So the people of Gad and the people of Reuben came and said to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation “. . .the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” And they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.” – Numbers 32:2-5
This is the last entry for Numbers, but who’s counting? Eh? Eh?
Anyway, Chapter 33 is great because it’s just a recap of Exodus through Numbers. You could read Genesis and then Numbers 33 and pretty much have the whole story so far. Maybe that’s what monks did to cram for Bible tests before Wikipedia.
Numbers 31 is a sort of bloody chapter in which the Hebrews kill some of their enemies, including someone named Balaam, but I’m not 100% sure it’s the same Balaam as I wrote about in the previous entry. If so, though, that ties up a loose end, which is somewhat unexpected but not unwelcome. Still, it seems like a raw deal for poor Balaam, who after all refused to try to hinder the Hebrew’s march into the Holy Land. The conquering Hebrews take no prisoners except “all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him.” These individuals they absorb into their ranks. (Numbers 31:18). One wonders if these young girls considered themselves fortunate. I suspect some did and others did not, depending on the circumstances of their previous lives and the specific Hebrews they encountered. Religiously and culturally (and linguistically?), I wonder how they negotiated the process of assimilation.
For me, with my interests in landownership and genealogy, the most interesting chapter was Numbers 32 in which two branches of the Hebrews chose to settle not in the promised land across the Jordan with the rest of the tribes, but on their own in a land called Gilead. This land of Gilead was good for livestock, and apparently the families of Reuben and Gad had a lot of livestock, so they wanted to put down roots there. Moses was angry with this request because he wanted to ensure that Reuben and Gad continued to carry out their military duties as the Hebrews advanced. So they agreed to help carry the fight across the Jordan in exchange for being allowed to return to Gilead afterward to settle. They would also give up their share of the promised land across the Jordan. Moses found this solution agreeable. This story reminds me of doing family history research. One of my ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. left at least one sibling behind in the old country, according to some sources, so it’s interesting to think about the distant relatives I may still have across the ocean. As in the 19th century, cutting ties with your family by settling apart from them must have been a big deal in Biblical times. If there is any truth to this story, I suspect that the descendants of Reuben and Gad developed along a very different trajectory than the main body of Israelites.
For Reuben and Gad, economic motives seem to have been powerful enough to override considerations of blood, language, and cultural affiliation. Their best chance at prosperity seemed to require them to take a different path, one that led them away from their brothers, sisters, and cousins. I sympathize with their decision and admire their willingness to diverge from Moses’s plan for the Hebrew people. Moses deserves credit for allowing Reuben and Gad to follow their best judgment, even if he did it begrudgingly. I wonder what message people in previous millennia took away from this chapter.
On to Deuteronomy!