Searching for Greener Pastures: Numbers 32:1-6 (1-42)

Centennial - 73Preached by Terrell Carter on June 16, 2013

All of us have probably heard the old proverb “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  But, did you know that it has been scientifically verified that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?  No, seriously.  It has been verified.  In 1983, James Pomerantz, currently professor of psychology at Rice University in Texas, wrote a scientific article titled “‘The Grass is always Greener’: An Ecological Analysis of an Old Aphorism”.  In the article, through various means, he shows that due to verifiable optical and perceptual laws, grass that is seen from a distance does look greener than grass that is close and perpendicular to the area of ground near someone or something.  That makes me sound pretty smart doesn’t it?

No one knows when this proverb “The grass is always greener…” began to be used in the world, but pithy sayings like this have been around for a while.  Erasmus of Rotterdam, a catholic priest and theologian, is quoted as saying, “Fertilior seges est alieno semper in arvo,” meaning “The corn in another man’s ground seems ever more fertile and plentiful then does our own.”

The idea behind sayings like this is that people generally are not content with what they already have.  People do not feel that what they already have in their hands or in their possession is as good as what they could have or what someone else already has.  It’s essentially an acknowledgment of the influence of the green eyed monster, envy.

Have any of you felt the sting of envy before?  We can be truthful about this.  Have you ever looked at what someone else had and thought, “God, why didn’t you do that for me?”  Or, “God, they didn’t deserve that good thing to happen to them, that should be me with that opportunity, or person, or possession.”  Or, “Man, if I just had that thing that happened to them happen to me, I would be so much better off than I am now.”

This phenomenon of not being happy with what you have is not new.  It is as old as the day is long.  It was the root problem that led to the death of Abel at the hand of his brother Cain.  It has been at the root of multiple wars and acts of devastation that have occurred throughout the centuries.

This type of dissatisfaction brings with it several problems and issues for those who fall prey to it.  The main one being that we can miss out on the best that God has for us because we are looking somewhere else.  This is at the root of what happens in Numbers 32, which is printed in our bulletins today.

I can imagine that the Book of Numbers is probably not high on anyone’s regular list of books to read from the Bible, so please allow me to explain some of the events that have occurred leading up to this passage.

After many years of wondering in the wilderness, God’s children were finally headed to the Promised Land, Canaan.  Since leaving Egypt so many years before by God’s powerful hand, God’s children they had been walking in circles for several years.  Since leaving Egypt, they had lived on many plains and mountains, never having a permanent place to call home.  Since leaving Egypt, they saw one generation born and another generation die off.

Why did this occur?  Because the people that God led out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through various other miracles, these people did not trust God when God told them that they could enter the Promised Land, Canaan, and overtake it.

In Numbers 13, we are told that God instructed Moses to select one leader from each of the 12 tribes, have them each enter Canaan, and spy on the land so that they could learn everything they could about it.  After spying on the land for 40 days, these men were to come back and give an assessment of what they found so Moses and other leaders could come up with a strategy to overtake the land.

These 12 men do as they were asked and they enter the land.  40 days later they come back and give their reports.  The land is better than they could have imagined.  Everything from the lush hillsides to the cool streams.  The land flowed with milk and honey.  What they saw was almost like something from a dream.  But, the men pause because in this dream land, the rivers and mountains are not the only things that are large.

According to 10 of the spies, the cities in the land are large and well-fortified.  And the people that inhabit the land of Canaan are huge.  Not big or large, but huge.  They describe themselves as grasshoppers next to the men of the land.  They were afraid and did not want to attempt to enter the land because they believed they would get smoked by the competition.

Can we pause for a moment and look at the situation.  These men have finally seen what it is that God had been promising them for so long.  They are face-to-face with the answers to their prayers.  And how do they respond?  With fear and trepidation.

How do you think you would respond if you were in their positions?  I admit that it’s always easier to be a Monday morning quarterback and say what you would have done or wouldn’t have done in any given situation, but it can be totally different when you actually find yourself in that situation.

But, it just so happens that two of the spies disagree with the overall assessment of the situation by their 10 fellow spies.  Caleb, instead of being fearful of what’s in the Promised Land, is ready to go and get what they have been waiting for.  The ESV quotes him as saying, “”Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”  The CEV quotes him as saying, “Let’s go and take the land. I know we can do it!”  It doesn’t seem like there’s any hesitation from him.  He’s locked and cocked and ready to go.  Right now!

Caleb’s pep rally speech didn’t have its intended outcome.  Instead of the people being encouraged, they were still locked in fear.  So much so that, in a panic, they disregarded God completely.

Numbers 14 says that the people said, “We wish we had died in Egypt or somewhere out here in the desert!  Is the LORD leading us into Canaan, just to have us killed and our women and children captured? We’d be better off in Egypt.”  Then they said to one another, “Let’s choose our own leader and go back.”  Moses and Aaron bowed down to pray in front of the crowd.  Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes in sorrow and said: We saw the land ourselves, and it’s very good.  If we obey the LORD, he will surely give us that land rich with milk and honey.  So don’t rebel. We have no reason to be afraid of the people who live there.  The LORD is on our side, and they won’t stand a chance against us!  The crowd threatened to stone Moses and Aaron to death.  But just then, the LORD appeared in a cloud at the sacred tent.  The LORD said to Moses, “I have done great things for these people, and they still reject me by refusing to believe in my power.  So they will no longer be my people. I will destroy them, but I will make you the ancestor of a nation even stronger than theirs.”

Wow!  God turned away from an entire generation, not because God didn’t love them, but because they turned their back on God after all that had been done on their behalf.  A generation of people wandered and died in the wilderness because they failed to take God at God’s word.

And so, here we are.  God’s children are at the same physical and spiritual location one full generation later.  And they have the same choice to make as the previous generation did:  Would they follow God’s direction or choose their own fate.

At this point in their story, they were right outside the land that God previously tried to give to their relatives.  The land that God predicted would flow with milk and honey.  They could see it, and I imagine their mouths watered in anticipation.  They were less than a few hundred yards from entering the place that they have been traveling all this way to see.

Not only were they about to finally enter the Promised Land, they were doing it shortly after having defeated some of their fiercest enemies in battle.  The Israelites had just completed a massive campaign against the Midianites where Israel decimated them, killing all the men and taking their women and jewelry captive.  But, even though they are riding a military high and can see the Promised Land, all is not well with them.

While everyone is stopped and resting after their victory, and preparing to go into Canaan, members of two tribes noticed that the land that they conquered was prime real estate.  They saw that, among other things, it was ideal for raising cattle.  Representatives from these two tribes decide to go to Moses and some of their leaders and say that they didn’t want to live in the Promised Land.  Instead, they wanted to live in this fertile, luscious land.

Let’s pause again and think about that.  Can we really blame them for this decision?  Can we blame them for their desire to stop right where they were?  A bird in the hand beats two in the bush doesn’t it?  Why keep waiting for some pie in the sky promise when this land is as good as any we’ve seen?  They could have simply been tired of the walking and fighting and just wanted to be done with it all.

Let me be truthful.  I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with them seeing the land and thinking that it was plush land to raise their livestock.  The problem occurs when they either forget or haphazardly take their eyes off the prize that was waiting before them: The Promised Land.  This time, the grass is greener on this side of the fence instead of the other side.

They thought about how they could be immediately gratified.  They did not think about what God had promised them if they remained faithful and moved forward.

They took their eyes off the Promised Land.  They opted for what was immediate and convenient.

Charles Mackintosh said, “It was a mistake.  A failure.  A stopping short of the divine mark.  They were governed, in their conduct by worldly and selfish considerations–by the sight of their eyes—by carnal motives.  Had they simply been looking to God, the question of settling down short of the (Promised Land) would never have been raised at all.”  Their sin was looking at the grass and not the one who provided the grass.

How should we expect God and Moses, the Israelite leader, to respond to this request?  Moses did not respond positively.  He asks them a blunt set of questions.  “What is your problem?  Why are you being selfish?  Are you for real?  You want to stay here and enjoy life while your brothers and sisters plan on taking on all comers in order to enter the land God had promise them.  The ESV says, “You mean you’d stay here while the rest of the Israelites go into battle?”  CEV says, “Are your brothers to go to the war, while you take your rest here?”

In no uncertain terms, Moses puts this whole incident into context.  He reminds them that this is the same mistake that the first generation made.  “You are making the same mistake that your forefathers made.  You are taking their place.  The previous generation failed to trust God and you are doing the same thing.  And, if you act like them, you will be punished like they were.”

Members of the two tribes then begin to barter with God and Moses.  “No, we want to do what’s right in God’s eyesight.  Just let us keep our livestock over here and build places for them to rest.  When that gets done, we will go with our brothers to enter the Promised Land and fight whoever it is that we must fight.  Just give us a chance to get ourselves set up over here, and then we will go over there.  We will fight alongside our brothers for as long as it takes the land to be conquered.  We will not stop or return home until the land is conquered and our brothers are settled into their own homes.  We’ll make the deal even sweeter God.  We won’t even ask for any land within Canaan.  Instead, we’ll just be happy with the land that we are in right now.  Sound good?”

About this scheme, Mackintosh said, “Beware of falling short of your proper position—your proper portion—of being content with the things which belong to this world.”

Moses essentially issues them an ultimatum in response to their plan.  He tells them that if they keep their word, they can have the land they requested.  If they don’t keep their word, then they will have to take what’s given to them in Canaan.

Eventually everyone keeps their word.  They enter the land as a unified front and take possession of it, just as God had promised.  They eventually defeat new enemies and divide the land.

But the story doesn’t end there.  We all realize that when we are unwilling to cooperate with God’s plan, our plans never go smoothly.  There were multiple immediate consequences that arose for the two tribes because they failed to do things God’s way.

First, when they went to war with their brothers, their families were left behind and unprotected in a separate area.  When they went to war with their brothers, their property was left unprotected in a separate area.  When they went to war, all that they held most precious in life was left in strategic danger.

But, even worse than that was the fact that they point blank told God, “We don’t want what you have planned for us.  We know what’s best for us.  We can take care of ourselves.”  God’s heart was broken.  Mackintosh asked, “Would or could a really true heart—a heart that thought and felt and judged with God—have entertained the idea of selecting a portion other than that which God had allotted and bestowed?  Impossible.”

Thomas Constable, professor at DTS, points out several other things about this whole situation.  “Though these tribes did fulfill their military obligation, their plan was not a good one.  It created a potential problem of disunity in Israel.  Furthermore it demonstrated a desire for what looked good physically and materially in preference to what God said He would give them that they had not yet seen.  Distance from the other tribes produced misunderstanding and disunity later.  The lack of natural defenses on the north, east, and south of Transjordan made this area especially vulnerable to attack by Israel’s enemies.  This area was often the first to experience invasion, and Israel lost control of it several times in her later history.”

They failed to see that the green grass at their feet was not as good as the grass that God had planned to give to them in the future.

So, what, Terrell.  What’s the point?

In our personal lives, the decisions that we make give evidence to how much we trust God to have active control over our lives.  The decisions that you make, and your attitude in making them, give testimony to how much you trust God to be God.  When we do make decisions that take God out of the equation, God will hold us accountable for those decisions.

God wants our trust as the Holy Spirit attempts to lead and direct us on a daily basis to move towards where God is taking us, both spiritually and physically.  We all can feel innately that God is moving each of us to something, to a place, that seems to be off in the distance.  We may not see it fully or know what it is exactly, but we know that God is trying to do something intentional within us.

My suggestion for all of us is don’t stop short of where God is leading you.  It’s always easier to stop short and concentrate only on the here and now, but that is not God’s best for us.  God’s best is found in Kingdom thinking and Kingdom living.  Getting to the Promised Land may sometimes be difficult, but the payoff is tremendous.

Okay, Terrell, but what does it mean for WGBC?  Are you telling us that we haven’t been doing what God has asked of us?  No, I am not saying that.  The point of this message is to get us to think about our attitudes as we move from periods of desert dwelling to a time of preparing to enter a new land.  The point is to actively ask the question, “What do we want from God?”  Do we want greener pastures or do we want God’s will for us?

But, Terrell, we don’t know exactly what God wants us to do to get from the desert to the Promised Land.  God hasn’t audibly talked to us through a person like God did through Moses.  That’s okay.  While we are still trying to figure out God’s will and hear God’s voice, our attitudes should be open to God’s leading.  Our attitudes have to be that of cooperation.  Cooperation with God and cooperation with each other.  Our attitudes should be that of confidence in God and not fear of the future.  Our attitudes should be that of joyful anticipation for what God has in store for us.  We can have this attitude because we know that wherever God leads us, the grass will be perfect because God is with us.

Will you pray with me?

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