In From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel Frank Moore Cross had an essay entitled “Reuben, the Firstborn of Jacob: Sacral Traditions and Early Israelite History”.
In that essay he argued that Reuben’s place as first born in the genealogy from Jacob meant that at one time Reuben was the preeminent or dominant tribe. Judges 5:15 speaks of the “divisions of Reuben” meaning that Reuben in the twelfth century consisted of multiple clans. One of Israel’s important early sanctuaries was below Mt. Nebo in the territory of Reuben. Mesha, king of Moab, claimed to have captured that sanctuary (see here, lines 14-18). The account of the altar built by Reuben and Gad in Joshua 22 may hint that there was once a major sanctuary across the Jordan. There was a tradition that Moses’ tomb was nearby. The Copper Scroll from the Dead Sea collection give directions to a treasure supposedly hidden there. The Book of Numbers locates the Balaam tradition there and connects it with the sin at Pe’or. Deuteronomy has Moses proclaim the Torah there before his death. All these traditions together point to the territory and tribe of Reuben as seminal for Israel.
But something changed. Stories of Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine try to explain the decline of Reuben (Genesis 49:3-4). Deuteronomy 33:6 expresses in prayer that Reuben live and not die, and that the tribe be saved from dwindling. So there was some threat to Reuben’s existence.
Cross, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls brought up a fascinating point. One of the scrolls preserves an older, more authentic version of 1 Samuel 11:1 (see here, note a). The Ammonites decimated the Reubenites, who fled north to Jabesh-Giliad at the beginning of Saul’s reign. Reuben, as a tribe dominating an area, disappeared. The Bible often refers to the area as Moab, not Reuben.
Cross brought this all into the realm of history by using archeology. When Cross wrote, there was very little evidence of much population in Edom, Moab and Reuben in the very late Bronze Age or early Iron Age (since then we have discovered that extensive copper mining activity existed in the lowlands of Edom but that doesn’t affect his point). There is, however, quite a lot of evidence for a civilization in Midian in west Arabia along the Gulf of Aqaba. Midian exported spice and incense and controlled caravan routes–including the route through the territory of Reuben. Cross said that archeology finds nothing in the way of habitation (other than some seasonal Egyptian mining) on the Sinai peninsula during this period. So there is a strong argument from silence that Israel’s remembered experience at Kadesh Barnea and Sinai/Horeb actually took place in the Midianite area. Old psalms, like the Song of Deborah (Judges 5)and the Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3), seem to locate Sinai there. For Cross this had nothing to do with those who place Sinai in this region because they think it was a volcano.
He brought up the Midianite hypothesis, which states that YHWH was first worshiped by the Midianites who taught Israel to worship God by this name. Cross thinks the geographic part of that hypothesis is likely. In other words, the worship of YHWH originated in that area. Cross’s own historical hypothesis was this:
“Elements of Proto-Israel or ‘Moses group’ moved between Egypt and Midian, a major caravan route in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries as we know from Egyptian sources. Their movement then was northward, again along routes controlled by Midian, through the sparsely settled country of Edom and Moab, to settle for a time in the territory assigned to Reuben and later occupied by Moab. This area . . . , including the valley over against Bet Pe’or, was almost empty of settled population in this era–like the central hill country of Canaan. The days of Moses and Midian in Reuben were remembered in the sanctuary tradition of Nebo and Gilgal” (pp. 67-68).
He argues that the social and political organization of Israel as a tribal league in covenant with a single deity more closely resembles society as we know it in Edom, Moab, Ammon and Midian than in any other places of that period. Thus the settlement of Israel as a movement from the southeast makes sense.
Cross drew upon some of his other work on the conflict between the family of Moses and the family of Aaron in the priestly tradition. If the tradition from the sanctuary at Nebo has faded from view, it is partly because the Aaronide priests had reason to suppress it. Certainly something of this conflict is reflected in the various traditions about what happened at Pe’or. The priests disliked Moses’ Midianite connections.
I don’t agree with everything Cross said. He connected Israel and the ‘apiru. I am skeptical and think I could make a stronger case that the Jebusites were a clan of the ‘apiru. (The last Amarna letter from the Hurrian king of Jerusalem stated that the ‘apiru were winning against Jerusalem– then, sometime before the period of the Judges, the name of Jerusalem changed to Jebus.)
But I think Cross was on to something. To arrive at history one needs to dig down to layers that lie under traditions that pertain to later issues, like conflicts between families of priests. Cross has done that and arrived at a dominant early tribe of Reuben.