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Tzemah Yoreh





The Northern Tribal Tradition of Settling the Land



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Tzemah Yoreh





The Northern Tribal Tradition of Settling the Land






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The Northern Tribal Tradition of Settling the Land


The Northern Tribal Tradition of Settling the Land

Gathering Manna, Dalziels’ Bible (1865–81).

Multiple Origin Traditions

The idea that the exodus from Egypt is not the only origin tradition of Israel is not new. For example, in his TABS essay, “Exodus: not the only Tradition about Israel’s Past,” David Frankel explores the possibility that originally the wilderness tradition was separate from the exodus tradition, and that a different tradition described Israel beginning from wilderness tribesmen whom Yhwh finds and brings to the Promised Land.

Another model that is gaining attention now, especially among European scholars, is a theory that the original forms of the books of Genesis and Exodus are in fact representatives of two distinct origin traditions:

  • Genesis – God promises the patriarchs the land and their descendants take it over (never having left).[1]
  • Exodus – God frees a small tribe of Egyptian slaves and brings them to the land.[2]

The “Local-Leaders” Tradition

A tradition similar to the patriarchal origin tradition in Genesis outlined above, is that Israel was a local polity, growing in size and strength, with different leaders over the ages taking control of different swaths of territory over time. (Unlike the Genesis tradition, however, this tradition does not focus on the patriarchs.) This tradition seems to form the background for the book of Judges, which collects stories of different leaders from different (mostly northern) tribes, and tells about the battles they fought and, sometimes, the territories they won. It is to this tradition I turn in this essay.


The beginning of I Chronicles preserves ancient tribal traditions that Joseph’s son Ephraim and his children lived in Israel:

דברי הימים א ז:כ וּבְנֵ֥י אֶפְרַ֖יִם שׁוּתָ֑לַח וּבֶ֤רֶד בְּנוֹ֙ וְתַ֣חַת בְּנ֔וֹ וְאֶלְעָדָ֥ה בְנ֖וֹ וְתַ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ: ז:כא וְזָבָ֥ד בְּנ֛וֹ וְשׁוּתֶ֥לַח בְּנ֖וֹ וְעֵ֣זֶר וְאֶלְעָ֑ד וַהֲרָג֗וּם אַנְשֵׁי־גַת֙ הַנּוֹלָדִ֣ים בָּאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֣י יָרְד֔וּ לָקַ֖חַת אֶת־ מִקְנֵיהֶֽם: ז:כב וַיִּתְאַבֵּ֛ל אֶפְרַ֥יִם אֲבִיהֶ֖ם יָמִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶחָ֖יו לְנַחֲמֽוֹ:
1 Chron 7:20 The sons of Ephraim: Shuthelah, and Bered his son, Tahath his son, Eleadah his son, Tahath his son, 7:21 Zabad his son, Shuthelah his son, and Ezer and Elead. Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. 7:22 And their father Ephraim mourned for many days, and his brothers came to comfort him.

In his TABS essay, “The Book of Chronicles and the Ephraimites that Never Went to Egypt,” David Frankel asks what the sons of Ephraim were doing outside of Egypt, rustling cattle, when according to the exodus account they were supposed to be in Egypt. And what were his brothers (Menashe? other sons of Jacob?) doing there with him—weren’t they all supposed to be in Egypt? This passage implies that the Israelites were not enslaved in Egypt one generation after Joseph; they were in Canaan fighting the Philistines. Although this is the most striking passage that diverges from the dominant exodus tradition, it is definitely not the only such case.

Machir and Yair – The 400-Year-Old Brothers

The end of Genesis 50 reads:

בראשית נ:כג וַיַּ֤רְא יוֹסֵף֙ לְאֶפְרַ֔יִם בְּנֵ֖י שִׁלֵּשִׁ֑ים גַּ֗ם בְּנֵ֤י מָכִיר֙ בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה יֻלְּד֖וּ עַל־בִּרְכֵּ֥י יוֹסֵֽף:
Gen 50:23 Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the sons of Machir son of Manasseh were also born on Joseph’s knees.

This same Machir, who knew his grandfather Joseph (and perhaps even his great-grandfather Jacob),[3] according to Numbers 32:40-42 apparently participated in the conquest of the land after the exodus from Egypt:

במדבר לב:מ וַיִּתֵּ֤ן מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶת הַגִּלְעָ֔ד לְמָכִ֖יר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיֵּ֖שֶׁב בָּֽהּ׃ לב:מא וְיָאִ֤יר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁה֙ הָלַ֔ךְ וַיִּלְכֹּ֖ד אֶת חַוֺּתֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶתְהֶ֖ן חַוֺּ֥ת יָאִֽיר׃ לב:מב וְנֹ֣בַח הָלַ֔ךְ וַיִּלְכֹּ֥ד אֶת קְנָ֖ת וְאֶת בְּנֹתֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֧א לָ֦ה נֹ֖בַח בִּשְׁמֽוֹ׃
Num 32:40 So Moses gave Gilead to Machir son of Menashe, and he settled there. 32:41 Yair son of Menashe went and captured their villages, and renamed them Havvoth-yair. And Nobah went and captured Kenath and its villages, and renamed it Nobah after himself.”

Noting that Yair and Machir appear in both the Genesis story and that of the conquest, the Talmud (b. Baba Batra 121b) claims,

יאיר בן מנשה ומכיר בן מנשה נולדו בימי יעקב, ולא מתו עד שנכנסו ישראל לארץ,
Yair ben Menashe and Machir ben Menashe were born in the days of Jacob but did not die until Israel entered the land.

Machir’s Descendants – Ibn Ezra’s Explanation

In theory, one could explain, as ibn Ezra does,[4] that the sons of Menashe alluded to in these verses are not the actual sons of Menashe, but rather the descendants of the sons of Menashe; the Hebrew word בן can mean “descendant” as well as literal “son.” Num 32:39, which refers to Machir’s descendants (as opposed to Machir himself), may support this:

במדבר לב:לט וַיֵּ֨לְכ֜וּ בְּנֵ֨י מָכִ֧יר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁ֛ה גִּלְעָ֖דָה וַֽיִּלְכְּדֻ֑הָ וַיּ֖וֹרֶשׁ אֶת הָאֱמֹרִ֥י אֲשֶׁר בָּֽהּ:
Num 32:39 The sons of Machir son of Manashe went to Gilead, captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

Nevertheless, verse 40 is explicit that Machir himself (not just his sons) receives the land from Moses, and the verse after that is explicit that his brother Yair (not his brother’s sons) conquer the area of Havvot Yair. Thus, the verse about Machir’s descendants needs to be understood as Machir and “also” his descendants. (It is also possible that verse 39 is a late gloss, intended to soften the implication of v. 40 that Machir himself participated in the conquest.)

Machir Himself – The Simple Reading

Thus, taking the Torah’s statements at face value, Machir would have to have survived the entire stay in Egypt and forty years in the wilderness to have both sat on Joseph’s knee and participated in the conquest of the Transjordan! Basing ourselves on biblical accounts concerning the length of the sojourn in Egypt, he would have been close to 400 years year old. Only in the initial section of Genesis do the recorded life spans of some biblical characters exceed 400; after Genesis 11, the longest spans on record do not exceed 180 years.[5]

Gilead – the 600-Year-Old Man

According to Num 26:29, Machir has a son named Gilead. Later in the Bible, we learn that Gilead has a number of sons with his wife, but his most famous son, Yiftach, is born to a harlot (Judg 11:1-2):

שופטים יא:א וְיִפְתָּ֣ח הַגִּלְעָדִ֗י הָיָה֙ גִּבּ֣וֹר חַ֔יִל וְה֖וּא בֶּן אִשָּׁ֣ה זוֹנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד גִּלְעָ֖ד אֶת יִפְתָּֽח: יא:ב וַתֵּ֧לֶד אֵֽשֶׁת גִּלְעָ֛ד ל֖וֹ בָּנִ֑ים…
Judg 11:1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 11:2 Gilead’s wife also bore him sons…

The story of Gilead’s son Yiftach, however, is set 300 years after the conquest of Canaan, and Gilead was born while the Israelites were still in Egypt. This would make Gilead at least 600 years old![6]

It is tempting to distinguish between the Gilead of Judges (Yiftach’s father) and the Gilead of Numbers (the son of Machir), but both the texts in Numbers and Judges seem to be referring to the same person. Gilead in Judges lives in the Menashite homeland in the North, is an important person in that clan, and is not identified except by the single name Gilead. Any reader hearing the Yiftach the judge was the son of Gilead would naturally think of the Gilead mentioned in Numbers.

Yair Establishes Chavvot Yair… Twice

Finally, the account of Yair’s conquest brings up yet another problem. In his essay “Ibn Ezra’s Secret: Late Editorial Comments in the Opening Chapters of Deuteronomy” (TheTorah, 2013), Zev Farber notes the “suspicious similarity” between the Judge Yair the Gileadite and Yair the son of Menashe in Deuteronomy:

Yair in Judges

שופטים י:ג וַיָּ֣קָם אַחֲרָ֔יו יָאִ֖יר הַגִּלְעָדִ֑י וַיִּשְׁפֹּט֙ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל עֶשְׂרִ֥ים וּשְׁתַּ֖יִם שָׁנָֽה: י:ד וַֽיְהִי ל֞וֹ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים בָּנִ֗ים רֹֽכְבִים֙ עַל שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים עֲיָרִ֔ים וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים עֲיָרִ֖ים לָהֶ֑ם לָהֶ֞ם יִקְרְא֣וּ׀ חַוֹּ֣ת יָאִ֗יר עַ֚ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַגִּלְעָֽד:
Judg 10:3 After him came Yair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. 10:4 He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys; and they had thirty towns, which are in the land of Gilead, and are called Havvoth-Yair to this day.

Yair in Deuteronomy

דברים ג:יד יָאִ֣יר בֶּן מְנַשֶּׁ֗ה לָקַח֙ אֶת כָּל חֶ֣בֶל אַרְגֹּ֔ב עַד גְּב֥וּל הַגְּשׁוּרִ֖י וְהַמַּֽעֲכָתִ֑י וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֹתָ֨ם עַל שְׁמ֤וֹ אֶת הַבָּשָׁן֙ חַוֹּ֣ת יָאִ֔יר עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:
Deut 3:14 Yair the Manassite acquired the whole region of Argob… and he named them—that is, Bashan—after himself, Havvoth-Yair, as it is to this day.

Yair appears twice in the Bible, conquering the same territory and giving it the same name, but in two different periods, the Wilderness period and the Judges period. Is this likely?

An Alternative Explanation: Same Characters in Different Traditions

One solution to the chronological problems just mentioned is to assume that the Torah believed that Machir, Yair, and Gilead lived for hundreds of years. But if this was this intention of the authors, the Torah would have said so explicitly. (400 and 600-year lifespans are not something to be passed over in silence.) What seems more likely is that the stories that imagine Machir, Yair, and Gilad playing a role in the settlement period come from an earlier tradition that did not know the exodus story. They fit in with the passage in Chronicles quoted above in which the Ephraimite and Manassite tribes are native to the land. It is only as a result of the domination of exodus tradition that the chronological problems noted would have arisen. As a result of the integration of the exodus tradition, any person from the patriarchal period person still living during the conquest would automatically become hundreds of years old.

The same point applies to the double account of Yair’s conquest of Havvoth Yair. This story was probably also once independent of the exodus and Moses traditions. Like his brothers Machir and Gilad, Yair was said to have conquered territory on his own during the settlement and expansion period of the Josephite tribes, naming the area after himself. Only when the tradition of a Mosaic conquest of the Transjordan became solidified, was the story forced back in time to the wilderness period, with the double conquest and naming of Chavvot Yair by someone named Yair as a byproduct.

The Chronological Problem in the Bible’s Canonical History

According to the Bible, Machir, Gilad, and Yair, are born during Joseph’s lifetime. Yet, they reappear hundreds of years later in Numbers, and hundreds of years after that in the book of Judges. If we read the Torah and Judges as history books then these people must have lived for centuries. Without resorting to counterintuitive answers—such as creating double characters (two Gilads, two Yairs), or saying that the name Machir is a reference to his descendants—we must either posit that the Torah is describing extraordinarily long-lived individuals, or that the Bible incorporates divergent traditions regarding Israelite history. These traditions, such as that of the patriarchs, the exodus, the conquest, and the judges, were originally independent explanations of Israel’s origins, and some of the biblical characters (like Machir and Yair) seem to have appeared in more than one of them.

This last suggestion seems to me to be the most compelling answer. Like the case in Chronicles, we can imagine a tradition that did not include an exodus and a return. In such a case, Menashe’s sons (and grandson) were born in the land, became leaders of their respective groups, and began the work of gradual conquest.


December 22, 2015


Last Updated

September 5, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.