Context: After answering the call of the Lord and leading his people out of Egypt, Moses finds his task a thankless one. His followers are all too human. Shortsighted, impatient, turbulent, they incur the wrath of the Lord again and again. Moses never fails to intercede in their behalf; but they are an unruly group and shepherding them is a frustrating endeavor. Their first transgression occurs during the encampment at Sinai: while Moses is on the mountain receiving instructions from God concerning proper forms of worship, the Israelites fashion themselves an image of a golden calf, after the manner of the Egyptians, and hold an orgy around it. Moses returns and takes stern measures to stem the revolt, then begs the Lord's forgiveness. The Lord is not pleased but orders Moses to lead his people forth, following a guiding Angel, who will lead them to the land promised to their forebears long ago. Moses sends out scouts, or spies, to investigate the country they must cross; there are twelve of these, one for each tribe. They return with conflicting reports, and the people threaten to stone Moses. The Lord, His patience exhausted, condemns them to wander forty years in the wilderness; thus no one over twenty will live to enter the promised land. During the ensuing four decades the people of Israel wander about the deserts of the Near East; somehow Moses holds them together, but his trials are many. They are fed miraculously at times of extreme need, but the Lord does not shorten their sentence. At length they approach the Jordan; Moses climbs the mountain, Abarim or Nebo, that he may see the goal he will not live to reach. Then, in accordance with God's instructions, he names Joshua his successor. Representatives of the tribes of Reuben and Gad then ask Moses if they may settle on this side of the stream. Moses misunderstands them, thinking this request is waywardness, and replies angrily. But they reassure him:
And they came near unto him, and said, We will build sheep-folds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones:
But we ourselves will go ready armed before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place: and our little ones shall dwell in the fenced cities because of the inhabitants of the land.
We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance.
For we will not inherit with them on yonder side Jordan, or forward; because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side Jordan eastward.
And Moses said unto them, If ye will do this thing, if ye will go armed before the LORD to war,
And will go all of you armed over Jordan before the LORD, until he hath driven out his enemies from before him,
And the land be subdued before the LORD: then afterward ye shall return, and be guiltless before the LORD, and before Israel; and this land shall be your possession before the LORD.
But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out.
Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep; and do that which hath proceeded out of your mouth.
And the children of Gad and the children of Reuben spake unto Moses, saying, Thy servants will do as my lord commandeth.