Joshua 22: Should We Believe the Transjordan Tribes?

A few months ago, Corrie and I were working through the Old Testament with the kids in our morning readings; we had previously read Genesis and Exodus, and so we picked up with Leviticus and read straight through to Kings up until Advent. I like having kids who are insistent upon reading the Bible itself (not a kids’ Bible or summaries), and they seem to enjoy it as well. It has been an interesting exercise to read a passage, and consider its interpretation and application “on the fly,” and to present it in a way that is relevant and interesting for a 10- and a 7-year-old. (It is a challenge to do this before Elizabeth gets fidgety!)

We discussed at length Joshua 22, in which the Transjordan tribes (Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh—Gilead) return to their inheritance after helping the other tribes conquer their territory. I’ve thought a lot about these 2½ tribes and their presentation in Numbers–Judges, and I’m struck by the ambiguities in this story. On its face, the narrative presents a potentially explosive situation, that ends up resolved peacefully. But is that all that is going on, or is there more to it?

Joshua 22

The chapter can perhaps be divided into four sections. Having fulfilled their responsibility to help the other tribes conquer their inheritance, the Transjordan tribes are blessed by Joshua, and return to their inheritance with wealth (22:1–9).

On their way back to their land, the Transjordan tribes decide to build an altar along the bank of the Jordan (22:10–11). The precise location is not clear in the text: “gelilot-of-the-Jordan” (v. 10, 11), variously translated as “region of” or as a proper name (Geliloth); “on (על־) the Jordan”  (v. 10); “to the border/frontier of the land of Canaan” (v. 11); and “to the beyond/opposite-side of the sons of Israel” (v. 11). The fact that the altar is “large in appearance” means it is visible from the other side of the river. Is it on the Western side of the Jordan, so that the Transjordan tribes can see it themselves and have “left their mark” on the land they helped to conquer? Or is it on their own Eastern bank of the Jordan, visible from the 9½ tribes’ side?

I think that, based on the Cisjordan tribes’ objection, that the latter is more likely. Regardless, the Cisjordan tribes regard this as an act of secession/war, and they muster for battle (22:12). Wisely, they send Phinehas and other tribal leaders to confront them first. These leaders call the building of the altar “an unfaithful act” (v. 16), comparing it to the sin of Ba‘al Peor (v. 17), which—along with Phinehas’s presence—harkens back to Numbers 25. They regard this act as turning away from and rebelling against YHWH, comparing it to the sin of Achan (v. 20; cf. Josh 7). Because only “the altar of YHWH” is the recognized altar, sacrifice at this altar (whether it is on the Western or Eastern bank) would be illicit (v. 19). They even state that if the Transjordan tribes’ possession is “unclean,” then they should come back over and take some of the Cisjordan tribes’ land—meaning that they interpret this act as tantamount to separating from Israel (and identifying with the Canaanites).

The Transjordan tribes are quick to explain that they were not planning to be faithless or to offer sacrifices on this altar—“God is our witness!” (vv. 22–23) Rather, they claim to have been concerned that the Cisjordan tribes’ descendants would exclude their descendants from Israel (vv. 24–25a). So, they decided to build this altar—not for sacrifice, mind you—only as a witness to their loyalty (26–28). They admit that using any altar for sacrifice other than that which is before his dwelling place would in fact constitute disloyalty (v. 29).

Phinehas and the Cisjordan leaders accept this explanation and return (to Shiloh, v. 12) to the mustered Israelite forces (vv. 30–34). The leaders are pleased that the imperative to annihilate these tribes is averted; the leaders rejoice that “YHWH is in our midst” (v. 31), and the other sons of Israel “bless God” (v. 33).

While this sounds like a “happy ending” to the story, there are reasons to be cautious about such judgment. Should we really believe the Transjordan tribes’ explanation?

First, the worry about the other tribes’ descendants “causing our descendants to stop fearing YHWH” (v. 25) seems a bit far-fetched. Israelite hearts, as we’ve seen, don’t need exogenous forces to make them apostasize—they do that just fine on their own. Which scenario is more likely: that in future generations, Transjordan Israelites will determinedly ford the Jordan to worship YHWH at Bethel or Shiloh or Nob, only to be rebuffed by the Cisjordanians—or that the Transjordan Israelites will simply go with the easier option of sacrificing to YHWH at this Transjordan riverside “altar”? Even if a few zealous Transjordanians might go with the former, a pilgrimage that doesn’t entail fording a mighty river will be more attractive.

More significantly, in Joshua 22 no one consults YHWH—either in the building of the “altar,” or in the resolution of the conflict. In this respect there are parallels to Joshua 9, the Gibeonite deception episode. Both narratives involve the question of whom the Israelites should regard as hostile nations under the “ban” (חרם). In the Gibeonite story, they claim not to be Canaanites but to be from a faraway nation who have journeyed to meet Israel because of YHWH’s fame (9:9–13). If the Transjordan tribes through the erection of an altar were self-identifying as separate from the rest of Israel, then the Cisjordan tribes’ conduct of utter-destruction-warfare (חרם)—as they were prepared to do—would have been justified (22:12, 31). Both narratives involve vigorous, repetitive, slightly suspicious protest by the potential “objects of wrath.” At a subtler level, both stories engage with the idea that YHWH’s fame will be sufficient to draw adherents from distant lands via perilous pilgrimages—if only there were such zealous Transjordanian, Mesopotamian or Arabian admirers of YHWH! In Joshua 9 and in Joshua 22, perhaps the Israelites’ credulity redounds to their credit in some way—but given their own historic lack of regard for YHWH’s mighty acts, it seems unlikely that they had this in mind. Again: in both cases the Israelite leadership does not consult YHWH.

We have more than enough evidence to be suspicious about this Joshua 22 altar. This raises the larger question: was this whole Transjordan allotment a bad idea from the start? What do we know about it? How does it end up working out subsequently in the so-called Deuteronomistic narrative?

Looking Backward

The 2½ Transjordan tribes make several appearances earlier in the biblical story. Within the so-called “Deuteronomistic History,” there are substantive references in Deuteronomy 3:12–22; Joshua 1:12–18; 13:8–13; and passing references in Deuteronomy 4:41–43; 29:8; Joshua 4:12–13; 12:6. A much longer story about the request of these tribes to receive a Transjordan inheritance is also found in Numbers 32, which is not always considered “Priestly” in the classic sense, though occurring within a book with a significant Priestly component.

So-called “diachronic” approaches might generate some sort of contrast between the Numbers 32 story and the Deuteronomistic references. However interesting such comparisons may be, within the story of the Pentateuch (and the Enneateuch), Numbers 32 frames our perception of this apportionment to 2½ tribes.

Numbers 32

Numbers 32 is preceded by the apportionment of Midianite spoils (ch. 31) and followed by the extended travel itinerary (ch. 33). The Reubenites and Gadites see that “the land was a good place for cattle,” and so they request that this land be apportioned to them (32:1–5). Interestingly, their initial request includes that they would be excused from crossing the Jordan (32:5b). After Moses objects (32:6–15), the tribes agree to go across and help the other tribes finish the conquest, but ask that their women, children and livestock be left behind (32:16–19). Moses agrees to this (32:20–24), the tribes accept his terms (32:25–27), and then the announcement is made to the priest, to Joshua, and to the other tribal heads (32:28–32). In the specific apportionment of the towns and areas (32:33–42), somehow two Manassite clans, Machir and Jair, worm their way into this arrangement by conquering parts of Gilead (32:33, 39–42).

The specific elements of Moses’s accusation and warning against Reuben and Gad are interesting, and have some elements that connect to Joshua 22. First, Moses questions the fairness of their proposal to their fellow Israelites: “Should your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here?” (32:6) This seems like a fair point, given that all the Israelites helped to conquer the Transjordan area, but Reuben and Gad hope to excuse themselves from further risk.

The next charge implies that the reason for wanting to stay behind is fear: “Why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which YHWH has given them?” (32:7) Keep in mind that the tribes themselves have stated this reason: they have flocks and herds, and the land is good for flocks and herds (32:4). We might have reason to question this rationale—don’t all the Israelites have herds and flocks? After all, no tribe would seem to be specializing in growing wheat or grapes at this juncture.

On the other hand, one might interpret the two tribes’ request in the most charitable light: they acknowledge that YHWH has struck and conquered this land before the sons of Israel (32:4), and fully expect that YHWH will do the same for the other tribes, with or without their assistance. Moreover, by taking this first portion that is in front of them, they could be foregoing a chance to have a larger or better apportionment.

The whole of Moses’s warning, though, points to the need for unity of belief and purpose among the people, in following after YHWH and obeying his commands. Concerns about pragmatism and fairness are secondary. Moses compares Reuben and Gad’s request to the actions of the spies who dissuaded the people from going into the land in Numbers 13, and thus brought judgment upon the exodus generation (32:7–13).

Once these concerns are allayed, Moses is satisfied and gives orders to the priest and the tribal heads to accept this arrangement. Notably absent in Numbers 32, however, is any consultation of YHWH, or any word from YHWH on this matter whatsoever. The refrain in Numbers 26–31, as in Numbers 1–9, is that they did “just as YHWH had commanded Moses.” YHWH is even consulted directly in matters pertaining to inheritance/spoils in regard to Zelophehad’s daughters’ claim (27:5ff.; again in 36:5ff.) and the Midianites (31:1, 21, 25). Even though YHWH had given this land into Israel’s hand by provoking Sihon and Og back in Numbers 21, no divine pronouncement is made concerning the apportionment at that time.

Deuteronomistic References

Prior to Joshua 22, we find numerous references to the Transjordanian allotment within the Deuteronomistic History. Passing references are found in Deuteronomy 4:41–43; 29:8; Joshua 4:12–13; 12:6. But three substantive references in Deuteronomy 2:16–3:22; Joshua 1:12–18; and 13:8–13 frame our perception of this situation before we reach the crisis moment in Joshua 22.

Deuteronomy 2:16–3:22 provides an account of the conquest of the Transjordan areas that is more explicitly connected to YHWH’s instruction and the Israelites’ inheritance than we find in Numbers 21. Deuteronomy 2:18–23 circumscribes the territory of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites which the Israelites are not to dispossess from their distant cousins; any possessions within those borders were taken from other peoples who had previously pushed out Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites. By contrast, the Israelites are directly commanded by YHWH to attack and “utterly destroy” the Amorites (2:30–31) and the Bashanites (3:2), and to possess their lands. The first occurrences of חרם in Deuteronomy pertain to these peoples (2:34; 3:6).

In 3:12–22, Moses apportions this land to the 2½ Transjordanian tribes, and orders them to help the other tribes finish the conquest before returning. No mention is made of their request for this particular territory, or any negotiation as we find in Numbers 32. In fact, Moses is the sole speaker, actor and grantor in this passage. There is therefore no hint of fear or lack of resolve introduced by the tribes’ making a specific request; instead, Moses uses the defeat of these kings and the apportionment of their land to strengthen Joshua’s faith (3:21–22).

It is interesting that Deut 3 connects the Transjordan apportionment to the overall conquest in this positive way, and that Moses’s agency is fronted. By comparison: In 1:9–18, the appointment of judges is Moses’s idea, in contrast to Exod 18:13–27 which presents this as Jethro’s idea. Similarly, Num 13:2 indicates that sending spies from Kadesh was YHWH’s idea, but Deut 1:22–25 makes this idea the people’s suggestion. To whatever extent Deuteronomy 1–3 is “pulling” the narrative in a direction that shifts blame for bad ideas away from YHWH and Moses—and that shifts credit for good ideas toward YHWH and Moses and away from the people (and Jethro)—the neutral-to-positive presentation of the Transjordan arrangement in Deut might point to a more negative presentation in Num 32.

Within the so-called Deuteronomistic narrative, Joshua 1:12–18 continues the sense of Deut 3. Joshua reminds the Transjordan tribes of their arrangement given to them by Moses—but again, it is Moses’s idea, and it is a positive development, not borne of any conflict or selfishness: “YHWH your God gives you rest and will give you this land” (1:13). The only possible hint of negativity is that the tribes respond to Joshua, “Only may YHWH your God be with you as He was with Moses.” Yet even this might not be read as the 2½ tribes’ non-identification with YHWH, any more than YHWH’s or Joshua’s references to “your God” (אלהיך/אלהיכם) in the same chapter should be construed in that way.

Passing references to Transjordan tribes are found in Deuteronomy 4:41–43; 29:8; Joshua 4:12–13; 12:6. These examples, like the substantive presentation in Joshua 13:8–13, give us a positive sense that this allotment is part of YHWH’s plan to take the land of Canaanite peoples and to give it to Israel.


Apart from the Joshua 22 conflict, readers of Deuteronomy and Joshua would have little reason to consider the separation of these 2½ Transjordan tribes from the rest of Israel as a concern. The Deuteronomistic presentation until Joshua 22 is uniformly positive. It is only the Numbers 32 narrative that presents a more complex picture of mixed motives, accusation, negotiation, and resolution—and would thus cast doubt on the Transjordan tribes’ explanation in Joshua 22.

Nevertheless, as we know from both Deuteronomistic History and Enneateuch that the Israelites need little prompting to adopt deviant religious practices!

Looking Ahead

If we distinguish between Numbers 32 and Deuteronomistic portraits of the Transjordan division of the land, we might be inclined to read the Joshua 22 situation more charitably toward the 2½ tribes. As we look ahead in the Deuteronomistic History, we find a more mixed presentation of the arrangement. In several stories, the geographic separation of Transjordania—often called “Gilead” after the largest Manassite portion east of the Jordan—is a significant feature, and often a source of conflict.

The separation of these tribes by the Jordan River is frequently mentioned as an obstacle to the tribes helping one another in battle. In Judges 5:17, perhaps one of the oldest texts in the Bible, Deborah criticizes other tribes for not joining the fight against the king(s) of Canaan: “Gilead remained across the Jordan; And why did Dan stay in ships? Asher sat at the seashore, And remained by its landings.”

Conflict with the Ammonites in Gilead and the difficulty of mustering Israelites to fight is part of the story of the rise of Jephthah (Jdg 10–11). This conflict escalates into a civil war between the Ephraimites, who accuse the Gileadites of going out against Ammon without them (thus keeping all the spoils of war), and the Gileadites who accuse the Ephraimites of not bothering to cross the Jordan to help them. This is the famous story (tinged with dark absurdity) in which Ephraimite after Ephraimite crosses over to attack Gilead, and is killed on the eastern bank because he cannot pronounce “shibboleth” correctly (Jdg 12:1–6).

The challenge of mustering from Gilead continues as a factor in the other “civil war” story in Judges. After the outrage at Gibeah (Jdg 19), Gilead comes out with all Israel “from Dan to Beersheba” to be part of the war to purge/punish Benjamin (20:1). However, the town of Jabesh-gilead does not send men across the Jordan to join this effort, and is annihilated (except for 400 virgins, kept as wives for the Benjaminite survivors).

This perceived connection between subsequent inhabitants of Benjamin (especially Gibeah) and Jabesh-gilead is part of Saul’s rise and his acceptance as king. Unlike Jephthah, Saul successfully musters hundreds of thousands of Israelites and Judahites to defend Jabesh-gilead from the Ammonites (1 Sam 11). For this successful defense of the Transjordan city, he is universally recognized as king (1 Sam 12) after rather tepid initial acclamation (10:27).

Conclusion: Narrative and Diachrony

Whether we consider the Joshua 22 narrative in the context of the book of Joshua, or within a so-called Deuteronomistic History (Deut-Josh-Jdg-Sam-Kgs), there are reasons to be both sympathetic with and suspicious of the Transjordan tribes’ explanation of the eastern-bank altar. The DtrH seems to clearly make Moses responsible for the geographic separation of these tribes’ allotment from the rest of Israel; however, it becomes a source of conflict later on in the narrative. (To be fair, the Transjordan tribes are not the lone source of intertribal conflict in the books of Judges and Samuel! Jdg 5:17 takes Cisjordan tribes to task as well; and Benjamin is quite problematic in Jdg 19.)

In a narrative (synchronic) reading of the Hebrew scripture, Numbers 32 frames the Transjordan allotment more negatively from the beginning: the Reubenites and Gadites are presented as possibly being selfish and lazy, and as spreading fear within the camp. Moses eventually grants their request, but with severe warnings. In the most common diachronic framework that places the Priestly writer after the Deuteronomistic source, one might be inclined to see this in fact as the very purpose of adding Numbers 32 to the Pentateuch: as a later way of framing the Transjordan allotment as a dubious idea from the start.

Yet even if we acknowledge the development of a Pentateuch (or Enneateuch) that places Numbers 32 in a later developmental stage than Deuteronomy 3, we still have the puzzle of the “last word” on the Transjordan allotment in the Pentateuch as a positive word. Just as we find with the matter of blame for sending in the spies (YHWH’s idea in Numbers, the people’s idea in Deuteronomy), these two portraits of the Transjordan tribes sit in tension in the Pentateuch we have. Why did the so-called Priestly writer introduce more narrative complexity into the Torah, while allowing Moses’s more straightforward account (Deut 1–4) to remain as the “reframing” of these matters in the received form?

In the case of the Transjordan allotment—as in many others—observations (or speculations) from source criticism only get us halfway to understanding the text we have. Distinguishing between possible sources is useful only insofar as we can explain how the disparate texts were understood, by the final redactors, to rest in tension in the received form. In this case, we have reason to be both sympathetic and mistrusting of the Transjordan tribes’ speech in Joshua 22, regardless of whether Numbers 32 is incorporated before or after Joshua 22.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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2 Responses to Joshua 22: Should We Believe the Transjordan Tribes?

  1. Susan M Soesbe says:

    It appears you’ve thought about this waaaaay more than I have!

  2. Christine Gormley says:

    I find it interesting that the trans Jordan tribes are so quickly accused of breaking Faith and turning away from God. The rest of Israel is even ready to go to war!! with their own fellow Israelites. There’s a quick accusation, a knee-jerk response and assuming the absolute worst of the trans Jordan tribes. Sadly, this reminds me of the American white Evangelical (politically charged) church today and how it responds to other parts of the church, other brothers and sisters and the Lord.

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