Bemidbar 32 and 33:1-49

(Plaut 1226; Hertz 707; Eitz Chaim 949)

by David Brooks


This week’s part of the triennial cycle bridges the last part of Parashah Mattot and the first of Parashah Ma’sei.  Deciding what to discuss is not difficult.  The first chapter of Mase is completely taken up with a rather boring account of the camps used when the Hebrews headed for the promised land.  In contrast, the last chapter of Mattot describes the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to be granted land on the east side of the Jordan River.  The events are simple but the implications are important.


To summarize the situation at the start of Chapter 32, B’nai Yisrael is in a confident mood.  They are near the end of their 40 years of wandering, and they can practically see the promised land.1  With a couple of exceptions, the generation that lived in Egypt has passed on.  They have received most of the laws from Moses, and they know about the holidays.  They have just inflicted a massive defeat on the Midianite army and, given the history of this people with Bilaam, gone on to massacre the civilian population.  (There is much to say about that event, but it is not in our Parashah.)  The important point is that B’nai Yisrael is now united and disciplined, well on its way to becoming a Jewish people as well as a collection of Hebrew tribes.  They are poised to move into Canaan, to become a nation in the political sense.


Then, just at this triumphal moment, comes yet another twist.  As stated above, the tribes of Reuben and Gad, both of which were said to have large herds, looked at the land of Gilead on the east side of the Jordan and decided that it was ideal for sheep raising, or maybe cattle raising, or both; the text is confusing.2  In modern geographic terms, Gilead was bounded on the west by the Jordan River and extended eastward up the slopes of the rift valley and across some distance onto the high desert plateau or badia; its northern boundary was the Yarmouk River just south of Kinneret and its southern was Wadi Arnon (El Mujib) with the Jabbok River (today called Wadi Zarqa) separating Gilead into a northern and a southern portion.  Today this land is marginal for ranching, but the climate may have been wetter five millennia ago.3


Having looked over this promising land, four things happen in quick order:

1)      The two tribes of Reuben and Gad propose not just to Moses but to Moses and Eliezer the priest and to the leaders of all the other tribes that they be given their portion from land to the east of the Jordan.  The spokesmen of the delegation was Gad, something that the commentators infer from the fact that the order of names in the text is “Gad and Reuben,” and something they explain by saying that Gad was militarily the more powerful.  The case that Gad and Reuben make for themselves is entirely economic; here they can prosper.



1)      Moses reacts angrily, as he often seems to, particularly as he got older, and in effect accuses these tribes of cowardice, of being afraid of the struggle to enter the promised land.  He may also wonder if the Reubenites are once again rebelling, as they did at the time Korach made his challenge to Moses.4  It only takes 3 verses for Gad to make its request (32:3-5), but 10 for Moses to make his response (32:6-15), and he brings his point to a climax by saying that, just as the spies who went into the promised land and who, instead of trusting God, came away so frightened that, except for Caleb and Joshua, the entire generation was condemned to die before entering Can’an, so too will the apparent desertion of Gad and Reuben cause God to order the younger generation to die in the wilderness as well.


2)      Gad sensibly ignores Moses’ anger but takes his charge against the two tribes seriously.  He assures Moses that, once they have built secure corrals for their animals and fortified villages for their people, they will not only cross over the Jordan to fight with the rest of tribes for the promised land, but they will fight in the vanguard.  The text implies that they are talking directly to Moses, for it says they approached him (32:16), but they are really speaking in front of the whole array of tribal leaders, as was appropriate at a time when diplomacy was oral, not written.


3)      Upon hearing this response, Moses’ anger subsides, and says that, if they will make that promise, he will grant their wish.  In fact, Moses does better.  For reasons that are not clear, except perhaps that there was lots of land and Manasseh was also known as a tribe of warriors,5 he also grants land east of the Jordan to the half-tribe of Manasseh.  (If geography and ecology five millennia ago are anything like that of today, the portion granted to Manasseh was flatter and better watered than the more southerly portions awarded to Gad and Reuben.)  The granting by Moses and the agreement by the two tribes continues through several rounds of if/then statements until the deal is finally sealed, again the normal pattern in an era of oral diplomacy.  Indeed, given that Parashah Mattot begins by discussing vows, one can suggest that Gad and Reuben are making a vow to the other tribes and to God.


Three points intrigue me here:



1)      By what right did Moses grant their wish?  God did not authorize land to the east of the Jordan as belonging to B’nai Yisrael, and Moses did not, as he usually did, confer with God for instructions.  Certainly he did not ask the local inhabitants.  He did not even check with Eliezer the priest.  The only apparent rationale is right of conquest,6 but, at several points earlier in their migration, the Israelites had insisted that they only wanted to pass through the land en route to Canaan; they did not want to occupy it.  I have no answer to this concern, and I have found no commentaries on it.


2)      Despite his fiery temper, and his incorrect inference about their motives, Moses is willing to take Gad and Reuben at their word and to accept compromise.  He does not apologize because he believes that they really should cross the Jordan, but he nevertheless does start looking for a workable solution.  The solution is conditional; Moses offers them a small part of Gilead initially, with the remainder to be granted only after they fulfilled their promise to fight for the other tribes.  (According to Plaut, the pattern developed here became the basis for the Jewish law of conditional contracts or tenaim.7)   Moreover, according to Rashi,8 Moses makes a subtle but effective challenge to what in modern terms we might call the economistic outlook of Reuben and Gad.  When Gad put forward its proposal, it referred to building corrals for the animals and villages for the people; Moses subtly corrects them by repeating their statement in reverse order to imply that it was more important to take care of people than animals (compare 32:16 with 24).9  Moses may have lost some of his touch as a leader, but not all.  The main lesson that I draw from this is the importance of compromise, and in doing so to accept some trade-offs.


3)      Third, this may be the first explicit operation of what has come down to us as Klal Yisrael -- a Judaic one for all and all for one.  Note the wording of verse 22, which says that, once Gad and Reuben have fulfilled their promise, they will be “clean”10 before God and, before Israel.  Plaut indicates that this became a great rabbinic maxim to the effect that human beings “should avoid doing even those things that appear wrong.”11  I suggest that it is more than that.  It is the first application of the Talmudic principle that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.  Being clean before God comes before being clean before Israel, but the two are linked by the word and.  The mutual responsibility principle comes from a Talmudic comment on Chapter 26 in Vaykira,12 which is the first set of blessings and curses in Torah.  Verse 37 says: “And they shall stumble upon one another,” which is interpreted to mean “that one will lapse into sin because of the bad example of another, since all Israelites are mutually responsible.”13  In this case, if one tribe was going to enter Canaan, every tribe had to enter, even if some decided not to stay; if one tribe was going to suffer losses, every tribe had to share in the losses; and if some tribes were going to stay east of the Jordan, all tribes were going to acquiesce in that decision.  Of course, later, during the period of the Judges, support of one tribe for another was sporadic at best.  However, the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another was established early, and, to use the words of Torah, so it has remained unto this day.  Sadly, it has too often been more principle than practice.


Th 2-1/2 tribes did keep their end of the bargain.  Some 14 years later,14 as related in Chapter 22 of the book that bears his name, Joshua thanked them for their efforts, admonished them to keep the commandments, and then “blessed them, and sent them away, and they went unto their tents.”  End of story?  Not quite.  Moses’ original concern about leaving these tribes east of the Jordan may have been correct.  Apart from occasional references in Joshua and Judges, we hear little more of them.  Elijah is of course supposed to come from Gilead, as is Jephtah, but in neither case is a tribe named.  By the time Hosea was writing, Gilead was considered “worthless.”15  Though there is archaeological evidence of continued Jewish life east of the Jordan until and even after the fall of the northern kingdom, one supposes that most of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh gradually assimilated into the culture of the region.  They likely became Bedouin tribes, and eventually converted to Islam.  Thus, there is one final lesson in this Sedrah, and it may be the most important lesson of all:  You cannot remain Jewish if you separate yourself too far from the Jewish people.







1.         In many ways, Chapter 32 seems out of place.  All of the events related in Bemidbar to now seem to have occurred in the first couple of years after the Exodus.  Suddenly it is 40 years later.  Yet, in the next chapter, we are going to read about their wandering over those 40 years.  Granted that a Talmudic rule is that “There is no before and after in scripture,” it might nevertheless have been better had Chapters 32 and 33 appeared in reverse order.

2.         See for example 32:16, which is translated (accurately) as, “We will build sheepfolds for our cattle, . . . “ Perhaps a better translation, particularly given the nature of the terrain, would have been “sheepfolds for our herds.”

3.         Hertz (p. ) indicates that this land of Gilead is lush, covered by trees and highly desirable.  One wonders whether he ever visited it or was just citing views of casual travellers.  Though better watered than most of Jordan, it remains semi-arid with only about 250 mm of rain per year (too little for conventional farming).

4.         Bemidbar 16:12 ff.  The mutiny related in Parashah Korach is two-fold: Korach, who is a Levite, challenges Moses’ right to religious leadership; Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben challenge his right to political leadership.  The two mutinies may have been coincident, but they originate in different grievances and they suffer different punishments.

5.         Hertz, fn. to 32:33.

6.         Devarim 29:6-7.

7.         “The four basic principles are:  the conditions must be stated twice, once positively and once negatively (as Moses did); the positive condition must precede the negative; the ‘if’ must precede the ‘what’; and the condition must be fulfillable.”  Plaut, p. 1232.  Full discussion appears in Shulchan Aruch.

8.         Footnote to verse 16 in Hertz.

9.         There is no conflict with the principle to take care of animals before one takes care of himself.  The principle to take care of animals first applies in normal circumstances, but it does not apply in an existential one such as faced Gad and Reuben.  Erection of fortifications to protect people was indeed top priority.  (My own interpretation.)

10.       The verb is nun-kuf-heh, which the dictionary translates as to clean, cleanse, exonerate, exculpate, acquit or declare innocent.

11.       Hertz, cited in Plaut.

12.       The main source is Shevuot 39a, which focuses on Vyk 26:37; other relevant sources are Sanhedrin 27b; Sifra 112a to Vyk. 26:37; and Rashi.  Lionel Pelkowitz, who helped me with this citation, also suggests checking Rambam’s Code: Laws of Oaths, Chapter 11, par. 17.

13.       Hertz, based on Rashi, note to Vaykira 26:37.

14.       After seven years of conquest and another seven of dividing the land.  Fn to 22:11 of Joshua; commentary by Rabbi H. Freedman, A. Cohen, editor, Joshua-Judges (London: The Soncino Press, 1982).

15.       Hosea 12:12.