Book of Numbers

The harsh environment of the wilderness lead to Israel's spiritual development as a nation.


Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

The Character of Numbers

The Book of Numbers is composed of narrative, legislation, and archival records. Its narrative begins at the point where Exodus leaves off. (Leviticus, which interrupts the flow of narration, consists almost entirely of legislation independent of historic precedent–with the exception of Lev. 16.) Exodus ends by relating the erection of the Tabernacle on the first day of Nissan, and Numbers starts with a census taken a month later, just a little over a year after the Children of Israel came out of Egypt. 

book of numbers in the wildernessThe book covers the years of the people’s wanderings in the desert. However, only the beginning and closing periods of the journey are described in some detail; the thirty‑eight years in which a new generation matures receive no attention at all. Biblical memory accords no further place to those who were saved from Egypt but did not prove worthy of the gift of freedom and so were condemned to die in the desert.

The law given is usually case law, arising from the specific circumstances in the narrative. For instance, telling the story of the dedication of the Tabernacle occasions the statement of priestly obligations and privileges in general. From the law applicable to a particular event told in the book, the Torah proceeds to state the broader law valid for all time.

The Four Main Sections

The book falls into four broad sections. The first (1:1 – 10:10) deals with regulations promulgated at Sinai; it contains demographic and legal material of the most varied kind: from the holding of a census to the ordeal of bitter waters; from prescriptions for offerings to the use of the silver trumpets.  It also includes the story of how the Tabernacle was consecrated after it had been set up.

The second part (10:11‑20:1).reports highlights of the early days of the march; emphasizing the various rebellions which occurred, especially the uprising of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and then it tells of the end of the old leadership: the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the judgment on Moses, and the selection of Eleazar and Joshua as the new priestly and secular leaders who will bring the people into Canaan.

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W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.

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