Some quick and partial thoughts on “Machir son of Menashe:” a little-known figure mentioned briefly at the end of this week’s parshah, whose story might be a lot more significant than we tend to realize…
Sometimes, the Torah’s least-known characters can be its most intriguing.
Who is Machir?
Machir is one of the dozens of people mentioned only very briefly in the Torah. There are no stories told about him–just passing references. And few of us, if pressed, are likely to remember where they are (if we even noticed them, to begin with).
But that’s funny, in a way, because the name “Machir” literally means “to identify” or “to recognize.” So Machir is not your typical “minor character.” He is an obscure figure whose identity is defined, it would seem, by the very quest to establish his identity.
And, sure enough, that seems to be the theme of every story in which he is referenced. Take the curious incident at the end of this week’s parshah, for example:
Moses gave the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan the land together with its cities within borders, the cities of the surrounding territory. The descendants of Gad built Dibon, Ataroth, and Aroer. And Atroth Shophan, Jazer, and Jogbehah. And Beth Nimrah and Beth Haran, fortified cities and sheepfolds. The descendants of Reuben built Heshbon, Elealeh, and Kirjathaim. And Nebo and Baal Meon, their names having been changed, and Sibmah. And they were called with names of the names of the cities they built. The children of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and conquered it, driving out the Amorites who were there. Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he settled in it. Jair the son of Manasseh went and conquered their hamlets, and called them the hamlets of Jair. Nobah went and conquered Kenath and its surrounding villages, and called it Nobah, after his name (Num. 32:33-42).
Of all those who settle the territory of the Transjordan, only the “children Machir, son of Manasseh,” think of bestowing their new cities with their own names. This would not seem to be an incidental detail; it is repeated, for good measure, in Moshe’s recounting of this episode, a few chapters later:
At that time we took the land out of the hands of the two kings of the Amorites who were on that side of the Jordan, from the brook of Arnon to Mount Hermon. The Sidonians call Hermon Sirion; and the Amorites call it Senir. All the cities of the plain, and all Gilead, and all Bashan, to Salchah and Edrei, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan… And this land, which we possessed at that time; from Aro’er, which is by the brook of Arnon, and half of Mount Gilead and its cities, I gave to the Reubenites and to the Gadites. And the rest of Gilead, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og, I gave to the half tribe of Manasseh; all the territory of Argob, all of Bashan; that is called the land of Rephaim. Jair the son of Manasseh took all the territory of Argob to the boundaries of the Geshurites and the Maachathites, and he called them, even Bashan, after his own name, villages of Jair, to this day. And to Machir I gave Gilead. And to the Reubenites and to the Gadites I gave from Gilead to the brook of Arnon, the midst of the brook and the border, until the brook of Jabbok, which is the boundary of the children of Ammon, the plain, the Jordan and the border thereof, from Kinnereth to the sea of the plain the Sea of Salt, under the waterfalls of Pisgah, eastward (Deut. 3:8-17).
Nor is this the first time we find the members of Machir’s line concerned with the perpetuation of their name. Several chapters earlier, the daughters of Tzelofchad undertake similar efforts:
The daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came forward, and his daughters’ names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses and before Eleazar the kohen and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against the Lord in Korah’s assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name (שם אבינו) be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. You shall certainly give them a portion of inheritance along with their father’s brothers, and you shall transfer their father’s inheritance to them (Num. 27:1-6).
These efforts, in turn, provoke reaction by the paternal heads of Gilead the son of Machir, who also hold an interest in the perpetuation of the family name:
The paternal heads of the family of the sons of Gilead the son of Machir the son of Manasseh of the families of the sons of Joseph approached and spoke before Moses and before the chieftains, the paternal heads of the children of Israel. They said, “The Lord commanded my master to give the Land as an inheritance through lot to the children of Israel, and our master was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. Now, if they marry a member of another tribe of the children of Israel, their inheritance will be diminished from the inheritance of our father, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and thus, it will be diminished from the lot of our inheritance… Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The tribe of Joseph’s descendants speak justly. This is the word that the Lord has commanded regarding Zelophehad’s daughters. Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only to the family of their father’s tribe. Thus, the inheritance of the children of Israel will not be transferred from tribe to tribe, for each person from the children of Israel will remain attached to the inheritance of his father’s tribe” (Num. 36:1-7).
Everywhere we find them, then, the members of Machir’s family are busy struggling to maintain their collective identity. There’s even something “meta” about this motif; notice the uncharacteristically detailed genealogy that accompanies these descendants in some of the above passages: “The daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came forward, and his daughters’ names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah…;” “The paternal heads of the family of the sons of Gilead the son of Machir the son of Manasseh of the families of the sons of Joseph approached Moses…” In both form and theme, these texts seem intent upon preserving as fully as possible the names of Machir’s family. Indeed, it is for this reason alone that Machir even appears in these texts, in the first place. He plays no active role in them; his relevance is purely a function of his place in the family line.
Either way, though, upholding that family line is clearly important for him and his children. Somehow, this seems more urgent for them than it does for other Biblical families. And to appreciate why this might be so, perhaps we need look no further than one level higher on that family line.
That’s because Machir’s full name, as you may have observed by now, is “Machir ben Menashe.” He is, in other words, the son of Menashe, who was himself the son of Yosef. And ironically, the name Menashe, means, roughly, “to forget.” Indeed, Menashe was given this name precisely because his father, Yosef, wished to forget his father’s house:
And Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for “God has caused me to forget (נשני) all my toil and all my father’s house (בית אבי)” (Gen. 41:51).
Yosef, as is well known, had endured many difficulties in his “father’s house.” So as he strives to re-establish himself in Egypt, he takes active steps to shed his former familial identity. Even when his brothers appear before him begging for food, Yosef continues to deliberately dissociate from his past:
And Joseph saw his brothers, and he identified them (ויכרם) but he made himself unidentifiable (ויתנכר) to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan to purchase food.” Now Joseph identified (ויכר) his brothers, but they did not identify him (הכרהו) (Gen. 42:7-8).
Yet despite Yosef’s initial efforts to “forget” his “father’s house,” Yosef’s brothers do ultimately reconcile with him–and Yosef’s father himself does eventually reunite with Yosef in Egypt. And though Yaakov does not recognize his grandchildren, at first (Gen. 48:8), he ultimately insists that they, too, “shall be called by my name and the name of my father (שם אבותי)” (ibid. 16).
So it is no coincidence that Menashe’s firstborn son is named “Machir.” And it is no coincidence that Machir’s children are the last grandchildren born to Yosef before he dies (Gen. 50:23). Machir is “man-of-identity, son of man-of-forgetting.” Those in his grandfather’s generation became estranged from one another because they were lo makir, and, indeed, were mitnaker. So he, and his descendants after him, are the ones tasked with being makir–with re-establishing the family identity that was nearly abandoned under the strain of infighting and exile.
This may even explain why–returning to our parshah–Moshe includes Machir’s descendants among those settling the Transjordan, despite their never having joined the tribes of Reuven and Gad in asking for this right. To make one’s home across the river from the other nine and a half tribes is, necessarily, to court the possibility that one’s children, or grandchildren, will eventually lose their connection to the larger “father’s house” of which they are a part–as indeed they almost did (see Josh. 22). Hence the wisdom of including among these pioneers a group of people who know far too well what it means to nearly lose one’s familial identity, and who are therefore uniquely committed to ensuring that it never happens.
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Machir–a truly remarkable one, once we stop to recognize it.