Joshua 13-21: Land allotments, oh my!

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Always a bit of a Debbie Downer, God begins by telling Joshua that he’s getting old and that there is still much land to be conquered. He then proceeds to list these lands in Josh. 13:2-6.

The narrator follows up by describing the boundaries of the land under Israelite control on the east side of the Jordan, reminding us once more about how Moses defeated King Og and King Sihon (will he ever stop going on about that?). We are told that the Israelites had failed to drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites, who still live within Israel “to this day” (Josh. 13:13).

The actual allocation sections are a little scattered, so I’ll deal with the content out of order. In Josh. 18, Joshua tells the tribes who still require lands to each send out three men to scout the land and write descriptions of it. When they return, Joshua will use a lottery system to divide it among the tribes. This all takes place at Shiloh.

ChariotsBecause the place names are extremely boring, I will just list verse references plus any detail that happens to attract my interest. Here are the tribal allocations:

Judah: Josh. 15:1-12, 20-63. Though God had promised to Joshua that no one would be able to stand against him (Josh. 1:5), the people of Judah were not able to drive out the Jebusites, who were the people living in Jerusalem. Because of this, “the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).

Reuben: Josh. 13:15-23.  Amid the listing of territories, we are reminded that the Israelites killed Balaam, “who practiced divination” (Josh. 13:22). This was, if you remember, a totally awkward twist from Numbers 31

Gad: Josh. 13:24-28. In Josh. 13:27, we are told that Gad gets “the rest of the kingdom of King Sihon. This conflicts with Josh. 13:21, where we are told that Reuben is to receive “all the kingdom of King Sihon.” The biblical penchant for exaggeration is all well and good, but probably a terrible idea when relating tribal land allocations…

Manasseh (eastern half/Machir): Josh. 13:29-31, 17:3-6. In Josh. 17, we are reminded of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who are to receive an inheritance in their own right. Here, the women are given their lands.

Manasseh (western half): Josh. 17:7-13. Once more, the Israelites are unable to kill off all the native inhabitants, so that the Manassites have to wait until they strong enough to enslave the Canaanites.

Ephraim: Josh. 16:1-10. Once again, we are told that they were unable to drive some people out – the Canaanites of Gezer remain and, we are told, have been enslaved.

Benjamin: Josh. 18:11-26.

Simeon: Josh. 19:1-9. Though the apportioning of land was supposed to have been fair, for some reason Joseph had given too much to Judah. So when he gets to Simeon, he doesn’t have enough territory to give and has to carve pieces out from Judah and give them over. Mastermind Joshua strikes again. You’d think he’d have planned ahead a little…

Zebulun: Josh. 19:10-16.

Issachar: Josh. 19:17-23. Excavations began on what is believed to be Anaharath, one of Issachar’s towns, somewhat recently!

Asher: Josh. 19:24-31.

Naphtali: Josh. 19:32-39.

Dan: Josh. 19:40-48. We are told that Dan took land from Leshem, renaming it “Dan” after their ancestor. Unfortunately, they are given Zorah and Eshtaol, which had already been given to Judah back in Josh. 15:33. Poor Joshua just cannot wrap his head around how this stuff works…

Levi: Josh. 21:1-45. Though they get no territory per se, the Levites do get cities, as well as a little pasture land. A portion of the Kohathites are given thirteen towns from Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The rest of the Kohathites get ten towns from Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. The Gershonites get thirteen towns from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites get twelve towns from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. We are told that Caleb had been given the fields and villages of one of the towns now being given to the Levites.

Caleb and Joshua

Caleb: Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13-19. You’ll remember Caleb has the scout who (with or without Joshua) stood against the other scouts in their position that the Israelites should not rush into the Promised Land. I can’t recall if Moses promised him his own land as a reward at the time, but the text here says that he did. And so, while Joshua is drawing all his lots, Caleb approaches and demands his reward. Though he is 85 years old now, he claims that he is still strong enough to fight and, therefore, would like to be granted the hill country where he had initially seen the Anakim (the giants he saw in Numbers 13). Joshua agrees, giving him Hebron – previously named Kiriatharba. The Arba in the name is the “greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh. 14:15). Incidentally, there’s a discussion over at Remnant of Giants about whether “Anakim” here should refer to a specific group of people, or whether it is used more broadly as a term for giants.

We have to wait until the next chapter and half of Judah’s allotment before we find out what happens next. Caleb heads up to Hebron and defeats Anak’s three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Having now a taste for blood, he heads off to fight Debir, offering his daughter, Achsah, as a wife for anyone who conquers it for him. Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, takes him up on the offer and marries his niece. She tells her new husband to ask her father for a field and they are given some land in the Negeb. Later, while dismounting a donkey (presumably not an unflattering nickname for Othniel), she asks her father for water springs as well. Caleb gives her a few.

It’s a cute story, but we were told in Josh. 11:21 that it was Joshua who had defeated the Anakim in Hebron and Debir.

Joshua: Josh. 19:49-51. Now that all the lands are distributed, God tells the Israelites to give Joshua some land, too. I love this little detail – we are specifically told that the Israelites gave Joshua his land (on God’s command), just in case anyone dared to wonder if perhaps Joshua was skimming a little from the top for himself! Of course, we’re also told that he specifically asked for the town they gave him, so it still feels a little like a stacked deck. Either way, he receives Timnathserah, which is in his tribe’s – Ephraim – land.

The Remainder

In Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are appointed. You will remember these cities from Numbers 35. We had been told that there should be six of them in total, and they are:

  1. Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
  2. Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
  3. Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
  4. Bezer in Reuben’s territory
  5. Ramoth in Gad’s territory
  6. Golan in Manasseh’s territory

The latter three had already been appointed in Deuteronomy 4.

The tribe of Joseph (composed of Manasseh and Ephraim) complain to Joshua that they are too numerous for the amount of land they were given. Joshua, who sadly lacks a head for numbers, also managed to muck up Judah’s portion (giving them too much) in Josh. 19:9. To solve the problem, Joshua sends them into the forests belonging to the Perizzites and Rephaim to clear some space for themselves.

But, reply Manasseh and Ephraim, those guys have chariots of iron! (Josh. 17:16) Joshua reassures them that they will be fine, and that they will drive out the Canaanites even though they have chariots of iron and are very strong.

Joshua 10: And then a bunch of other stuff happened…

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Now that we’ve gotten through the brief digression with the Gibeonites, we can get back to the five kings. Adonizedek, king of Jerusalem, is getting pretty nervous hearing about the falls of Jericho and Ai, so he decides to call in his buddies to form an alliance. Hohan king of Hebron, Piram king of Jarmuth, Japhia king of Lachish, and Debir king of Eglon all join in.

They are particularly concerned about the alliance with Gibeon, because “all its men were mighty” (Josh. 10:2), not to mention clever in a Bugs Bunny sort of way! Marking quite a change from the slavery curses of Joshua 9, here the Gibeonites couldn’t be on friendlier terms with the Israelites, they “had made peace with Israel and were among them” (Josh. 10:1).

The five kings move their armies to attack Gibeon, and the Gibeons appeal to the Israelites for help. Joshua, bound now by his allowance, moves his own army out from Gilgal to meet them.

The Israelite army marches all night and launches straight into battle (a detail possibly intended to be read as a miracle by anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter and had to go to work in the morning).

The five kings are routed and, as their armies flee, God does his part by pelting them with “stones” or  “hail-stones” from heaven (Josh. 10:11).

Then there’s the bit about the sun standing still, but I’ll cover that in its own section.

Back to the five kings, they make it all the way to Makkedah, where they hide in a cave. Cornered, they are easy enough for Joshua’s army to catch. Joshua displays his Alpha Male status by having all his leaders put their feet on the kings’ necks, then kills them (the kings, not his own leaders), and hangs their bodies from trees for the rest of the day. In the evening (in compliance with Deut. 21:23), the bodies are cut down and shoved back into the cave, the mouth of which is sealed with great stones “which remain to this very day” (Josh. 10:27).

Since he’s in the neighbourhood, Joshua decides to make a quick stop to cross Mekkedah off his Conqueror’s To Do List. He treats the king of Mekkedah “as he had done to the king of Jericho” (Josh. 10:28). Unless I am mistaken, however, I don’t believe that his treatment of Jericho’s king was every explicitly narrated.

The day the earth stood still

The miracle of the sun standing still really surprised me. This is a story that I thought I was very familiar with, since it’s so much in the popular culture.

What I was expecting was a narration of a battle where the Israelites were outnumbered or otherwise at a disadvantage. If night fell while the battle was still on, they would be overpowered. So, at the height of the battle, God makes the sun stand still, keeping it day and light until the Israelites are victorious.

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still, by Joseph-Marie Vien

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still, by Joseph-Marie Vien

What I got instead seems embarrassingly mundane. The armies of the five kings are running away, and Joshua tells the sun to stand still at Gibeon and the moon to stand still in the valley of Aijalon. They do so while the Israelites “took vengeance on their enemies” (Josh. 10:13). What they are taking vengeance for is not specified.

So the miracle is that the sun “did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (Josh. 10:13). I hate to break it to my Sunday School teacher but…. that’s what it does every day. In fact, that’s kind of how we measure days…

We are also told that this “miracle” is confirmed by the Book of Jashar, which we obviously have no extant copies of.

The passage is also fairly ambiguous – what does it mean to say that the sun stood still? Does it mean that the sun, itself, stood still? Did the rest of the galaxy stop as well, or did we fall behind in the rotation? Or did the sun only stand still from an earth viewer’s perspective? In other words, was it that the earth stopped spinning?

If we’re even talking about a “standing still” as my Sunday School teacher would have it, the cascade of consequences seems somewhat endless.

But Claude Mariottini argues that the passage might not even refer to the sun standing still at all:

In Hebrew, the word translated “stand still” literally means “be silent.” In this context, Joshua was commanding the sun “to be silent,” that is, to keep from shining. Since the sun was rising in the east, his command to the sun was that it refrains from shining.

When Joshua came to fight against the Amorites, he came at night and caught them by surprise. Joshua was aided by the darkness caused by a huge storm that produced hail so big that it killed many people. In fact, the biblical text says that more people died from the hailstones than the people of Israel killed with the sword.

Since the hailstorm did not affect the army of Israel, Joshua needed the storm to last so that the hail could continue decimating the army of the Amorites. Consequently, Joshua’s prayer was for more darkness (the continuation of the storm) and not for more light. The reason Joshua’s army did not kill many soldiers was because the storm prevailed most of that day.

The view that Joshua prayed for more darkness is in agreement with the biblical text because the sun stood still (was silent, did not shine) for a whole day. This view also allows for a better understanding of the text without forcing upon it an interpretation that would require the reversal of the laws of physics.

Of course, we’re still left with little more than a creative interpretation of a very ambiguous passage.

Far more interesting is J.R. Porter’s assertion that “Gibeon was an ancient sanctuary, important in later Israelite history, and there is evidence that Shamash, the sun god, was worshipped there. The poem was originally addressed to Canaanite astral deities but was transferred to Yahweh by the Israelites.” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.65)

This leaves us wondering about the purpose for the scrap’s inclusion. It doesn’t flow with the narrative and (to the extent that such can be determined in a translation) even the style and language use seems to differ from the text surrounding it. It feels stitched into its place.

And all the south

As I read Joshua, I’m struck by how local it feels considering that it’s supposed to narrate the invasion of an entire country. The elaborate stories all seem to take place in a very small territory. Once the narrative moves away from its borders, the story starts to seem rushed, not so much telling a story as simply listing names.

I’ve been theorizing that Joshua was a local “founding figure,” perhaps an analogue to Moses and Abraham. The fact that the richness of his story is so geographically confined would, it seems, support this theory. After all, the denizens of the Jericho/Gilgal/Ai area would hardly waste their time coming up with such detail for stories that take place in locations that the storytellers may have never even seen for themselves.

So Joshua may have been the founder of a particular tribe, for example, and then enlarged as he came to be woven into the narrative of unity and federation.

So the final portion of Joshua 10 tells of Joshua’s conquest in the south, the cities he takes listed with very little interest or creativity on the author(s)’s part: Libnah, Lachish, Gezer (whose king, Haram, comes to Lachish’s defence), Eglon, Hebron, and Debir.

Deuteronomy 9: For you are a stiff-necked people

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With the Hebrew army poisoned to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses moves on to talk about the dangers they will face therein. Specifically, the Anakites, the giants we met back in Numbers 13.  But though they are a people “strong and tall” (v.2) and live in large cities with “walls up to the sky” (v.1), God will be on the side of the Hebrews. With his help, the Hebrews will “annihilate them [the Anakites] quickly” (v.3).

As is proving to be something of a theme in Deuteronomy, Moses then reminds the people that they must never think that they are receiving the Promised Land because of any personal qualities.

If God is driving out the people of Canaan, it’s only because of their wickedness, “not because of your righteousness or your integrity” (v.5). That and his promise to the patriarchs, of course.

Return of the Bride of the Golden Calf

Never one to let a complaint drop, Moses starts listing all those times the people totally forced God to kill bunches of them by making him angry. Specifically, he goes back to that time the people made an idol in God’s honour.

In the beginning of the story, Moses says that he spent forty days (and the accompanying nights) on the mountain, during each he “ate no bread and drank no water” (v.9). The water thing is pretty impressive, but the starvation thing is within the realm of non-miraculous possibilities. Peter Janiszewski has an article up on the Obesity Panacea blog: “Generally, it appears as though humans can survive without any food for 30-40 days, as long as they are properly hydrated.” Without either, Janiszewski writes, death is likely within 10-14 days. Of course, this assumes that forty is the actual number of days and not a little hyperbolising fudging, as we’ve seen so much (doubly likely given the mystical significance of the number given).

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel's Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

Bible story about the dance around the golden calf, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493)

What I find interesting here is that Moses says that the tablets contained “all the commandments the Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of the assembly” (v.10). Unless I’m way off, this seems to imply that the tablets contain all the ordinances, not just the Decalogue.

Moses tells the people that God wanted to kill them all and to start the chosen people over again with his line, as he had done before with Noah. Seems a bit conceited, honestly. Perhaps a detail I would have left out in Moses’s place. There’s enough guilt-tripping in the “he wanted to kill you all” without following it up with “but he really really likes me!”

In his story, Moses heads down the mountain and finds the golden calf. He chides the people, saying that they had “turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you” (v.16). So Moses throws a little tantrum and smashes the tablets.

Moses returns to God and goes another forty days without food or water (hopefully having a wee nibbly first). It worked, and God decided not to desert the people (though, not mentioned here, he did kill a load of them). In this account, God was also mad at Aaron, but relented after Moses prayed for him as well. This is a bit different from the account in Exodus 32, where Aaron simply lies about his involvement and is believed.

Moses then recalls how he burned the golden calf and then ground it into dust. But where in the original story he forced the people to drink it, killing them, this time he “threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain” (v.21). So it’s only, only the people downstream will be poisoned.

Then Moses reminds the people that they were so mean to God at Taberah (by complaining within God’s hearing), Massah (where it was Moses himself, and not the people, who angered God), and Kibroth Hattaavah (where they asked for something other than manna to eat).

Completing the crescendo of insults, Moses finishes by telling the people that they “have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you” (v.24).

Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.

Numbers 34: Redistribution of wealth

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It’s not even theirs yet, but the Israelites have decided that it’s already time to start planning how they will divvy up the loot. There’s a relevant saying, something about chickens hatching.

They begin by setting out the boundaries of the ideal Israelite country:

  1. The southern side should include some of the wilderness of Zin, along the border of Edom. The boundary will start in the east from the southern tip of the Salt Sea (which some translations give as the Dead Sea), then south of Akrabbim, cross the wilderness of Zin, and south of Kadeshbarnea. From there, it should go on to Hazaraddar, and then on from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt (which may be the Nile, or something else, who knows?), ending at the Mediterranean.
  2. The western boundary should be the coast of the Mediterranean.
  3. The northern side should run from the Mediterranean to Mount Hor (which is confusing because the Mount Hor we’ve been reading about is to the south of Canaan. Apparently, there are two of them?). From there, the boundary goes out to the entrance of Hamath, ending at Zedad. It then goes to Ziphron, ending at Hazarenan.
  4. The eastern boundary should run from Hazarenan to Shepham, then down to Riblah (on the east side of Ain), and then along the slopes east of the Sea of Chinnereth (which some translations give as the Sea of Galilea). Then hit should head down along the Jordan and end at the Salt/Dead Sea.

According to my Study Bible, the northern border wasn’t actually reached until the time of David – citing 2 Sam. 8:3-14 and 1 Kg. 8:65 (p.210). If true, that leaves us with two options: Either the boundaries presented here are an accidental anachronism written by someone living after the time of David, or the boundaries were written in/modified to legitimize Israelite claims to those lands.

Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh have all gotten their spots already, so they don’t have to be part of this process. The Levites are also excluded because, as with the census, they get their own chapter. For the rest, God selects a leader for each tribe to handle the assigning of lands:

  • Judah: Caleb, son of Jephunneh
  • Simeon: Shemuel, son of Ammihud
  • Benjamin: Elidad, son of Kislon
  • Dan: Bukki, son of Jogli
  • Joseph, Manasseh: Hanniel, son of Ephod
  • Joseph, Ephraim: Kemuel, son of Shiphtan
  • Zebulun: Elizaphan, son of Parnak
  • Issachar: Paltiel, son of Azzan
  • Asher: Ahihud, son of Shelomi
  • Naphtali: Pedahel, son of Ammihud

Numbers 32: The eager beavers

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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.

The Compromise

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.