The Cities of Nebo and Baʿal-Meon Were “Musabot Shem”
After the Israelites conquer the territory of the Transjordan, the tribes of Gad and Reuben request permission of Moses to settle there permanently, and after some deliberations, Moses agrees. When listing the cities that Reuben rebuilds, the Torah uses the phrase musabot shem, apparently to describe something about the cities:
במדבר לב:לז וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן בָּנוּ אֶת חֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֶת אֶלְעָלֵא וְאֵת קִרְיָתָיִם. לב:לח וְאֶת נְבוֹ וְאֶת בַּעַל מְעוֹן מוּסַבֹּת שֵׁם וְאֶת שִׂבְמָה וַיִּקְרְאוּ בְשֵׁמֹת אֶת שְׁמוֹת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ.
Num 32:37 The Reubenites rebuilt Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 32:38 Nebo, Baal-meon—musabot shem—and Sibmah; they gave names to towns that they rebuilt.
What does the term musabot shem mean?
Commentators have offered very different answers over the last two millennia.
1. Changed Names
The most common interpretation of the term is that the cities’ names were changed. The second word, shem, at least as punctuated by the Masoretes, means “name.” The first word, musabot, is a passive participle in the causative (hophʿal) form, from the root ס.ב.ב. The root generally means to go around or to surround, but, derivatively, it can also mean to turn or to change.
R. Meyuchas ben Eliyahu (late 12th century Greece) notes in his commentary (ad loc.), the expression appears in the context of royal name changes in Kings:
מלכים ב כג:לד וַיַּמְלֵךְ פַּרְעֹה נְכֹה אֶת אֶלְיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ תַּחַת יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ אָבִיו וַיַּסֵּב אֶת שְׁמוֹ יְהוֹיָקִים...
2 Kgs 23:34 Then Pharaoh Neco appointed Eliakim son of Josiah king in place of his father Josiah, and he changed his name to Jehoiakim…
מלכים ב כד:יז וַיַּמְלֵךְ מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל אֶת מַתַּנְיָה דֹדוֹ תַּחְתָּיו וַיַּסֵּב אֶת שְׁמוֹ צִדְקִיָּהוּ.
2 Kgs 24:17 And the king of Babylon appointed Mattaniah, his (=Jehoiachin’s) uncle, king in his place, and he changed his name to Zedekiah.
But how does this interpretation fit our verse? Who changed them and from what to what?
a. Israelites Changed the City’s Idolatrous Name
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) explains that the Israelites changed the names of the conquered cities:
נבו ובעל מעון שמות עבודה זרה הן, והיו האמוריים קורים עריהם על שם עבודה זרה שלהם, ובני ראובן הסבו את שמם לשמות אחרים. וזהו: מסבות שם – נבו ובעל מעון בָּנוּ, מסבות לשם אחר.
Nebo and Baʿal-maon were names of foreign gods, and the Amorites would name their cities after their gods, so the Reubenites changed their names to something else. This is what “with changed names” means: they built Nebo and Baʿal-maon, but under different names.
Although the end of the verse claims that the Reubenites and Gadites “gave names to towns that they rebuilt,” the extra gloss musabot shem, which appears before the end of the list, emphasizes the changing of two idolatrous names:
Baʿal-maon is an obvious deity name: Baʿal means “lord” and the Lord of X—Maon in this case—means the deity of X.
Nebo sounds much like the name of an important Babylonian god of wisdom, Nabû, familiar as the first element in the name Nebuchadnezzar (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur, “May Nabû protect my first-born son”).
Many modern scholars accept this reading. For example, Alexander Rofé, Professor Emeritus of Bible at Hebrew University, notes that in the city list for Reuben in the book of Joshua, instead of Nebo we find a new toponym (Josh 13:20), Ashdot-hapisgah, a neutral name which means “Slopes of the Mountain Top.” Similarly, Baal-maon is known in Jeremiah 48:23 as Beit-maon “House of Maon” a neutral name. Thus, according to Rofé, the names of these cities were officially changed to these inoffensive names.
Although attractive, it is noteworthy that the verse doesn’t clarify what the new names are, as would be expected if this interpretation is correct. Generally, when the Bible wishes to note that place name has been changed, it explicitly notes the new name, as in:
בראשית כח:יט וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה.
Gen 28:19 He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz.
שופטים יח:כט וַיִּקְרְאוּ שֵׁם הָעִיר דָּן בְּשֵׁם דָּן אֲבִיהֶם אֲשֶׁר יוּלַּד לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וְאוּלָם לַיִשׁ שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה.
Judg 18:29 They named the town Dan, after their ancestor Dan who was Israel's son. Originally, however, the name of the town was Laish.
Moreover, why does the text use the old Amorite name instead of the new Israelite name which the readers would have known?
b. Instructions for the Reader
In his commentary on Numbers, the great German Bible scholar, August Dillmann (1823–1894), suggested that the phrase is not a historical description—they changed the name—but rather, instructions to the reader to change the name! He argues that later scribes were uncomfortable with the possibility of a pagan name like Baʿal-maon being read out loud, and thus the person reciting the text is being warned not to say it.
Dillmann is basing his idea on the existence of the ketiv/qere in the Masoretic text, where a certain word is written inside the scroll but tradition instructs the reader to say something else. In this case, a notation that likely began in the margin made its way into the biblical text and became part of it.
This suggestion is overly speculative since we have no evidence for this kind of scribal notation. Why not add a specific qere, such as בית מעון, as is done everywhere else, instead of a generic instruction, “change its name.”
c. The Amorites Changed the Names
A third interpretation, first offered by R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th century), is that the verse means that the Amorites had changed the name from the Moabite original, after they conquered it (Num 21:26). Building on this suggestion, R. Moses Nahmanides (ca. 1194–1270) explains:
ולכן נראה כי פירוש מוסבות שם... שהסבו האמורי את שמם הראשון כאשר לכד אותם, וזה היה שמם הראשון כשהיו ביד מואב, ובני ראובן וגד... קראו להן בשמת את השמות הראשונים...
Therefore, it seems that the meaning of “changed names” is that… the Amorites changed their original names when they conquered them, and these are the names they had when they were in Moabite hands, and the Reubenites and Gadites… called them by their original names…
Nahmanides then looks for reasons why the Israelites would return to the earlier Moabite names,
כי רצו להזכירם בשם הידוע להם מאז, או להוביש את מואב, או כאשר הזכירו שהיו האמורים קורין עריהם על שם עבודה זרה שלהם.
Because they wanted to call them by names that were familiar to them in the past, or [they wanted to] embarrass the Moabites, or, as has been mentioned, because the Amorites named their cities with the names of their foreign divinities.
Nahmanides here is looking for some reason to justify why the Israelites would prefer Moabite names to Amorite names, which underscores the difficulty of this interpretation: Why would the Torah even mention something like this?
2. It Is a Name
An entirely different approach to translating the phrase was taken by the 11th century Byzantine scholar, R. Tobiah ben Eliezer, in his Lekah Tov commentary. He simply glosses the term with מקום הוא “it is a place name”—in other words, Musabot Shem is either the name of a city or the name of the area where the two previous cities can be found.
Two modern commentators that took a similar route are Heinrich Graetz (1817–1891) and Naphtali Tur-Sinai (1886–1973); they believe that musabot shem is a textual corruption of a similar toponym, although they differ in what the original may have been. In his Bible commentary פשוטו של מקרא, Tur-Sinai first quotes Graetz’s solution, that it originally read Bet-hayeshimot, based on the parallel passage in Joshua:
יותר נראה שיש כאן מקום נוסף. בכיוון זה רצה גרטץ לקרוא במקום 'מוסבת שם', על פי יהושע יג, כ: 'בית הישימות', הנזכרת שם במניית ערי סיחון מלך האמורי;
It seems more likely that we have here another toponym. Along these lines, Graetz wished to read instead of mussabot shem, Bet-hayeshimot, based on Joshua 13:20, which is mentioned as one of the cities of Sihon king of the Amorites.
Tur Sinai then offers an alternative suggestion, that the verse originally read “ve-ha-Bamot Sham”:
אבל אולי עדיף הוא לגרוס: 'בעל מעון וְהַבָּמוֹת  שָׁם', על פי הנאמר שם פס' יז: 'חשבון וכן עריה אשר במישר דיבון ובמות בעל ובית בעל מעון'.
Perhaps, however, it is better to read “Baʿal-maon, and the high places [bamot] there,” based on what is said there [Joshua] in verse 19: “Heshbon and all its towns that are in the Mishor, Dibon, Bamot-baʿal, and Beit-baal-maon.”
Neither Graetz nor Tur-Sinai offer any textual evidence here for their suggestions, although their creative solutions demonstrate how problematic the phrase musabot shem, and its placement in the verse, are.
3. Fortified with Walls
A very different understanding of the verse appears in the earliest translation of the Torah, the Greek LXX (Septuagint), which renders the phrase as περικεκυκλωμένας, “encircled.” This fits well with the usage of musabot in the three other places the Torah uses the term, where it means “encircled.” For example, when describing the stones of ephod, Exodus states:
שמות כח:יא ...מֻסַבֹּת מִשְׁבְּצוֹת זָהָב תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם.
Exod 28:11 …Encircled with frames of gold you shall make them.
It appears again when describing the stones of the breastplate (choshen):
לט:יג ...מוּסַבֹּת מִשְׁבְּצוֹת זָהָב בְּמִלֻּאֹתָם.
Exod 39:13 …They were encircled in their mountings with frames of gold.
As our verse speaks of cities, “encircled” would presumably mean surrounded with walls, i.e., fortified. This would parallel what we see earlier about the Gadite cities in verse 36, where they are referred to as עָרֵי מִבְצָר “fortified cities,” solving, as noted by Zvi Betzer (Bistricer) (1946–2002) of Bar Ilan University, the surprising lack of such a statement in the verse about Reubenites.
The LXX translation doesn’t appear to offer a rendering of the second word, shem “name.” Arnold Ehrlich (1848–1919), in his Mikra Ke-Pheshuto, suggests that in the LXX’s Vorlage:
ודע שבשבעים לא מתרגמים תיבת שם ומן הסתם לא היתה בספר לפניהם. ואם כן, פירוש מוסבות כשהוא בלא שם מוסבות חומה.
Note that in the Septuagint, the word shem is not translated. Apparently, it wasn’t in the text they were working from. In that case, the meaning of musabot, when it comes without the word shem means encircled by walls.
Another possibility, raised by Dillmann, is that the Vorlage read מוּסַבֹּת שׁוּר. While admittedly an uncommon term (perhaps an Aramaic loanword), and used mostly in poetry (Gen 49:22; 2 Sam 22:30 [=Ps 18:30]), shur means “wall.”
Other ancient translations support this textual variant. Thus, the second century C.E. Greek translator, Symmachus, renders the term περιτετειχισμενας, which means “walled in” or “surrounded by a wall.” Similarly, the early first millennium Targum Neophyti translates the phrase מקפן שורין רמין “encircled by high walls,” using the very word shur in the translation.
4. Hybrid Translations
It may be that both versions of the text, musabot shem and musabot shur, were known to certain translators, thus pushing them to offer a translation that incorporated both, a phenomenon related to what Shemaryahu Talmon (1920–2010) of Hebrew University called “double readings.” For instance, an explanatory marginal gloss appears on the Neophyti manuscript here, which reads:
קרתה דמקפן מגדליהא חזור חזור דילה ושמהת רברבנהא וגיברהא חקיקן בהון
A city whose towers encircled it all the way around, upon which the names of its great men and heroes are carved.
This gloss has both circling by towers and by names; such a compromise may also be what stands behind Onkelos’ strange translation מַקְּפָן שְׁמָהָן “encircled by names.”
Finally, the mid-first millennium Targum Pseudo-Jonathan includes both this compromise view, and the idea (noted in the previous section) that Musabot Shem is a city name. For mussabot shem, he writes:
וית קרתא דמקפן שורהא גליף שמהת גיברהא
And the city whose encircling walls have the names of heroes carved upon it.
This follows a pattern attested elsewhere in Pseudo-Jonathan, where he often offers an interpretation and not just an Aramaic rendition. In this case, following the same compromise we saw in the marginal note on Neophyti, Pseudo-Jonathan adds that the city is called Musabot Shem because of the walls with names on it. The point is made clearly by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) in his commentary Haketav Vehakabbalah:
הנה לדעתו עיר אחת נקראת מוסבות שם על הקף חומותיה שהיו חקוקים בה שמות הגבורים המפורסמים:
According to him (=Pseudo-Jonathan), one of the cities is called Musabot Shem "Surrounded by Names" because of the surrounding walls, upon which were carved the names of famous warriors.
5. Shem as Wall or Fortifications
While it is possible that the ambiguity about whether the text is referring to a name change or the building of a wall originated with competing textual variants—shur vs. shem—another possibility is that the word shem in this verse means “wall.” This novel understanding of the word shem was suggested by the rabbi and Bible scholar, Moshe Zeidel (1886–1970), in a handwritten note on the side of his Bible, where he referenced the Neophyti translation, “surrounded by high walls,” understanding it as a translation of the phrase musabot shem.
Zeidel’s reading was brought to public notice by Yehudah Kiel (1916–2011), the principal editor of the Daʿat Miqra commentary series, who refers to it in his commentary on the book of 2 Samuel, in a verse that also uses the word shem:
שמואל ב ח:יג וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד שֵׁם בְּשֻׁבוֹ מֵהַכּוֹתוֹ אֶת אֲרָם...
2 Sam 8:13 And David made a shem upon his return from striking the Arameans…
Kiel surveys possible meanings of shem in this context:
- “Reputation”—this would be an obvious extension of the term “name.”
- “Monument”—pointing to God’s promise in Deutero-Isaiah (56:5) to give eunichs יָד וָשֵׁם, literally “arm and name,” but generally understood as a kind of monument (hence the museum of that name in memory of the Holocaust).
- “Walls”—he writes: בנה מבצר ומגדל באדום, “he built fortifications and a tower in Edom.”
This third reading makes good sense, since David would want to protect his conquests with fortifications. In fact, the very next verse may support such a reading:
שמואל ב ח:יד וַיָּשֶׂם בֶּאֱדוֹם נְצִבִים בְּכָל אֱדוֹם שָׂם נְצִבִים וַיְהִי כָל אֱדוֹם עֲבָדִים לְדָוִד...
2 Sam 8:14 He stationed garrisons in Edom – he stationed garrisons in all of Edom – and all the Edomites became vassals of David…
As described by Erez Ben-Yosef and Aaron Greener in their “Edom’s Copper Mines in Timna: Their Significance in the 10th Century” (TheTorah 2018), the copper mines in Timna, which was supported by the Israelites, were fortified to protect the highly skilled Edomite copper smelters. Thus, David fortifying his holdings in Edom would fit the biblical and historical context quite well.
To defend the possibility that shem means fortifications and tower, Kiel quotes our verse in Numbers (with a reference to Zeidel), and another two:
Tower of Babel
In Genesis, when humans decide to all live together in the Shinar valley, they come up with a plan:
בראשית יא:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 11:4 And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, and we will make a shem for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
Shem here is usually translated as name, but this makes little sense in context. Instead, Kiel suggests that they made a tower and a wall, perhaps to keep invaders out or more likely, if they thought they were the only humans left in the world, to keep everybody in “lest they be scattered all over the world.”
This is actually how the 13th century, French commentator, Chizkuni, translates the term:
"ונעשה לנו שם"—מבצר חזק לעולם להיותנו שליטים על כל הבריות ונמלוך עליהם פן נפוץ על ידי מלחמות שיתגרו בנו הרחוקים אם לא נבנה לנו עיר ומגדל
“And make for us a shem”—a strong fortification forever, so that we can rule over all people and be kings over them, “lest we be spread out” as a result of the wars that those far off will fight with us, if we don’t build a city with a tower.
The third text Kiel brings for this usage is a pair of verses describing Ishmael’s descendants:
בראשית כה:יג וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בִּשְׁמֹתָם לְתוֹלְדֹתָם... כה:טז אֵלֶּה הֵם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹתָם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶם וּבְטִירֹתָם...
Gen 25:13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their shemot, in their generations… 25:16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their shemot by their villages and by their towers…
The surface reading of this verse seems repetitive, and thus Kiel sees shemot here as parallel to towers, and again translates it as fortifications.
In the article referenced above, Betzer adopts Kiel’s translation of shem in all these verses, and argues that the famous yad vashem phrase should be understood in this light: it is a memorial in the sense that it is a large tower or monument. The word yad conveys the imagery of an upraised arm, evocative of a tower.
Thus, for Betzer, the phrase "yad va-shem" literally means a tall tower (already impervious to attack due to its height) surrounded (for even more protection) by a strong fortified wall- a combination structure meant to withstand any attack and thus serves quite well as a metaphor for everlasting.
Metonymy: How "Name" Came to Mean a High Wall
Betzer takes this analysis further, and explains that “name” came to mean “wall” because of a metonymy, wherein an entire object is referred to by its salient component. A classic example is that when I offer to show someone “my new set of wheels,” we all know that I mean a car and not a set of tires.
In the ancient Near East, a city was often associated with a founder. This lays behind the verse describing Cain’s founding of the very first city, which he names after his son and heir:
בראשית ד:יז ...וַיְהִי בֹּנֶה עִיר וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הָעִיר כְּשֵׁם בְּנוֹ חֲנוֹךְ.
Gen 4:17 ...and he became a builder of a city, and he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
Thus, Betzer argues, “the word came to signify not ‘name’ alone but also the object on which names were carved (a wall, tower, or memorial).”
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Dr. Mordecai David Rosen has a B.Sc. in physics/math from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in Plasma Physics from Princeton University, and is employed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he studies fusion reactions created there, at the National Ignition Facility, the world's largest laser. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), winner of the Teller Medal of the American Nuclear Society for his role in creating a new field: High Energy Density Physics, and winner of the APS Excellence in Plasma Physics Award for designing the world's first laboratory x-ray laser. He and his wife, Rena (whom he met in kindergarten at the Yeshivah of Flatbush) attend Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, CA. Their children and their families span the globe from Ra'anana, Israel, to N.Y. City, to Berkeley, CA.
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