Why did he single them out for special encouragement? Their story takes us back to Numbers 21, where Moses and the people took possession of the land immediately east of the Jordan River. Og, king of Bashan, and Sihon, the king of the Amorites, had possessed this fertile land before Moses and his army took it from them. The large tribes of Reuben and Gad soon found this land to their liking. They owned very large herds and flocks, and discovered the land to be excellent for ranching. And so they asked permission to stay on it permanently (Numbers 32).
Half of the tribe of Manasseh chose to join them. Remember that Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Both were adopted by Jacob as his own children, so that Israel was in fact composed of thirteen tribes. However, God made clear that the tribe of Levi was to have no assigned land, but would live on the support of the others as it served the tabernacle and later the Temple. The twelve tribes which remained would all receive land in due time. The tribe of Manasseh chose to divide in two; half wanted to stay east of the Jordan and raise their cattle with Reuben and Gad.
Moses gave them permission, with the proviso that when the nation was prepared to cross the Jordan and take the rest of Canaan, their soldiers must fight with the rest of the army. This they had agreed to do.
Now Joshua came to remind them of their agreement (vs. 13-15). The situation was potentially dangerous. They already had “rest” (v. 13), an Old Testament concept which includes secure borders, peace with neighbors, absence of threats to life, and security for the future. Now God wanted to give this “rest” to all the nation, with their military help (see the NavPress discussion on page 28 for further insight). But the people would need their “fighting men” (v. 14), all those over the age of 20 who were physically able to wage war. Would they keep their promise? Or would the nation move into the land without a significant part of its military strength?
These “transjordan” tribes gave Joshua their immediate and unconditional support (v. 16). But they made two requirements of him, the same expectations every group has the right to ask of its leaders. First, “may the Lord your God be with you as he was with Moses” (v. 17). They wanted to follow him only if he would follow God. Second, “Only be strong and courageous!” (v. 18). He could not expect them to follow where he would not lead. They wanted an example of godly courage they could follow into battle, and into their future together. And Joshua would answer their call, with miraculous results.
When this pivotal chapter opened, we found Joshua and the people still mourning the death of their beloved hero and leader. Their future was uncertain in the extreme. Their leadership was unclear, their direction undetermined. Joshua had not yet determined to follow God’s purpose for his life and leadership, nor had the people chosen to follow him.
When the chapter ends, the people are one. Joshua is their strong and courageous leader. The people are unified and resolved to follow him into their future. And they will find that future to be as bright as the promises of God.
We need Joshua-type leaders today. Will you follow the Lord with your personal obedience and faithful commitment? Will you trust God, commune with him in his word, and practice his presence? A study group cannot be expected to go further with God than the leaders are willing to lead them. If your class were as close to the Father as you are this moment, would this be a good thing?
Perhaps this chapter could be as pivotal to your soul as it was for Joshua. The choice is yours.