#322. What would have been the punishment for the children of Reuben and Gad if they had not crossed over the Jordan armed with the rest of Israel: sin OR a possession in Canaan rather than Transjordan? (Num 32:23 vs Num 32:32)


Numbers 32:23 and 32:30 introduce two very different types of punishments that the children of Reuben and Gad are to suffer if they refuse to crossover the Jordan armed with the rest of the Israelites and assist in the conquest of the land of Canaan. To some extent these difference can be minimized by looking at the two different addressees: in verse 23 Moses informs the Reubenites and Gadites that they will “sin against Yahweh” if they fail to crossover, while in verse 30 Moses informs Eleazar and Joshua that they shall be granted possessions in Canaan if they fail to crossover, not in Transjordan.

We further note, as observed in contradiction #315-316, that the half tribe of Manasseh is not even mentioned here, although contradictorily it is mentioned in the traditions preserved in Deuteronomy and Joshua. In other words, the Priestly tradition of Numbers 32 knows nothing of the half tribe of Manasseh.

So above and beyond the earlier Yahwist’s version (Num 32:25-27) where the children of Reuben and Gad merely make a vow—“Your servants will crossover, everyone equipped for the army before Yahweh for war as my lord speaks”—the Priestly version (now sandwiched around the Yahwist, vv. 20-24 & vv. 28-32) adds potential punishments if the Reubenites and Gadites fail to uphold their vow. And this is only articulated here in the Priestly writer’s retelling of this story. So we might initially ask, why? What was the Priestly writer attempting to accomplish by adding this into the story?

As we will see, P’s primary concern in his version of the allotment of these Transjordanian territories to the children of Reuben and Gad was to legitimate these settlements. And both verse 23 and verse 30 do this in two radically different ways, and indeed for two radically different purposes. In fact, the way in which I worded this entry (as a past conditional) was an attempt to bring the Priestly writer’s concern for this legitimation into focus—it’s a past conditional that doesn’t happen!

Aside from a purely theological decontextualized understanding of the phrase “Know that your sin will find you” (v. 23), which theologians love to cite, in its present context the maxim is used to absolve the children of Reuben and Gad from any potential claim to the contrary. Since they did in fact crossover, they are freed (Heb. niqiyyîm, cleared of charges, guiltless), acquitted from any (potential) charge of sin. This ancient story reads, in other words, as if its author was purposely creating a narrative that responded to a real or potential claim of sinning against Yahweh. And in so doing the point of the narrative is to overtly absolve the children of Reuben and Gad of these charges or potential charges that may have been in the air during our author’s time.

For instance, compare the issue of the legitimacy of these Transjordanian territories in the story recounted in Joshua 22:11-34. Even the Baal Peor story (Num 25:1-5) highlights the challenges that these Israelite settlements faced in Transjordan. Their potential lapse into idolatry was a real charge hurled at the Reubenites and Gadites during pre-exilic times. Comparatively it’s interesting to note that besides stories like that of David and Absalom, where their sins do find them out, the Deuteronomic and Prophetic literature use sin as a theological explanation to explain geopolitical events—such as, for example, the fall of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BCE. 2 Kings 17 interprets this event theologically: Yahweh raised up Assyria to punish Israel for “the sins of Jeroboam.” Could the Priestly writer’s story absolving the Reubenites and Gadites of sin have been created to absolve them of any wrongdoing that may have been used to explain why these Transjordanian settlements were also destroyed when the Assyrians came in and wiped them out as well?

Moving to the punishment expressed in verse 30, our intitial reaction is that this is downright incomprehensible! If the children of Reuben and Gad do not crossover armed then they will be granted possessions in Canaan instead of Transjordan? Again, this reads more like a legitimation of these settlements than anything else. In other words, verse 30 reads like a reverse assessment after the fact. That is, it is precisely because of the fact that Reuben and Gad do not have possessions in Canaan that therefore their possessions in Transjordan must be legitimate. For if they were not, the logic of this punishment asserts, then they would have had possessions in Canaan. But since that is not the case, then their Transjordanian settlements were legitimated by Moses. This seems to be the logic of the verse.

Again, the more speculative question is: Why did the Priestly writer feel it necessary to legitimate these Transjordanian settlements? Were there traditions or claimants during this writer’s time period that sought to raise questions about their legitimacy?

In sum, then, P’s narrative—and only P’s narrative—legitimates these Transjordanian territories by: 1) absolving the children of Reuben and Gad from any personal or corporal wrongdoing or sin against Yahweh, and 2) indicating through Moses’ authority that since Reuben and Gad have no possession in Canaan their Transjordanian allotments were granted in full view of their participation in the conquest of Canaan and therefore must be legitimate. This seems to be the purpose of P’s narrative.

I owe this entry to one of my readers. Thanks John for pointing it out!

4 thoughts on “#322. What would have been the punishment for the children of Reuben and Gad if they had not crossed over the Jordan armed with the rest of Israel: sin OR a possession in Canaan rather than Transjordan? (Num 32:23 vs Num 32:32)

    1. This particular “contradiction” is a bit unusual from the others posted here. Granted in this case it is both. A better wording of this might have been whether the children of Reuben or Gad would be punished or not? What scholars have identified as the Yahwist tradition (vv. 7-12 & 25-27) doesn’t speak of any punishment if they failed to uphold their vow.

      On a more general note, the idea of multiple authors, scribes really, is the only possible way to make sense of many of these conflating traditions. In fact, it’s our notion of author and book that misleads us. Ancient literature, what was preserved on scrolls, was composite in nature. Scribes preserved and upheld various traditions, and even wrote new and/or competing ones. These were simply amended onto already existing traditions or scrolls. So the way in which ancient texts were produced dictated multiple scribes and/or scribal traditions. A good, but heavy, read is David Carr’s The Formation of the Hebrew Bible.

  1. A Child of God,
    The question isn’t if texts can be harmonized–oceans of ink have been spilled by apologists showing how they could be–but if they should be. We need to determine the most likely meaning of each text and then see if they agree. In this contradiction’s case, how likely is it that “your sin will find you” meant that Reuben and Gad would be allotted land in Canaan? While you might argue that both could be the case, when you consider the other discrepancies in this chapter–including when the Transjordan land would be given–it appears that two variant traditions have been combined.

  2. I have a question, why can’t the answer be both? Many of these “contradictions” can be answered by acknowledging that the answer is both (or all).

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