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B'Midbar/Numbers 32:4 The land that the L-rd struck ... [she] is a land of cattle; and your servants have cattle.
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The Israelites have arrived "on the Plains of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan, opposite Jericho" (B'Midbar 26:63). From there, they have fought, defeated and plundered the Midianites and the plunder included "675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle and 61,000 donkeys" (31:32). This is a huge quantity of flocks and herds. To set those numbers in context, it is worth observing that in England in the 1560s, the Cotswold sheep-breeders and wool merchants vied with each other for several years to be the first to have a flock of just 10,000 sheep. They consistently failed due to murrain or other sheep diseases, or the inability of the land to support flocks of such size. Yet here were flocks and herds of truly enormous sizes,1 in addition to those taken as plunder from Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings defeated before our people reached Moab. This is surely why the verse that starts this narrative block (32:1-42) says, "The descendants of Re'uven and the descendants of Gad had vast quantities of livestock. When they saw that the land of Ya'zer and the land of Gil'ad were good for livestock" (v. 1, CJB). Not visible in translation is that the first and last words of the verse are , the word translated 'livestock' by the NJPS. The lives of the Reubenites and Gadites are framed, encompassed, even taken up with, their livestock.
Can you see that the word also appears twice in our text, translated 'cattle'? It is a keyword that occurs twice more in the narrative block in the mouths of the tribes (verses 16 and 26) but not once in the words of Moshe. Here it is part of the argument the two tribes tentatively offer to Moshe in the hope that he will suggest what they are reluctant to directly say until his silence obliges then to continue in the next verse: "'If you regard us favorably,' they went on, 'let this land be given to your servants as their possession; and don't have us cross the Yarden'" (v. 5, NJPS). So what is this word all about and how can we understand what the tribes are really saying and what is making them tick? Why are they so interested in it, while Moshe disdains to use it even once in his replies.2
Derived from the root - to acquire, buy, purchase, get - by the usual practice of adding a prefix, we would expect to see the feminine noun with meanings such as "possessions, riches, wealth" - and it is so used throughout the Tanakh. However, as Davidson points out, wealth is chiefly expressed in cattle. In ANE times, there were not many coins and wealth in the form of coinage, shekels of gold or silver, wasn't performing any useful function. You just carried it around with you, it was vulnerable to theft and wasn't working: it would not grow or return any yield; it was essentially, dead money. Cattle - and sheep - on the other hand, continued to multiply, had a number of useful side-products such as meat, milk and wool and could be sold or exchanged at any time for their monetary equivalent to buy food, clothing, jewelry or other needed commodities. The more animals you had, the wealthier you were and would be judged by your peers to be. David Clines therefore gives the meaning for as: (possessions consisting of) cattle, livestock, usually of cows and sheep, but also camels, horses, asses.3 The tribes of Reuben and Gad were then concerned about wealth: how much they had; the best grazing to preserve and grow it; good climate and water - the land they saw around them was ideal and they wanted it.
It would seem that two at least of the twelve tribes has taken their eye off the greater goal of taking and settling the Promised Land. Dennis Olson explains that "two of the Israelite tribes do not want to settle inside the borders of Canaan; they are lured by the lush pasture land on the east side if the Jordan River and wish to settle there."4 Dennis Cole goes a little further, pointing to the unexpected gains in livestock from their recent military victories as a destabilizing factor that has "precipitated a crisis for the Israelites. Satisfied with the gains of the present and not having vision for the even greater opportunities that lay ahead in the Promised Land, two and a half tribes presented a request to Moshe that would shake the foundation of tribal unity, threatening potentially the very structural fibre of the nation."5Abravanel attributes this at least in part to historic inter-tribal rivalry: "the Reubenites did not want to be stuck on the west bank under the domination of their younger brothers Yosef and Judah."
There is a significant legal question as to whether the land east of the Jordan was in fact available for allocation to the tribes. Gordon Wenham observes that "as chapter 21 makes clear, Israel had no plans to conquer Sihon's kingdom, but because he blocked their path to the Jordan, battle was joined. Gad's request not to go on to Canaan represented a major change of policy."6 adds that "Sihon's land was formerly Moabite, a point stressed by the text (21:26) and, hence, forbidden territory from the beginning." According to the records of the occupation and settlement, there is a later suggestion that the land is regarded as unclean: "If it is because the land of your holding is unclean, cross over into the land of the L-RD's own holding, where the Tabernacle of the L-RD abides, and acquire holdings among us" (Joshua 22:19, NJPS). The final chapter of the story is found in the Midrash, which says that, "the children of Reuben and Gad were rich, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the land of Israel. Consequently they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile as is borne out by the text '[the king of Assyria] took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day' (1 Chronicles 5:26, ESV)." What is clear is that whenHaShem delineates the borders of the Land, the borders of the inheritance given to the people, the eastern border "shall go down and reach to the shoulder of the Sea of Chinnereth on the east. And shall go down to the Jordan, and its limit shall be at the Salt Sea. This shall be your land as defined by its borders all around" (B'Midbar 34:11-12, ESV), excluding any land east of the Jordan.
It seems that here we have a worked example of Yeshua's teaching (presented in both Matthew and Luke): "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). The tribes, as the words of the Midrash say: they were rich ... and loved their money, settling outside the land of Israel. Because what they saw around them there and then was good, they sacrificed the much greater good of settling in the Land, under G-d's protection and kingship, for the immediate gain and separation from the rest of the community of Israel. As a consequence, they were always beyond the Jordan and so first to be captured and taken away in exile by the Assyrians. Isolated from the rest of Israel by the river - which was un-crossable at some times of year even at the fords - they were easy prey and could be picked off by a simple land approach.
A man came to Yeshua, asking how he might inherit eternal life. When Yeshua listed six of the ten commandments, the man replied that he had kept all these since he was a youth, implying that he thought more was required. He was right. Yeshua then told him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Mark 10:21, ESV). Mark's next verse connects directly to our text and the tribes who settled in Trans-Jordan: "Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (v. 22, ESV). Faced with a choice between Yeshua and his wealth, the man faltered and walked away. Turning sadly to His disciples, Yeshua observed, "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (v. 23, ESV), and then went on to talk about the difficulties of getting a camel through the eye of a needle. When the disciples, amazed, asked who on earth could possibly be saved, Yeshua replied that "With man it is impossible, but not with G-d. For all things are possible with G-d" (v. 27, ESV.
It is tempting to draw the quick and obvious conclusion that the man had walked away and lost his opportunity. And that is all the story directly tells us, but it doesn't tell us what might have happened next. We don't know if the next day, rather like Zaccheus, the man came back having thought it through and done exactly what Yeshua said. Notice the key phrases: Yeshua only said that it was difficult, not impossible, because it forced people to make a choice between a very good now and an even better but not-quite-yet future. Then He said that all things are possible with G-d. Each day, every time we pray the Amidah, we ask that HaShem will give us the gift of repentance and lead us back to Himself. This comes from Him, not us. Let us hear those familiar words and submit ourselves to His plans, His call and His will so that we don't strand ourselves on the far bank of the Jordan and miss out on truly entering the kingdom of G-d!
1. - Perhaps the roundness of the numbers given in this narrative is an indication of just how large they were, approximating to huge and without number.
2. - In verse 24, Moshe explicitly uses the word , most usually 'flock', to refer to their animals.
3. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 241.
4. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 181.
5. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 505.
6. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 239.
Further Study: Luke 12:32-34; Acts 2:44-45; 1 John 2:15-17
Application: Where are your loyalties in these days? Do you look around at your stuff, your skills and your experience and tell the L-rd that this is who you are and what you do, or are you open to reassignment and redeployment wherever the Master has need of you? Set up a call today with the Master Scheduler and make sure that the only ego being served is the Great I AM.
Comment - 12:42 12Jul20 JW: I love the ending - the application! What an illuminating exegesis.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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