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For the week of July 19, 2014 / 21 Tammuz 5774
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 30:2 - 32:42 (English: 30:1 - 32:42)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 - 2:3

Don't Ascribe Motive

But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, "Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?" (Bemidbar/Numbers 32:6-7; ESV)

Hills of Gilead, JordanAs the nation of Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, they were camped east of the Jordan River. The members of two of the tribes approached Moses to request settling the area they were currently in rather than west of the Jordan. I might be exaggerating, but Moses went kind of ballistic on them as he lectured them on their history. Don't they remember what happened the last time the people didn't want to cross the Jordon to the take the Land? How could they have forgotten how the majority of the envoys Moses sent almost forty years before discouraged the whole nation from trusting God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13-14). It's people like this that undermine faith and get in the way of God's plans and purposes. For almost four decades the people have had to wander in a barren wasteland due to the likes of such people. Oh no! Moses wasn't going to stand for this. Once was enough; not again!

Moses really knew how to put these people in their place. The only problem was he got it wrong. Moses' mistake is one of the most common in human experience. He ascribed motive. He thought he had adequate information to know why these two tribes made their request. It's not as if he was clueless as to where his people were at. He knew his history. He knew his people. He knew they weren't always the quickest to get whatever it was God was teaching them. The years of wandering were partly designed to wipe out the generation that freaked out the last time. And since then, it's been complain, complain, complain; problem after problem. And now this sort of thing again: "We want to stay here. We don't want to enter the Land!" So can we blame him?

How was he supposed to know that this was nothing like what happened before? He couldn't have guessed that they would pledge to stick with the rest of the nation until the land on the other side of the Jordan was secured. It's understandable that he made the assumption he did. I don't think you or I would have reacted differently. Still, it all goes to show, in our interactions with other people we cannot determine motive. The request was clear. The reasons weren't yet given.

Kudos to those guys for how they handled Moses' ill-informed reaction. They let him finish his diatribe, and then politely and patiently explained where they were coming from. I don't know how much we can surmise from this, but we read, "Then they came near to him and said" (Bemidbar/Numbers 32:16; ESV). Most of us would recoil from being falsely accused as they were. But instead they simply and clearly made their case. Once Moses heard them out, he was completely okay with their plan.

I know this story would have been nicer if Moses wouldn't have reacted as he did. Perhaps had the two tribes been wiser, they would have included the why along with their request. On the other hand, often when we are confident that our suggestions are sound, we may not always anticipate the kind of reaction they got. But hats off as well to Moses for his quick recovery. Not everyone gets over being as wrong as he was. Even though he misunderstood their motive, he was humble enough to not only listen to their explanation, but he also accepted it, approved it, and helped implement it.

There are many lessons we can take away from this interchange regarding reacting, patience, and so on. But what I see here more than anything is a reminder to not ascribe motive. We can rarely tell, if ever, what drives another person based on what they say or even what they do. It's difficult enough to understand people's motives when we know them well like Moses did, let alone in cases where we have few facts. Moses thought it was obvious, but he was wrong. Perhaps we would be well advised to accept that we know far less of the inner workings of our fellow human beings than we think.

Photo credit: "Hills of Gilead" by Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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