The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
An Introduction to the Book of Numbers
The Book of Numbers Within the Pentateuch
Dr. David Elgavish
Department of Bible
The five books that make up the Pentateuch (the Chumash) are arranged in chronological and logical order. The stories about the Patriarchs are found in Genesis and the account of their descendants follows in the remaining four books. In Genesis, God makes two fundamental promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: He will choose their descendants to be His people and He will give them the land of Canaan. Thus Abraham was told, "I will maintain My covenant between Me and you...To be God to you and to your offspring to come. I give.. to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:7-8).
The remaining books relate how these promises were fulfilled to later generations. Exodus and Leviticus review the fulfillment of the first promise: God made a covenant with the people at Sinai and caused His Divine Presence (Shechina) to dwell among them in the Sanctuary, where they were given the laws of sacrifices and rules of holiness.
The first chapters of the book of Numbers deal with the procedures for transporting the Sanctuary and safeguarding its sanctity,subjects which belong to the first promise. The book then moves on to the various events and laws associated with the fulfillment of the second promise -- the inheritance of the land of Israel. This section relates the journey through the Wilderness of Sinai to the Plains of Moab and the conquests accomplished by Moses and the children of Israel on the eastern side of the Jordan. This section prepares us for the book of Deuteronomy, which consists of a series of speeches made by Moses in the Plains of Moab prior to the entry into the western part of the land of Israel.
The Structure of the Book of Numbers
Numbers is divided into three parts:
A. The period spent in the Wilderness of Sinai1 ( Chapters 1-10)
B. From the Wilderness of Sinai to Kadesh-barnea ( 11-20:13)
C. From Kadesh-barnea to the Plains of Moab (20:14-36:13)
The above headings point out the geographical location of each section. The first deals with the sojourn of the children of Israel in the Sinai wilderness and uses the phrase "the Wilderness of Sinai" seven times (1:1, 19; 3:4, 14; 9:1, 5; 10:12), a number indicative of completeness in the Bible. The other two units speak of events which took place at different points on the way to the land of Israel, as our chosen headings suggest.
The three sections also vary in content and style. The first relates the structure of the Israelite camp and how it was to move through the desert. The section is static in character and contains no stories. The second, by contrast, is extremely dynamic and presents a series of narratives --seven in all -- containing the complaints the children of Israel made to God and Moses. The transition from the second section to the third describes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and relates the decree passed upon Moses, that he would not enter the Land.
The passing of the leaders is the Bible's way to take leave of the generation of those who left Egypt at the Exodus and to move on to their children. The third section opens with the journey from Kadesh-barnea towards Israel, recounting the victory over the Canaanites of Arad; this marks the transition to the younger generation, the generation that will enter the Land and conquer it.
Our division of the book of Numbers finds support in words of the Sages, that the passage which begins with the words "When the Ark was to set out" and concludes with "You who are Israel's myriads of thousands" (10:35-36) constitutes "a separate book[of the Bible]"(Shabbat 116a); this passage actually concludes the first section in our suggested division.
Numbers: Contents and Characteristics
The book of Numbers is known in Hebrew as Bamidbar (In The Wilderness). The books of the Pentateuch are usually named for the first distinctive word in their first verse; Bamidbar occurs relatively late -- it is the fifth word of the verse. However, considering the content of the book, it is appropiately named.
The first part of the Book deals with the procedures for transporting the Sanctuary, setting it up again after moving in the desert, and protecting its sanctity. Therefore included in these chapters are laws relating to the Kohanim (priests) and to the sanctity of the people, such as sending unclean people out of the camp (5:1-4), the ritual done to a woman suspected of adultery (5:11-31) and the making of a Nazirite (6:1-21) -- both to be performed by a priest -- and the blessing uttered by the Kohanim (6:22-27). The frequent duplication in Chapters 1-4 and the long-winded repetitions which list the offerings brought by the head of each tribe (chap. 7)can be explained as signs of the affection shown by the text for the Sanctuary and its service.
The second section is connected to the promise that we shall inherit the land. It relates the incident of the spies, a regression on the part of the people from this goal, but then cites some mitzvot (commandments) that are specific to the land of Israel, such as the meal-offering (minha), drink-offerings (nesahim), and halla (separating part of the dough as an offering) (15:1-21). In this section we would have expected a description of the people's march towards the Land, but the accounts of their complaints in this section indicate that they were not yet worthy of it. Only the third section will speak of their battles and early conquests on their path to Canaan.
This Week's Reading: The Structure of the Israelite Camp
At the center of this week's Torah portion we find the instructions for arranging the Israelite camp around the Sanctuary. At the entrance to the Sanctuary(Mishkan)dwelled the leadership -- Moses and Aaron -- and on the remaining three sides the three families of the Levites. The Sanctuary was therefore surrounded by a square within an outer square, that of the Tribes. The Levites were a buffer between the Sanctuary and the Israelites.
This arrangement was of fundamental significance: The Tent of Assembly (Ohel Moed, generally treated as another name for the Mishkan) was meant to serve as the place where the unique revelation of God on Mount Sinai could continue. The giving of the Torah did not cease on Sinai, for God continued to teach laws to Moses from the Tent of Assembly. For this reason Ramban explains in his preface to the Book of Numbers that safeguarding the sanctity of the Tent of Assembly was parallel to the various ordinances that were enjoined upon the people at Mount Sinai.
The German-Jewish Bible commentator Benno Jacob added that the Tent of Assembly was important not only as a place where Torah was given but also as a dwelling-place for God. God, as it were, folded up the heavens and brought them down to earth so that His Presence (Shechina) might dwell among human beings. For this reason the Levites were chosen for the service of the Sanctuary, since they were not tainted by the sin of the Golden Calf which took place after the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and therefore they still bore the impression of that original revelation. For the same reason, strict instructions were given for the organization and sanctity of the camp and for those who were to carry the Sanctuary on its travels, so that they should be worthy of God's Presence.2
The organization of the Israelite camp also had functional importance. The census and their orderly encampment, which have military overtones, were intended to free them of the habits of slavery which they had acquired in Egypt and to take on some of the characteristics of a nation, including acceptance of duty and discipline. Living in the wilderness, which might have led to laxness and even mutiny, instead became a positive factor (Luzzatto, commentary on 1:3). Further military aspects such as counting everyone aged twenty and over because they were fit to fight, prepared them for the war necessary to conquer the Land (Rashbam, commentary on 1:2).
The Timetable of the Book of Numbers
The first section of the Book relates the initialjourney of the children of Israel in the wilderness, marching confidently towards the Promised Land before they had been condemned to remain outside it for forty years. This section opens with a date, "On the first day of the second month in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt" (1:1) and concludes with one, "In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth of the month..." (10:11). These mark the boundaries of the first section and indicate that it deals with the important events that took place within a period of only nineteen days. From this point of view, Chapters 7-9 do not really belong to the unit, as they relate to the first month of the second year (7:1; 9:1, 15), and so precede the section in which they appear by about a month.
The third section is parallel to the first. Once again the people are moving towards the Promised Land, but the generation of the Exodus has died in the wilderness and it is their children who are now on the march. The time covered here is the fortieth year after the children of Israel came out of Egypt (20:28; 33:38)
The second section of the Book is not dated. Only one of the incidents included in this section, namely the episode of the spies, can be dated with certainty -- since it was as a result of that sin that the forty-year delay was imposed on the people (14:34). We can therefore conclude that thirty-eight years of the sojourn in the wilderness are not covered in the Bible. It would seem that the purpose of the book of Numbers is to relate the progress towards the realization of the promise made to the Patriarchs; therefore it surveys the milestones on the way towards the conquest of the Land but does not deal with the thirty-eight years in the wilderness, when no such progress was made.
1. As opposed to modern usage in which the term "Sinai Desert" is applied to the whole of the Sinai peninsula, the biblical "Wilderness of Sinai" (midbar Sinai) denoted only a small part of the region. Menashe Harel identifies it as the northeastern coast of the Gulf of Suez (Masa'ei Sinai, Tel Aviv 1969, pp. 206-207), while Elitzur and Kiel place it in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula (see their Atlas Da'at Mikra, Jerusalem 1993, pp. 100-101).
2. Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, trans. Walter Jacob, New Jersey 1992, pp. 758-759.
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