In my last blog post on Numbers 32, Moses and the leadership council of Israel had agreed to the request of Reuben and Gad that they are allowed to possess the land Israel had just won from the Midianites, the land of Moab. This area on the east side of the Jordan River, in what is now the modern-day Kingdom of Jordan, would become Reuben and Gad’s territorial allotments.
There is NO evidence that the war with Midian (which God told Moses to prosecute) was to be in any way associated with the occupation of Moab. Rather, Yehoveh’s goal was to destroy those who had led Israel (as a nation) into adultery by enticing them to cavort with pagan women and pagan gods.
While the subject is not explicitly dealt with in Numbers, it seems to me that what Israel SHOULD have done is simply defeated the Midianites and their ally Moab, moved on and the left the former nation of Moab empty; settling there was not on the Lord’s agenda.
Moses was very uneasy about this proposal, and even though Reuben and Gad agreed to send their very best crack troops to fight alongside the other 10 Israelite tribes as the conquest of Canaan began, we can detect that all was not well.
What Reuben and Gad suggested did NOT fall within the Covenant of Abraham; the land they wanted was NOT within the boundaries of the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet we do not read of the Lord telling them, “no.”
In essence, Reuben and Gad would live OUTSIDE the camp of Israel, OUTSIDE the Land of Promise, because they saw more benefit in the rich pasturelands of Moab than residing in the provision of the Lord, Canaan.
It’s informative to ask of ourselves first, WHY did Reuben and Gad (out of all the 12 tribes) decide to inquire for this particular territory? Their immediate reason was that they possessed large flocks and herds and Moab was near-perfect pastureland.
But if we go back a few centuries to when Jacob was giving his deathbed blessing to his 12 sons we find some clues, and it begins with the fact that Reuben was virtually disowned.
Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, was not given the traditional rights of the firstborn because Reuben had sexual relations with one of his father’s concubines. Jacob stated that Reuben was “as unstable as water” and therefore would never excel.
Reuben had all the physical attributes and intelligence and advantages to do well, but he lacked morality and strength of character, and in time we’ll see that Reuben preferred the nomad’s lifestyle of ever being on the move to a more settled and sedentary one.
When recalling Jacob’s blessings upon his sons, though it seems so implausible to our modern minds to grasp that each prophetic blessing was not so much for an only son, as upon that son’s future descendants. It was intended more so as a prophet Oracle upon those thousands upon thousands who would be members of the tribe named after the son personally.
Jacob was pronouncing the destinies of the tribes each of his sons would spawn; he was pronouncing the characteristics that each of these tribes would develop, and these features were but extensions of the already developed and displayed characteristics of his sons.
Reuben’s nature of instability would be passed along and realized within his tribe over the centuries, and it is what led the tribe of Reuben to choose unwisely to stay OUT of the Promised Land, in favor of staying in Moab, a land NOT set apart for God’s people.
Over time Reuben becomes less and less prominent in Israel’s history. In fact, some biblical historians claim that by Saul’s time Reuben was absorbed into the tribe of Gad and disappeared.
Other biblical writings don’t support that severe of consequence for Reuben, but rather what we do find is that the tribe of Reuben took on the lifestyle of Bedouins and wandered around the desert fringes of the Trans-Jordan, moving around with their flocks and herds.
Technically Reuben still held territory and maintained their tribal identity, but practically they didn’t govern their territory or create the infrastructure within it or defend it with vigor, so their territory more and more came under the influence of the tribe of Gad. As Bedouins, Reuben just didn’t have much interest in controlling territory.
Gad had a little different destiny than Reuben; Jacob gave Gad the briefest of blessings, and it was a very strange blessing indeed. The blessing was: ” Gad, a troop will troop on him, but he will troop on their heel.” Sounds like gobbly-gook, doesn’t it?
However, the word Gad is associated with the Hebrew root gedud (a noun meaning troop), and it’s associated verb yegudenu meaning “raided.” This blessing by Jacob upon Gad was recorded as a play on words; it is all about Gad’s future as a military force and the fact that they will have to fight off enemies all their days due to their location.
Jacob’s pronouncement upon Gad is much better translated as: “Gad, a troop will raid him, but he (Gad) will raid on their heel.” In other words, Gad was going to be a tribe of warriors, and they would have a rather hawkish attitude. They would be military oriented out of necessity. Enemies would constantly harass Gad, but in the end, they would win.
And true to this 500-year-old blessing Gad had become a tremendously strong and successful tribe of fighters while out in the Wilderness. So this is one reason that Moses insisted on having soldiers from the tribe of Gad accompany Israel into Canaan.
Further, Reuben and Gad (along with Simeon) formed one of the four divisions of Israel; they camped together on the south side of the Tabernacle. Reuben and Simeon were brothers; their mother was Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Gad was the son of Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah, so there existed a natural relationship between these three.
Now in the Lord’s divine providence, even though it was never meant for Reuben and Gad to settle where they did, they provided a means of protection to help protect the other tribal territories (that would be located INSIDE the Promised Land as they were supposed to be) from the countless invaders from the east. Reuben and Gad would bear the brunt of many of the marauders who wanted to pass through their territory to get to the other tribes of Israel.
The start of verse 16 is important because in the English the tone of the conversation gets lost. This section begins, “…. and then they came up (or stepped up) to him (Moses) and said…”
The Hebrew for came up or stepped up is va-yiggeshu, and it means to beseech someone in a gentle or intimate manner. In other words, the leaders of Reuben and Gad were NOT demanding that they were staying or refusing to go forward.
Rather they wanted to explain their reasoning for preferring the area of Moab for their homes and then make an offer that would satisfy the others and the Lord to show their intended continuing loyalty to Israel and the Covenants of Abraham and Moses.
What they offered was that if allowed to settle in the Trans-Jordan that they would build a place for their animals, and they would build towns for their families. However, they would also supply a large contingent of crack military troops to go forward into Canaan and fight alongside the other tribes of Israel.
The Hebrew word for the kind of exceptional troops offered is nechalats; it means to be picked out or specially selected. The idea is that these are the fiercest fighters, the best of the best. Further, these troops from Reuben and Gad would be the vanguard of the Israelite army as it fought and conquered its way through Canaan.
The deal is that these nechalats would not come back to their tribal territory in the Trans-Jordan until every Israelite tribe had possession of its land in Canaan; they would stay and fight with their brothers as long as it took.
Further, they would not ask for additional territory on the west side of the Jordan, in the Promised Land. They would be satisfied to live only east of the Jordan because it is their choice.
Moses (undoubtedly with the approval of the leadership council) agrees to this proposal.
Read Numbers 32:25-42
So here we see that about 1/2 of the largest Israelite tribe, Manasseh, decided that they ALSO wanted to stay in the Trans-Jordan region (probably for the same reasons that Reuben and Gad wanted to).
Now while nothing is said of it, this would have been a very traumatic and contentious matter. For a tribe to split itself in such a manner meant there was considerable disagreement among the clans that formed it, and this was a pretty dangerous situation.
And this also meant that two men were vying for top dog (for Prince) head of the tribe of Manasseh and undoubtedly this splitting of the tribe with part living on the east side of the Jordan and the other part living on the west bank of the Jordan was central to a peaceful resolution of the disagreement.
We are given no details about how this all came about. But from this point forward we’ll start hearing the Bible speak of “the 2 1/2 tribes” that stayed on the east side of the Jordan. This just means that two entire tribes (meaning all the clans of Reuben and Gad) PLUS 1/2 of the tribe of Manasseh (around 1/2 of the many family groups that formed Manasseh) made the decision to settle in the Trans-Jordan.
The remaining clans that formed the other half of the tribe of Manasseh went on with the other tribes of Israel into Canaan to conquer and settle it.
Reuben settled directly on the east bank of the Dead Sea, while Gad inhabited an area east of the Jordan River and located between the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and the northern end of the Dead Sea.
The 1/2 tribe of Manasseh settled on land that began at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and extended north to about Mt. Hermon. And this didn’t all happen immediately; it had taken a few scores of years before the boundaries took form, but even then the make-up of each territory fluctuated with time and political circumstances.
As was customary in that era these 3 Israelite tribes rebuilt some of the cities they had destroyed in the battle with Midian, changed the city names to Hebrew city names, and settled there.
The reasons for rebuilding a city rather than starting fresh somewhere else are many, but in general, it is that
- A city was invariably located near a good water source, and water was not easily available everywhere;
- There were usually established roads and paths built up to each town and city where traders and merchants brought needed goods, and
- The most obvious reason was that the building materials from the former city were just laying there ready to be reused to construct the new city. Since most construction was of stone, it was a matter of just piling the rocks back up again.
Those of you who have been to Israel have seen dozens of enormous earthen mounds called Tels, scattered all over the land. These Tels are the remains of ancient cities that once existed there, but are now covered over with may feet of dirt and debris brought in by centuries of wind and rain.
The thing is that every Tel is a system of layers, and looking like a layer cake, each layer represents a once thriving city that was destroyed. The layer just above it represents the next town, which was built directly upon the former ruined city, using much of its rubble and building material. Sometimes there are as many as 18 or 20 layers in a single Tel; that is, 18 or 20 cities, each one built upon the remains of the one before it is present.
I have no doubt that the cities that the army of Israel destroyed in Moab had already been built upon the ruins of yet more ancient cities. And now Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh would only repeat the process, adding yet another layer to the many Tels. And after them, other civilizations would do the same.
Therefore identifying these city names we see in Numbers 32 is quite difficult in our time because the names only existed until this city was destroyed; the next new city built upon it usually was given a new name (though often it was the SAME name, just in a different language).