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Yigal Levin





Dibon-Gad Between the Torah and the Mesha Stele





APA e-journal

Yigal Levin





Dibon-Gad Between the Torah and the Mesha Stele








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Dibon-Gad Between the Torah and the Mesha Stele

In the southern Transjordanian Mishor (plateau), an area that changed hands between Israelites and Moabites, there once lived two neighboring tribes, Gadites and Dibonites.


Dibon-Gad Between the Torah and the Mesha Stele

Dibon and Dhiban

The summary of the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness in Numbers 33 describes the entry of the Israelites into Moab. One of the places they encamp is called Dibon-Gad.

במדבר לג:מד וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים בִּגְבוּל מוֹאָב. לג:מה וַיִּסְעוּ מֵעִיִּים וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּדִיבֹן גָּד. לג:מו וַיִּסְעוּ מִדִּיבֹן גָּד וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעַלְמֹן דִּבְלָתָיְמָה.
Num 33:44 They set out from Oboth and encamped at Iye-ha’abarim, in the territory of Moab. 33:45 They set out from Iyim and encamped at Dibon-Gad. 33:46 They set out from Dibon-Gad and encamped at Almon-diblathaim.

The combined name “Dibon-Gad” appears in the Bible only here, but a city called “Dibon” in the Transjordan is mentioned an additional 8 times in the Bible.[1] It is also mentioned four times in the famous Mesha Stele, but in no additional known Iron-Age sources.[2]

Mesha Stele, Louvre Museum. Wikimedia

The context of all of these sources places Dibon in Transjordan, in the area north of the River Arnon (Wadi Mujjib) called “The Mishor” (“flatland” or “plateau”). Since the beginning of modern scholarship, a consensus has maintained that it can be identified with the modern village of Dhiban, in what is now Jordan, just 3 km north of the gorge of the Wadi Mujjib, commonly identified with the biblical River Arnon.[3] This village is also where the Mesha Stele itself was discovered in 1868.[4]

Excavations at the site were first conducted in 1910 by Scottish archaeologist Duncan Mackenzie (who also excavated at Beth-shemesh and at Knossos in Crete), followed by several subsequent expeditions, most recently the joint American-British “Dhiban Excavation and Development Project.”

These excavations suggest that Dibon was settled during the Early Bronze Age (3300–2000 B.C.E.), but not (or very scarcely) during the Middle and Late Bronze Age (2000–1200 B.C.E.), which, from a biblical perspective, would be “the Canaanite Period.” Settlement resumed during the Iron Age, and continued intermittently until the late Middle Ages.

Who Lived in Dibon?

According to biblical tradition (Num 21:21-30), Dibon was part of an area that was originally Moabite, and which was conquered by Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon,

במדבר כא:כו …וְהוּא נִלְחַם בְּמֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב הָרִאשׁוֹן וַיִּקַּח אֶת כָּל אַרְצוֹ מִיָּדוֹ עַד אַרְנֹן.
Num 21:26 … had fought against a former king of Moab and taken all his land from him as far as the Arnon.

Among the conquered areas, the text lists Dibon (v. 30), and the Israelites under Moses, in turn, took this land from Sihon.

Following this conquest, Num 32 lists Dibon as one of the towns that the Gadites and Reubenites requested as their inheritance (v. 3), and verse 34 tells us that the Gadites “built” (perhaps meaning “rebuilt”) it.

במדבר לב:לד וַיִּבְנוּ בְנֵי גָד אֶת דִּיבֹן וְאֶת עֲטָרֹת וְאֵת עֲרֹעֵר.
Num 32:34 And the Gadites (re)built Dibon, Atarot, and Aroer.

It seems obvious that the addition of “Gad” to the name of the town refers to its status, as one of the towns that were settled by the tribe of Gad according to the previous chapter (Num 32:34). Yet, we don’t see other cities being renamed to reflect the tribe that settled them. So why is the tribal name Gad added to Dibon, specifically here?[5] In both Numbers 21 and 32, the town is referred to simply as Dibon. Then, in Numbers 33, the city is called Dibon-Gad, after which, in Joshua and Jeremiah, it is again referred to simply as Dibon. Why does Numbers 33 consider it necessary to use the longer form “Dibon-Gad”?

Traditional Solutions: Multiple Dibons

Surprisingly, many traditional commentators seem not to have been bothered by this unusual name. Those who were, generally suggested that the addition of Gad was to distinguish it from other toponyms with the name Dibon.

Dibon Is the City, Dibon-Gad Is the Zered Stream

Abraham ibn Ezra (Num 21:12) suggests that Dibon-Gad is another name for the Zered Stream,

ויחנו בנחל זרד – במקום אחר יקרא: דיבון גד (במדבר ל”ג:מ”ה).
“And they encamped by the Zered Stream”—In a different verse (Num 33:45) it is called Dibon-Gad.

Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) offers the same suggestion:

ונחל זרד הוא דיבון גד והיו לו שני שמות
The Zered Stream is Dibon-Gad; it had two names.

According to this, Dibon-Gad is not the name of a city at all, but another name for the Zered Stream. Ostensibly, it is called Dibon-Gad to distinguish it from Dibon the city.

This surprising identification is part of their solution to a bigger problem, namely, the contradiction between the itinerary in Numbers 33 and that of Numbers 21.

Numbers 21 and 33 each lay out Israel’s itinerary through the Transjordan. Although they overlap at many points, sometimes the lists are quite different. If we compare the Dibon-Gad passage with the very similar passage in Numbers 21, we note that while both have four toponyms beginning with Oboth and Iye-haabarim, the third and fourth are different in each text: Numbers 33 lists two cities—Dibon-Gad and Almon-diblathaim—as the third and fourth toponyms, while Numbers 21 lists two streams, the Zered and the Arnon.[6]

Whereas critical scholars tend to explain these differences as a result of the splicing of different sources or redaction,[7] the majority of classical commentaries who deal with this problem argue that the itineraries, and thus the place names, must be identical.

The point is explained clearly in the commentary of R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (Num 21:12):

ויחנו בנחל זרד. ובאלה מסעי אומר שמעיי {ה}עברים באו לדיבון גד (במדבר ל”ג:מ”ה), אבל לשם אומר שם המקומות ובכאן אומר שם הנהרות לפי שרוצה לבא אל הבאר.
“And they encamped by the Zered Stream”—In Parashat Massai it says that from Iye-abarim they came to Dibon-Gad (Num 33:45). But there it uses the names of places whereas here is describes streams since it wishes to lead up to the appearance at the well.[8]

Whereas Bekhor Shor is not interested in the problem of Dibon-Gad, and simply assumes that it is the name of a city near the Zered Stream, ibn Ezra and Abarbanel assume that Dibon-Gad is the name of a stream and thus is a different place than Dibon mentioned elsewhere.[9] Nevertheless, other than the desire to make Numbers 33 and 21 agree, there is no reason to assume that Dibon-Gad is the name of a stream.

Dibon-Gad versus Dibon-Reuben

Another approach is to suggest that there were two cities named Dibon in the Mishor. The argument is based on the difference between Numbers 32:34, which says that Dibon was built by Gadites, and Joshua 13, which says that Dibon was given to the Reubenites:

יהושע יג:טו וַיִּתֵּן מֹשֶׁה לְמַטֵּה בְנֵי רְאוּבֵן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם. יג:טז וַיְהִי לָהֶם הַגְּבוּל מֵעֲרוֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת נַחַל אַרְנוֹן וְהָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַנַּחַל וְכָל הַמִּישֹׁר עַל מֵידְבָא. יג:יז חֶשְׁבּוֹן וְכָל עָרֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּישֹׁר דִּיבוֹן
Josh 13:15 And so Moses assigned [the following] to the tribe of the Reubenites, for their various clans, 13:16 and it became theirs: The territory from Aroer, on the edge of the Arnon River and the town in the middle of the river, up to Medeba—the entire Mishor—13:17 Heshbon and all its towns in the Mishor, Dibon

Noting that Reuben also has a city called Dibon, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926) writes in his commentary known as the Meshekh Chokhma (Num 33:45):

ויחנו בדבון גד. פירוש דיבון אשר בחלקו של גד כמבואר במטות, שגם לבני ראובן היה עיר נקראת דיבון, כמבואר בספר יהושע יעו”ש היטב ק’ י”ג פסוק ט”ז.
“And they encamped in Dibon-Gad”—Meaning, Dibon which is in the territory of Gad, as is explained in Mattot, since the Reubenites also had a city named Dibon, as is made clear in Joshua when you look their closely in chapter 13 verse 16.

For a traditional scholar such as R. Meir Simcha, the two lists must agree, and thus there must have been two Dibons, one in Reuben’s territory and the other in Gad’s. Nevertheless, as I argue in my “What Were Reuben and Gad’s Territories in the Transjordan?” (TheTorah, 2017), a critical look at the various town lists for Reuben and Gad show that depending on when they were composed (which is a matter of debate in each case), the lists imagine a very different reality of where each tribe lived, probably reflecting what the case was in the respective time of each author.

Dibon-Gad versus Dibon-Judah and Dibon-Moab

A similar approach to R. Meir Simcha was taken by a more recent traditional commentator, Yehiel Zvi Moskowitz (1917–1999), author of the Numbers volume in the Hebrew Daʿat Miqraʾ series:

ויחנו בדיבן-גד – הואיל וכמה מקומות נקראו 'דיבון' (כגון דיבון ביהודה [נחמ' יא כה]), הצרך להוסיף כאן את הכנוי 'גד'.
They encamped in Dibon-Gad—since there are a number of places called Dibon (such as Dibon in Judah [Neh 11:25]), the verse needed to add here the modifier “Gad.”

Moskowitz goes on to support this suggestion by relying on an unusual translation of the verse in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan:

ומתרגום יונתן משמע שסבר, שבארץ מואב עצמה היו שני מקומות שנקראו 'דיבן'. האחד – העיר 'דִּבֹּן, שבקשוה בני ראובן ובני גד לנחלה (לעיל לב ג, לד), ואותה תרגם 'מדבשתא'. והאחר – זו שלפנינו. ואותה תרגם תרגום מלולי: 'דיבון בין מזלא'.
From Targum (Pseudo-)Jonathan it seems that he believed that in the land of Moab itself there were two places called Dibon. One was the Dibon which the Reubenites and Gadites wished to settle (Num 32:3, 34), which he translates as Madbashta. The other is the one in this verse, which he translates literally as “Dibon Ben Mazala” (Dibon of Fortune).

In this reading, the word “Gad” in Dibon-Gad refers not to the tribe, but to “mazal – fortune,”[10] a usage found in Gen 30:11. Based on this translational choice, Moskowitz argues for the likelihood of a second Dibon in Moab itself, thus requiring one of them to have a modifier to avoid confusion.

Like ibn Ezra and R. Meir Simcha, Moskowitz has a harmonistic approach to the text. In other words, his explanation of the toponym assumes that all Torah texts must agree with one another and be equally authoritative.

Critical Approaches

Surprisingly, most modern commentators have also ignored the problems concerning the name Dibon-Gad. Baruch Levine, for example, in his Anchor Bible commentary on Numbers, wrote:

Dibon-Gad is an alternative name of Dibon, Mesha’s capital just north of the Arnon, reflecting the tradition of Numbers 32:34 according to which the Gadites built (or rebuilt) this town. It thus qualifies as a literary anachronism, giving away the fact that the author knew the later affiliation of the town while writing about an antecedent period.[11]

This suggestion, however, does not explain why the text uses “Dibon-Gad” specifically at this point. In addition, it is not technically correct since, within Numbers 32–33, Dibon had already been settled by the Gadites. In fact, Jacob Milgrom, in his JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers, suggests just the opposite:

[The mention of] Dibon-Gad presupposes the occupation of Dibon by the tribe of Gad (32:34), which may account for placing the itinerary here.[12]

Source Critical Approach

One possible approach, which might solve why Dibon is called “Dibon-Gad” only in Num 33, is to suggest that Num 32 and Num 33 are derived from two different sources, each from a different time and each reflecting a different point of view. Levine, for example, points out that the route of Num 33 is very different than that described in either what he calls the JE narratives or that described by the “priestly historiographers,” agreeing more with “the writings of the Deuteronomist.”[13]

Milgrom, in an excursus to his commentary, suggested that the itinerary of Num 33 is not only a unified text, but that it is actually “the master list from which the individual itineraries in the narratives [of Exodus-Numbers – Y.L.] were drawn.”[14] Building on this, Koert van Bekkum has more recently claimed that the whole chapter is indeed a very early composition, which “contains at least some information from the late second millennium BCE.”[15]

If we view Numbers 33 as a unique source, we can suggest that its author, whenever and for whatever purpose he actually wrote his itinerary, wished to emphasize the specific connection between the town of Dibon and the tribe of Gad. But why?

Dibon and Gad in the Mesha Stele

One source that may help us answer this question is the Mesha Stele, in which both Dibon and Gad are mentioned. Dibon itself is mentioned in the stele four times.

  • The first of these in the preamble, in which Mesha introduces himself as מלך מאב הדיבני, “the king of Moab, the Dibonite.”[16]
  • The second is in line 21, in which Mesha narrates that he captured Yahatz לספת על דיבן, “to add to Dibon.”
  • The third and fourth times are in line 28, א]ש דבן חמשן כי כל דיבן משמעת] – “the men of Dibon were armed, for all Dibon [is/was/are/were] under my command.”

Since the very beginning of the study of the stele, it has been assumed that Dibon was the name of Mesha’s capital city, and its identification with Dhiban, where the stele was actually found, was taken for granted.

Dibon as a Tribe

About a dozen years ago, Eveline J. Van der Steen and Klaas A.D. Smelik proposed, that “Dibon” in the Mesha Stele does not refer to a town by that name, but rather to the “tribe” of which Mesha was chief.[17] His capital was not called Dibon but “Qorḥoh,” the building of which is described in detail in lines 21 to 26 of the stele.

Scholars who assume that the city’s name was Dibon have tried to understand the term Qorḥoh as a reference to the “acropolis” or “royal quarter” of Dibon, but the stele suggests that it was a city. According to Van der Steen and Smelik, only in later generations did the name of the tribe, Dibon, become the name of their chief town, and this is how it was remembered in the Bible.[18]

Mesha Before the War

Mesha’s rebellion against Israel is recorded both in the Bible (2 Kings 3) and on the stele. We don’t know what his status was before this rebellion and we also don’t really know the extent of his territory once he succeeded in carving one out, or who its inhabitants really were. The picture that we often deduce from the Bible, of “Moabites” living south of the Arnon and “Israelites” living to the north, is way too simple.[19]

The very fact that Mesha, even before his rebellion and “conquest” (or, to him, “liberation”) of the Mishor, calls himself a “Dibonite,” means that there was at least one tribal group living in the area of the southern Mishor, which felt a connection to the Moabite identity, perhaps living under the thumb of the kingdom of Israel.

But the Dibonites were not the only tribe living on this strip of land; the Gadites lived there as well. Lines 10–11 of the Mesha Stele read:

ואש. גד. ישב. בארצ. עטרת. מעלמ. ויבנ. לה. מלכ. ישראל. את. עטרת | ואלתחמ. בקר. ואחזה | ואהרג. את. כל. העם
And [the] men/man of Gad dwelt in the land of Ataroth fromever, and the king of Israel built Ataroth for himself. And I fought against the city and captured it. And I killed all of the inhabitants.

This is the only contemporaneous extra-biblical reference that we know of to any of the biblical tribes of Israel (Judah is mentioned as a kingdom, not as a tribe). Ataroth is only a few kilometers west of Dibon, and both are listed as Gadite towns in Num 32:34, one after another, which at first glance makes the Mesha Stele and the biblical record tally well.

But if we read the above text carefully, we can see that Mesha does not call Gad “Israel.” He claims, that while Gad had “always” lived in “the land of Ataroth,” at some point “the king of Israel” came and “built” (fortified?) Ataroth. In other words, this suggests that Gad was a native Transjordanian tribe that had been “conquered” by the king of Israel.

Fluid Identity or Polemic?

In his “The Tribe of Gad and the Mesha Inscription” (TheTorah, 2013), Aaron Koller cited the Mesha inscription as evidence of a “fluidity of identity” among the Gadites, who may have sometimes considered themselves “Israelite,” sometimes “Moabite,” and sometimes something else.

This may be true, but what seems clear is that Gadites and Dibonites were neighboring tribes; the former saw themselves—or at least were seen by the biblical authors—as part of the Israelite orbit (by force or by choice) while the latter saw themselves—or at least were seen by Mesha—as Moabite (though they too may have been dominated by Israel for a while). This situation may be what is behind the polemical nature of the texts involved, namely the Mesha Stele and the biblical text.

The Mesha Stele, whatever its specific genre (this is debated by scholars), is definitely a piece of political propaganda. Its purpose is to portray Mesha as a Kemosh-driven savior of the Moabites from their enemies, chief of which was Israel under Omri and his sons. His presentation of Gad as a native tribe that was “conquered” by Israel and “liberated” by himself is part of this polemic. We should remember this before accepting its claims as “historical fact.”

The Bible is hardly free of such political polemics either,[20] and this may be what we are seeing here. We do not really know when the itinerary of Num 33 was written, or whether the unique reference to “Gad” was included in the original text. But when it was included, it was included for a reason. Perhaps that reason was to highlight the fact that “the men of Gad did indeed dwell in Dibon fromever”—and as far as the biblical writers were concerned, they were Israelite!


July 31, 2019


Last Updated

March 18, 2024


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Prof. Yigal Levin is associate professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Land of Israel Studies from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin is the author of The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10-36 and co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present.