One of my favorite things to say about the Bible (besides, “It is Ha-Ha Funny!”) is that it tells us three important things:
1) We can know what we know. We are created with powerful minds that are capable of “knowing” things.
2) There is still so much more to know. Once we “know” something, it should open our minds to new questions, mysteries, awareness we can never know everything.
3) The next thing we need to learn is probably going to be taught us by the person who we think doesn’t know anything! In the biblical text, it is invariably the “least likely” character who bears God’s message, does God’s will, fosters the creation of God’s realm in the world.
Observation #3 is one of the mainstays of comic storytelling. As discussed before, comedy is focused on “low characters” (the poor, the lowly, the foolish) who, for any number of playful and/or crazy reasons, end up on top, in exalted status, saving the day.
In the secular comic world, we have such “least likely” characters as Kevin McCallister of Home Alone fame, Chance aka “Chauncey Gardner," and, of course, Bluto Blutarsky!
In the Biblical world “least likely” characters include Jacob (Isaac’s second-born); David (Jesse’s last born); Jesus (the Galilean Messiah) and… the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
According to scripture, they’re three (two-and-a-half, actually) tribes who, as the long, arduous, formative journey of the Exodus is coming to a close, find themselves wanting NOT to go into the Promised Land. They own a great number of cattle, see that the land just east of the Jordan River is good for ranching and, hence, would like to settle there. In other words, these are tribes who are quitting before the end of the race (not the kind of folks that would impress the Apostle Paul for sure!).
And they’re the ones who save the race for everyone else, God included.
By the time we reach the book of Numbers, the Hebrew slaves/Israelites' journey with God across the Sinai wilderness, as is often the case with “family travels,” is causing nerves to become evermore frayed. Arguments between the people, Moses and God are getting more frequent and more intense.
Where before the people complained there'd be no food, thus making God mad because everyday He brought them manna and quail, by Numbers 11 the people complain the food God brings is boring. No fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic like they had in the good old days of Egyptian slavery. God gets extra mad and delivers on a vow to bring so much quail it will “come out of your nostrils and be loathsome to you.” He then punctuates His disgust by striking the people with a plague. As God has journeyed forward He has become more and more insistent the people remain racially “pure” so as to stay away from foreign gods; when Moses' otherwise celebrated sister Miriam in Chapter 12 complains that her brother has married a Cushite woman, God hotly condemns her by saying, essentially, “When you criticize the one I have chosen to lead you criticize me.” And He strikes her with leprosy for 7 days.
When in Chapter 13 God sends Israelite spies to sneak into Canaan to see the marvelous new land He’s about to give them, they come back freaked out that everyone there is too big, they’ll never defeat these giants. They start asking for volunteers to actually start leading them back to Egypt. God of course wants to kill everyone (which he’s wanted to do several times now on the trip) and Moses talks Him out of it, but God’s condition is that this “stiff-necked generation” will now be denied entrance into the Promised Land. Only its children, after 40 more years of shepherding and wandering, will be allowed to go in.
Even Moses is denied Promised Land entrance because, in Chapter 20, after the people complain once more about no water, he, at the end of his rope, yells at them and taps the rock before remembering to first command God to bring it. Seems like after so much Moses has had to go through God would give him a bit of a break, but no.
So it’s probably not surprising that in Numbers 32, when the Reubenites, Gadites and half-tribe of Menassah ask to cut out of this whole thing early, Moses has a major conniption. And/but before God can get in on the act and suddenly open the earth to swallow these traitors up (something He’s started doing when He’s REALLY mad), these two-and-a-half tribes do something radically different from what it seems anyone (God included) have been willing to do, at least by this point in the trip....
They offer to simply help. Help others who really don’t impact their honor and well-being anymore. They offer to do whatever it takes, when the time comes, to help their greater kinsmen cross the Jordan and conquer (partially) the land. They'll leave their wives, children and livestock back home, east of the Jordan; which means leaving loved ones vulnerable to attack, disease, disasters of all sorts. But that is what they will do.
And, after this magnanimous offer, there is no more fighting. (At least for this trip.) We don’t anymore hear of the people complaining to Moses, of Moses having to complain to God, of God getting angry. In fact, when at 33:14 there is one last mention that the company finds itself without water, it's just that. Apparently, God provides what is needed in peace.
Things seem to have totally settled down! And it wasn’t Moses’ doing, it wasn’t even God’s doing.
It was “the least likely” who saved the day. And that’s just one more reason the great story of “The Exodus” is a great comedy!