The Manassite Conquests

The very end of the Parsha of Matot records the conquest and settlement of the area known generally as Gil’ad by members of the tribe of Menashe:

במדבר פרק לב

(לט) וילכו בני מכיר בן מנשה גלעדה וילכדה ויורש את האמרי אשר בה:

(מ) ויתן משה את הגלעד למכיר בן מנשה וישב בה:

(מא) ויאיר בן מנשה הלך וילכד את חותיהם ויקרא אתהן חות יאיר:

(מב) ונבח הלך וילכד את קנת ואת בנתיה ויקרא לה נבח בשמו:

Bamidbar 32

39) And the sons of Machir, son of Menashe went to Gilad and captured it, and dispossessed the Emorite who were there.

40) And Moshe gave the Gilad to Machir, son of Menashe, and he settled it.

41) And Ya’ir the son of Menashe went and captured their territories, and he called them ‘the Territories of Ya’ir’.

42) And Novach went and captured Kenat and its subsidiaries and he called it ‘Novach’ after his name.

This passage, in general, is very difficult to understand, and for several reasons:

  • Why were the Bnei Menashe running around fighting their own wars? Until this point, all wars were fought by Israel as a whole, and only under the leadership of Moshe. The exception, the Ma’apilim of Parshat Shelach, were forewarned and ultimately annihilated. Midrashim at the beginning of Parashat Beshalach talk of an early attempt by, ironically, the Bnei Ephraim, to make an early exit from Egypt which also ended in annihilation (I believe that these Midrashim must be understood in light of the Manassite conquests, as will become clear).
  • The territory conquered by the Bnei Menashe is roughly equivalent to the territory that had been ruled by Og, King of Bashan. The textual basis is Devarim 3:13-15 and 4:43, where Bashan is, at least in part, considered Manassite territory. However, Moshe, and not the sons of Menashe, led the war against Og. The Manassite conquests are never mentioned in Chumash (though they are mentioned elsewhere, like in Yehoshua 17:1 and in Divrei Hayamim) other than here, though all other wars are recounted, and it’s always included in the territory conquered by Israel.
  • The conquerors of Gilad are called ‘bnei Machir ben Menashe’, the sons of Machir, son of Menashe. This exact same phrase shows up at the tail end of Sefer Bereishit, describing how Joseph lived to see the sons of Machir ben Menashe, i.e., his great-grandchildren. In Vayechi, it clearly refers to his actual great-grandchildren. Here, however, the presumption is that ‘sons of’ means ‘descendants of’ (as Ibn Ezra and Ramban both state).
  • Machir, son of Menashe, had a son named Gil’ad (Tzelophchad’s zaydie). It would be awfully prescient for him to have named his son after a territory (which had already been named in the times of Jacob) that his descendants would conquer at some future date. Furthermore, the passage in Yehoshua clearly refers to Machir the individual, not the family, but is somewhat cryptic in its reasons for Machir’s descendants being allotted the Gilad (…because he was a man-of-war, and he had the Gilad and the Bashan).
  • According to Divrei Hayamim I 2:21, Ya’ir was not technically from the tribe of Menashe! Machir’s daughter married Chetzron, who was of the tribe of Yehuda (several commentators point this out here). If that’s the case, why is this territory considered Manassite territory? Since when does matrilineage decide one’s tribal affiliation?
  • Both Moshe (here and in Devarim) and Yehoshua (17:1) ‘grant’ this territory to Menashe. If they conquered it, why does Moshe need to grant it to them post factum? Why would it need to be ‘alloted’ to Menashe in Yehoshua’s division of the land?

Different commentators address these question individually, but there’s a single approach, relatively obscure, which explains the entire passage. Though e few commentators allude to this approach (like Abarbanel at the very end of Matot), its fullest expression is found in a commentary to Divrei Hayamim which is attributed to a student of R’ Saadia Gaon. I will reproduce the text here, with my own translation:

ומכיר אבי אמו היה ראש ואב לגלעד, ויאיר תפש לגלעד אחריו. לפיכך נקרא על שם אבי אמו ועל שם הנחלה שתפשו בימי שלטונותו של יוסף שהיה מלך על הארץ. וכשמת יוסף ואחיו נתחזקו האומות ותקפו גוים עליהם ולקחו מידם וישבו בהם עד שבאו בארץ ישראל. ולכך נתאוו בני מכיר לשבת בארץ הגלעד ובתפושת אביהם נתנה משה להם שנאמר (דברים ג:טו) "ולמכיר נתתי את הגלעד". וגם יהושע נתנה להם שנאמר(יהושע יז:א) "ויהי הגורל למטה מנשה כי הוא בכור יוסף, למכיר בכור מנשה אבי הגלעד כי הוא היה איש מלחמה ויהי לו הגלעד והבשן." דע לך באר היטב כי אותם הדברים של חומש של מכיר ויאיר ונבח ספורות לשעבר הן. כי מכיר ויאיר ונבח לא לקחו כלום במדבר.

To paraphrase (a somewhat awkward Hebrew), this commentator is suggesting that Machir and Yair conquered these lands during the time that Joseph was in power in Egypt. During the intervening centuries, these lands were reconquered by other nations. Therefore, the descendants of Menashe desired to settle their ancestral homestead.

Machir was therefore an Egyptian general (hence the verse in Yehoshua)! The members of the tribe preserved some kind of collective memory of their relationship with that territory, and agitated to reconquer and/or resettle it. If Ya’ir led an early expedition, it explains why his conquests would be affiliated with the Manassite conquests, since specifically the children of Joseph were high-ranking enough to do that. In fact, this approach easily resolves every issue that I raised above.

Cool beans.

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