Redacting the Relationship to the Transjordanian Tribes
The tribes of Reuben and Gad approach Moses with a petition. They had noticed that the Transjordanian country of Jazer and Gilead provided superb conditions for animal husbandry. For some unexplained reason, they had accumulated more livestock than the others, and so they request that the country be allotted to them (Num 32:1-5). Their petition incenses Moses and he chastises them at length (vv. 6-15). Yet after he hears that they are willing to cross the Jordan and fight for their Israelite kin, he agrees to their plan (vv. 16-32). The account concludes with this leader assigning specific territories to Gad, Reuben, and half-tribe of Manasseh as well as to Machir, Jair, and Nobah (vv. 33-42).
Settling the Transjordanian Territories—Again
The country Reuben and Gad request had already been settled: “Israel put [King Sihon of the Amorites] to the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok. […] And Israel settled [wayyēšeb] in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages” (21:24-25). Settlement is also reported in connection with Jazer and its villages (v. 31) and with the realm of King Og of Bashan (v. 35).
After the reader has already been told that Israel took up residence in these Transjordanian towns and villages, chap. 32 poses several problems. First, it does not presuppose that Israel had already settled in this region. Second, only part of Israel (two, or two and half, of the twelve tribes) wishes to settle in this region. Third, their desire to settle there enrages Moses. Conversely, in chap. 21 the settlement had already taken place, the area is not settled by solely a couple tribes, and Moses was not explicitly mentioned in the decision to settle there.
A New Account in Response to Transjordanian Issues
So how should we account for the contradiction between these chapters? I maintain first that the chapters are from different sources, and second, that chap. 21 must be older than chap. 32. Scholars have long recognized that chap. 32 is composite. And one can dissect it in various ways. But I would argue that even its oldest parts have been added to the narrative at a relatively late point. Their authors consciously contradicted chap. 21 because they needed to address political issues posed by the Transjordanian communities that affirmed membership among the people of Israel.
Their new account eliminates any doubt that the Transjordan communities deserve to be identified as part of Israel. Now two of Israel’s tribes, Reuben and Gad, seek permission to begin settling this territory because it is particularly well-suited to their large flocks of cattle. By portraying Moses’s hostile reaction to this request and the response of Reuben and Gad that appeases Moses’s anger, the authors provided the population of the Transjordan with an (literary) occasion to affirm their solidarity with Israel. This is why chap. 32 contains such lengthy exchanges: their prolixity reflects the great interest provoked by the question whether communities from the left bank of the Jordan really belong to Israel.
Does the Gilead Belong to Israel?
The map that informs most biblical texts has the Jordan as the border to Israel’s land. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers all his speeches, including the law code, in anticipation of crossing the Jordan. The divine marching orders, with which the book begins, do not include the Jordan’s eastern bank when defining the borders of the land that was promised to the ancestors and that Israel was to conquer. The threat that Israel will perish from the land is notably confined to the western territories.
Likewise, in the Book of Joshua, the ceremonious crossing of the Jordan is told at great length. As soon as Israel encamps at Gilgal, they build a monument that connects the parting of the Jordan with the parting of the Red Sea. Later they circumcise all the males, “rolling away” the reproach of Egypt that they had carried with them until this point. At that point, the manna ceases, and they celebrate Passover. These and many other things happen in Canaan, not in the territories of the Transjordanian tribes.
Two Versions of Numbers 32
With respect to the composition of Numbers 32, a significant number of repetitions or “doublets” testifies to the likelihood that the chapter represents the synthesis of two independent accounts. Below I have taken the text and, with minimal modifications, separated it into two parts. The indented half is preserved more fragmentarily, but it still tells a coherent story and hence does not contain only supplements to the primary strand. The non-indented lines in boldface are what I ascribe to the oldest iteration of the account. Additions to the respective strands are marked in italics.
The indented material has much in common with Priestly texts and may well have been conceived for an independent Priestly document. I designate the earliest account “pre-Priestly.” It probably does not belong to one of the conventionally demarcated source documents (Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, etc.). I suggest instead that it was composed as a supplement to the material in chap. 21 and originally stood in direct proximity to it. This concise account would have served to explain how the Reubenites and Gadites came to occupy the territories of Sihon and Og.
Composition of Numbers 32
1 Now the Reubenites and the Gadites owned a very large number of cattle. When they saw that the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead was a place for cattle-raising,
2 The Gadites and the Reubenites came and spoke to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— 4 the country that Yhwh subdued before the congregation of Israel—is a country for cattle; and your servants have cattle.” 5 They said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this country be given to your servants for a possession; do not bring us across the Jordan.”
6 But Moses said to the Gadites and to the Reubenites, “Shall your brothers/kin go to war while you sit/tarry here?” 7 Why will you discourage the hearts of the Israelites from going over into the land that Yhwh has given them? 8 Your ancestors did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. 9 When they went up to the Wadi Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the hearts of the Israelites from going into the land that Yhwh had given them. 10 Yhwh’s anger was kindled on that day and he swore, saying, 11 ‘Surely none of the people who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not unreservedly followed me— 12 none except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they have unreservedly followed Yhwh.’ 13 And Yhwh’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of Yhwh had disappeared. 14 And now you, a brood of sinners, have risen in place of your ancestors, to increase Yhwh’s fierce anger against Israel! 15 If you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people.”
16 [they approached him/Moses and] they said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, 17 But as for us, we will take up arms in the van/forefront of the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place. Our little ones will stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 Yet we will not return to our homes until all the Israelites have obtained their inheritance. 19 We will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance will come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.”
20 Moses said to them, “If you do this
“If you take up arms to march into war in the van/forefront of Yhwh, 21 and all those of you who bear arms cross the Jordan in the van/forefront of Yhwh, until he has driven out his enemies from before him 22 and the land is conquered before Yhwh—
then after that you may return and be free of obligation [to Yhwh and ?] to Israel,
then this land shall be your possession before Yhwh.
23 But if you do not do this, you will have sinned against Yhwh—be sure your sin will find you out.
24 Build towns for your little ones, and folds for your flocks; but do what you have promised.”
[25 Then the Gadites and the Reubenites said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our flocks, and all our livestock shall remain there in the towns of Gilead. 27 But your servants will cross over, everyone armed for war, to do battle for Yhwh, just as my lord orders.”]
28 Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest, to Joshua son of Nun, and to the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelite tribes. 29 And Moses said to them, “If the Gadites and the Reubenites, everyone armed for battle in the van/forefront of Yhwh, will cross over the Jordan with you and the land shall be subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession; 30 but if they will not cross over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.”
31 The Gadites and the Reubenites answered, “As Yhwh has spoken to your servants, so we will do. 32 We will cross over armed into the land of Canaan in the van/forefront of Yhwh, but the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us on this side of the Jordan.”
33 So Moses gave to them—to the Gadites and to the Reubenites and to the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph—the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites and the kingdom of King Og of Bashan, the land and its towns, with the territories of the surrounding towns.
34 And the Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer, 35 Atroth-shophan, Jazer, Jogbehah, 36 Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran, fortified cities, and folds for sheep. 37 And the Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 38 Nebo, and Baal-meon (some names being changed), and Sibmah; and they gave names to the towns that they rebuilt.
39 The descendants of Machir son of Manasseh went to Gilead, captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were there; 40 so Moses gave Gilead to Machir son of Manasseh, and he settled there. 41 Jair son of Manasseh went and captured their villages, and renamed them Havvoth-jair. 42 And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its villages, and renamed it Nobah after himself.
Given that the two strands overlap in so many respects, it is unlikely that they originated independently from each other, as some scholars maintain. It is more likely that the Priestly version was composed as an alternative to the earlier account, anticipating the phenomenon of “Rewritten Bible” in the Greco-Roman period.
Comparing the Versions
Both versions begin with the tribes of Reuben and Gad expressing their desire to dwell in the Transjordan. But in what I’ve identified as the pre-Priestly account, these two tribes themselves volunteer to fight as a vanguard for the Israelites. They would leave their children and cattle back home while they cross over the Jordan to serve as a vanguard for the Israelites during the campaign into Canaan. In the Priestly version, however, the tribes request that they not be made to cross the Jordan yet say nothing about their intention to serve as a vanguard for Israel. Their petition infuriates Moses, and he harangues them at great length.
The Priestly version thus cleverly flips the pre-Priestly version on its head with the aim of formulating a polemic against the Transjordanian communities. The authors couldn’t easily eliminate the earlier texts that depict the two (and half) tribes contributing to Conquest of Canaan. But what they could do is claim that these tribes initially did not want to cross over the Jordan in order to take part in the campaign. That they ultimately do agree to participate is, according to this version, only because Moses revealed to them the error of their ways. In this manner, the Priestly version transforms the earlier account. What was originally an offer of the tribes to fight as a vanguard for Israel now begins as a command by Moses and ends with a pact obligating the participation of the two tribes (vv. 28-32).
Similarly, the pre-Priestly version of Numbers 32 differs from the Priestly edition with respect to the motivation for fighting. The former emphasizes fraternity/kinship. The Reubenites and Gadites vow to leave their flocks, children, and women behind in order to collectively cross the Jordan armed for battle in the van/forefront of “the Israelites.” The sheepfolds, houses, and towns of Jazer and Gilead are already built. The eastern tribes therefore do not have their eyes set on lands and houses that they would possess by means of Canaanite conquests. Instead of a material incentive, they risk their lives for nothing other than their Cisjordanian comrades, who do not yet have properties and houses of their own.
When they render service in the campaign in Canaan, the eastern tribes do not need to be coerced through the threat of corporal punishment or harsh penalties, the common mechanisms of conscription in the ancient Near East. Even in Joshua 1, where the death penalty is threatened to anyone who fails to perform military service, it is not the officers of the troops who pronounce this judgment, but rather the members of the Transjordanian tribes, who speak for themselves.
In formulating its polemical assault on the Transjordanian tribes, the Priestly account reconfigures the military assignment. In the pre-Priestly version, the tribes offer to fight in the vanguard of Israel (lit. “in the van/forefront of Israel”) and never mention Yhwh. In contrast, the Priestly version repeatedly emphasizes that the tribes are to take up arms and fight as a vanguard for Yhwh, not Israel. This version uses the trope of “marching in the van/forefront” to present military service not as a gesture of fraternal solidarity but as an act of obedience to Yhwh. The deity now assumes the position of the fellow Israelites. This point is stressed throughout (32:20, 21, 22, 29, 31).
In keeping with this transformation of what was originally the tribes’ offer into a Mosaic commandment and duty to the deity, the Gadites and Reubenites march alongside the Cisjordanian tribes and fight for Yhwh (vv. 27, 29, 30). The Cisjordanian campaign has now become Yhwh’s war. Participation becomes less about war and more about service to a higher order as well as about observance to the commandment of Yhwh and his representative Moses (vv. 25, 31). As this war is Yhwh’s, shirking service is a “sin” against the deity (vv. 6-15, 23).
The Vanguard Battalion
Emphasized in the pre-Priestly version of Numbers 32, as well as in Deuteronomy 3 and Joshua 1, is the promise of the Transjordanian tribes to lead the way into battle. They will place themselves in most dangerous position on the battlefield: “But as for us, we will march as shock-troops in the van/forefront of the Israelites until we have brought them to their place.” The vanguard battalion conventionally consists of the most skilled, fearless, determined, and loyal of all units of an army.
In many ancient Western Asian armies, leaders were called in Akkadian ālik pani, lit. “the one who goes at the front.” The title could be borne also by the king and/or a deity (often in personal names), in keeping with the unmatched martial valor attributed to the human and divine war-leaders. When used collectively for a unit, the term refers to the “advance guard” (or “avant-garde”) of the army. On the other hand, vassal kings and their troops were often expected to take this position at the front as a way of demonstrating their willingness to die for the suzerain, in keeping with stipulations of many vassal treaties (e.g., VTE 4.51).
From State Diplomacy to National Belonging
The themes of fraternity and wartime contributions run hand-in-glove throughout a long a history of social-political discourse extending from antiquity to contemporary times. Terms of fraternity and kinship belong to the vernacular of ancient international diplomacy. One of the most consistent features of the Akkadian treaty tradition is the expectation that one participate in the partner’s war effort and join the coalition, as well as come to the defense of each other. The treaties and official correspondence are suffused with the rhetoric of “brotherhood” (aḫḫūtu) in addition to “close friendship” (rā’īmūtu).
Thus, fraternity between two separate polities/peoples brings with it obligations and a moral imperative, just as it does within a political community, as observed in Numbers 32 and related texts. The obligations differ only in degree, not quality. In both cases, they are understood to derive from a kinship that long precedes the moment in which a contribution or action is called for. The ratification of international treaties in the ancient world was often accompanied by blood rites, commensality, and intermarriage, which otherwise characterize familial/national bonds. The far-reaching ramifications of treaties for kinship and political-ethnic boundaries explain the anxiety of many biblical authors with respect to alliances between Israel and other peoples.
Yet there is a major difference: Our texts do not concern diplomacy between states; instead, they subsume this standard diplomatic parlance to their national project. Their interest is to foster a political community—a sense of belonging and peoplehood—that can withstand the loss of statehood. The actors are no longer rulers and representatives of states but rather groups and communities within one nation.
In the case of Numbers 32 it is two tribes who approach Israel’s leader. Their negotiations have nevertheless an official legal quality. The agreement is ratified through formal declarations (e.g., “Your servants will do my lord commands” in 32:25), and later Moses proclaims a decree to Eleazar the priest, Joshua, and the representatives of the tribes, which is again formally accepted by Reuben and Gad (32:28-32). All the other related texts refer to the agreement as a contractual obligation, and later Joshua formally discharges the warriors to return to their homes (Josh 22:1-9). Many other details bear an official imprint. Thus Moses uses the word nāqî (v. 22), a technical term, with the meaning “exempt,” used in contexts of military service or civil conscription (e.g. Deut 24:5 and 1 Kings 15:22).
The Meaning of the Combined Account
The transmitted version of the account synthesizes the originally independent pre-Priestly and Priestly versions. The redactors achieve a compromise between the very different attitudes toward the Transjordanians in the respective sources. Their new edition presents Moses, in keeping with the Priestly version, excoriating the two tribes for their reluctance to pass over the Jordan and take part in the Canaanite campaign. Yet this edition also allows the tribes to repudiate sharply Moses’s accusations by volunteering, without any prior pressure, to serve as a vanguard for Israel, in keeping with the older pre-Priestly version. Moses embraces the suggestion of Reuben and Gad, and the pact (vv. 28-32, part of the Priestly version) becomes merely the formal follow-up to the preceding agreement.
The synthesis does more than strike a balance between the competing views of the Transjordanians. It fuses the themes of these versions: national fraternity and fidelity to the law. Fraternal solidarity figures prominently in the pre-Priestly version. In the Priestly version, however, the Transjordanians do not fight for the welfare and prosperity of their Cisjordanian kin; their participation is instead first and foremost compliance with Moses’s commandment.
As the redactor(s) wove together the two versions, obedience to the law comes to supplement, rather than supplant, fraternal solidarity, as it does already in Deuteronomistic texts (Deut 3:18-20; Josh 1:12-15, 22:1-9). The reader of this narrative must now conclude that what makes Israel a people is kinship, while what unifies them as a nation and guarantees their longevity in the land is fidelity to the divine commandments.
In the redactional synthesis of the two versions, the authors of the Pentateuch rediscover a basic insight that informs much of the Torah and Former Prophets: Kinship has many limitations as a unifying principle. In contrast, the law can transcend primordial affiliations by providing a broader foundation on which communities can coalesce into a unified nation.
At a time when Israel was reconstituting itself as a people living under foreign imperial hegemony, it no longer had opportunity to take up arms for their kinsfolk. Fidelity to the Torah and performance of the divine commands could take the place of wartime contributions as the means by which the community could demonstrate its belonging and participate in national life. The biblical authors addressed the longstanding issues of belonging posed by the Transjordanian communities by commemorating their service on the frontlines: Their narrative depicts this population fighting for their Cisjordanian kin in keeping with the Mosaic commandment.
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Prof. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.
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