Only the Dead have seen the end of war – George Santayana
Si vis pacem, para bellum – Vegetius

Numbers contains some pretty unsavory stuff, which I’ll skip. I’ll concentrate on chapter 32. This is the section where the Reubenites and Gadites come to Moses and Eleazar the priest to tell them that the east side of the Jordan looks pretty good and that they and their livestock would just as soon stay there rather than cross the river into the Promised Land. This, of course, would relieve them from having to fight for said Land.

Moses does not react well to this proposal – which is an understatement. He reminds the two tribes what happened the last time some of the Israelites did not want to enter the Promised Land. God condemned them to wander in the desert for 40 years until the whole generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) that had provoked the Lord’s displeasure was gone. He goes on to say “And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers to add still further to the Lord’s wrath against Israel. If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people.” The Reubenites and the Gadites get the message. They will have to fight before they and their cattle can lead the good life. Once they assure Moses that they will fight he allows that they can return to the east bank of the Jordan and live in peace with their herds and flocks.

No one seems very concerned about the fate of the Canaanites who are about to be kicked off their land and scattered to God knows where. There are many lessons to be learned from this chapter. The first is that just about everybody lives on a piece of land that he or his ancestors took away from somebody else. The next is that the God of Moses will not suffer anyone who is not ready to fight before he farms.

The history of civilization records that peace is a brief interval surrounded by war. It did not take the Hebrews long to realize that constant war was terrible.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4

The liturgy of virtually all Jewish and Christian sects is an almost constant yearning for peace and justice. Yet peace never comes and justice is scarce. One has to wonder if these utopian longings are not pernicious. To think that human nature will change or can be ordered on rules contrary to how people actually behave encourages the organization of affairs based on rules that cannot be followed. Our Republic was founded on the belief that men were not angels and that laws and governments were therefore needed to confound the baser instincts of men that would inevitably surface without constraint impartially enacted and enforced.

Thomas Jefferson is alleged to have said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Regardless of who said it, it’s true. Eternal vigilance is difficult and fatigues. It’s much easier to believe that peace, if you have it, will persist without constant effort.

We have just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. During the past century and a half the United States has enjoyed an almost unprecedented period of domestic peace and tranquility. In human history such a span of calm is the rare exception. The Israelites did, indeed, gain the Promised Land, but they couldn’t keep it. They didn’t get it back for another 2 ½ millennia and whether they can keep it now is an open question. The Torah, Vegetius, and Santayana all suggest that if they do keep it, they will have to fight or be ready to fight to do so.

The Reubenites and the Gadites wanted what we all wish. To lead their lives in peace and prosperity. But God insisted that they first fight. 3000 years later we seem to still live under the same ordinance.