The Settlement of Reuben and Gad: A Rhetorical Case for Transjordan as Part of the Promised Land
As Numbers 32 begins, the Reubenites and Gadites approach Israel’s leadership with a request:
במדבר לב:ה אִם מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ יֻתַּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ לַאֲחֻזָּה.
Num 32:5 If we find favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a holding.
The Hebrew word אחזה refers to the land as gift to Israel through promise to its ancestors (e.g., Gen 17:8). Texts that use this word typically understand the Promised Land as limited to Canaan—namely, the territory west of the Jordan—but the land in question here is east of the Jordan.
To ask for this land לאחזה, as a holding, is to make a loaded request: The Reubenites and Gadites are not merely asking that they be allowed to settle here. They are asking that this land be recognized, along with Canaan, as part of the land promised by God to the patriarchs—and that they, as Israelites living in this territory east of the Jordan, be recognized as part of the community that is party to that covenant.
The Reubenites and Gadites end their request with the deceptively simple statement אַל תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן, “Do not make us cross the Jordan” (v. 5). I say “deceptively” because, as a type of linguistic theory called pragmatics teaches us, we interpret even simple statements by making inferences from context. We are usually not aware of this as we are actively speaking with someone, nor do we need to be when communication moves along without any problems. But paying attention to context is often crucial as we try to understand and navigate points of miscommunication or conflicting interpretations.
This idea is very important for interpreting Numbers 32, because conflicting interpretations of אַל תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן, “Do not make us cross the Jordan,” are exactly what we get.
A Critical Misunderstanding
Moses understands אַל תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן to mean that the Reubenites and Gadites have no intention of participating with the rest of the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan. He therefore responds with understandable anger:
במדבר לב:ו …הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה.
Num 32:6 …“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?”
His anger is reasonable because he is interpreting what the Reubenites and Gadites said in a very particular context. When we interpret a statement, we are drawn to contexts that we perceive to be more relevant—those that result in what seems to us a more meaningful and significant interpretation than other available alternatives.
The context Moses found most relevant here (which we know because he cites it) is the story of the scouts who were sent to prepare the previous generation for conquering the land from the south (Num 13:1–14:45). In that story, the Israelites were reluctant to conquer Canaan, and the result was an entire generation dead in the wilderness and delayed realization of the land promise, a covenantal catastrophe he would not like to see repeated:
במדבר לב:ז וְלָמָּה (תנואון) [תְנִיאוּן] אֶת לֵב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעֲבֹר אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם יְ־הוָה. לב:ח כֹּה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם בְּשָׁלְחִי אֹתָם מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ לִרְאוֹת אֶת הָאָרֶץ. לב:ט וַיַּעֲלוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכּוֹל וַיִּרְאוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וַיָּנִיאוּ אֶת לֵב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבִלְתִּי בֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם יְ־הוָה…. לב:יג וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְנִעֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה עַד תֹּם כָּל הַדּוֹר הָעֹשֶׂה הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה.
Num 32:7 Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that YHWH has given them? 32:8 That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land. 32:9 After going up to the wadi Eshcol and surveying the land, they turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that YHWH had given them…. 32:13 YHWH was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked YHWH’s displeasure was gone.
Moses then sums up his critique by accusing the tribes of Gad and Reuben of being about to repeat this same calamity:
במדבר לב:יד וְהִנֵּה קַמְתֶּם תַּחַת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם תַּרְבּוּת אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים לִסְפּוֹת עוֹד עַל חֲרוֹן אַף יְ־הוָה אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל. לב:טו כִּי תְשׁוּבֻן מֵאַחֲרָיו וְיָסַף עוֹד לְהַנִּיחוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְשִׁחַתֶּם לְכָל הָעָם הַזֶּה.
Num 32:14 And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to YHWH’s wrath against Israel. 32:15 If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people.”
The Reubenites and Gadites, however, never actually say that that they will not participate in the conquest of Canaan. Their reason for not wanting to cross the Jordan has nothing to do with fear of the giants who live on the other side, as it did for the scouts (Num 13:28–29), and everything to do with the economic suitability of the land east of the Jordan for their cattle-owning tribes (v. 4).
We can already sense a misunderstanding unfolding here. Misunderstanding can result when a listener interprets a statement in a different context than the one in which the speaker framed it, or when a speaker fails to anticipate what information a particular listener might need in order for communication to be successful.
While Moses interprets אַל תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן in the context of the scouts episode, the Reubenites and Gadites have a different context in mind when they say it. They speak of this land as הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְ־הוָה לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל “the land that YHWH conquered before the congregation of Israel” (v. 4), a reference to its conquest from the Amorite king, Sihon, back in Numbers 21.
Land that is legitimately conquered is going to be allotted to someone, and the Reubenites and Gadites are making the case that they should be the tribes to receive holdings here. In their concern for where they might be allowed to receive a legitimate holding, they are silent on the issues that Moses perceives as being of utmost importance.
Clearing Up the Misunderstanding
Once they hear the concerns Moses raises, they move quickly and decisively to repair his reading of the ambiguity in their request and assuage his concerns.
במדבר לב:טז וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה וְעָרִים לְטַפֵּנוּ. לב:יז וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם הֲבִיאֹנֻם אֶל מְקוֹמָם וְיָשַׁב טַפֵּנוּ בְּעָרֵי הַמִּבְצָר מִפְּנֵי יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ.לב:יח לֹא נָשׁוּב אֶל בָּתֵּינוּ עַד הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ נַחֲלָתוֹ. לב:יט כִּי לֹא נִנְחַל אִתָּם מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וָהָלְאָה כִּי בָאָה נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אֵלֵינוּ מֵעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרָחָה.
Num 32:16 Then they stepped up to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. 32:17 And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. 32:18 We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion. 32:19 But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan.”
They express willingness, even eagerness, to participate in the conquest of Canaan, volunteering to lead it and to remain in Canaan until all the other Israelites are settled as well, as long as they are first allowed to establish some infrastructure to protect their assets (women, children, livestock) while they are gone. They demonstrate that they are committed to the community, that they are not like the scouts who sowed communal discord and put the land promise in jeopardy, and that the outcome Moses fears will not come to pass.
Moses grants their proposal, but only after laying out some terms. First, Moses makes explicit what is left unsaid even though it is everywhere implied—namely, that the Reubenites and Gadites will cross the Jordan for war. He does this by referring to their proposal (“this thing”) and then specifying in clear terms what it means.
במדבר לב:כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה אִם תַּעֲשׂוּן אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אִם תֵּחָלְצוּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לַמִּלְחָמָה. לב:כא וְעָבַר לָכֶם כָּל חָלוּץ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַד הוֹרִישׁוֹ אֶת אֹיְבָיו מִפָּנָיו. לב:כב וְנִכְבְּשָׁה הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה וְאַחַר תָּשֻׁבוּ וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִּים מֵיְהוָה וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיְתָה הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Num 32:20 Moses said to them, “If you do this thing, if you take up arms to go before YHWH into battle 32:21 and all of you who bear arms cross the Jordan before YHWH, until He has dispossessed His enemies before Him, 32:22 and the land has been subdued before YHWH, and then you return — you shall be clear before YHWH and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under YHWH.
A very important shift in their battle position also takes place here. When the Reubenites and Gadites correct Moses’s misunderstanding back in Numbers 32:17, they express their eagerness to fight with the rest of the Israelites by volunteering to go in the very front of the army, “before the Israelites” (לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל), as shock-troops. Moses uses different language, though, saying that they are to go “before YHWH” (לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה). Many translations understand this expression to mean the same thing the Reubenites and Gadites said back in verse 17 (e.g., “if you go to battle as shock-troops, at the instance of the LORD” in NJPS).
But “before YHWH” does not mean the same thing as “before the Israelites.” This hits home when we read Moses’s statement in the context of Numbers 2, which lays out a marching order for the Israelite camp (a not-so-thinly-veiled social hierarchy). The Judah contingent goes first, and then the Reuben contingent (including Gad), which is followed by the tabernacle (the dwelling of YHWH) in the middle.
The eager desire of the Reubenites and Gadites to go in front of the army as shock-troops thus usurps Judah’s rightful place in line. By putting them back לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה, “in front of YHWH,” where they are supposed to travel according to Numbers 2, Moses accepts their eager participation in the war without the problematic disruption of Judah’s primacy in the social order.
The Reubenites and Gadites unequivocally agree to this adjustment (vv. 25–27). Moses nonetheless creates an exit clause, providing that the Reubenites and Gadites must settle in Canaan with the rest of the Israelites if they fail in order to protect the integrity of the community and the covenant no matter what happens (vv. 28–32).
Convincing the Reubenites and Gadites and the Reader
On one level, Numbers 32 is a conversation between Moses and two Israelite tribes. They begin at odds with one another over a misunderstanding generated by the indeterminacy in אַל תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן, “Do not make us cross the Jordan,” and they are brought into alignment as the misunderstanding is resolved. This conversation is rhetorically very rich.
Convincing the Reubenites and Gadites
Moses’s speech in particular is angry and judgmental, which explains why it is so often read as an outright rejection of the idea that Israelites would live in Transjordan. But this speech is crafted not to reject but to persuade the Reubenites and Gadites to rethink. Moses refers to them as “brothers,” evoking a sense of obligation to their fellow Israelites. He taps their memory of collective experience, evoking elements of the scouts episode that would help them see the implications they failed to anticipate.
Moses also frames the implications as though the Reubenites and Gadites intended them, and he makes it personal through some rhetorically strategic name calling, referring to them as “a breed of sinful men”—even though they have not sinned yet—in the hope they’ll respond by proving it untrue. (Which, as we have seen, they do.) Moses does not condemn the Reubenites and Gadites for their desire to settle in Transjordan but seeks to prevent the outcome he fears by convincing them, through shame, not to fail in their military obligations to the community as a whole.
But the Reubenites and Gadites are not the only people who need convincing. The idea that territory in Transjordan should be considered a legitimate part of the Promised Land is no ordinary idea. A second conversation is implicit in Numbers 32 between proponents of this idea and potential skeptics who think the Promised Land is limited to Canaan—namely, west of the Jordan River—a reasonable view based on several texts in the Torah (e.g., Exod 16:35 and Num 13:1–14:45)—and have to be persuaded otherwise if this idea is to be accepted. The author of this text seeks to convince his own audience, too.
Convincing the Reader
The first prong of the author’s rhetorical strategy is to anticipate the potential concerns of his audience—particularly those least inclined to accept the idea that Transjordan is part of the Promised Land. These concerns are situated in that first, angry speech, which aligns the audience with the authority figure of Moses: He understands and advocates for their concerns.
These skeptical readers are likely to be as incredulous as Moses is about the Reubenites’ and Gadites’ apparent lack of concern for the Israelite community as a whole. And the hostility they may well feel toward people who suggest such a potentially problematic idea is echoed in Moses’s negative character evaluation of the Reubenites and Gadites: this breed of sinful men will be responsible for the suffering of the rest of us if the covenant is not sustained.
Once this alignment with Moses is created, the second prong of the rhetorical strategy is to have Moses engineer the very conditions under which it is possible to acknowledge Transjordan as a legitimate part of the land. When members of the anticipated audience read Moses’s initial speech, they are guided to begin reading with a sense of affirmation: Moses agrees with us!
But as Moses resolves concerns, their identification with him guides them to accept that resolution along with the Reubenites and Gadites, who accept it in verses 25–27 as a command from Moses both at the beginning (עבדיך יעשו כאשר אדני מצוה, verse 25) and the end (כאשר אדני דבר, verse 27) of their response. Moses is characterized as the legal authority for the legitimacy of Israelite settlement in Transjordan as well as the engineer of the conditions that make that idea possible to accept.
Implications for the Editorial History of Numbers 32
Scholars typically see two different versions of the settlement of the Reubenites and Gadites in Numbers 32. In one version, the Reubenites and Gadites settle there without incident. But another is harshly critical of Israelite settlement in Transjordan, to the point of rejecting the idea outright. Moses’s angry and judgmental speech is typically understood to be part of this second version, superimposed upon the first. But looking at the pragmatics and the rhetorical development of the two conversations in this text—between Moses and the Transjordanian tribes, and between the author and his implied audience—leaves us with a very different view.
Moses’s speech is angry and judgmental. But it isn’t the end of the conversation, and it cannot be relegated to a different version of the story without destroying the rhetorical fabric of the narrative, because the speech that precedes it makes it possible, and the negotiation in the following speeches emerges from it. The result is that this text is a single, coherent story that presents neither a neutral telling of how the Reubenites and Gadites settled in Transjordan, nor an argument against it being part of the Promised Land, but an argument in favor of its inclusion.
Was this rhetorical strategy successful? Within Numbers 32, we have access to this anticipated audience only as it is constructed in the text. We see it only as the author chooses to present it. But several other texts give us access to this audience in their own voices, and it seems that not everyone was buying what the author of Numbers 32 was selling.
The wilderness itinerary in Numbers 33 knows and accounts for the conquest of this land from the Amorite king Sihon in Numbers 21 but erases its land ideology. Numbers 33:47–48 has a double arrival in Moab: the Israelites arrive at Mount Nebo in verse 47 and then in the steppes of Moab in verse 48. (Mount Nebo is already in the steppes of Moab according to Deut 32:49, 34:1.) It seems to know the double arrival in Moab in Numbers 21, where they arrive in Moab in verse 18b and then again in 22:1–2.
Numbers 21, 22
כא:יא וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מוֹאָב מִמִּזְרַח הַשָּׁמֶשׁ…. כב:א וַיִּסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעַרְבוֹת מוֹאָב מֵעֵבֶר לְיַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.
21:11 They set out from Oboth, and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise…. 22:1 The Israelites set out, and camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.
לג:מז וַיִּסְעוּ מֵעַלְמֹן דִּבְלָתָיְמָה וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּהָרֵי הָעֲבָרִים לִפְנֵי נְבוֹ.לג:מח וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהָרֵי הָעֲבָרִים וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב עַל יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ.
33:47 They set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 33:48 They set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.
The double arrival was created in Numbers 21 in order to accommodate the conquest of Sihon. Numbers 33 copied this double arrival in Moab, but it doesn’t mention that that any of this land was Amorite or that it was conquered by Israel. This is an erasure, not just an omission.
How can we tell? Numbers 33:44 knows that the second half of Num 21:11 situates Iye-abarim in the wilderness east of Moab, part of the effort to turn this territory into Sihon’s Amorite territory and write a conquest narrative for it. But it puts the route (back) in the territory of Moab rather than in the wilderness east of it.
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מוֹאָב מִמִּזְרַח הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
They set out from Oboth and encamped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering on Moab to the east.
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים בִּגְבוּל מוֹאָב.
They set out from Oboth and encamped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab.
The ensuing route in verses 45–49 contains a string of Moabite toponyms, a tacit rejection that this territory was ever Amorite or conquered by Israelites. In other words, the Israelites are pictured as travelling peacefully through Moabite territory until they eventually cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, which is, in this text, limited to territory west of the Jordan.
Numbers 33 is evidence that Numbers 32’s effort to convince his interlocutors that Transjordan should be part of the Promised Land fell on deaf ears. Numbers 34 presents a definitive boundary of the Promised Land. Like the map of the Promised Land in Ezekiel 47, it does not include any land in Transjordan. This boundary and the preceding itinerary work together to categorically reject what Numbers 32 is trying to convince readers to accept.
The Complexity of Land Ideology in the Torah
Numbers 32 and the texts that surround it let us witness a conversation—perhaps even something more like an argument—over the status of Transjordan as part of the Promised Land. Numbers 21 lets us see how a conquest narrative was written to support the idea that it is part of the land, and Numbers 32 now comes to assuage potential concerns about that idea.
History and ideology may come together here in a complex blend. Numbers 21 and 32 create a claim to an idea; they are not history per se. But we know from the Mesha Stele, for example, that Israelites do have a long history in this area. It may be difficult or even impossible given our extant sources to show exactly how that history informed this ideological claim, but history and ideology are often a messy mix when it comes to land claims, so it would be no surprise if we find such a mix here as well.
What’s more, that history notwithstanding, this claim was rejected, showing that more is at stake in this argument than just history, even if these texts do not reveal exactly what it is. So much is at stake in questions of land, today as in antiquity. The literary character of the Torah as a text with multiple voices does not let us rest with simple answers but presses us to confront and wrestle with the complex dynamics involved.
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Dr. Angela Roskop Erisman is associate faculty and regional director at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and owner of Angela Roskop Erisman Editorial, and she was the founding editorial director of the Marginalia Review of Books. She earned her M.A. in Hebrew and Northwest Semitics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. in Bible and Ancient Near East at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the author of The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah (Eisenbrauns, 2011), for which she won a Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise in 2014, as well as Numbers(New Cambridge Bible Commentary) and The Wilderness Narratives in the Hebrew Bible: Religion, Politics, and Biblical Interpretation, both forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. When not studying Torah or polishing prose, she takes photographs, plays the violin, and teaches her son how to live the good life.
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