Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Before the Lord”
Dr. Ophir Cohen
Gadites and the Reubenites said
in reply, “Whatever the Lord has spoken concerning your servants,
that we will do. We ourselves
will cross over as drafted men [The Schocken Bible;
JPS: shock-troops. Hebrew halutzim] at the
instance of the Lord, into the
These verses summarize the plan of the Gadites and Reubenites, after the tough encounter they had with Moses. We cannot know whether this plan had been in their mind from the outset, or whether they had taken a step back from their original intentions as a result of his request. Whatever the case may have been, what did they add here to their earlier response in verses 16-19? Did they fully accept Moses’ request?
Let us recall the entire incident. At first these two
tribes requested to be given their tribal share in the Land of Israel on the
East Bank of the Jordan, rather than on the West:
“It would be a favor to us if this land were
given to your servants as a holding” (Num. 32:5).
After Moses’ reproof, they also expressed
willingness to march in the forefront:
“And we shall be drafted hastily [hushim:
meaning of Hebrew uncertain]
before the children of
Doing something swiftly indicates doing it with good will; the word halutzim, according to Ha’amek Davar on this verse, means with good will and desire. In other words, they not only accepted the demand to go to battle with everyone, rather they also were prepared to hasten and be first, before all the others. Yet even this willingness was not sufficient for Moses, and the next few verses stress that what was lacking in their words was the name of Heaven: what Moses wanted was that they would not only be in the vanguard, but would also go “at the instance of [literally “before”] the Lord” (Num. 32:20-22):
Moses said to them,
“If you do this, if you go to battle as shock-troops, at the instance of the
Lord, and every shock-fighter among you crosses the
The fourfold repetition of this phrase demands our attention. Akedat Yitzhak [Torah commentary of R. Isaac Arama, Spanish rabbi and philosopher, 1420-1494] (section 85) interprets this phrase as hinting at the main problem at which Moses was driving:
Witness with your own eyes and accept my testimony for it is trustworthy—Moses here lashed out at their three sins with the whip of his mouth, for all three failings are to be found in their words, and all three emanate from a single root [What R. Arama means to say is that from Moses’ words to them, we can deduce what their three failings were].
One was in ascribing their heroism in battle to themselves [for they said in v.17: “And we will hasten as shock-troops before the Israelites”]; but he, blessed be his memory, made a strong point of ascribing it to Him [Moses added the phrase: “Before the Lord”], may He be blessed, for [success in] battle is His; so he made explicit to them that when they fulfill their condition by crossing over as shock-troops at the instance of the Lord, then “they would be clear before the Lord and Israel” [ paraphrasing v.22]. But if they crossed before their brethren and did not remember the Lord, although they would be clear before Israel they would not be clear before the Lord.
The second failing was in saying [i.e. may be deduced from Moses saying] that this land would be your holding before the Lord [in v.5, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh said, “If this land were given to your servants as a holding”]. Regarding both matters Moses said, “But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you” (Num. 32:23). He hinted to them, as if saying, you should heed and be cognizant of your sin which will overtake you, because you do not ascribe things to their proper owner [meaning, you do not ascribe victory in battle nor your share in the land to the Lord]. Regarding the third sin [it may be deduced from what] he said: Build towns [‘arim] for your children and do not rely on the fortified cities that you mentioned [in their earlier response in v.17 they said: “fortified cities”], for “the name of the Lord is a tower of strength to which the righteous man runs and is safe” (Prov. 18:10).
and Reubenites understood the message and said, “your
servants, all those recruited for war, cross over, at the instance of the
Lord, to engage in battle – as my lord orders” (Num. 32:17).
It might seem that the dialogue ought to have
ended here. The message had been
internalized: not shock-troops before
the Israelites, but before the Lord.
Why, then, is there a repetition at the end of the story—the verse we
cited in the opening paragraph: “We
ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Lord, into
Rather, there was another apprehension. On one hand, the suggestion to cross over as reconnaissance troops in the vanguard of the Israelites without invoking the name of Heaven is indeed problematic. On the other hand, invoking the name of Heaven in this process has its down side too; doing everything “in the name of G-d” is likely to be an expression of pride and haughtiness, and not necessarily an expression of carrying out a divine mission. Rabbenu Bahya (loc. sit., v. 32) stressed the trait of humility that behooves someone who acts in the name of the Lord:
“We ourselves ( nahnu) will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Lord” – they should have said anahnu (as “we” is usually written), but since the Gadites were the strong men everywhere, making mincemeat of their enemies, and they praised themselves with the words, “shock-troops at the instance of the Lord,” therefore they belittled themselves using the word nahnu, by way of modesty and humility, as in the expression, “for who are we” ( ve-nahnu mah, Ex. 16:7).
The discussion between Moses and the two and a half tribes
was academic at this point; its fulfillment took place in the Book of Joshua,
where it is cited in -18, -14. Malbim
(in Joshua) was troubled by the various formations described in Joshua: did the
advance troops of Reuben and Gad go before the Holy Ark, as is stated in 4:5,
or before the people (, )? He explains the different formations
as reflecting the
difference between a miraculous battle, when the vanguard marches in front of
the Lord (the
“Go forward” (Josh.4:5) [Heb. ivru,
lit. “pass”]: the
It was possible to accomplish this by having the people
stand still in their place, asking the vanguard to move behind them, and
finally have the
The reason for this order was to show that the victory
would be by means of the