needs. Aren’t we the flexible ones!”

Moses’ Instruction to Eleazar and Joshua (32:28-32)

Moses passed the corrupted instructions to Eleazar and Josh – but no word on how they felt about what he said. He was Moses, and this was the end of his administration…

28 So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest, and to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the heads of the fathers’ [households] of the tribes of the sons of Israel. 29 Moses said to them, “If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, everyone who is armed for battle, will cross with you over the Jordan in the presence of the LORD, and the land is subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession; 30 but if they will not cross over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” 31 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben answered, saying, “As the LORD has said to your servants, so we will do. 32 “We ourselves will cross over armed in the presence of the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance [shall remain] with us across the Jordan.”

Look at how commanding the words of Moses were, considering they weren’t a good representation of what God told him to do. They have the RING of a legal standard, without the stamp of approval of the Eternal Lawgiver. Moses passed the whole agreement, with all its compromises, and all its future problems. It wasn’t his best day in government.

The Compromise Enacted (32:33-42)

33 So Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Joseph’s son Manasseh, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og, the king of Bashan, the land with its cities with [their] territories, the cities of the surrounding land. 34 The sons of Gad built Dibon and Ataroth and Aroer, 35 and Atroth-shophan and Jazer and Jogbehah, 36 and Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran as fortified cities, and sheepfolds for sheep. 37 The sons of Reuben built Heshbon and Elealeh and Kiriathaim, 38 and Nebo and Baal-meon– [their] names being changed– and Sibmah, and they gave [other] names to the cities which they built. 39 The sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. 40 So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he lived in it. 41 Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its towns, and called them Havvoth-jair. 42 Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages, and called it Nobah after his own name.

Numbers 32:33 opens with the summary that “Moses gave the sons of Reuben and Gad… then comes the half-tribe of Manasseh.” Wait a minute? How did another half tribe get in on the action? Now we aren’t JUST dividing the nation, we are dividing extended families. How did THAT happen?

Don’t miss that, in the end, even more people compromised than those who asked in beginning! Compromise creep is natural in a fallen world. Standards based on self-benefit are inevitable destined to become more popular than lines drawn on grand principles. The short-sighted choose based on CURRENT BENEFIT, not based on long-term effects – and often have no patience to grapple with grand moral principles.

Long ago, someone said: “Compromise is the art of giving your opponent that which he is not powerful enough to take.” Nobody FORCED Moses to accept something less than God commanded – he did that all on his own… just like we do.

Maybe he did it out of compassion. He looked at that nice pastureland and saw the flocks of Reuben and thought: “Wouldn’t that be nice for them! That would just so PERFECTLY meet their needs!” Prayerlessly, and with no consultation with God’s fore-revealed principles, Moses spoke words of compromise, and the people of Reuben celebrated them. He didn’t see the heartache ahead – because compromise is so big it blocks the view of all that.

There is an old fable about the hunter and the bear that met in the forest. The hunter held up his rifle to put down the bear when to his surprise the bear looked him in the eye and started to speak his language perfectly. The bear said: “Sir, I have never harmed you. Why do you want to shoot me?” The man answered: “I am cold, and I need the warmth your big furry coat gives to you!” The man asked: “When we met in the forest, you raised your paws as if to attack me. Why did you do that?” The bear replied: “Because I am hungry, and I thought you could provide me with something to eat!” The bear continued: “Perhaps we can make a compromise that will give us both what we wanted!” The hunter lowered his rifle, and the compromise was made. Walking out of the forest, the full bear carried the hunter in his stomach, a place that was no doubt warm.

Political compromises are to be expected, but spiritual compromises are to be rebuffed. Compromise that defies God’s directions isn’t compromise – it’s called something else… SIN!