Parashat B'midbar

Questioning Chronology

The lack of chronological order in Parashat B'midbar allows expressions of God's love for Israel to precede the trials and tribulations of desert wandering.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

It is surprising that the sometimes tumultuous book of B'midbar commences with such a prosaic passage as the taking of a census:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their coming out from the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census of all the congregation of the Children of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, with the number of names, every male by their head count (B'midbar 1:1-2).

Censuses, here and later (chapter 26), give this book its Rabbinic name Pekudim (accounts), and its English name (based on the Septuagint), Numbers. Nevertheless, when we look ahead to what will transpire in this book--the conflicts, the rebellions, the instabilities and the crushing disappointments--we are struck by the uncharacteristic placidity of its opening section, discussing the census and the careful ordering of the encampments.

It is particularly hard to understand why B'midbar opens this way when we consider that it could have been otherwise. A close reading reveals that the Torah changes conventional chronology in order to start with the census. Rashi, Ibn-Ezra, (12th-century Spain) and Ramban (Nachmanides) agree that, at the beginning of the Israelites' second year in the wilderness, the seven days of ordaining the Kohanim (priests) (Vayikra, chapter 8) and the 12 days of dedication of the altar (B'midbar, chapter 7) all precede the census.

And, while it is true that there is disagreement among the major commentaries about when exactly these days began--whether they overlapped, and when in the first month (Nisan) they ended--it is clear that the opening of B'midbar occurs on the first day of the second month (Iyar), in the second year. In addition, a later section of B'midbar, discussing the Pesach--offering in the wilderness (9:1-8), is said during Nisan. Chapters 1 through 4 should therefore follow chapters 7 and 9, yet they precede them.

Of course, as our sages teach, "There is no earlier or later in the Torah" (Pesachim 6b; Sifri Beha'alotecha 9:13), meaning that the Torah is not necessarily chronological. In fact, the beginning of B'midbar is cited as the source of this principle. Torah is not essentially a book of history; it is above history. Its main focus is its spiritual and moral teachings, and it uses history to teach these lessons. But, the question remains: what is the lesson to be learned by such a blatant altering of the timetable at the beginning of B'midbar, an otherwise rather chronological book?

One purpose might be to demonstrate that national sin produces national catastrophe. Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c. 1550) on B'midbar 9:1 explains that the beginning of the book of B'midbar is a realization of the commandment "and your camp shall be holy" (Devarim 23:15). After the formation and purification of the camp, the Torah recounts four events (chapter 7-10: dedicating the altar, initiating the Levites, offering the Pesach sacrifice and traveling obediently into the wilderness), in the merit of which the Children of Israel should have entered the land immediately, had not their sins (chapter 11-12), especially the sin of the Meraglim (scouts) (chapter 13-14), necessitated their remaining in the wilderness.

In this context, we might mention Malbim’s reading that the census was aimed at classifying the Children of Israel according to specific family divisions within the tribes, under flags and following their tribal leaders. Clearly establishing the ancestry of the Children of Israel caused the Shechinah (divine presence) to rest in their midst (cf. Kiddushin 70b, Yalkut Shimoni I:684).

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.