While hanging out in Gilead, along the east bank of the Jordan river, representatives of the tribes of Gad and Reuben come to Moses, Eleazar, and the other tribal leaders. They point out that the lands they’re in now are actually kinda nice, and they’d really be rather quite content to just stay here.
Moses shames Gad and Reuben for letting “your brethren go to the war while you sit here” (v.6). He asks them if they would discourage the rest by bailing now, and reminds them of how their forefathers had discouraged the people after the scouting episode in Numbers 13. Remember, he says, God sentenced us to 40 years in the wilderness after that!
“Behold,” says Moses. “You have risen in your fathers’ stead, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness; and you will destroy all this people” (v.14-15).
Bit much? Sure. Bad enough that David Plotz is left rather uncomfortable with the Moses character arc:
Moses’ indignation comes from nowhere and seems entirely undeserved. […] Again, it’s hard not to feel that the brilliant and humane prophet who has dominated the Torah is slipping away, and that he has suddenly become an old, angry, vindictive tyrant.
I don’t think that Plotz is being fair here. An army can’t function if soldiers keep dropping out, en masse, along the way. If all the tribes are going to get their own land, all the tribes have to fight for it. Otherwise, the first couple get to settle down, and the remaining tribes will be too few in number to continue the campaign.
Moses has, absolutely, been acting like a tyrant. But I don’t think that’s the case in this particular chapter. Rather, Moses is telling Gad and Reuben that they don’t just get to take theirs and run. They have to stick it through until everyone gets their share.
I may not agree with the whole holy war / take the land through slaughter thing, but if you’re going to do it, at least do it as a team.
Gad and Reuben respond with a compromise. They propose that they build fortified cities “for our little ones” (v.16) and sheepfolds for their flocks, then march out with the Israelite army. That way, at least their animals, wives, and children would be safe while they fight. “We will not return to our homes until the people of Israel have inherited each his inheritance” (v.18).
Proving that Moses is not nearly as unreasonable in this chapter as Plotz made him out to be, he agrees to this compromise. Since he won’t be crossing the Jordan personally, he conveys the deal to Eleazar and Joshua.
The punishment if Gad and Reuben fail to uphold their part of the bargain is, by the way, incredibly light as far as biblical threats go. Moses says to Eleazar and Joshua that if Reuben and Gad don’t pull through, “they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan” (v.30). That’s right, if they fulfil their end of the bargain, they get the nice lands that they want. If they don’t, they get the perfectly fine lands that were originally planned for them. This is “old, angry, vindictive tyrant” Plotz is so concerned about?
As you can see from the map, Manasseh also has a little patch of land over on the east side of the river. They get stuck in here, totally as if they’d been in the deal from the beginning, as Moses dedicates the lands to the three tribes. Verses 34-42 just list all the various towns that the three tribes build.