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.
The eventual apportionment of the land of Israel would be according to these tribal divisions. Thus, the wilderness (which gives this book its name B'midbar) should have been a very short transitional stage, during which the Torah's ideal society was secured--a "dress rehearsal" for life in the land of Israel. Instead, the generation of the Exodus spent the rest of its existence in the wilderness. The book of B'midbar chronicles a tragedy of thwarted opportunities.
Another answer might be alluded to in the midrash (B'midbar Rabba 1:5 Tanchuma Ki Tissa, 16) and explained by the Kli Yakar (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619). The giving of the Torah is compared to the betrothal of a humble but noble bride to a king; the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is compared to their wedding ceremony. Now that they begin their life together, the precise details of the ketubbah (marriage document) are listed, including the place and time:
In the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year.
In addition, the king announces the bride's aristocratic lineage. "Take a census" translates literally as "lift the head:" this announcement elevates the status of the Children of Israel before the eyes of the world. As Rashi states in his first comment on this book, Hashem counts them as an expression of His great love for them.
However, during the course of this book of turmoil and wanderings, this troubled but loving marriage will suffer many severe tribulations. Starting with a description of that loving relationship will help them return to their original state of tranquility. It will strengthen their ultimate reconciliation, and deepen their love.
T. S. Eliot, in "Little Gidding," (V) writes:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We need to remember our youthful "marriage." Before we are reminded of our infidelities--the golden calf, the scouts--which all but destroyed the glory of the day when we pledged our troth, we need to remember the profound love that we and Hashem have for one another.
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