“Rabbi Meir says: Any condition that is not like the condition of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben is not a valid condition” (Kiddushin 61a)
While discussing what stipulations are valid in a kiddushin, the Mishnah brings us Rabbi Meir’s opinion about conditions in general. For a condition to be legally binding, it must be double: if you do this, I will do that and if you don’t do this I will do something else. He bases this assumption on the Biblical story of the tribes of Gad and Reuven. What happens in the story, who sets the condition and why?
Towards the end of the book of Bamidbar the people of Israel are preparing to enter the land. In fact, they have already had a few military victories in Transjordan. In chapter 21 it is related that the Israelites approached Sichon the king of the Emorites and requested free passage through his country. With his refusal, they went into battle and conquered Sichon’s land. Later in the chapter we hear of another conquest, of the land of Bashan ruled by King Og. Finally, there is a battle against the Midianites where many spoils of war are taken home by the Israelites.
With the conquest of vast and fertile land on the eastern bank of the Jordan, comes the opportunity for settlement, even before entering the land of Canaan. Two tribes with much livestock are eager to claim this grazing paradise. Chapter thirty-two of Bamidbar is a dialogue between two sides: the representatives of Gad and Reuven on the one hand and Moses on the other. Here is where we get to our double condition.
The dialogue has a number of stages. The tribal leaders approach Moses hesitantly (sheepishly?), saying that they have many animals and could they possibly stay here in this good grazing land and not cross the Jordan? Moses’ response is one of great anger, almost a post-trauma flashback to the incident with the spies and the people’s fears about entering the land. So the Gadites and Reubenites try again. They suggest leaving their sheep and children (in that order) behind, going to fight with the rest of the nation, and then returning. Moses sharpens their answer, including the famous double condition, and allows them to claim the land. Finally, half of the tribe of Menashe is included in the Transjordan land claim.
There are many things to take apart in this story. Let’s start with where is the land that Gad and Reuven want to claim. The eastern side of the Jordan River, also known as Transjordan, has a strange status in Jewish history and law. It is and it is not part of the Land of Israel. In Biblical times, two and a half tribes lived there but so did foreign nations like Edom, Moav and Ammon. In addition, we say that Moses never entered the Land of Israel, yet he clearly was in Transjordan.
Makeandtoss, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Was this land always meant to be part of Israel or was it added with Gad and Reuven’s request? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th century) says it was always meant to be part of Israel’s inheritance and should have been divided into grazing land for all the tribes. The problem with Gad and Reuven’s request is that they were greedy. Rather than waiting to receive an inheritance, they jumped the gun and grabbed it. Midrash Bamidbar Rabba says that as a penalty they were exiled first from the land (Divrei HaYamim I 5:26).
12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work Richardprins, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
An interesting question in the story is how did Gad and Reuven get so much livestock? The answer is in the preceding chapter, where as part of the spoils taken from Midian, we find included:
“The amount of booty, other than the spoil that the troops had plundered, came to 675,000 sheep,” (Bamidbar 31:32)
The commentary of Daat Mikra suggests that these two tribes were more interested than the others in shepherding and they bartered and bought sheep from the other tribes.
Keith Weller – http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/apr12/k4166-5.htm
Why was Moses so angry with this request? Besides the greed and materialism, he was distressed that these two tribes were not interested in helping their brothers in the conquest of the rest of Israel. His famous statement:
“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Bamidbar 32:6)
resounds through the generations, challenging anyone who shirks his duty to the Jewish people.
Moses was also upset by the tribes’ lack of priorities. In his listing the conditions for receiving the land, he repeatedly emphasizes that they will go “before God” to fight. God is mentioned over and over in his speech, so that the Gadites and Reuvenites will know that conquering the land is not just about having a secure and profitable home but about serving God.
Finally, in a small but telling detail, Moses flips the words of Gad and Reuven. Where they say that first they will build pens for their sheep and then cities for their children, Moses says, first take care of your children and then worry about your sheep!
The double condition that Moses sets out for them is simple:
“If the children of Gad and the children of Reuven will pass with you over the Jordan, every man armed to battle, before the Lord, and the land shall be subdued before you; then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession:
but if they will not pass over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan” (Bamidbar 32:29-30)
If you join us, you can have your grazing land, but if you don’t then you will have to have land in Canaan, on the west bank of the Jordan.
And what happened to these eastern tribes? I already mentioned that their exile came before that of all the other tribes. But even early in our history there was an indication that this voluntary separation would not lead to good things. Towards the end of the book of Joshua (chapter 22) Joshua fulfills Moses’ promise and tells the two and a half tribes that since they helped with the conquest, they may now leave and go east, returning to their families and animals. He cautions them to always keep the Torah and sends them on their way. As they reach the Jordan, they build a large altar. The other tribes hear of this and accuse them of idol worship and forsaking the God of their fathers. The two and a half tribes are aghast, this was the furthest thing from their minds! So why did they build the altar?
“We did this thing only out of our concern that, in time to come, your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? The LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between you and us, O Reubenites and Gadites; you have no share in the LORD!’ Thus your children might prevent our children from worshiping the LORD.” (Joshua 22: 24-25)
Although Gad and Reuven initiated the separation from the other tribes, they eventually have qualms about it. They do not want to be cut off from their brothers. But this seems to happen, despite their efforts to remain close. We hear little about these tribes in later books of Tanakh and they eventually fade from the pages of Jewish history.
At this terrible moment in Israel, when we are fighting for our survival, let us remember Moses’ words: will your brothers go to war and you will stay here? May the merit of our unity and our love and shared responsibility for each other help us to defeat our enemies.
User:Katangais, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons