Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Midbar 5769/ May 23, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



On the Structure of the Book of Numbers


Prof. Amos Frisch


Department of Bible


Studying the structure of biblical books is not an unnecessary extravagance; it is really essential in order to understand the message conveyed by any written work. [1]   The structure of Numbers is rather complex and has evoked a wide spectrum of views.  We shall begin by outlining several of the positions taken on this question, and then shall sketch a new proposal for understanding the structure of this book. [2]

Three, Four, and Five

It appears that the most widespread tendency is to divide the book into three.  For example, M.D. Cassuto (in Encyclopedia Mikra’it) proposes the following structure, without giving the reasons for his proposal:

1)      1:1 – 10:10,  in the wilderness of Sinai

2)      10:11 – 22:1, on the road from the wilderness of Sinai to the plains of Moab

3)      22:2 – 36, on the plains of Moab

It is evident that this division rests primarily on changes of place.  Quite a number of bible scholars and exegetes advocate a tripartite division of the book, each with their particular division.  Even if many (but not all) agree that the first part ends with chapter 10, verse 10, still there are many different views as to the end of the second part. [3]

Another approach is to divide the book into two basic parts.  For example, M.Z. Segal, basing his division on changes of era and generation, proposes the following:

1)      Chapters 1-19, the generation that left Egypt

2)      Chapters 20-36, the generation coming to Canaan

A two-fold division is also suggested by Don Isaac Abarbanel in his introduction to Numbers:

Indeed, these ten sedarim can be divided into two parts.  The first part consists of … the story of all their travails in the wilderness … and the second part, of the remaining five sedarim, recounting what happened in their battles once they arrived at inha                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             bited land…

The ten readings or parashot in the book are divided five-five, the first division ending with the Korah affair (end of chapter 18).

There is also a five-fold division, proposed by Rosenson, who explains his criteria for the division: [4]

1)     1-10:   the layout of the Israelite camp and the beginning of their march

2)     11-14:   the march and “complaints”

3)     15-19:   episodes from the long period of wandering

4)     20-25:   the march to the land of Canaan and the conquests in Transjordan

5)     26-36:   preparations for conquering and settling Canaan

In the context of this wide variety of views, let us present our own suggestion, carefully constructing it step by step.  First we look for significant parallels in the book that can reveal parallel segments.

A New Proposal

The book begins with a detailed account of the first census.  The second census, mentioned at the beginning of Parashat Phinehas immediately after the plague at Baal Peor, bears a significant resemblance both substantively (a general census of the Israelite tribes, followed by a separate census of the Levites) and linguistically (1:2-3 // 26:2).   Every word in the second passage repeats a word appearing in the account of the first census.   Moreover, one can even find in the text describing the second census an allusion to the first census, according to the following possible reading of Numbers 26:4:  “as the Lord had commanded Moses and the Israelites who came out of the land of Egypt,” which apparently refers to the guidelines given for the first census (see especially Sforno’s commentary on this verse).

Another impressive although rather concealed parallel appears in the expression “These were the marches of the Israelites … troop by troop.”  These words appear as the formulary beginning of Parashat Masei (33:1), but they also appear earlier in the book, except that there they act as a concluding statement (10:28); [the phrase is exactly the same in the Hebrew, although the New JPS Translation does not convey this].

The Hebrew expressions, lamah niggara (rendered in the New JPS translation as “why must we be debarred”) and yiggara (rendered as “name be lost”), constitute another parallel.  In both instances individuals turn to Moses and the people’s leaders with a request to participate along with the rest of the people in something the people are doing.   Moses does not respond to their request forthwith, rather he sets the question before the Lord, and following these requests a rule of halakhah is set. [5]   These two rulings concern the law of Pesah sheni (a celebration of Passover one month later) for those who were impure when the Passover was celebrated (9:6-8), and a resolution of the issue of daughters receiving an inheritance in the land (27:1-5).


While the previous parallel combines a commandment (9:6-8) with a narrative (27:1-5) about initiatives taken by certain people, the next two parallels which we present are markedly weighted towards the side of commandments.   One has to do with sacrifice – the report of the offerings brought by the tribal chieftains in celebration of the dedication of the altar in Parashat Naso (7:1-88), and paralleling it, the standing commandment of offering sacrifices on set occasions in Pinehas (28:1-30:1).  Both of these lengthily detailed passages contain a repetitive daily reiteration (with an exceptional formulation only for the first day):  “The one who presented his offering on the first day … On the second day…” etc.;  “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month …  Second day…” etc. (detailing the offerings during Tabernacles).  In both passages the animals to be sacrificed are specified in the same order (although their numbers differ):  bulls, rams, lambs, goats. [6]  

The next parallel contains no narrative material whatsoever:  both legalistic readings in this book discuss vows – the passage on Nazirites and the passage on invalidating vows:  If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord,” etc. (6:2ff.)// “If a man makes a vow to the Lord  If a woman makes a vow to the Lord” (30:3ff).

These five parallels, taken together, steer us towards an overall parallel between chapter 1:1—10:28 and 26:1-33:49.  Note that both parallel units begin with a census.  Thus we see that even the name of this book, Numbers (or Humash ha-Pekudim = The Pentateuchal Book of Censuses, as it was called by the Sages), is significant to its structure, insofar as the censuses are instrumental in revealing its structure.  The parallels can be better visualized in tabular form:



Introductory unit

Concluding unit

(1) Census


(1a) Census


(2)   Laws of the Nazirite


(4a)   Law of daughters inheriting – a human initiative (“why should his name be lost”) and a response by the Lord


(3)   Offerings of the chieftains


(3a)   Additional festival offerings


(4)   Laws of Pesah Sheni – a human initiative (“why must we be debarred”) and a response by the Lord


(2a)   Annulment of vows


(5)   “These were the marches of the Israelites”


(5a) “These were the marches of the Israelites”



Both units begin and conclude with identical themes, and between them are three themes shared in common and presented in inverted order.  Other parallels might be embedded in this book; we have presented only those which we find most prominent. [7]

What are the precise boundaries of the two units?  It turns out that the short passage at the end of the book, from 33:50 to the end, must be added to the second unit, especially since there are certain expressions common to this passage and part (5) at the end of the introductory unit:   “in command of the tribal troop …” (repeated eight times in 10:15-27; repeated eight times in 34:20-28); as well as “they shall harass you (ve-tzareru et’hem) in the land” (33:55), which recalls an expression appearing near the beginning of part (5):  “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you (ha-tzorer et’khem)” (10:9).  In our opinion, there are also certain verses that should be added to the end of the first unit, namely, the three short passages following 10:29 – Moses’ request of Hovav, the description of the beginning of the Israelites’ march, and Moses’ prayers when the Ark was to set out and when it halted (10:29-36). [8]   There is also one more passage that should be added to the second unit.  That unit ostensibly begins with chapter 26:1, with the Lord’s command regarding the second census, however, setting the boundary at this verse would separate the command from its implementation, for the command to fight the Midianites (25:16:18) would be beyond the bounds of the concluding unit, while its implementation (chapter 31) would be included in it.   Having considered this complex array of data, it seems to us that the beginning of the unit should be moved up to Parashat Phinehas (25:10), so that the command and its implementation fall in the same unit.

What's in the Middle

What about the verses in between, i.e., from chapter 11 to chapter 25:9?  This section is comprised primarily of narrative, mostly about the Israelites’ complaints or accounts of their sins.   In contrast, the two units at either end contain almost no narrative material and almost no sins of the people.   The intervening narrative section reveals no system of parallels as outlined above, so it seems to us that it should be viewed as a single large unit.  Thus we have the book being divided into three units, a unit at each extreme – the introductory unit (1:1-10:36) and the concluding unit (25:10-36:13), both dealing with censuses and summations about the marches, and between them a comprehensive unit dealing with all that happened to the Israelites in the wilderness, during their marches (11:1-25:9).

What can we learn from this tripartite structure?  Those who advocate a dichotomous structure, dividing the book in two, generally emphasize the contrast between two periods:  the good generation versus the bad generation, such as might be implied by the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 3.5) that sets the book of Numbers as against the verse, “And G-d separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:4). [9]   In contrast, according to our three-fold division, in the middle section we have stories about the Israelites’ sins (from the second year of their march and from the fortieth year), but these are preceded by a section that shows the people in a positive light. [10]   Although the vast majority of the text in the introductory unit comprises commands by the Lord and not a description of the people’s actions, nevertheless one can detect certain positive estimations:  the initiative by those who were impure and sought a solution to their problem of celebrating the Passover festival (9:6-7); Scripture noting that the Israelites were careful about setting off on their marches and camping according to the word of the Lord:   “they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses” (9:23); and at the very end of the unit, Moses’ prayer when the Ark set out:  “Advance, O Lord!  May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!” (10:35), which expresses the extremely close bond between the Lord and His people. [11]   On the other hand, precisely in the concluding unit, which supposedly describes the “good generation,” sins appear: the Israelites sparing the Midianite women after the war (31:14-17); the tribes of Gad and Reuben requesting not to cross the Jordan, in response to which Moses went so far as to compare them to the spies (ch. 31). [12]

We must add that the middle section is not comprised only of stories about the people’s sins.   There is also praise for the people, especially in the mouth of a non-Israelite (Balaam), a momentary guest who actually sees that which is beautiful about the people.   Nor is it always the entire people who sin.  Sometimes we are told about an individual sinning (the person who gathered kindling wood on the Sabbath – 15:32-36), or a group sinning (such as Korah and his followers).   At other times the people do fall into sin, but only after having been led astray by a particular group (the riffraff – 11:4, the spies in ch. 13).  The fact that this section tells us of the sins of Miriam and Aaron (ch. 12) and then of Moses and Aaron (20:7-13) slightly attenuates the negative impression one has of the people.  One should also bear in mind expressions of regret and desires to correct the wrong – unfittingly (14:39-45) and fittingly (21:7).

From a reading of Numbers one might obtain a negative impression of the people, as if all their deeds comprised a continuous string of rebelliousness against the Lord.   But Jeremiah, speaking the word of the Lord, presents the people’s wandering in the desert in a completely different light:  “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (2:2).  The tripartite division of the book which we have presented here, even if it does not attest to the “devotion of your youth,” certainly provides a basis for a less critical and more sympathetic reading of the adventures of the Lord’s people along the tortuous paths of the wilderness, prior to coming to the promised land.          

[1] Cf., for example, Lee’s assertion in the introduction to his comprehensive work on the structure and significance of Numbers (10:11-36:13):  “Thus, reconstructing the structure of a text is imperative for interpreting the text as a whole” (W. W. Lee, Punishment and Forgiveness in Israel’s Migratory Campaign, Grand Rapids 2003, p. 1).

[2] Due to limitations of space, we cannot go into all the details of the structure we propose and our reasons for it.

[3] For example, according to Moscowitz (Da’at Mikra, according to his second suggestion), the second part concludes at chapter 19; according to Weinfeld (Olam ha-Tanakh), 20:13; according to Licht, chapter 21; according to Budd (WBC series), chapter 25:18.

[4] Y. Rosenson, Devarim Ba-Midbar – Iyyunim Parshaniyim be-Sefer be-Midbar, Jerusalem 2004, pp. 11-15.

[5] In both instances the halakhah begins with the Hebrew expression “ish (ish) ki,” (see  9:10; 27:8), although this linguistic similarity is not evident in the New JPS Translation.

[6] Such a combination of sacrifices does not appear anywhere else in the Torah, while in each of these two passages, both the first and the second, it appears thirteen times.

[7] Let us allude, nevertheless, to one instructive example – the parallel between 17:12-23 (the verses between 4a and 3a, in the concluding section), and the passage in the analogous position in the introductory unit – cleansing the Levites and bringing them forward (8:5-26).  Both passages concern appointment to office (the Levites in one, Joshua in the other), and they both share the expressions “lay hands upon” and “have … stand before.”

[8] For linguistic substantiation of this phrase we can cite the expression, “a distance of three days,” which appears twice, once in chapter 10:33 and again in the concluding section (33:8).

[9] See the commentaries, Yefeh To’ar, Nehmad le-Mar’eh, and îäøæ"å.   A different explanation is suggested by Dr. Phinehas Hyman (“Bnei ha-Or u-vnei ha-Hoshekh,” Weekly Torah Study on Parashat Shelah-lekha, 1998 (no. 241).

[10] Compare with the remarks of Rabbi Dr. Yehudah Moriel on the midrash (Iyyunim ba-Mikra, 2, Tel Aviv 1990, p. 15).  Although Abarbanel is among those who would view the book as having two parts, nevertheless such criticism does not follow from what he says.

[11] See Rashi on this verse.  This positive view is emphasized in Sforno’s commentary, in his introduction (“Thus, the merits of Israel by which they became worthy of entering the land are mentioned in certain measure, namely the dedication of the altar and their endeavors in purification of the levites, celebration of Passover, and following Him in the wilderness”), and in his explication of the text (9:1; 10:17-22, where he breaks down the virtue of “following Him in the wilderness” into five meritorious actions).

[12] In Abarbanel’s opinion (also cf. Nahmanides), these tribes meant no ill, and Moses’ criticism of them lay in a misunderstanding.   Nevertheless, even according to this hypothesis, the very fact that the Torah presents his criticism of them casts them in a certain unfavorable light.  In our opinion, their request was problematic, however they set it right in the wake of Moses’ reaction.  Cf. A. Frisch, “Bakashat Bnei Gad u-Vnei Reuben – Bikoret ve-|Izunah,” Weekly Torah Study on Parashat Matot-Masei, 1998 (no. 246), also cf. the detailed discussion by R. à . Samet, Iyyunim be-Farashat ha-Shavua, Vol. 2:   Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy, Jerusalem 2002, pp. 262-277.