Nearly 20 years ago a waitress at a well-known breakfast chain messed up my order for hash browns by adding diced ham.
If you don’t find anything odd about that sentence, you are, perhaps, a candidate for counseling. But I digress.
I had wanted jalapeños, onions, mushrooms, and cheese. I got all of those. Plus ham.
As a vegetarian, I don’t eat ham. The waitress was very nice and got me a new order with what I wanted, but for years (yes, years) thereafter, I was known to remind the staff at that particular chain that I did not want any meat in my hash browns. None at all.
I was reminded of this last night when I asked Jody if she had done a certain thing, something that we had both forgotten a couple of months ago, but that I didn’t want forgotten again. She said she supposed she’d have to wear forgetting this one monthly task once for some time, considering how long it took me to forget about the ham in my hash browns. Well, I obviously haven’t actually forgotten it. I have quit mentioning it. One step at a time, you know!
I was reminded of it again this morning as I read Numbers 32. The story takes place after the Israelites have defeated a variety of enemies on the east bank of the Jordan River, and are preparing to cross into the promised land. The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad really like the territory that has been conquered as it is good for their flocks, so they come to Moses and Eleazar and ask for this land rather than a share of the land across the Jordan. Moses is angry with them and reminds them of something that had happened nearly 40 years before. He calls them a brood of sinners. It’s really not a very pleasant conversation.
They reply that they will certainly help their fellow-Israelites conquer the land, but that they like this land just fine. Eventually with that agreement, Moses agrees to grant them the land (somehow the half tribe of Manasseh gets in the mix toward the end), and we get an explanation of what cities they built and what territory each took.
In reading about this, I note that commentators try to decide whether the final decision was a positive one or not. Was it a good idea to let these two and a half tribes settle east of the Jordan? I don’t know of any way to determine the answer. I suspect that there would have been problems either way. But when interpreting stories one thing to remember is that some things in a story, even in a fictional one, happen because they happen. I think it is a mistake to always try to find a moral in a story, even a Bible story. Some things just happened that way, and there is not great moral in it.
Despite the fact that I’m unable to decide one way or another on the value of having some of the Israelites settle to the east of the river, I do see some potential questions, and perhaps resulting lessons in the story. One might be that there is no reference in this chapter to seeking the will of the Lord. It’s entirely a human decision. Given the frequency with which Moses consults with the Lord before taking action, is it possible that the writer here is trying to make a point?
But one of the values in stories is that they can connect to different aspects of our lives, and today Moses’s response connected for me. Here come these poor tribal elders, much younger than Moses, one of the few survivors from those who left Egypt as adults, and they are coming to one who is now a revered leader. I suspect there was a bit of fear and trembling going on. They ask what seems to be a simple question: Could we have this territory?
Now consider. The territory has been conquered. It’s going to go to someone. All the tribes are going to get some land. It might be a good idea to occupy the territory, in fact. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with their request. It’s perfectly reasonable. They don’t even say they won’t help with the conquest of the promised land. They just haven’t mentioned it.
The CBC commentary I’m reading right now calls the solution involving them joining the other tribes in the conquest while leaving their wives and children in fortified settlements a compromise. But I see no delay and discussion. It looks to me as though they already had that ready, but hadn’t managed to roll it out.
Moses reacts. Forty years ago other Israelites did this, and it’s right at the top of his mind. He remembers those people and those lessons, and he’s not about to let anyone forget the lesson.
About 40 years before some other people had sinned. In fact, their actions were only similar in a superficial way, but Moses had learned the lesson well. Perhaps too well. Someone could put ham in his hash browns once, but never again! He calls them a brood of sinners while reminding them of past failings.
It may seem that I’m being a bit disrespectful in my treatment of Moses, a man who spoke to God face-to-face. But if there’s anything we learn from the broader story of scripture it’s that every human being has weaknesses. Scripture is not afraid to take note of those weaknesses. Now Moses becomes a special case. I was working through Hebrews 3:1-6 this morning as well, and the argument that Jesus is greater than Moses. That argument must be made because of the great respect we grant Moses as Christians.
The thing is that having learned his lesson, he applied it where it didn’t really apply. The continuing discussion makes it clear that these elders are not opposed to conquering Canaan, nor do they want to shirk their responsibilities. They’re simply proposing a plan for making good use of this land.
Moses, to his credit, calms down, considers the situation, and they all agree to a plan. It’s a reasonable ending to a story.
But for me, it’s a reminder that sometimes we do need to forget the faults and failings of others. Our own as well! And we don’t need to fit everyone into the narrative of past failures. The failure Moses remembers was real and it was important. It was a failure that did not need to be repeated. But Moses misapplied it to these elders.
Brood of sinners? No, just looking for a good place to care for their flocks.