Petition of the Two and a Half Tribes


This topic is dedicated to the memory of father and daughter,
David Yaakov HaLevi Applebaum and Naava Applebaum, הי"ד,
who were murdered by terrorists on the eve of Naava's wedding in Jerusalem, י"ג אלול תשס"ג.

A Problematic Request

Bemidbar 32 revolves around the request of Reuven and Gad to settle the lands east of the Jordan which had been conquered from Sichon and Og. Moshe's initial response is negative.  He chastises them both for leaving the burden of fighting to the rest of the tribes and for dissuading the nation from crossing into Israel:


(ו) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה. (ז) וְלָמָּה [תְנִיאוּן] (תנואון) אֶת לֵב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעֲבֹר אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם י"י. (ח) כֹּה עָשׂוּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם בְּשׇׁלְחִי אֹתָם מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ לִרְאוֹת אֶת הָאָרֶץ.

(6) And Moses said unto the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: 'Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall ye sit here? (7) And wherefore will ye turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the Lord hath given them? (8) Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land.

Immediately afterwards, however, Reuven and Gad express their willingness not just to fight, but even to lead the nation in battle. Moshe changes his mind and acquiesces to their original demands.

How are we to evaluate both the original request and Moshe's reaction? Did the tribes really mean to forsake the Promised Land and leave their brothers to embark on the Conquest alone?  If so, why are they so quick to change their minds and offer to head the campaign? Similarly, if settling the eastern bank of the Jordan was problematic, and the tribes' request so troubling to Moshe that he compares their actions to the sin of the spies, why, in the end, does he allow it?

The Promised Land?

Moshe never explicitly rebukes the tribes for rejecting Hashem's Promised Land,1 nor does he disparage the desired territory, making the reader wonder how he viewed the lands that lay on the eastern bank of the Jordan.  Did Moshe consider this territory to be outside the borders of the Holy Land or a part of Hashem's gift to the nation?  Did he assume that the lands had the same level of sanctity as the western bank or less?  Finally, were it not for Reuven and Gad's request, what would have become of the conquered territory?  Were these lands always meant to be settled or would they have remained barren?

Menashe's Sudden Appearance

Throughout most of the chapter, the only tribes who negotiate with Moshe are Reuven and Gad. In verse 33, however, we read that part of the territory on the Eastern bank of the Jordan is apportioned to clans from Menashe. How is one to understand their sudden appearance in the story?  Were they part of the original petition?  If so, why are they not mentioned until now? If not, why does Moshe decide to give them some of the land?  This is especially troubling considering Moshe's original reluctance to grant the request at all!2

Textual Issues

The passage raises numerous textual questions as well:

  • "וּמִקְנֶה רַב הָיָה" – Throughout the opening verses of the chapter, there is repeated emphasis on the word "cattle".  This is further emphasized by the unusual formulation of the opening phrase of the chapter which begins with the subject "מִקְנֶה" rather than the expected verb ("ויהי מקנה רב").  Is the focus on cattle meant to imply a negative evaluation of the tribes' materialism, or simply to provide necessary background for the plot?
  • "...עֲטָרוֹת וְדִיבֹן וְיַעְזֵר וְנִמְרָה" – When Reuven and Gad present their petition, they open by listing the names of the cities they wish to settle without first providing the general context of their request.  How is this awkward formulation to be understood?
  • Double "ויאמר"– The text introduces the tribes' speech in verse 2 with the word "וַיֹּאמְרוּ".  Verse 5 once again opens with the word "וַיֹּאמְרוּ" despite the fact that no one else speaks in the interim.  Why is the tribes' speech interrupted in this manner?  What purpose is served by repeating the verb?
  • Moshe's rephrasing of the modified proposal – In verses 20-24, Moshe repeats the tribes' proposal with slight differences.  Whereas they had offered, "וַאֲנַחְנוּ נֵחָלֵץ חֻשִׁים לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל", Moshe instead says, "אִם תֵּחָלְצוּ לִפְנֵי י"י לַמִּלְחָמָה".  While they speak of building first pens for their animals and then fortified cities for their children, Moshe reverses the order, and omits the fortifications.  Why does Moshe feel the need to repeat the conditions, and how significant are the changes he makes?

Repeat? The Tribes in Sefer Yehoshua

At the end of Sefer Yehoshua, after the tribes have fulfilled their promise to fight with the nation, they head home and build an altar on the Jordan (Yehoshua 22).  Their actions are understood as a potential rebellion against God, and almost lead to civil war.  Bloodshed is averted only as they explain that their motives were pure and the altar was meant only to signal that, despite their residence on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they are part of the nation and faith of Israel. What light might this story shed on the events of Bemidbar 32?  Do the nation's suspicions of rebellion in Sefer Yehoshua reflect any of Moshe's earlier concerns? Can the misunderstanding in Yehoshua  teach anything about the interactions in the original story?