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15.07.2020 23:37    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat parasha matot maasei touitou  

Gad, Reuben and Half Mannaseh—Between Request and Realization

Looking at this week's story of the tribes that settled on the eastern side of the Jordan River (Num. 32), one wonders about several points having to do both with the tribes' request and with Moses' response to that request.  It is most surprising that tribes who witnessed all the great miracles, such as the ten plagues when they were in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the rest of the wonders that transpired during their wandering in the wilderness, should suddenly disdain the lovely land.  Most surprising is Moses' zigzagging response.  How did his initially harsh and outspoken response to their request turn into delicate consideration for them, by the end of his remarks?  What is more, he even complied with their request and promised them an inheritance outside the land of Israel.

The story begins with their request, vague at the outset[1] but eminently clear by the end:  "Do not move us across the Jordan"—utter refusal to settle in the land of Israel.  On hearing these harsh words, Moses was irate and refused to comply with them.  In his response (comprised of a lengthy, ten-verse oration), Moses compared their behavior to that of the wicked spies:  "Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them?" (v. 7)?!

He accused them of inciting revolt and used the word "land" four times, once for each time it appeared in their petition:  "from crossing into the land" (v. 7); "That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to survey the land" (v. 8); "After going up to the wadi Eshkol and surveying the land, they turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that the Lord had given them" (v. 9).  Further on, Moses reminds them of the grave punishment—death—that the spies were given for this:  "Thereupon the Lord was incensed and He swore, 'None of the men…who came out of Egypt shall see the land that I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (vv. 10-11).

After some negotiating, the tribes moderated their request somewhat.  In the wake of what they said, Moses accepted their request, but on one condition:  that "the land is subdued before you."  In other words, only after conquest of the land would they themselves receive their inheritance outside the land of Israel.  Nevertheless, his consent to their strange request, to settle outside the borders of the land of Israel, still surprises us.

Looking at the interpretations of the Sages and medieval exegetes we see that there is no uniform assessment of the characters in this story.[2] One must bear in mind that this story is but one link out of two that deal with this theme.  So it appears that only intertextual interpretation of both sources, which includes inner-biblical interpretation,[3] can lead us to a correct understanding of the relationship between their request (Num. 32) and its implementation (Josh. 22).[4] This in turn will be instructive regarding the conclusions to be derived from this intertextual echo,[5] and perhaps might even resolve our wonderment.

The narrative about the fulfillment of the request by the two and a half tribes (in Josh. 22) begins with Joshua enjoining the tribes to "observe all that Moses commanded you" (v. 2) and blessing them.  The tribes of the Transjordan then set out for the land of Gilead and build an altar when they come to the region of the Jordan in the land of Canaan—a deed that caused the tribes great consternation, angering the chieftains of the Israelites so that they made ready for war.  The episode ends all for the best, with reconciliation and blessings.

In the two stories, both the request by the tribes and its realization, the figures speak candidly, but double portrayals such as these resemble the literary device, frequently found in Scripture and indicative among other things of a later biblical narrative which "emends" a narrative that precedes it.[6] Examining both narratives, we see that their artistic presentation is especially evident and that there is a close literary connection between them.  This leads us to hypothesize that the author of the book of Joshua wrote his story in the context of the literary design of the story in Numbers 32, and shaped his depiction of events using similar literary artistic means in order to convey latent messages that are only revealed by comparing the texts.[7]

Many point of similarity can be found between the stories:  the structure of the conversation, certain turns of phrase, similar expressions and many key words.  Out of the great similarity emerges the great difference, which indicates to us the hidden message.  Here are several points of similarity:

  1. In both stories we have a typical gable-shaped conversational structure:[8] a) a reassuring preface; b) development of the plot; c) climax of the plot; d) denouement and release of tension; 5) calm ending, with reconciliation and blessing.
  2. In both stories, the tribes carry out their negotiations with central figures in the Israelite people.  In this week's reading:  Moses, Eleazar, and the Israelite chieftains.  In Joshua:  Phinehas son of Eleazar the Priest and the Israelite chieftains.
  3. In both stories non-conforming action by certain tribes brought on strong reactions.  In this week's reading it was the request to settle outside the land of Israel, and in Joshua, building an altar near the Jordan.
  4. In both stories the leaders of the Israelites compare the actions of the tribes from Transjordan to the out-of-line and reprehensible behavior of their ancestors, an action that brought in its wake serious consequences.  In Numbers Moses compared their actions to that of the spies, who were punished in the end and perished in the wilderness.  In Joshua, the tribes are compared to Achan son of Zerah, who violated the proscription and was sentenced to stoning, and mention is also made of the sin of Peor (Num. 25).  In this week's reading Moses calls them "a breed of sinful men" (v. 14), and in Joshua they are called treacherous and rebellious:  "What is this treachery that you have committed…rebelling this day against the Lord" (v. 16).  In the Torah they are accused of inciting to rebellion, and in Joshua they are explicitly called rebels.
  5. In both places the tribes are forced to justify themselves, and they launch into long aesthetic and artful orations, elegantly constructed in concentric form,[9] speeches which ultimately defuse the situation and lead to reconciliation and blessing.
  6. In both places, on one hand emphasis is put on the tribes' bona fide faith in the G‑d of Israel, and on the other hand there is an unwillingness to give up on their strange position, as if trying to hold the rope at both ends.

As we said, intertextual reading of the two stories reveals the solution to the difficulty we raised at the beginning of this discussion.  In both, a positive view is presented of commendable people, very wealthy people with complex personalities.  Their wealth, however, did not cause them to abandon their faith; they did not sever themselves from the Torah of Israel or the people of Israel; but they wanted to separate themselves from the land of Israel, from the beloved country.

Intertextual interpretation reveals a hidden message about the importance of the land of Israel, thus giving prominence to Moses' leaning in his harsh response to the tribes of the Transjordan.  Moses, as a leader and educator, was deliberately extreme in his reaction, for a precedent was being set—the first time, part of the Israelite tribes were refusing to enter the promised land and were ostensibly rejecting the beloved country.  This precedent worried Moses, and therefore his initial response was so harsh and excessively strict, emphasizing the severity of the request.  Only afterwards did he tone down his response, calm things down and make peace, giving promises and blessings.  His response, which appeared to be spontaneous, was actually thoroughly planned out, ready to come to terms from the very beginning of the discussion.  In addition, Moses wanted to create a model for handling such actions in the future.

Repeating the form, design and aesthetic elements of the story in the book of Joshua serves to underscore the pedagogical idea of the importance of the land of Israel and of settling there.  The request of the two and a half tribes was not so outlandish in itself, nor did it show fear of battle or lack of faith, as Scripture attests and as Moses, its teacher, knew full well.[10]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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