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Itamar Kislev





Apportioning the Land: By Lot and By Population?!



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Itamar Kislev





Apportioning the Land: By Lot and By Population?!






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Apportioning the Land: By Lot and By Population?!

The Torah’s two contradictory methods for how to divide the land among the tribes – a redactional and historical approach.


Apportioning the Land: By Lot and By Population?!

Joshua assisted by Eleazar casts lots and assigns to each of the tribes a certain part of Canaan. By Joseph Mulder, Gerard Hoet, 1720-1728 (adapted). Rijksmuseum

The detailed census on the plains of Moab (Num 26:1-51) is followed by a passage about the apportionment of the land.

Apportioning by Population

The method to be used for this apportionment is clarified at the beginning of the passage:

במדבר כו:נג לָאֵלֶּה תֵּחָלֵק הָאָרֶץ בְּנַחֲלָה בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת. כו:נד לָרַב תַּרְבֶּה נַחֲלָתוֹ וְלַמְעַט תַּמְעִיט נַחֲלָתוֹ אִישׁ לְפִי פְקֻדָיו יֻתַּן נַחֲלָתוֹ.
Num 26:53 Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names. 26:54 With larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its portion according to its enrollment.

These verses say that the land should be divided in an egalitarian fashion, by size, so that a large tribe will receive a large share while a small tribe will receive a small share. This method ensures that every male over the age of twenty receives an equal share in the land.

Apportioning by Lot

The next verses, however, describe a different method, division by lot:

במדבר כו:נו אַךְ בְּגוֹרָל יֵחָלֵק אֶת הָאָרֶץ לִשְׁמוֹת מַטּוֹת אֲבֹתָם יִנְחָלוּ. כו:נו עַל פִּי הַגּוֹרָל תֵּחָלֵק נַחֲלָתוֹ בֵּין רַב לִמְעָט.
Num 26:55 The land, however, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made according to the names of their ancestral tribes. 26:56 Each portion shall be assigned by lot, whether for larger or smaller tribe.

These two methods, apportionment by lot and by population, are contradictory: Apportionment by lot takes no account of the varying populations of the separate tribes and does not reflect an egalitarian concern, while apportionment by population depends on the needs of each tribe, and cannot be settled by lot.

Traditional Harmonistic Answers

Commentators from ancient times until today have noted these two different methods of land apportionment, and have attempted to reconcile them. Traditional Jewish harmonies include:[1]

  • Rashi (1040-1105), who suggests that the portions were of unequal sizes, determined by calculating population needs, and that the lottery was a ritual performance by the high priest to involve God and its results were in accordance with the size of the tribes.[2]
  • Taking the opposite approach of Rashi, Ramban (1194-1270) believes that each tribe would receive the same size plot, determined exclusively by the lot. The passage about population simply refers to division among clans within the tribal lot.[3]

None of these harmonistic attempts, however, is convincing, since the verses themselves are entirely contradictory both in substance and in style. The commentators’ attempts to make sense of the law highlights this contradiction. This contradiction becomes clearer when we understand the technical meaning of the phrases רב (“many/large”) and מעט (“few/small”).

What Does בֵּין“ רַב לִמְעָט” Mean?

The phrase בין רב למעט in the “lot” passage (v. 56) is difficult.[4] It is similar to Leviticus 27 (vv. 12, 14), which describes the process of a priest assessing the valued of a gift to the Temple, and that the assessment stands whether it is טוב (good) or רע (bad). E. A. Speiser has shown that similar sentences were found in Nuzi (an ancient Mesopotamian city, where many cuneiform tablets were found) and has argued persuasively that the meaning is that the valuation of the priest will be valid whether it is high or low.[5]

ויקרא כז:יב וְהֶעֱרִ֤יךְ הַכֹּהֵן֙ אֹתָ֔הּ בֵּ֥ין ט֖וֹב וּבֵ֣ין רָ֑ע כְּעֶרְכְּךָ֥ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן כֵּ֥ן יִהְיֶֽה:
Lev 27:12 And the priest shall assess it. Whether high or low, whatever assessment is set by the priest shall stand;
כז:יד וְאִ֗ישׁ כִּֽי־יַקְדִּ֨שׁ אֶת־בֵּית֥וֹ קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ לַֽי-הֹוָ֔ה וְהֶעֱרִיכוֹ֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן בֵּ֥ין ט֖וֹב וּבֵ֣ין רָ֑ע כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲרִ֥יךְ אֹת֛וֹ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן כֵּ֥ן יָקֽוּם:
27:14 If anyone consecrates his house to YHWH, the priest shall assess it. Whether high or low, as the priest assesses it, so it shall stand;

Applying Speiser’s insight to our case, we should explain the phrase בין רב למעט that the decision of the lot will be valid regardless of the size of the tribe: “whether for a larger or a smaller [tribe].” In other words, the size of the tribe should not matter. This interpretation of the difficult phrase, stands in striking contradiction to v. 54a לרב תרבה נחלתו ולמעט תמעיט נחלתו , “for a larger tribe increase its share, for a smaller tribe reduce the share,” which states that the size of the tribe is the criterion for the size of the inheritance.

A Polemically Phrased Supplement

The two verses that present the division by lot, vv. 55-56 are formulated very similarly to the two verses that present the division by size (53-54). This suggests that the author of vv. 55-56 knew vv. 52-54, and composed his material as a direct polemic against it:

Verses 53-56 contain two parallel inconsistent or opposing units: vv. 55-56 are parallel to vv. 53-54. The similarities between these two units are extensive:

1. Apportioning

The phrase תחלק הארץ “the land shall be apportioned” (v. 53a) in the first unit uses the same root (ח-ל-ק) and grammatical construction as the phrase יחלק את הארץ “the land is to be apportioned” (v. 55a) in the second. In both cases, the land is “to be divided.” The formulation shows that the goal of the division is common to both units and each method alone is sufficient to apportion the land.

2. The Tribe’s Portion

Both 54b and 56a use the noun נחלתו “its portion” and similar prepositions (לפי, על פי). The verbs bear similar meaning (יתן, תחלק “assigned”). Both sentences, however, differ in the method: by size or by lot. This similarity is doubtless intentional and shows that the methods are alternatives.

3. Large and Small

The words רב “large” and מעט “small” both appear in 54a and 56b. The phrase בין רב למעט (“whether for a larger or smaller [tribe]”) that contradicts the expression לרב תרבה נחלתו ולמעט תמעיט נחלתו (“for a larger tribe increase its share, for a smaller tribe reduce the share,”) shows that the injunction to apportion the land by lot in vv. 55-56 was intentionally formulated to oppose the command to divide the land by size. Each clause in the latter has a literary parallel in the former with different content, which instructs not to divide the land by size, but by lot.

The Opening “But” – A Negation of the Previous Verses

The opening of the “lot” verses with אך expresses the contrariness between the following verses and the former; the meaning of this word here is “but.” As a result, it should be clear that vv. 55-56, which command to apportion the land by lot, were added later in order to cancel the original commandment in vv. 53-54 that orders to divide the land by size.

אך as Contrast

Another example of the word אך being used as a contrast comes from Exod 12:16:

כָּל מְלָאכָה לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה בָהֶם אַךְ אֲשֶׁר יֵאָכֵל לְכָל נֶפֶשׁ הוּא לְבַדּוֹ יֵעָשֶׂה לָכֶם.[6]
…No work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you.

In Num 26:55, the interpolator could not allow himself to delete the already existing authoritative text and, therefore, appended his additional verses onto the more ancient text.

Population Is the Original method – Tied to Census

  • Vv. 53-54 are the the original verses in this context. They fit the context very well, related directly to the preceding census account: The word לאלה “among these” in the beginning of this passage refers to the people who were enumerated in the census.
  • The phrase במספר שמות “according the listed names” (v. 53b) refers to lists that are a product of the census.
  • Whether a tribe’s population is high or low (רב and מעט) is known from the census results.
  • The word פקדיו “its enrollment” (v. 54b) explicitly relates to the census.

Revising the Law from Population to Lots: When and Why?

This evidence suggests that vv. 55-56 added to the passage—but why did someone oppose the division based on population, replacing it with division by lot method?

The two methods have important differences. The size method reflects a tendency of social justice and egalitarian society and does not involve YHWH. Apportioning by lot emphasizes the centrality of YHWH, and ignores the effect of unequal distribution of portions. In addition, implicitly, boundaries determined by lot cannot be changed; they reflect divine will, whereas the division by size may be adjusted according to the changes in the different groups' relative populations.

Persian Period Update

The later layer in this passage was probably written in the Persian period, when waves of immigrants from Babylon arrived and the question of landownership was burning. Any new wave of immigrants needed fields and lands and that naturally caused tensions between the various Judeans groups.[7]

The lot method, emphasizes the place of YHWH in determining the apportionment, bestowing upon the borders holiness and permanence, granting the Persian-period resettlement of Yehud, an aura of antiquity and legitimacy.

Another example of using past traditions to justify the Persian-period resettlement is found in Nehemiah 11:25-30, which makes use of the list in Josh 15:21-35. By adapting a list from Joshua, the legendary first conqueror of the land, the author of Nehemiah equated the resettlement in his time to the first settlement at the time of Joshua. Thus, he casts the return from Babylon in the colors of the glory days of Joshua in the time of the entrance into the Promised Land and encourages the people, who were suffering from a difficult economic situation and were being pressed by the Idumeans from the south of Yehud.

Granting the Resettlement of Yehud, an Aura of Antiquity and Legitimacy

The editor who added the lottery method wanted to emphasize that the resettlement in the (author’s) Persian period is fully justified as a continuation of Joshua’s settlement and land division that already received a divine confirmation. The ancient boundaries of the tribes, were delineated by YHWH in the time of the conquest and remain valid (see Josh 14:1-2, and 19:51).

This view of continuity would encourage the people in Yehud in the Persian period, who were in a gloomy situation under the Persian government and difficult economic conditions (see e.g. Hag 1:6-11; Neh 5). The interpolation of Num 26:55-56 was intended to draw the depressing present in the colors of the glorious past and to give the oppressed people in Yehud the feeling that they enter anew into the Promised Land like the people in the time of Joshua.


July 26, 2016


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Itamar Kislev is professor of Hebrew Bible and Medieval Jewish Exegesis at the University of Haifa. His Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kislev’s book, On the Threshold of the Promised Land [Hebrew] was published last year.