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Sometimes, it’s all in how you ask

6 0 0
09.07.2021

When the tribes of Reuben and Gad first ask to settle on the east side of the Jordan, Moses objects – but he does not reject their request.

Why does he object, and if there is good cause to object, why not simply say no?

At first glance, the request is eminently reasonable; in fact, some commentaries suggest the story is deliberately introduced in a way that legitimizes their request even before it was made:

The children of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of cattle…and they saw the land of Ya’zer, and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle. (Numbers 32:1)

The children of Reuben and Gad had an abundance of cattle…and they saw the land of Ya’zer, and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for cattle. (Numbers 32:1)

They have a lot of cattle, and the land they had already conquered was a good place for cattle. Hmm… The reader can easily see where this is going.

And they make their request in basically the same terms:

The land which God smote before the congregation of Israel is a land of cattle – and your servants [i.e., we] have cattle.

The land which God smote before the congregation of Israel is a land of cattle – and your servants [i.e., we] have cattle.

Hint, hint.

The conclusion is obvious — they should live there! After all, it’s land that “God smote” for them; perhaps they assume He intended it to be part of the Promised Land, a perfectly appropriate place for them to settle.

But if Moses took the hint, he wasn’t going to let them off that easy. Instead of the response these two tribes might have expected — “Oh, yes, of course! You should settle here! Great idea!” — that initial broaching of the topic is followed in the next verse by a repeated “vayom’ru — and they said.” If the narrative voice has to say “and they said” again, they must have stopped “saying” in between. We can imagine the awkward pause as the representatives of Reuben and Gad look at each other and shuffle their feet and clear their throats, as Moses remains ominously silent, and then “they say” further, spelling it out:

If we have found favor in your sight [um, maybe, from your silence, we haven’t?] – let this land be given to your servants [i.e., us] as a possession; don’t bring us over the Jordan.

If we have found favor in your sight [um, maybe, from your silence, we haven’t?] – let this land be given to your servants [i.e., us] as a possession; don’t bring us over the Jordan.

Why did Moses make them say it outright? Didn’t he realize where they were going with that opening?

Maybe he did take the hint, but wanted them to say the words themselves — because the words are important.

And how do they say it?

Don’t bring us over the Jordan.

This, to the man who was recently informed (Numbers 20:12) that he would not be permitted to cross the Jordan, though he desperately wanted to. This, to the man who saw his people wander for decades in the wilderness, while a generation died out, because of the last time they expressed hesitation about crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Moses’ sharp response does not bring up his personal disappointment, but highlights issues on two interconnected planes: the relationship of these tribes with the rest of the nation, and their relationship with God.

To the first, Moses exclaims (verse 6):

Will your brothers come to war while you sit here?

Will your brothers come to war while you sit here?

(A powerful rebuke that reverberates in my heart every time tensions rise in Israel, while I sit comfortably in Ohio.)

How could they suggest that their fellows risk their lives in pursuit of God’s promise — of their ostensibly shared destiny — while these two tribes are getting comfortably settled in........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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