When the Israelites reached the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years, an alliance was formed between the tribes of Rueben and Gad and half of the descendants of Joseph that were born to his oldest son Manasseh. Each of these men, Rueben, Gad, and Manasseh, were first born children that had lost or not received the blessing that typically went to the first male child in a family. These tribes did not dwell in the Promised Land, but chose to occupy territory outside the borders on the other side of the Jordan River.
Even though they did not cross over the Jordan River with their brethren to occupy the land that they had inherited, they overcame the inhabitants of the territory they requested from Moses and were able to control the land until they were taken int captivity by the Assyrians. The difference between the tribes of Rueben, Gad, and Manasseh and the rest of the Israelites is that they did not return to their homes after their captivity.
The Israelites were taken into captivity because they did not observe the Sabbath as God had commanded them to. The law about the Sabbath recorded in Exodus 23:10-11 said, “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let is rest and be still.” Although God is perfect, he is not a perfectionist. When he created our world, he limited himself to six days of word, then he ceased from his activity. God commanded man to follow his example because he knew that we would not want to stop producing of our own free will.
Man by nature is greedy and selfish. His drive to accomplish things and be successful makes it very difficult to stop working once he gets started. The main reason God stopped working after he created the world was so that he could do something else, go on the next thing so to speak. God is not sitting idle in heaven. He is working, a different kind of work than creating the universe.
The Sabbath was designed to be a transition point, a continual shifting of gears so that progress could be made. Instead of doing the same thing over and over, a person could stop one activity and start another. The Sabbath was intended to be like a period at the end of a sentence. Without the period, the sentence keeps going and eventually becomes confusing and illogical. Many people reach the end of their work life and wonder about their careers, why did I do that for so long; why didn’t I stop 20 years ago?
The captivity of Israel was a forced rest in which the people had to leave their homes and possessions and live in the territory of their captors. The purpose of their captivity was to refocus the Israelites attention on what really mattered, their relationship with God. During their captivity, the Israelites were no longer free to worship God and could not make sacrifices to him as they had in the Promised Land. They witnessed pagan rituals and were restricted from warfare.
It is not known why no organized return took place from the Assyrian captivity, but it may have been because the tribes of Rueben, Gad, and Manasseh never regained their focus. Without God’s blessing, these people lacked purpose and had no vision for their future. It is possible that once their work was interrupted by captivity, they could not start over and did not know how to do anything other than what they were told to in Assyria.
Although the Ruebenites, Gadites, and half tribe of Manasseh never returned, their land was repopulated by a mixed race of people that became known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans were despised by the Israelites and travel through their land was avoided at all costs, but during one of his trips to Galilee, Jesus passed through the land and stopped to talk to a woman that had come to draw water from Jacob’s well. During their conversation, “Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life: (John 4:13-14).
The Samaritan woman Jesus spoke to was stuck in the past. Jacob’s well had existed for hundreds of years and was a symbol of the prosperity he and his family enjoyed before the famine that drove them into Egypt for survival. Since then, Moses had delivered the Israelites from bondage and brought them to the Promised Land, and yet, the woman was still living a meager existence, struggling to survive. Jesus later revealed himself as the Messiah and let the woman know that her focus on the past had caused her to miss the most important event on God’s calendar.
Paul talks about entering into a permanent rest in Hebrews Chapter 4. “For we which have believed do enter into rest” (Hebrews 4:3). The rest that Paul is speaking of is not a result of our own effort, but Christ’s completed work on the cross. “God’s rest is entered when the believer is confidently assured within and outwardly lives peaceably in the assurance of God’s daily provision” (2663). This rest is prompted by a realization that we cannot reach perfection, that our own works will fall short and the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ. “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9-10).