The Tribe of Gad and The Mesha Stele
In the last chapter of Parashat Matot, Numbers 32, we read a long and detailed story of negotiations meant to secure the region of the Transjordan (the area to the east of the Jordan river) for the tribes of Reuben and Gad. After meeting with a furious response from Moses when the topic is first broached, Reuben and Gad manage to persuade him to allow them to settle there, on condition that they fight in the coming wars of conquest on the western side of the Jordan alongside their Israelite brethren. This condition is paradigmatic for later Jewish thought: According to rabbinic law, any condition not formulated like the “condition of the Reubenites and Gadites” is not a legally binding tradition.
Scholars have had difficulty identifying theprecise borders of the tribes in Transjordan, and have suggested that one reason for the difficulties in pinning down the borders of the holdings of Reuben and Gad is that tribal identities were often fluid. This means that a town, or a group of people, may consider themselves to be Reubenites one century, but Gadites the next.
These changes can take place through conquest, through political realignment, through cultural influence, and through other processes; it is a truism of modern research on ethnicity that identity is created through affiliation as much, or more, than it is inherited through genealogy.
In the Transjordan this type of realignment and reconstruction of identity seems to have been common. A number of examples are suggested by the inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (in the Transjordan) in the ninth century BCE. Mesha himself is a major character in the story told in 2 Kings 3. The inscription itself is best understood, as argued by Bruce Routledge, as part of an effort to consolidate and solidify Moabite national identity, since until Mesha’s time , it is likely that the Moabites did not consider themselves to be a “nation” as much as a collection of local tribes.4
Within the inscription, Mesha makes some bold claims about his military accomplishments. He reports that earlier, King Omri of Israel (approximately 885-874 BCE) had “taken the land of Madaba, and occupied it,” but that with the help of the Moabite god Kemosh, Mesha was able to recapture this territory.5 He also reports capturing places for which no claim of prior ownership is offered, however. Kemosh told him to capture the town of Nebo from Israel, and he reports success in this endeavor, capturing the town and killing 7,000 people; Kemosh assisted in the conquest of Yahatz, which Mesha annexed to his own territory.
Mesha reports on one particularly interesting conquest:
ואש גד ישב בארץ עטרת מעלם ויבן לה מלך ישראל את עטרת.
The men of Gad dwelled in the country of Atarot from long ago, and the king of Israel fortified Atarot.
ואלתחם בַּקִּר ואחזה. ואהרג את כל העם,
I fought against the city and captured it, and I killed all the people;
הקר הית לכמש ולמאב.
the city then belonged to Kemosh and Moab.
Who is Gad? There seems to be a distinction drawn between ’ish Gad “the people of Gad” and the Israelites; it is the king of the latter who takes the city, after the Gadites had lived there from time immemorial. In fact, the presence of the Gadites in Atarot was not the casus belli described here. Mesha was willing to have them in the region, but when the “king of Israel” fortified the city, that was too much to bear, and Mesha went to war.
This fluidity of identity – was Gad part of Israel? an independent ethnic group? a subgroup of Moab? – may well be connected to the fears expressed in our parashah. The anxiety over the stability of tribes settled in the Transjordan was well placed.
This is not to say that Mesha’s view that Gad was no longer part of Israel remained historically correct; on the contrary, Jeremiah later takes it for granted that the tribal lands of Gad were properly Israelite territory (Jeremiah 49:1-2). What the intersection between the biblical and Moabite text does suggests is that being an “Israelite,” like any other ethnic identity, was a negotiated reality. Processes of tribes becoming Israelite, and others moving away from that identity, just like shifting tribal identity and boundaries, likely accompanied the history of Israel from its beginnings. (In fact, even in the Bible it is clear that being “Israelite” is not simply a matter of genealogy, and the ‘erev rav – the large numbers of foreigners who joined the people on their way out of Egypt – constitute an important example of this.)
Throughout the history of biblical Israel, identity was never stable, and that the borders of the nation – defining who was and who wasn’t an Israelite – were constantly shifting, especially in the multicultural Transjordan. This historical reality provides important background for understanding the concern voiced by Moses about Reuben and Gad remaining on the eastern banks. We can only conjecture how these processes affected the Israelites as a whole, but it contributed, no doubt, to the Israelites’ growing sense that being a member of the people was dependent more on culture and religion than on biology alone.
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Prof. Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press), and his next is Unbinding Isaac: The Akedah in Jewish Thought (forthcoming from JPS/University of Nebraska Press in 2020); he is also the author of numerous studies in Semitic philology. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.
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