Parashat Masei, the last of the book of Bamidbar, ends with the verse, “These are the commandments and regulations that the LORD enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.” (Bamidbar 36:13)
The next parsha, Devarim, opens with this verse:
“These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab” (Devarim 1:1)
Why does the verse from Masei give the location “the steppes of Moab” (arvot moav) and Devarim use a different phrase for the same location – “other side of the Jordan” (ever hayarden)?
From looking at the context of each of those phrases, we can learn why each was used, and the lesson the difference can teach us.
On the “steppes of Moav” is used a number of times in the latter half of the book of Bamidbar, first appearing in Bamidbar 22:1, referring to where Israel camped after defeating Sichon and Og.
It appears more frequently in Parashat Masei. The last of which opens the passage which is concluded with that last verse of the book.
“The LORD spoke to Moses in the steppes of Moab at the Jordan near Jericho, saying” (Bamidbar 35:1).
Following this verse, there are three sections: the Levitical cities (Bamidbar 35:2-8), the refugee cities (Bamidbar 35:9-34) and the inheritance of land in response to the request of the tribe of Menashe.
All three sections have something in common: they treat the lands settled by Reuven, Gad, and Menashe, in the steppes of Moav, as parallel to those of the rest of the land of Canaan. Those tribes are assigned Levitical cities (as expanded in Yehoshua 21:3-8) and refugee cities (Bamidbar 35:14), and the Menashe was one of the tribes possessing the recently conquered territory.
From all this we can see that at least in some respects, the land of the “steppes of Moav” was legally equivalent to the land of Canaan. For those tribes settling there, they were already home.
But the book of Devarim, written from Moshe’s perspective, has a very different take on this. From his point of view, he had not arrived at his final destination. The steppes of Moav weren’t home. He longed to enter the land of Canaan, and so he was stuck on the “other side of the Jordan.”
This leads us to a larger question. Why was crossing the Jordan so important to Moshe? And why was he so upset with the tribes of Reuven and Gad when they requested, “do not bring us across the Jordan” (Bamidbar 32:5)? Israel had just conquered these lands from their enemies. Wouldn’t settling in them be the natural step? From time immemorial, nations would annex lands captured in war.
While Moshe did eventually acquiesce to the request of Reuven and Gad (after they committed to only settle those lands after all of of Canaan had been conquered), on a personal level he was not satisfied with remaining there (and was initially disappointed with Reuven and Gad’s request for the same reason.) Why?
Unlike the great powers of the time (and since), Israel was not interested in empire. The Torah takes the unprecedented step of limiting the borders of the land of Israel. God gave Israel one land, and it was on the western side of the Jordan. As Moshe described their journey, they were to “cross the Jordan into the land that the LORD our God is giving us.” (Devarim 2:29)
Crossing the Jordan meant entering into that special land that God had dedicated for His people Israel. Abraham had crossed the Jordan into it, and his nephew Lot crossed back over the Jordan to leave it (Bereshit 13:11-12) Yaakov also left the land by crossing the Jordan (Bereshit 32:10) and decades later was privileged to return to the land the same way.
The lesson to Moshe was clear. Remaining on the eastern side of the Jordan meant exile from the land. While for three tribes this might not have been an obstacle, it certainly was for Moshe. His one request from God was to cross the Jordan into the land:
“Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” (Devarim 3:26)
Here, Moshe called the land of Canaan “ever hayarden.” Stranded on the eastern bank of the Jordan, all he wanted was to switch to the other side, replacing one “ever hayarden” with the other.
Moshe’s request was not answered, but his message of the significance of that special, small land on the western side of the Jordan remains.