The Story in Short

As the People of Israel geared up to finally enter the Promised Land, two tribes expressed their desire to opt out. Laden with more animals than their brethren, the descendants of Gad and Reuben wished to settle outside of Israel’s borders. “The land … is a land of livestock and your servants have livestock,” they told Moses.1

Unhappy, Moses explained that their reluctance to enter Israel could be interpreted as fear of the Canaanites who inhabited the land. This would scare the people like the spies had done. To allay their fears, the descendants of Gad and Reuben promised to fight on the front lines until the conquest was complete. Only then would they return and settle the land they desired.

Moses ultimately agreed and gave the land east of the Jordan to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, as well as half of the tribe of Manassah, on condition that they wage battle ahead of the other troops.

Their story is told in Numbers 32.

The Request

In the penultimate year of their desert sojourn, the People of Israel people found themselves in what is now Jordan.2 They had defeated Sihon and Og, survived the saga with Balaam and Balak, and exacted vengeance on the Midianites. And finally, after four decades of wandering the desert, they were preparing to enter Israel.

The descendants of Reuben and Gad had more livestock than the rest of the nation. Some say they were more efficient warriors and had collected more spoils of war.3 Others posit that Reuben and Gad had an affinity for the manna and were, therefore, less inclined to slaughter and eat their livestock.4

The land of the Amorites, from the Arnon River5 until Mount Hermon, was mountainous and fertile. After the Jews conquered that area, the tribes of Reuben and Gad preferred its vast pastures to the urban and dry Israel.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses, the nobles, and Eleazar the high priest with two requests: “[a.] Give this land to us as our plot, and [b.] do not take us across the Jordan River.”6

Gad and Reuben didn’t feel it necessary to cross the Jordan and fight alongside their brothers in Israel. After all, the Jews’ victories weren’t natural; G‑d was the one who brought them triumph against the Amorites. What would their contribution accomplish?7

Moses’ Rebuke

Moses was displeased by their request. He agreed that G‑d was integral to victory, but maintained that the act of going to war remained necessary, and it would be unfair if the tribes of Gad and Reuben remained behind while their brothers crossed the Jordan, donned their armor, and fell into rank to battle the Canaanites.8 “Shall you remain here while your brothers come to war?!” he retorted.9

Moses then leveled a second criticism at Gad and Reuben. “You will scare the People of Israel from entering the promised land,” he said.10

Moses understood that Gad and Reuben meant well but was worried about the other Jews, who might attribute their choice to fear.11

Moses chastised them for neglecting to learn from history. “This is what your ancestors did when I sent them … to survey the land,”12 he said, comparing them to the spies, who, with their negative testimony about Israel, frightened the people.13

The Rebbe14 explains that the tribes of Gad and Reuben were more faithful than the spies who had said (according to the Talmud), “The people of Canaan are stronger than G‑d.”15 Nonetheless, the very request to remain on the Jordan’s east bank revealed a preference for a land other than Israel,16 mirroring the spies’ negative attitude toward the Promised Land.17

Gad and Reuben’s Response

The descendants of Gad and Reuben yielded to Moses’ rebuke. Moreover, because the tribe of Gad was renowned for their physical prowess, they agreed to fight on the front lines;18 the descendants of Reuben promised to join them there as well.19

The tribes of Gad and Reuben announced their intention to build corrals for their sheep and towns for their children in the area they desired. Then, once their livestock and families were settled, they would remain at battle alongside their brethren until the conquering was complete and all the Jews had settled on their land.20

The Midrash21 observes that Reuben and Gad mentioned their animals before their children, which seems to indicate that they had more concern for their money than their families. In a moving commentary, the Midrash reminds its readers that all success comes from G‑d and that no wealth is permanent:

“That is why belongings are called nechasim, as they are covered (nichsim) from one and revealed to another. And why is zuzim the name of [common coins]? Because they move (zazim) from one and are given to another. [It is called] money (mammon), because what you count (mah [she’atah] moneh) is not anything. [They are called] coins (ma’ot), because they are from time (me’et) to time.”

Moses Agrees

His concerns now addressed, Moses agreed to allow the tribes of Reuben and Gad to dwell outside of Israel. “If you do this, if you bear arms for G‑d before your brothers … then this land will become your inheritance.”

According to some traditions, Moses’ choice of words can be understood as guidance for proper warfare. He knew that Gad and Reuben had an ulterior motive. They were fighting alongside the people only because they knew it was a necessary prerequisite to their inheritance of the land. But, that isn’t how an Israelite ought to fight. Moses instructed them to “bear arms for G‑d,” i.e., to intend, with war, to sanctify G‑d’s name.22 Only then can the war be honest and just with peace as the primary objective.23

Read: 10 Facts to Know about War and Judaism

Moses also leveled a veiled criticism at them by changing the order of their request. “Build towns for your children and pens for your sheep,” he exhorted.24 A person’s priority must be family before money and career.

In fact, according to Midrash,25 the tribes of Gad and Rueben were later punished for their preference of money over children and the Diaspora over Israel. When Sennacherib, king of Assyria, exiled the ten tribes, he captured those outside of Israel 10 years before those inside.26

It Is Finalized

Reuben and Gad agreed to Moses’ provisions promising that “[a.] Our children, wives and [b.] livestock will remain in Gilead” and “Your servants will arm themselves for war before G‑d.”27

Moses was happy. He turned to Joshua and the elders and used, what would later be coined, The Condition of Gad and Reuben:

Rabbi Meir said: Every stipulation which is not like that of the descendants of Gad and Reuben is not legally binding. For it is written: “And Moses said unto them: If the children of Gad and Reuben cross the Jordan, [...you shall give them the land of Gilead as their possession],”28 and, “But if they will not ... then they shall have possessions among you in the Land of Canaan.”29 (Thus, both sides of the condition have to be spelled out: if the condition is fulfilled, then such-and-such will happen, but if the stipulation is not fulfilled, then such-and-such will be the case.)30

Read: The Danger of Suspicion to discover another important principle of Jewish law gleaned from the story of Gad and Reuben.

Half of the Tribe of Manasseh

Until this point in the story, there are only two parties in the deal with Moses: The descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben. Suddenly, a third party is introduced. “And Moses gave the descendants of Gad and Reuben and half of the tribe of Manasseh, son of Joseph, the land of … the Amorites.”31

Tradition suggests a few explanations for their sudden inclusion:

Abraham ibn Ezra theorizes that they were always party to the negotiations, but the Torah chooses not to mention them until the end because they were not a full tribe.32

Nachmanides explains that Moses saw a lot of extra land on the east bank of the Jordan and offered it to any willing tribe. Some of Manasseh came forward, possibly because they were also herdsmen.33

The Rebbe34 explains that Moses wanted to instigate the process of expanding Israel’s borders. The Torah35 informs us that with the advent of the Final Redemption, G‑d will grant the Jewish people the lands of the Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites which were previously forbidden.36

Things of extreme importance to the Jewish people need to have Moses’ involvement.37 For this reason, the land expansion associated with the Redemption had to be instigated by Moses. To do this, he gave land outside of Israel to half of the tribe of Menasseh. Gad and Reuben wouldn’t cut it for this purpose because they had asked for the land.38

Why Menasseh? According to our tradition, the tribe of Manasseh had a special relationship with Israel. The daughters of Zelophehad—who demanded from Moses their father’s plot of land in Israel—were from the tribe of Manasseh.39 Joseph, Menasseh’s father, also demonstrated his love for the land by requesting that his bones be buried there.40 As such, Moses gave them the land which would commence Israel’s expansion.

Homiletically, Manasseh’s name reflects Joseph’s desire to return to his father’s home41 and that symbolizes the Jewish hope for Redemption. Therefore, Moses gave Menasseh the land that would act as the catalyst for the End of Days.

The Aftermath

Before Joshua led the Jews across the Jordan, he reminded the descendants of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh about their promise.42 And true to their word, when the war started, the warriors from Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh fought at the front of the army. In addition, they remained behind for an extra seven years as the land was divided amongst their fellows.43

The Midrash44 relates that when the descendants of Gad and Reuben entered Israel, they expressed regret at choosing to live outside it. “A small portion of the Promised Land would be more valuable than twice the amount on the east bank!” they cried.

Gad and Reuben in Chassidic Thought

Shepherding is a craft of isolation. In our history, spiritual seekers would spurn industrial and agricultural occupations, afraid that the involvement would stunt their spirituality.45 In a similar vein, the tribes of Gad and Reuben wanted to remain shepherds as a means to pursue spirituality without the distractions present in Israel.

While the spies wanted all of the people to remain outside of Israel for this reason, Gad and Reuben wanted to be the only ones to do so. Moses was okay with their request because the community needs to have at least some members that are uniquely devoted to G‑dly pursuits.

Ultimately, however, the true purpose of life is to be engaged with and transform the physical world. Therefore, despite Moses’ permission, the tribes were eventually punished for their decision when Sannecheirib exiled the ten tribes.46