The Message of the Non-Chronological Opening of Numbers
Abstract: The order of the opening passages in the Book of Numbers (Chapters 1-10) poses an exceptional challenge. The sequence of passages in Scripture is often justified in chronological terms. In the opening chapters of Numbers, however, a chronological explanation collapses under scrutiny and a different rationale for the ordering must be found. In addressing this problem, our discussion will bring together two key issues pertinent to the study of the Pentateuch: the relationship between literature and history, and the contribution of redaction to the orientation of biblical passages.
The Opening of Numbers
The opening passages of Numbers describe the preparations of the camp for the coming journey. This unit may be divided into the following sections:
- Chapters 1-2: The Israelite camp around the Tabernacle and the census conducted to count them.
- Chapters 3-4: The completion of the Israelite census with the census of the Levites, and a description of the Levite camp.
- Chapters 5-6: A series of commandments (expulsion of the ritually impure from the camp; guilt offerings for theft; laws pertaining to a suspected adulteress; laws of nazirites; the priestly blessings).
- Chapter 7: The dedication of the altar by the tribal leaders (נשיאים).
- Chapter 8: The dedication of the Levites and their preparation for divine service.
- Chapter 9:1-14: Pesah Sheni (the alternate Paschal sacrifice for those who were impure at the time of the first).
- Chapter 9:15-Chapter 10: Signs of imminent departure: the cloud and the trumpets.
Three points help explain the organizing principle behind these chapters.
1. Dates – Lack of Chronological Ordering
Many scholars have observed that the specific dates offered in the opening passages in Numbers suggest that Numbers 1 and 7 are two parallel blocks:
Num 1:1 (Iyyar)
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
The LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt
Num 7:1 (Nissan)
וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת משֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן…
On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle…
Numbers 7 must refer to the date mentioned in Exod 40:17, when the Tabernacle was set up during the first month (Exod 40:17), a full month earlier than the referent at the beginning of Numbers:
וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up.
Thus, the initial chapters of Numbers are not in chronological order. The Tent of Meeting is assumed in 1:1 even though the Tabernacle is only set up in 7:1, and has not been consecrated—this too suggests that these chapters are not chronological. What then is the rationale for their ordering?
2. Ordering the Tribes
In the account of the sacrifices offered by the tribal leaders (ch. 7), Judah is first, followed by Issachar and Zebulon and the other the tribes. This is the expected order when Chapter 7 is read in the context of the previous chapters, since the tribes are already in this order in chapter 2, where the Israelites are commanded to camp around the Tabernacle in this order:
- Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon;
- Reuben, Simon, and Gad;
- Ephraim, Menashe, and Benjamin;
- Dan, Asher, and Naftali.
Nevertheless, as noted above, the sacrifices of the tribal leaders in ch. 7 take place before the census in ch. 2, such that the order of encampment must already have been known in the second month when the census was taken.
How did the tribal leaders know to bring their sacrifices in the first month according to the order which would be conveyed to Israel only in the second? It would seem that the tribes were encamped according to the order mentioned above already in the first month. The opening passage of Numbers, i.e., the divine commandment dated to the second month, is not actually concerned with the organization of the tribes but rather is based on the order of their camp and seeks to enumerate them. That said, the link between these two lists of the tribes and their identical organization have structural significance, as I will propose below.
3. The Split Treatment of the Levites
The opening chapters of Numbers devote two passages to the Levites. The two passages seem to be a single passage split in two and incorporated into two different places:
ח:טז כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי. ח:יז כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי.
8:16 For they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the first-born of the Israelites. 8:17 For every first-born among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt.
ג:ט וְנָתַתָּה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו נְתוּנִם נְתוּנִם הֵמָּה לוֹ מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל… ג:יב וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם. ג:יג כִּי לִי כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה לִי יִהְיוּ אֲנִי ה’.
3:9 You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons: they are formally assigned to him from among the Israelites… 3:12 I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. 3:13 For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s.
The Levites future function is described in ch. 3, but the actual ceremony of taking the Levites and their being given to the priests is delayed to chapter 8. Why is there a gap between the command and its fulfillment?
Condren’s Solution: Two Textual Blocks in Reverse Order
Based on these three features—inverted dates, the order of the tribes, and the split treatment of the Levites—Janson Condren of Sydney Missionary and Bible College suggests that the opening passages of Numbers are composed of two parallel blocks. The parallel between the blocks of text emerges when they are placed side-by-side:
|Block 1 (Chapters 1-6)||Block 2 (Chapters 7-10)|
|A. Tribes||Tribes arranged around the camp (Judah first)||Offerings on behalf of the tribes (Judah first)|
|B. Levites||Levites arranged around the Tabernacle||Preparation of Levites to serve in the Tabernacle|
|C. Laws||Begins with removal of impure people, ends with the priests’ benediction.||Begins with the make-up Passover sacrifice for the impure (Pesach Sheni), ends with the priest’s blowing of trumpets.|
The two opening elements are linked both by the (unexplained) correspondence in the order of the tribes as well as by the inclusion of the same named tribal leaders.
The general commandment to separate the Levites in Chapter 3 is detailed in Chapter 8. In this case, an organic whole is split into two separate sections and placed in two different textual contexts.
The two blocks each conclude with a collections of laws that focus on the relevance of the Tabernacle to the congregation as a whole and to the space of the camp itself. Both passages open with laws relating to impure people: The first half discusses the expulsion of the impure from the camp (5:1-4), and the second half discusses the make-up Paschal offering for those who were impure (9:1-14). Both blocks conclude with commandments applying to priests: Block one concludes with the command to bless the people (6:22-27), block two with the command to blow trumpets during sacrifices and on holidays (10:1-10). Thus, the opening and closing of each unit demonstrate the link between these two collections of laws.
The Tabernacle versus the Camp
The overall theme of these two blocks is the role of the camp versus that of the Tabernacle; elements appearing in the first block dealing with the Israelite camp are presented again in the second in connection with the Tabernacle.
This contrast between camp and Tabernacle is most prominent in the role of the tribal leaders. The first block centers on the construction of the camp. The tribal leaders play a role in conducting the census of the Israelites (1:4) and stand with their respective tribes as they set camp and travel (ch. 2). In contrast, in the second part, the tribal leaders dedicate the altar and bring many sacrifices (ch. 7). Even when acting as tribal representatives, they are not the focus of the passage; it is the altar and tabernacle that take center stage.
The main subject of Chapters 3-4, in block one, is the distinction between Israelites and Levites. The Levites are counted separately from Israel and replace the first-born. Their role in the Tabernacle is to dismantle it and transport it when it is not functioning. The verses emphasize that the Levites are forbidden to approach the vessels of the Tabernacle themselves (Numbers 4:20), a privilege reserved only for priests. The Levites are permitted to carry the Tabernacle on their backs only after it has been dismantled and covered.
The status of the Levites is markedly different in the second block (ch. 8). Here the account of the Levites’ dedication is given prominence, and focuses on the Levites’ entry into the space of the Tabernacle. The reader is told about Levites’ sacrifices and how they are lifted as a wave offering by Moses and Aaron (8:11, 13). The idea conveyed by this section is that the Levites have a significant role in the Tabernacle; they do not simply carry it when it is non-functional, but also serve in it—or at least aid those who serve in it—when it is active and standing. The second part portrays them as approaching the Tabernacle in place of Israel:
במדבר ח:יט וָאֶתְּנָה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נְתֻנִים לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶף בְּגֶשֶׁת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ.
Num 8:19 and from among the Israelites I formally assign the Levites to Aaron and his sons, to perform the service for the Israelites in the Tent of Meeting and to make expiation for the Israelites, so that no plague may afflict the Israelites for coming too near the sanctuary.
In the first block, those who are impure must be sent away “from the camp.” The point of the law is that the camp as a whole must be pure; those who are impure must be sent away from it. The Tabernacle or of the sacrificial service is never mentioned here. In contrast, in the second part, impurity is linked to the Tabernacle and the sacrifices (Num 9:7):
לָמָּה נִגָּרַע לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת קָרְבַּן ה’ בְּמֹעֲדוֹ בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Why must we be debarred from presenting the LORD’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?
The same difference obtains in the concluding passages of each block. The priestly blessings do not mention the Tabernacle as the place for the ritual; even today, in the absence of Tabernacle and altar, priests bless the congregation in synagogues. In contrast, the trumpets are blown “on your burnt offerings and on your peace offerings,” in the Tabernacle only.
The second unit, taking place in the first month (Nisan) is bound up with the Tabernacle experience, while the first unit taking place in the second month (Iyar) is bound up with the construction and shaping of a sanctified camp.
Emphasizing the Holiness of the Camp
Why then are the events of the second month positioned before the events of the first month in the biblical text? What is the significance of the placement of passages that discuss a sanctified camp before the passages that discuss a holy Tabernacle?
The opening passages of Numbers constitute a preface of sorts to the book and are meant to shed light on its broad perspective, focusing on the camp, requiring the safeguarding of its sanctity and purity. Unlike the first half of Leviticus, which opens with a focus on the Tabernacle, Numbers, opens with the camp.
Sanctity Flows from the Tabernacle into the Camp
According to Numbers, sanctity flows from the Tabernacle, but exceeds its bounds to embrace the whole camp. For this reason, Numbers specifically opens with the second month and not the first, thereby declaring that the construction of the camp is not for the sake of the Tabernacle, but for the sake of shaping a holy people. The camp is the protagonist of this narrative.
From a practical perspective, the Tabernacle must be sanctified before its holiness can spread outward; for this reason, the events of Nisan, the first month, needed to occur before the events of Iyar, the second month. From a literary perspective, the Book of Numbers narrates the later events first, to emphasize that the core of the story, which takes place in the Tabernacle, can only be described after the foundational nature of the camp has been asserted.
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Prof. Jonathan Grossman is a senior lecturer in the Bible departments of both Bar Ilan University and Michlelet Herzog, as well as head of the latter’s school for political thought. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Bar Ilan and an M.A. in Jewish thought from the Hebrew University. Among Grossman’s many publications are Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Meaning, Ruth: Bridges and Boundaries, and Abram to Abraham: A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative.
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