Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot 5765/ July 30, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




“Before the Lord”


 Dr. Ophir Cohen


Kefar Darom


The 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 land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan.” (Num. 32:31-32)

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 Israel” (Num. 32:17).

 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 Jordan, at the instance of the Lord, until … the land has been subdued, at the instance of the Lord, and then   this land shall be your holding under the Lord.”

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).

The Gadites 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 the land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan” (Num. 32:32)?

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 1:12-18, 4:12-14. 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 (1:14, 4:12)? He explains the different formations as  reflecting the difference between a miraculous battle, when the vanguard marches in front of the Lord (the Ark)   and a natural battle, when the vanguard marches in front of the Israelites:

“Go forward” (Josh.4:5) [Heb. ivru, lit. “pass”]: the Ark was always in the lead (Josh. 3:3), but now they were commanded that the people go in front of the Ark (4:5).  Until now the vanguard, consisting of the Reubenites and Gadites, had gone in front of the Israelites (Josh. 4:12), but now the order was reversed, the most important bringing up the rear.   The Ark went with the vanguard in front of it, and in front of them the entire people, as Scriptures says, “with the vanguard marching in front of the Ark of the Lord,” so that they [Reuben and Gad] were in the middle, between the people and the Ark.

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 Ark move to the rear. But this would have been disrespectful, so instead Joshua ordered the ark and the vanguard that was following it to stand in place, and the people to pass forward first, until they were in the forefront.   Then the vanguard passed forward and took up position between the people and the Ark, so that the Ark of the Lord brought up the rear [without having been moved].

The reason for this order was to show that the victory would be by means of the Ark, and the vanguard had to be close to it. It is also to show that the condition was fulfilled as written (Josh.1:13) that they go as shock-troops before the Lord. This is because Joshua thought the war would be fought entirely by miracle, in which case they would not go before the Israelites, but only before the Ark, which would be doing the fighting and conquering; but later he saw that the battle for the Land of Israel would be more of a natural conquest, so it was necessary for the advance troops to go in front of the Israelites, since it was they who were fighting and conquering.  But in the battle of Jericho, where the conquest was entirely miraculous, the expression in Scriptures (Num.32:21) was fulfilled, that “all the vanguard cross over before the Lord”, and they did not march in front of the Israelites but only in front of the Ark.