There is a Big Idea in the Bible, called sin. It is not as big an idea as God’s grace, nor as powerful as forgiveness; but, nonetheless, it is one of the big ideas. It is not good for human beings to be alone in the world; and yet we are drawn to pull away from the obligations of our relationship with people, and place, and our place within the wider ecosystems of our world. The ways in which we distance ourselves, and particularly the habitual ways that start out small but end up bigger than us, enslaving us, are what is meant by ‘sin.’ But big though sin is as an idea, it is swallowed and transformed by God’s commitment to human flourishing.
There is a fascinating account in the history of the relationship between the god Yahweh and the people whom Yahweh had rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites, recorded in Numbers chapter 32. This people, presented to us as a confederation of tribes with distinct tribal characteristics, have been living away from the land God had promised to them, the descendants of his friend Abraham, for half a millennium; and now they are about to return. It is a land that lies on both sides of the river Jordan, and they shall enter the land from the east. Working together, they are to drive out the present inhabitants of the land; and once the land is secured, then it is to be divided between the tribes to settle. (Throughout the long period of history covered by the narrative of the Bible there is near constant moving of peoples from one place to another, forced by famine or military invasion; a complicated narrative of what it means to be human in the world in which we find ourselves, in relation to the land, and other ‘gods and men.’)
We are told that the tribes of Reuben and Gad were cattle farmers, and that coming to the part of the land to the east of the Jordan, they noted that it was good for cattle. And so, they asked permission to settle this land for their possession and inheritance, and not cross the Jordan to fight for the possession and inheritance of the rest of the tribes of Israel. But Moses, the leader by whom Yahweh had rescued them from Egypt and through whom had established a formal treaty with the people, confronted them: was it right that their fellow Israelites should fight for one another while Reuben and Gad distanced themselves? Indeed, Moses points out, you are repeating the pattern set by your fathers. A tribal habit.
The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad make a counter proposal: they will secure the infrastructure of the land to the east of the Jordan, and then, once that is done, once they can leave their women and children and livestock in safety, they will cross over the Jordan with their brothers and fight alongside them. And Moses replies,
“If you will do this—if you will arm yourselves before the Lord for battle and if all of you who are armed cross over the Jordan before the Lord until he has driven his enemies out before him—then when the land is subdued before the Lord, you may return and be free from your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will be your possession before the Lord.
“But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. Build cities for your women and children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”
Here is the fascinating little phrase: you may be sure that your sin will find you out.
In context, it cannot mean, as it is often taken to mean, that your sin will come to light, for it would be plain for all to see from the outset. Perhaps it should be understood in this way: that your habitual sin will be the very thing through which you discover, by the grace of God, your way back to yourself as a person in restored relationship with others.
The sin of the Reubenites and Gadites, the move by which they sought to distance themselves from their obligation—as opposed to fulfil their obligation—was ‘cattle.’ They were cattle farmers. That is not to say that cows (or Reubenites, or Gadites) are evil; but, simply, that the well-trodden paths of the cattle were the route by which they sought to draw back, to withhold something of themselves. Yet the cow in the stall, and the flocks in the pens—like a redeemed elephant in the room—are the reminder of promises made. They cannot escape being cattle farmers, and indeed there is nothing inherently wrong with being a cattle farmer, but it is the sweet spot where the battle they need to fight meets the means of victory.
I am not a cattle farmer, but a herder and breeder of words. Words, written by myself or by others, by which I may seek to avoid sharing life with others, or, by the grace of God, to encourage others. When I fail, I may be sure that my sin will find me out, that I may come to my senses and be brought back to where I need to be, to where and with whom I am.