Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding

The Israelites conquer land east of the Jordan River before they even entered Canaan.  They ask permission to use the king’s road through the land of Cheshbon, and when King Sichon refuses and sends his troops, the Israelites win the battle and take all his land.  After that, for no reason given in the Torah, the Israelites march north and conquer Bashan, ruled by King Og.  Only then do they finally turned around and camp on the east bank of the Jordan, across from the land of Canaan.1

After exterminating the local population there (see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent) most of the Israelites are ready to cross the river and take over Canaan.  But the men of the tribes of Gad and Reuven have a different idea.

Stage One: Confrontation and Ignorance

They come to the authorities—Moses, the new high priest Elazar, and the chieftains of the other tribes—and declare:

“The land that God struck down before the community of Israel is livestock land, and your servants have livestock.”  And they said: “If we find favor in your eyes, give this land to your servants as property; don’t ta-avireinu the Jordan!”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 32:4-5)

ta-avireinu (תַּעֲוִרֵנוּ) = you make us cross, you let us cross.  (A form of the verb avar, עָבַר = cross, pass through, go past.)

At this stage, the men of Gad and Reuven are saying “Don’t make us cross the Jordan!”  They are only thinking about their livestock, their livelihood.  They have come up with only one supporting argument for their request:  that God gave the Israelites the land east of the Jordan River by letting the Israelites win battles.  The implication, they hope, is that the lands formerly ruled by Sichon and Og might also count as God’s “promised land”.  After all, God once promised “I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates River” (Exodus 23:31).2  That would include and extend beyond the territories the livestock men want.3

But in the book of Numbers Moses consistently treats the Jordan River as the northeastern border of God’s promised land of milk and honey.  So he assumes that the Gaddites and Reuvenites are starting yet another rebellion against God’s plan.

And Moses said to the Gaddites and to the Reuvenites: “Will your brothers go to war while you stay here?  And why will you inhibit the hearts of the Israelites from avor into the land that God gives you?  That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadeish-Barnea to look at the land.”  (Numbers 32:6-8)

avor (עֲבֺר) = crossing.  (Also a form of avar.)

Moses then brings up the catastrophe in the portion Shelach-Lekha, when the ten out of twelve spies returning to Kadeish-Barnea from their tour of Canaan reported that the land was too well-fortified, and its inhabitants were as gigantic as its fruit.  Frightened,  the people refused to cross the southern border of Canaan, and God declared they must wait 40 years in the wilderness, while the old generation died off, before they got another chance.4  Now the 40 years are complete.

What if the tribes of Gad and Reuven do stay behind when it is time to cross the river?  The rest of the Israelites might assume that conquering Canaan would be harder than they thought. 5   If the Israelites became too afraid to cross, Moses figures, God would become enraged and punish them again.  This idea disturbs Moses so much that he accuses the men of Gad and Reuven:

“And hey!—you rose up, replacing your fathers, you brood of sinful men—to sweep God’s anger again toward Israel!”  (Numbers 32:14)

Moses calls the men of Gad and Reuven sinful because they are obstructing God’s grand plan.6

At this stage, Moses and the men of Gad and Reuben appear to be on opposite sides.  Will the two tribes rebel against Moses?  Or will they submit and go live in Canaan with the rest of the Israelites?

Stage Two: Discovering the Reasons

Reuben and Gad ask for Land, by Arthur Boyd Houghton

What Moses overlooks is that the Gadites and Reubenites are politely asking to settle on the east bank, using the phrases “if we find favor in your eyes” and “your servants”.  The men of the two tribes could have secretly plotted to make their move right after Moses’ death and before his successor, Joshua, began the river crossing.  Instead, they ask Moses’ permission ahead of time, in front of the high priest and the chiefs of all the tribes.

I believe this shows that they want to stay in good standing with the whole community of Israel, even though they do put their own livelihoods first.  It may even indicate that they respect God, and therefore respect the leadership God has established.  They simply did not realize that the other tribes would react badly if they stayed behind instead of crossing the Jordan.

Instead of stalking off or hardening their position, the men of Gad and Reuven respond to Moses’ accusation by reformulating their request to include the new information they gleaned from Moses’ first response.

Then they stepped up to him and they said: “We will build stone pens for our livestock and towns for our dependents.  Then we ourselves will go armed, hurrying in front of the Israelites until we bring them to their place.  And our dependents7 will stay in the towns fortified against the dwellers of the land.  We will not return to our houses until each Israelite has taken possession of his permanent possession.”  (Numbers 32:16-18)

At this point Moses could respond that their offer is not good enough.  The Gaddites and Reuvenites already seem to care more about their livestock than about God.  Moses suspects that choosing to live on the other side of the river from Canaan is further evidence of their disinterest in God.

However, he decides to accept their revised offer—as long as two key elements are added: God and the community.8  First Moses emphasizes that God will witness the battles to come.

And Moses said to them: “If you do this thing, if you bear arms in front of God to go to war; and everyone who is armed avar the Jordan in front of God, until [God] has dispossessed [God’s] enemies from in front of [God]; and the land has been subjugated in front of God; and afterward you return.  Then you will be cleared with God and with Israel, and this land will be your property in front of God.”  (Numbers 32:20-22)

avar (עָבַר) = he crosses.

Next Moses reminds the men of Gad and Reuven that if they do not carry out their promise in full, God will punish them.

“But if you do not do this, hey!—you sin against God.  Know that your sin will catch up with you!  So build for yourselves cities for your dependents, and stone pens for your livestock. And then what has gone out from your mouth, you must do.”  (Numbers 32:23-24)

Having noticed that the Gaddites and Reuvenites thought of their livestock first, Moses is careful to put the cities for their dependents first, and the pens for their livestock second.9

Stage Three: Acknowledgement

Crossing the Jordan,
by Gustave Dore

And the Gaddites and the Reuvenites said to Moses: “Your servants will do as my lord commands.  Our dependents, our women, our livestock, and all our animals will be there in the towns of Gilead.  And your servants, everyone who is armed for war, ya-avru to go to war in front of God, as my lord has spoken.”  (Numbers 3:25-27)

ya-avru (יַעַבְרוּ) = they will cross.  (Another form of the verb avar.)

The men of Gad and Reuven are still polite—and still interested in their livestock.  But they have listened carefully to Moses, and they correct their proposal accordingly.  They put the people before the animals when they mention securing settlements in Gilead.

They also include Moses’ phrase “in front of God” when they mention crossing the Jordan and fighting in the vanguard of the Israelites.  Thus they acknowledge Moses’ concern that they might not be placing enough value on human relations or on God’s presence.

Moses accepts their reformulation, and gives them provisional permission.  Since God has decreed that Moses will die on the east side of the Jordan, Moses gives instructions to his successor Joshua, to the high priest Elazar, and to the chieftains of the other tribes.

Moses said to them: “If all the armed Gaddites and Reuvenites ya-avru the Jordan with you to make war lifnei God, and the land is subjugated lifnei you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead as [their] property.  But if the armed men do not ya-avru with you, then they shall take property in the land of Canaan.”  (Numbers 32:29-30)

Given Moses’ mistrust of the motivations of the Gaddites and Reuvenites, he naturally makes the assignment of the land east of the Jordan conditional on their promise to send their armed men across the Jordan and fight in the vanguard until they have conquered enough territory so all the Israelites have their property.

But Moses’ instructions end with a surprise.  If the Gaddites and Reuvenites break their promise, their punishment shall be—that they take property in Canaan instead of Gilead!  Settling on conquered land outside Canaan is optional, a favor to be allowed or denied.  But Moses views settling on conquered land inside Canaan is the right of every Israelite, regardless of their character.  By stating this the contingency plan, Moses is acknowledging that the men of Gad and Reuven are still part of the community of Israel.

The Gaddites and Reuvenites humbly reply:

“Whatever God has spoken concerning your servants, thus we will do.”  (Numbers 32:31)


Did the men of Gad and Reuven agree to all of Moses’ terms, using his language, simply so they could acquire the lands they wanted for their livestock?

Or did they realize during the negotiations that they had been acting as if livelihood and land were the only vital things, when other things were actually more important?  Did they learn to appreciate their own families, the larger Israelite community, and even the Holy One?

May we all listen carefully, when we speak with people who seem to be on the other side of an issue.  And whether we reach an agreement or not, may we all learn about the other concerns in the hearts of our “opponents”, and acknowledge them.

  1. Numbers 21:31-22:1, in the Torah portion Chukkat. See my post Devarim & Shelach-Lekha: A Giant Detour.
  2. The land in God’s promise to Abraham also has the Euphrates River as its eastern border: On that day God cut a covenant with Avram, saying: To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.  (Genesis 15:18)
  3. The two Amorite kingdoms of Cheshbon and Bashan become the area called Gilead in the bible, and are part of the kingdom of Jordan today.
  4. Numbers 13:21-14:35.
  5. Rashi (11-th century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explains that Moses believes the other Israelites will be inhibited from crossing the Jordan because they think the men of Gad and Reuven are afraid to cross.
  6. Chatta (חַטָּא) = fallible, likely to sin (by disobeying God), sinful, guilty. (From the root verb chata, חָטָא = miss the mark, offend, be guilty.)
  7. The word I translate in this post as “dependents” is taf (טָף), which usually means either small children, or all non-marchers (i.e. all members of a tribe who cannot walk far). Sometimes the Torah uses the word taf to mean children and the elderly; other times taf includes women as well.
  8. Isaac ben Moses Arama, a 15th-century rabbi, wrote in Sefer Akedat Yitschak that Moses noticed the men of Gad and Reuven were only considering economics, not the spiritual value of living in the “promised land”, so he angrily reminded them four times of God’s share in the land by saying “in front of God”.
  9. Rashi wrote that the men of Gad and Reuven cared more about their property than about their children, since they put their livestock first, and Moses corrected the order.

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