Settling in Transjordan

Numbers 30:2-36:13

By Peretz Rodman

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Imagine yourself as the director of a play or film with Numbers 32 as your script. What instructions do you give to the actors playing the men of the tribes of Reuven and Gad as they rehearse the scene in which they inform Moses of their desire to settle in Transjordan, short of the final journey into the Promised Land? For these and other stage directions, look no further than the biblical text itself.

The narrator shows us the scenery through the eyes of his protagonists: “They saw the land of Ya’zer and the land of Gil’ad, and look! — the place is a place fit for cattle.” They approach Moses and the other leaders and make their pitch.

You instruct the actors to intone their opening words, a list of place names, as dreamily as if they were tropical islands in some idyllic vacation brochure: “Atarot! Divon! And Ya’zer! (ahhh…) And Nimrah! And Heshbon! And El’aleh (ooooh…).” [Draw out this long list until Moses thinks they may never come to the point, may have forgotten they were about to make a point.] “And S’vam! And N’vo! And B’on!” The land that the Eternal has struck down before the community of Israel is cattle country, and [they pause for a palms-up, “Aw, shucks, wouldn’t you know it?” shrug] we, your servants, are cattlemen!”

“Just happen to be cattlemen, eh?” we can see Moses thinking, as you instruct him to nod slightly and to stroke his beard.

They continue: “If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a permanent holding. Do not make us cross the Jordan.”

You instruct Moses to let his face show only a bit of his surprise and dismay. Perhaps add a “thinking” voice-over, with Moses mocking them: “‘Community of Israel,’ indeed! Not ‘sons’ or ‘tribes’ of Israel, but one ‘community.’ This from the very people for whom grazing land for their cattle comes before inheritance in the Promised Land for their children!”

Suddenly a flash of anger, still tightly controlled, from Moses: “Should your brothers go out to war and you, you stay here?” And immediately, with slightly more self-control: “Why would you constrain the will of the Children of Israel from crossing into the land that the Eternal has given them?” Moses accuses them of being as destructive to the people’s quest as had been the spies, whose disloyalty to the cause brought them death in the wilderness. The speech is unusually long and impassioned. His voice rises at the peroration: “Now here, you have arisen in place of your fathers, a brood of sinning men, to add further to the flaming anger of the Eternal against Israel. If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring ruin upon this entire people!”

[The Reuvenites and Gadites are stunned by Moses’ image of God’s flaming anger and by the force of Moses’ own fury. They draw closer to Moses. They reply hurriedly, with sideward waves of hands and furrowed brows, trying to dispel the thought that they meant to suggest staying out of the battle for Canaan. Playing spin doctors, they hope to pass that off as a misunderstanding.]

“Sheepfolds we will build for our livestock here, and towns for our children. And as for us, we will rush in as shock troops at the head of the Children of Israel until we have brought them into their place, while our children stay in towns fortified against the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our houses until the Children of Israel have each taken possession of his inheritance. But we will not have a share with them in the inheritance across the Jordan….” [They peer closely at Moses for some hint of whether he accepts this “clarified” version of their request.]

Moses replies [slowly, carefully] with a detailed restatement of their plan in conditional sentences. Then he adds a barbed reversal of what had been their initial point, and you, as director, instruct Moses to slow down and emphasize this sequence: “Build towns for your children, and sheepfolds for your livestock.” They had — revealingly — placed the sheep ahead of the children in their request; Moses upbraids them caustically but obliquely, manipulating their desire to appear part of the united military effort even as they are driven by apparent greed. When they again restate their plan, they have picked up on Moses’ amended order and adopted it: “Our children, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind….”

With his initial burst of angry opposition melting carefully into acceptance, Moses has maneuvered Reuven and Gad into acquiescence and instructed them about what is truly important.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a translator, editor and teacher. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their three children.

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