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Now that Moses has reached the end of his charge of shepherding the Israelites to the Promised Land, we would expect that he would be grateful to just relax and let Joshua and Eleazar take more responsibility for leadership. After all, the planning for the invasion of Canaan would be Joshua’s responsibility. The method of tribal land assignments had been worked out, the final war east of the Jordan had been fought, Joshua had been ordained to take over the leadership, and the people are now poised near the Jordan ready to begin their crossing. But now Moses faces what he views as yet another threat to the grand plan, a threat that he feels is as great as the incident of the “spies” whose negative message resulted in the previous generation of Israelites being doomed to die in the desert. Not since the rebellion of Korach and his associates some 37 years earlier had Moses faced such a serious threat—at least that is how he reacts at the beginning of Chapter 32 of our sidra.
Representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuben approach Moses, Eleazar, and the elders, to request that they be allowed to take possession of the lands east of the Jordan, which the Israelites had just finished conquering. It is good, they say, for the cattle of which their tribes have large numbers. Moses responds with uncharacteristic fury to what might seem to be a reasonable request.
Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them? That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land. After going up to the wadi Eshcol and surveying the land, they turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that the Lord had given them. (Num. 32:6–9)
Not only does Moses imply that the men of these tribes are cowards by abandoning their brother tribes, he accuses them of behaving like the “spies” that scouted the land and brought back disastrous reports. He then gives them a succinct but unambiguous history lesson, telling them how God punished their parents for the very same thing that they propose to do now. Moses concludes his lecture by warning them of the consequences of breaking up the tribal confederation.
And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to the Lord’s wrath against Israel. If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people. (32:14–15)
Wouldn’t a simple “No” have sufficed? Did their request justify such a harsh response, or was Moses being overly sensitive? On the face of it, the request from Gad and Reuben makes sense. The land is good for cattle of which they have many. They acknowledge that God is behind the conquest of these eastern lands: “Ataroth, Dibon, … and Beon—the land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel.” (Num. 32:3–4), implying that they viewed this territory as part of the Promised Land—obviously since God has enabled us to conquer this land, surely He intends us to settle it. In their defense and unlike the spies of the last generation, the men of these tribes have not made any negative reports about any territory, east or west, or even hinted that the conquest should stop here. They simply asked that, since this land has become unexpectedly available, why not allow them to occupy it? However, for all that Moses says to the Gadites and Reubenites in response, he never gives them a direct answer. Perhaps their request is flawed, too trivial, to be given an outright answer.
One interpretation of what was wrong about the two tribes’ request is that occupying the lands east of the Jordan “doesn’t count” toward the conquest of Canaan. These lands are not part of the Promised Land that God was leading the Israelites into, and thus the Gadites’ and Reubenites’ request shouldn’t warrant a response. Their request branded them as desiring to be outsiders, not part of the Israelite people. This is why Moses tells them, “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them?” (Num. 32:7). Moses has interpreted their request as a desire for separation, using the term “given them” instead of “given you.” Thus the desire to settle east of the Jordan could be considered to be a rejection of God’s promise, and Moses did not want to even consider that.
Moses’ anger also likely sprang from his having watched the previous generation carp and whine about all of their hardships, begging to return to Egypt where the food and other conditions were more to their liking. When Moses saw this same attitude beginning to develop during the current generations’ march from Kadesh through Edom and Moab, his patience, never good at the best of times, became very strained. Then, with the request of two entire tribes to stay behind (where previously only the testimony of ten spies was sufficient to demoralize the people), he must have visualized the strong likelihood of all the Israelites’ balking at an invasion of Canaan.
The Gadites and Reubenites either quickly change their request or clarify their intentions. They immediately try to defuse Moses’ anger, claiming that they will not shirk their role in the conquest, but only want to leave their families and herds in safe quarters, and then will take on the riskiest troop duties in the vanguard of the army.
We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. 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. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion. (32:16–18)
They assure Moses that they are not behaving as cowards—they will fight with the rest of the Israelite army, indeed, in the front of the army, until the entire land is conquered. But this pledge is not sufficient for Moses. He wants to be absolutely certain that they understand that they must agree to this as a religious duty, not simply a military one. Moses gives his terms for accepting their offer of fighting in the troops’ vanguard:
If you do this, if you go to battle as shock-troops, before the Lord (lifnei Adonai), and every shock-fighter among you crosses the Jordan, before the Lord (lifnei Adonai), until He has dispossessed His enemies before Him, and the land has been subdued, before the Lord (lifnei Adonai), and then you return—you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under the Lord (lifnei Adonai). (32:20–22)
Moses’ use of the term, lifnei Adonai, “before the Lord,” four times in this single statement is telling. He is clearly invoking the religious and covenantal meaning of this term, which we have seen before in passages that pertain to cultic rites (cf. Ex. 16:33, 29:42; Lev. 1:3, 10:1–2; and Num. 16:7 and 16–17), and is telling the leaders of these two tribes that their service will be, like that of the Levites’ cultic service, military service “before the Lord.”
There is another difference between the proposal of the Gadites and Reubenites and Moses’ counterproposal. The difference in wording is slight but its significance is tremendous. The two tribes, in their offer to participate in the conquest, refer to the covenantal division of the Land among the tribes. They state,
We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion (nachalato). But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share (nachalateinu) on the east side of the Jordan. (32:18–19)
The Hebrew root n.ch.l (= inheritance, nachala) has a very significant covenantal meaning, as we saw in Numbers Ch. 26, where this root appears repeatedly in reference to the apportionment of the Land.
Among these [tribes] shall the land be apportioned as shares (b’nachala), according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share (nachalato), with smaller groups reduce the share (nachalato). Each is to be assigned its share (yin’chalo) according to its enrollment. (26:53–54)
The Gadites and Reubenites will forego their nachala west of the Jordan, they say, because theirs will be on the east side. Not really, said Moses in his counterproposal. You will not be getting a nachala there at all. Moses said:
…and then you return—you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding (achuzah) under the Lord. (32:22)
The land west of the Jordan is given through God’s grant to the people. You will not be sharing in that grant; the land to the east will not be your inheritance from the patriarchs. It is given to you as a non-covenantal achuzah (= possession). Is this wording simply the use of synonyms? Probably not. In his instructions to those who will succeed him (since Moses will not be there when the conquest begins), Moses says,
…to Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun, and the family heads of the Israelite tribes… “If every shock-fighter among the Gadites and the Reubenites crosses the Jordan with you to do battle, before the Lord, and the land is subdued before you, you shall give them the land of Gilead as a holding (achuzah). But if they do not cross over with you as shock-troops, they shall receive holdings (nachala) among you in the land of Canaan.” (Num. 32:28–30)
And so it was. Moses assigned the lands to the east of the Jordan to Gad, Reuben, and part of the tribe of Manasseh, thus establishing the political legitimacy of that part of the Israelite confederation whose lands lay to the east of the Jordan River.
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