The beginning of Deuteronomy recounts the final moments of Israel’s forty-year wandering through the wilderness. Moses and the people are standing on the banks of the Jordan ready to enter the Promised Land, but first Moses reminds them of what has been and of what is most important. Chapters two and three recount how during their journey north to prepare to enter the land they were required to travel through the various countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, but they were not to engage these countries in battle because God had given their land to the descendants of Esau and Lot. However, when they encountered Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan they overpowered them, taking their land and their valuables. The lands of Sihon and Og were not originally part of Israel’s inheritance, but they were given to (or claimed by) Israel after these battles. This eventually led to an interesting tension.
The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh determined that the lands of Sihon and Og were valuable lands and asked Moses if they could claim their inheritance here instead of on the western side of the Jordan. Moses allows them this land as their inheritance as long as all of their men will travel with the rest of Israel armed for battle and fight in order to ensure that all of the tribes receive land and rest.
Moses said, “The Lord your God has given you this land to possess. All your troops shall cross over armed before your brothers, the people of Israel. Only your wives, your little ones, and your livestock…shall remain in the cities that I have given you, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers, as to you, and they also occupy the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then each of you may return to his possession which I have given you.” (Deuteronomy 3:18-20)
The motive presents an interesting tension in scripture, and also for today. The Eastern tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh) could only have rest when all of their neighbors had rest. They were not allowed to enjoy their inheritance until the whole community had received their inheritance. This means there is a communal aspect for the promises of God. There is communal loyalty. It can’t be the attitude of “I’ve got my share so you go take care of yourself.” Instead, it’s I can’t find rest until the community finds rest. I can’t have rest until my neighbor has rest. We are in community together and I have an obligation to you as my brother/sister. If you are in need, if you don’t have rest, if you are struggling, I am indebted to you to help fix or solve your issue.
For Israel, this meant that the Eastern Tribes had to travel in front and fight for their brothers and sisters (which they did). For us today, it is still valid. We can’t experience rest until our neighbors have rest.
We must consider then, who is my neighbor? According to Jesus and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, my neighbor is anyone I come into contact with who is in need. If I can’t have rest until my neighbor has rest, then I am bound to my neighbor and must use my resources in any way possible to help my neighbor find rest.
Using this reasoning, it must impact how Christians engage two current political issues. On the world stage, it must impact the Syrian refugee crisis and how Christians choose to respond. In the United States, it must impact the current debate during the presidential elections concerning amnesty or deportation of undocumented workers. I admit that both of these issues are complex and deserve so much more than simple answers. Yet here are men and women made in the image of God who because of situations beyond their control have no rest. As a Christian, how am I to respond? What is my responsibility to my neighbor? How can I, who was lucky enough to be born as a citizen of the United States, enjoy rest while others who did not have this same luck struggle to survive?
These are not the only examples today. On a local level we could also consider the homeless, women caught in sex-trafficking, or even the single parent struggling to survive. As Christians, we can’t have rest until our neighbors have rest.
The Eastern Tribes went ahead of their brothers and sisters and fought for their brothers and sisters to have rest. Only when the entire community found rest did they return home to enjoy their own rest. Perhaps we should learn from their example.