B’midbar (In the Wilderness)

Numbers 1:1 to 4:20

This book of Torah has two names: Hebrew – B’midbar – in the wilderness and English – Numbers. Each tells part of the story.

numbers_book_“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty up, all those able to bear arms.” (Num. 1:1-3)

This week we start a new book of Torah…. The Hebrew name of this book- B’midbar (In the Wilderness), and the English name – Numbers – seem to have nothing in common, yet they both describe the current situation of the Israelites. Both present a different view of the material we will study over the next few weeks.

B’midbar describes the location of the Israelites during the course of this book. It’s a desert location that lacks both any other population and the food and water needed to sustain the Israelites.

It is just over a year since the Israelites left the ordered society of Egypt as an unorganized group of slaves. They have just received the commandments and laws from God. But, are still a group of people with a lot to learn about how to live and survive as a nation with the laws they just received. Under the guidance of God, the challenges of the desert offer a vast classroom in which the Israelites can learn what is needed to become a strong nation dedicated to the Eternal. There are almost no other people to act as distractions. There is just the empty desert…. And the head teacher – the Eternal – has full control of the elements needed for the survival of the Israelites including the water, food … even the power of nature including weather and the very stability of the very ground on which the people walk. These lessons will even include a talking donkey. As B’midbar opens, the lessons are about to begin. We will see the Israelites move from disorganization and chaos to a people ready to become a powerful nation.

Then, there is the other name for this book … Numbers. The book opens with numbers. We are told that the journey of Torah resumes on the “first day, of the second month, in the second year.” Moses is told to take a census of the people … a counting of all “males … from the age of twenty up, all those able to bear arms.” Then, the book ends with a second census just before they enter the Promised Land (Chapter 26). It appears that these two censuses create bookends for the entire book. In both cases the counting is done by tribe and clan. A picture of organization is presented … potential organization at the start; and real organization at the end.

The text presents us with the exactness of the census numbers and a detailed plan explaining where each tribe will station itself around the central Tabernacle whose construction was just completed. But, in the weeks to come, we read about the chaos that reigns as the people complain about the lack of water and food…. They challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron… And, actually refute their allegiance to God, calling for a return to Egypt…. The numbers still bookmark the book; but, between the numbers we see are just a part of a tightly controlled picture that moves from chaos to organization.

Which is a better title for the book? …. Both seem to fit.

Earl Sabes

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