What Were Reuben and Gad’s Territories in the Transjordan?
Numbers 21 tells how the Israelites, after defeating the king of Arad and marching around Moab, were refused permission by Sihon, the Amorite king of Heshbon, to pass through his kingdom. Instead, Sihon gathers an army and fights with Israel at Yahatz (v. 23). In response,
במדבר כא:כה וַיַּכֵּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְפִי חָרֶב וַיִּירַשׁ אֶת אַרְצוֹ מֵאַרְנֹן עַד יַבֹּק עַד בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן…
Num 21:25 Israel defeated him by the sword, and inherited his land from Arnon to Jabbok to the Sons of Ammon…
The Israelites then go on to conquer the Bashan, the kingdom of Og, who had attacked them as well.
In principle, all the Israelites were supposed to cross the Jordan and settle in the land of Canaan that is west of the Jordan; they only captured the kingdoms of Sihon and Og because these kingdoms attacked them first. Nevertheless, later in Numbers, we are told:
במדבר לב:ב וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי גָד וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן וְאֶל נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר. לב:ג עֲטָרוֹת וְדִיבֹן וְיַעְזֵר וְנִמְרָה וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֶלְעָלֵה וּשְׂבָם וּנְבוֹ וּבְעֹן. לב:ד הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה יְהוָה לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה הִוא וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ מִקְנֶה.
Num 32:2 The Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, 32:3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon —32:4 the land that YHWH has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle…”
The Gadites and the Reubenites ask to remain in the lands east of the Jordan, and after a certain amount of negotiation, Moses agrees:
במדבר לב:לג וַיִּתֵּן לָהֶם מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן וְלַחֲצִי שֵׁבֶט מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן יוֹסֵף אֶת מַמְלֶכֶת סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶת מַמְלֶכֶת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן הָאָרֶץ לְעָרֶיהָ בִּגְבֻלֹת עָרֵי הָאָרֶץ סָבִיב.
Num 32:33 So Moses assigned to them — to the Gadites, the Reubenites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph — the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites and the kingdom of King Og of Bashan, the land with its various cities and the territories of their surrounding towns.
The following verses list the cities the Rubenites and Gadites built in Sihon’s former territory, the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok (vv. 34-38). The chapter ends with a description of the land taken by the half tribe of Manasseh (vv. 39-42), to whom Moses grants the Gilad, which includes Og’s former territory, the Bashan.
The Captured Territory of the Transjordan as Described in Num 21
The Amorite territory of Sihon seems well-enough defined. The Israelites conquered “from Arnon to Jabbok to the Sons of Ammon…” (Num. 21:24).
The streams are easy to identify:
Arnon Stream (נחל ארנון) is the river known today as Wadi Mujib in Jordan. This river flows some 75 kilometers from its sources in the eastern desert, dropping over 1,100 meters through a huge gorge, until it spills into the Dead Sea at about its middle, almost directly across from Ein Gedi.
Jabbok Stream (נחל יבק) is Wadi Zarqa (meaning “the blue stream”). It travels for about 105 kilometers from its sources at ‘Ain Ghazal near Amman to the Jordan near Damyeh, biblical Adam (for example, Josh. 3:16).
This entire area is known in the Bible as the Mishor (המישור), “the Plain” or perhaps better “the Plateau,” mentioned as a proper name for this area some ten times, although never in Numbers. Its western edge, the part adjacent to the Jordan River, is called ערבות מואב, “the Plains of Moab,” a term which appears for the first time in Num. 22:1 and then another eleven times in Numbers, in Deuteronomy and in Joshua, as the area “across from Jericho” in which the Israelites encamped during the final phase of their journey.
Numbers 21 also offers a poetic description mentioning several cities (v. 30), all of which are situated on or near the main road (modern Jordan’s route 35) that runs along the Transjordanian Plateau from Aqaba all the way to Damascus.
במדבר כא:ל ...חֶשְׁבּוֹן עַד דִּיבוֹן וַנַּשִּׁים עַד נֹפַח אֲשֶׁר עַד מֵידְבָא.
Num 21:30 ...from Heshbon to Dibon, and laid waste to Nophah, which is by Medeba.
Heshbon – modern Hisban, is situated between Madaba and Amman.
Dibon – modern Dhiban, is less than 3 kilometers north of the rim of the Mujib/Arnon gorge.
Nophah – not conclusively identified.
Medeba – now called Madaba, is about half way between the two streams.
Transjordanian Map 1
Numbers 32: Reuben in the Center– Gad in the North and South
When the Israelites decide to settle the former Amorite territory permanently in Num 32, the text lists the cities that each tribe builds.
The Towns of Gad
Gad builds (or rebuilds) eight towns:
במדבר לב:לד וַיִּבְנוּ בְנֵי גָד אֶת דִּיבֹן וְאֶת עֲטָרֹת וְאֵת עֲרֹעֵר. לב:לה וְאֶת עַטְרֹת שׁוֹפָן וְאֶת יַעְזֵר וְיָגְבֳּהָה. לב:לו וְאֶת בֵּית נִמְרָה וְאֶת בֵּית הָרָן עָרֵי מִבְצָר וְגִדְרֹת צֹאן.
Num 32:34 The Gadites built Dibon, Atarot, Aroer,32:35 Atrot-shophan, Jazer, Yogbehah, 32:36 Beth-nimrah, and Beth-haran as fortified towns and enclosures for flocks.
Southern Cities – The first three cities can be positively identified. As noted above, Dibon is modern Dhiban. The itinerary list in Num 33:44-45 calls this city “Dibon-Gad,” highlighting the connection between this city and the tribe of Gad. Ataroth and Aroer are modern ‘Atruz, and ‘Aro‘ir. All three cities are situated along the southern edge of the plateau, just north of the Arnon gorge.
Northern Cities – The identity of the remainder of the cities is unknown, but it seems likely that they were in the north. Based on other biblical verses (Josh 13:25, Num 21:24 in the LXX), Jazer seems to be located on the far north-eastern edge of the Mishor (if not beyond it), near Rabbath-ammon. Similarly, from their mention in another context (Josh 13:27), Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran seem to both be on the north-western edge of the plateau, near the Jordan.
Thus, according to this text, the cities of Gad were located along the southern and northern borders of this territory.
The Towns of Reuben
Reuben builds six towns:
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 built Heshbon, Elealeh, Kiriathaim, 32:38 Nebo, Baal-meon — some names being changed — and Sibmah; they gave their own names to towns that they rebuilt.
The identity and location of Sibmah is unknown, but the other five cities, Heshbon,Elealeh, Kiriathaim, Nebo, and Baal-meon are known to be located on the central plateau.
Thus, according to Numbers 32, the Reubenites settled in the center of the Mishorsandwiched between the Gadites, who settled both to their south and to their north.
Transjordanian Map 2
Joshua 13: Reuben South and Center– Gad in the North
In between the story of the conquest of the land west of the Jordan and that of its distribution to the remaining nine and a half tribes, Joshua 13 recounts the conquest and settlement of Transjordan, first in general terms, and then individually for each of the two and a half tribes. While encompassing a similar (but not totally identical) area to that described in Num. 32, from Arnon to Jabbok, the specific tribal allocations are very different:
Reuben’s Towns and Borders
יהושע יג:טו וַיִּתֵּן מֹשֶׁה לְמַטֵּה בְנֵי רְאוּבֵן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם. יג:טז וַיְהִי לָהֶם הַגְּבוּל מֵעֲרוֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת נַחַל אַרְנוֹן וְהָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַנַּחַל וְכָל הַמִּישֹׁר עַל מֵידְבָא. יג:יז חֶשְׁבּוֹן וְכָל עָרֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּישֹׁר דִּיבוֹן וּבָמוֹת בַּעַל וּבֵית בַּעַל מְעוֹן. יג:יח וְיַהְצָה וּקְדֵמֹת וּמֵפָעַת. יג:יט וְקִרְיָתַיִם וְשִׂבְמָה וְצֶרֶת הַשַּׁחַר בְּהַר הָעֵמֶק. יג:כ וּבֵית פְּעוֹר וְאַשְׁדּוֹת הַפִּסְגָּה וּבֵית הַיְשִׁמוֹת. יג:כאוְכֹל עָרֵי הַמִּישֹׁר וְכָל מַמְלְכוּת סִיחוֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן…יג:כג וַיְהִי גְּבוּל בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַיַּרְדֵּן…
Josh 13:15 Moses gave an inheritance to the tribe of the Reubenites according to their clans. 13:16 Their territory was from Aroer, which is on the edge of the River Arnon, and the town that is in the middle of the valley, and all the Mishor by Medeba. 13:17 Heshbon, and all its towns that are in the Mishor; Dibon, and Bamoth-baal, and Beth-baal-meon. 13:18 And Jahaz, and Kedemoth, and Mephaath. 13:19 And Kiriathaim, and Sibmah, and Zereth-shahar on the hill of the valley. 13:20 And Beth-peor, and the slopes of Pisgah, and Beth-jeshimoth. 13:21 And all the towns of the Mishor, and all the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon… 13:23 And the border of the Reubenites was the Jordan…
Here, Reuben receives the entire Mishor, from Heshbon towards the north, and all the way south to the Arnon. Num 32, however, describes the southernmost point of this territory, which borders on the Arnon, as Gad’s. Moreover, the towns of Aroer and Dibon, which were mentioned by name in the list of Gad’s cities in Num 32, are now listed as Reuben’s.
Gad’s Towns and Borders
יהושע יג:כד וַיִּתֵּן מֹשֶׁה לְמַטֵּה גָד לִבְנֵי גָד לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם. יג:כה וַיְהִי לָהֶם הַגְּבוּל יַעְזֵר וְכָל עָרֵי הַגִּלְעָד וַחֲצִי אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן עַד עֲרוֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי רַבָּה. יג:כו וּמֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן עַד רָמַת הַמִּצְפֶּה וּבְטֹנִים וּמִמַּחֲנַיִם עַד גְּבוּל לִדְבִר. יג:כז וּבָעֵמֶק בֵּית הָרָם וּבֵית נִמְרָה וְסֻכּוֹת וְצָפוֹן יֶתֶר מַמְלְכוּת סִיחוֹן מֶלֶךְ חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַיַּרְדֵּן וּגְבֻל עַד קְצֵה יָם כִּנֶּרֶת עֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרָחָה.
Josh 13:24 Moses gave to the tribe of the Gadites, the sons of Gad according to their families. 13:25 Their territory was Jazer, and all the towns of Gilead, and half the land of the Ammonites, to Aroer, which is east of Rabbah. 13:26 And from Heshbon to Ramath-mizpeh and Betonim, and from Mahanaim to the territory of Lidbir. 13:27 And in the valley, Beth-haram, Beth-nimrah, Sukkoth, and Zaphon, the rest of the kingdom of Sihon king of Heshbon, the Jordan and its border, as far as the edge of the Sea of Kinnereth, beyond the Jordan eastward.
Gad gets “from Heshbon” (Heshbon itself is Reubenite) northward, including Jazer, Beth-haram, and Beth-Nimrah, which fits with the description in Num 32. However, their territory extends further north, since it includes “all the towns of Gilead,” as well as as Mahanaim, Sukkoth, and Zaphon, known from additional sources to be situated on or near the banks of the Jabbok itself, likely on its northern bank.
Gad also receives “half the land of the Ammonites” on the northwest of this territory, though Num 32 makes no mention of conquering any Ammonite territory.
Finally, Gad includes “the Jordan and its banks, as far as the edge of the Sea of Kinnereth, beyond the Jordan eastward,” which would have been part of Manasseh in Num 32. This fits with the description in Deuteronomy 3, which also has the territory of Reuben and Gad extending to the Kinnereth all the Jordan River, though it does not say whether this territory was Gad’s or Reuben’s:
דברים ג:טז וְלָרֻאוּבֵנִי וְלַגָּדִי נָתַתִּי מִן הַגִּלְעָד וְעַד נַחַל אַרְנֹן תּוֹךְ הַנַּחַל וּגְבֻל וְעַד יַבֹּק הַנַּחַל גְּבוּל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן.ג:יז וְהָעֲרָבָה וְהַיַּרְדֵּן וּגְבֻל מִכִּנֶּרֶת וְעַד יָם הָעֲרָבָה יָם הַמֶּלַח תַּחַת אַשְׁדֹּת הַפִּסְגָּה מִזְרָחָה.
Deut 3:16 And to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave from Gilead as far as the River Arnon, with the middle of the stream as a boundary, and up to Jabbok, the river, the boundary of the Sons of Ammon. 3:17 And the Arabah, with the Jordan and the boundary, from Kinnereth down to the sea of the Arabah, the Sea of Salt, under the slopes of Pisgah to the east.
In short, according to Joshua 13, Reuben gets the south and central parts of the former “Amorite territory” from the Arnon to the Jabbok. Gad here gets the northern part of this territory, but its borders also extend farther north, beyond the Jabbok, as well as farther to the northeast and west, territory that is Manassite and Ammonite respectively in Num 32.
Transjordanian Map 3
Josh 21 / 1 Chron 6: Reuben in the South– Gad in the Center and North
According to the commandment laid out in Num. 35:1-8, the Levites, a tribe of priests and temple officials, do not receive their own territory. Instead, they receive towns from each of the other twelve tribes for their use. Josh. 21 tells of the fulfillment of this commandment and lists the 48 towns, mentioning by name from which tribe each city was taken. A similar, although not identical, list appears in 1 Chr. 6. At least in theory, the towns allocated by Reuben and Gad to the Levites should be in their respective territories.
Levitical Cities in Gad
יהושע כא:לו וּמִמַּטֵּה גָד… אֶת רָמֹת בַּגִּלְעָד וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁהָ וְאֶת מַחֲנַיִם וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁהָ. כא:לז אֶת חֶשְׁבּוֹן וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁהָ אֶת יַעְזֵר וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁהָ כָּל עָרִים אַרְבַּע.
Josh. 21:36 Of the tribe of Gad: Ramoth in Gilead with its pasture lands… Mahanaim with its pasture lands, 21:37 Heshbon with its pasture lands, Jazer with its pasture lands—four towns in all.
Mahanaim and Jazer are listed in Josh. 13 as Gadite, whereas Heshbon is listed there and in Num 21 as Reubenite. Ramoth-gilead, while not specifically mentioned in Josh. 13, is much farther north and east than any other Gadite town, and would thus be within the territory of eastern Manasseh. Thus, in this text Gad’s borders extend further south, into Reuben, and further north, into Manasseh.
Levitical Cities in Reuben
דברי הימים א ו:סג מִמַּטֵּה רְאוּבֵן אֶת בֶּצֶר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁיהָ וְאֶת יַהְצָה וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁיהָ. ו:סדוְאֶת קְדֵמוֹת וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁיהָ וְאֶת מֵיפַעַת וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁיהָ.
1 Chron 6:63 Bezer in the desert with its pasture lands, Jahzah with its pasture lands, 6:64 Kedemoth with its pasture lands, and Mephaath with its pasture lands.
The four Reubenite towns, while not conclusively identified, all seem to be on the eastern edge of the southern part of the Mishor, on the very edge of the Reubenite area according to Josh 13, an area that is Gadite in Num 21. Thus, Reuben, which is presented as dwelling in the center or center and south of the former Amorite territory, is limited to the south-easternmost strip in this text.
What do these Lists Teach us about Israelite Settlement East of the Jordan?
Within the Bible, the settlement of two and a half Israelite tribes east of the Jordan by the wilderness generation is a “given fact.” Their presence in this area begins with the wilderness generation and extends until the Assyrian conquest of the area by Tiglath Pilesar III (2 Kings 15:29 and in 1 Chron. 5:25-26) in 733 BCE. A number of biblical accounts set in this period take this presence for granted, while passages referring to the Transjordan after this period (e.g. Isa 15-16, Jer 48-49) describe the area as Moabite or Ammonite.
Evidence for Israelite Presence in Transjordan?
Extra-biblical evidence for Israelite settlement east of the Jordan is unclear, however. Certain similarities in material culture between both sides of the Jordan, which in the past have been taken as evidence of Israelite settlement east of the Jordan, may only demonstrate that these Transjordanians had some cultural traits in common with the early Iron Age settlers west of the Jordan.
No Assyrian inscriptions dealing with this territory or with Israel mention any connection between the two. Even the Mesha inscription, which does describe Israelite presence in Transjordan, describes this as beginning with the 9th Century Israelite King Omri. Although Mesha says that the people of Gad had “always” lived in the land of Atarot, he seems to be claiming that they are “native Transjordanians”, rather than Israelites. What the Gadites (or the Reubenites for that matter) may have thought about themselves is unknown.
Testimony of the Maps
That said, Transjordanian Israel cannot simply be dismissed as myth. As we have shown, the Bible presents three (somewhat) divergent “maps” of the territories of Gad and Reuben:
- Num. 32 has Gad in the southern and northern parts of the Mishor, with Reuben in the middle.
- Josh 13 has Reuben in most of the Mishor and south to the Arnon, with Gad extending to the north, past the Jabbok to the Kinnereth.
- The Levitical list (Josh 21/ 1 Chron 6) has Reuben along the south-eastern desert, and Gad occupying the center and north, past the Jabbok into north-eastern Gilead.
For the modern historian, such lists present us with “raw data,” which must then be analyzed and contextualized but not dismissed. In other words, even if there never was a Sihon and his kingdom never was conquered by Moses, the various lists of towns, rivers and other geographical features, must have come from somewhere.
Whenever Numbers 32, Joshua 13, and Joshua 21 (=1 Chron 6) were written, their (probably Judahite) authors not only knew of a tradition about Israelite tribes in Transjordan (which may have no longer existed by their time), they also had different lists of specific towns and regions in which they lived, perhaps from palace archives or administrative documents from different times.
The fact that the three different lists have different, and sometimes conflicting, information, is generally approached diachronically. In other words, even though each map is presented as the “original” territory of Reuben and Gad, the more likely assumption is that each list represents a different time-frame, and a different stage in the development of the tribe’s settlement. Here are two possible diachronic explanations for the different lists:
Model 1 – Reuben Pushes Gad Out
If the Levitical cities list, with Reuben only in the south, is the earliest, the picture we get is of Gad having been settled in most of the region, with Reuben “appearing” on the edge of the desert, and slowly “pushing” Gad northward, out of the Mishor.
Model 2 – Gad Pushes Reuben Out
Reversing the order, with Josh 13 or Numbers as the earliest traditions, we get a picture of Gad’s “pushing” Reuben off into the southern desert.
Snapshots in Time
Our limited knowledge of the history of the Transjordan in the biblical period makes it difficult to know which direction to interpret the history of the territorial rivalry between these two groups. We do not even know how people determined what tribe they were from or how this rivalry between Reuben and Gad would have played out. Did the tribes do battle? Does the change in identity reflect a demographic shift, or did towns simply switch affiliation or identity over time? Whatever the explanation, the biblical maps give us three snapshots of how Israelite Transjordan was constituted, leaving biblical scholars and historians with a puzzle whose solution has yet to be discovered.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 10, 2017
November 15, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Yigal Levin is associate professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Land of Israel Studies from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin is the author of The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10-36 and co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present.
Essays on Related Topics: