Chronology of Bemidbar 1 – 10

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

The various commentators' approaches to reconstructing the sequence of events in the beginning of Bemidbar serve as a prototype for the range of methods used for dealing with chronological issues throughout the Torah.  Abarbanel attempts to maintain chronological order, suggesting that events in the book which appear to have happened earlier really occurred later.  He, thus, claims that despite the referencing of the first month of the second year by the headings of each of Chapters 7 and 9, the main focus of each chapter is really events of the second month.  A second position takes the opposite tack, suggesting that Chapter 1 actually serves to summarize a months long process which began in the first year, despite its heading speaking of only the second month.

Other commentators read the dated verses more simply, leading to the conclusion that the chapters are indeed not in chronological order.  Ramban suggests that certain later events are recorded earlier for literary reasons, as they are not part of the book's main core and instead serve as an epilogue to the Books of Shemot and Vayikra.  Rashi and Seforno, however, suggest that it is the earlier events which were pushed off and recorded only later, for the didactic purpose of presenting the nation in a more favorable light.

These various approaches have ramifications for understanding many specific narratives and legal sections, as well as broader implications for appreciating the character of Sefer Bemidbar and its relationship to the earlier books of Shemot and Vayikra.

In Chronological Order

Despite first impressions, Bemidbar 1–10 maintains a basic chronological order.  This approach subdivides regarding which chapters are not as they seem:

Chapters 7–9 Occurred Later

Though Bemidbar 7 and 9 make passing references to the first month, their main focus is on events which took place in the second month.  Thus, the entire unit of Bemidbar 1–10 recounts events of the second month, and there is no achronology.

When did Chapters 1–4 happen? According to Abarbanel, the censuses and the appointment of the Levites all occurred in the second month, as the simple reading of the verses would imply.  He thus maintains that the census of Bemidbar was distinct from the one which took place only a few months earlier during the construction of the Mishkan.  For discussion of Abarbanel's understanding of the need for another census, see Censuses in the Wilderness.
When were the laws of Bemidbar 5–6 given? Abarbanel asserts that all these laws were given in the second month after the census was taken and the camp was set up, since they all stemmed from these events.1  He claims that though Aharon had blessed the nation on the eighth day of the Milluim ceremony,2 it was only in the second month, that Hashem transmitted the official formula for the blessing.
Bemidbar 7:1 – "וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ" – According to Abarbanel, the time marker, "וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן", applies only to the anointment of the vessels, not to the gifts of the princes described thereafter.  He asserts that Moshe began anointing the vessels after erecting the Mishkan in the first month, but that this was an extended process that lasted several weeks.
Dedication of the altar – As the princes brought their sacrifices only after the vessels were anointed, the dedication of the altar could first take place only in the second month. As such, with the exception of the first verse, all the events of Chapter 7 really occurred in the second month, after the censuses of Chapters 1–4.
Relationship between מילואים in Vayikra 8 and חנוכת המזבח in Bemidbar 7 – According to Abarbanel, the two events did not overlap at all, as one took place in the first month and the other in the second month.3  The princes' sacrifices are known as "the dedication of the altar", not because the altar had not been used earlier, but rather because the princes were the first to bring sacrifices upon it as individual Israelites.
"הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים" – Abarbanel points to the description of the princes as "those who officiated in the counting" to support his position.  The fact that the verse describes the princes in this manner proves that the dedication of the altar must have taken place only after the census.
Wagons for the Levites – The fact that the princes give the Levites wagons to aid them in their duties further suggests that the events of Chapter 7 occurred only after the Levites were appointed and assigned specific roles.
"וַיַּקְרִיבוּ הַנְּשִׂאִים... בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ" – This verse is difficult for Abarbanel as it suggests that the anointment took only one day and that the princes brought their sacrifices on that very day.  Abarbanel thus asserts that the word "day" can refer also to an extended period of time.4
Purification of the Levites in Bemidbar 8 – According to this position, this chapter is in its proper place and took place in the second month, after the dedication of the altar.  Abarbanel distinguishes between the Levites' appointment to replace the firstborns in Chapter 3 and their actual preparation for service in Chapter 8.  The two events were distinct, but both happened in the second month within a few days of each other.
Pesach in Bemidbar 9 – Abarbanel asserts that Chapter 9 opens with Pesach in the first month only as a prelude to the main topic of the chapter which is Pesach Sheni, celebrated in the second month.5  Thus, this chapter, too, focuses on events of the second month, continuing where the previous ones left off.
Relationship Between Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar – According to Abarbanel, the books are arranged in chronological order, with minimal or no chronological overlap between them:6
  • First year – Sefer Shemot recounts the events of the first year in the wilderness, concluding with the first day of the second year.
  • First month of the second year – Sefer Vayikra picks up where Shemot left off, describing the events of the first month of the second year which focused primarily on the consecration of the priests and their responsibilities.
  • Second month of the second year – Finally Sefer Bemidbar continues with the second month of the second year, as the focus shifts to the rest of the nation.
Chronology in the Torah – Abarbanel attempts, to the maximum extent possible, to preserve chronological order throughout the entire Torah.

Chapters 1–4 Conclude an Earlier Process

Though the census in Bemidbar 1 mentions the second month, the initial chapters of Bemidbar are actually the summary of a more extended process which began already in the first year and stretched until the second month of the second year.

Census of Bemidbar 1 – Cassuto proposes that the censuses of Shemot 30 and Bemidbar 1 were both part of a single extended process.8  At the time of the construction of the Tabernacle, the people gave their half-shekels, personal names, and other information, but it was only in the second month of the following year that the data was analyzed and all of the necessary calculations were made.9  Since this part of the census provides important background for Sefer Bemidbar, it is recorded here.  For further discussion of Cassuto's understanding of the census, see Censuses in the Wilderness.
Appointment of the Levites in Bemidbar 3 – According to this approach, the appointment of the Levites and their census also began during the first year.  For a spectrum of opinions regarding their appointment, see Selection of the Priests and Levites.
Descendants of Aharon – This position is able to explain why Bemidbar 3:1 recounts the lineage of Aharon "on the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai", first mentioning all four sons, and only then qualifying this statement with the fact that Nadav and Avihu died in the Sinai Wilderness.  When the census began they had been alive, but after their deaths, the text needed to update the list to match the reality of the second year.
When were the laws of Chapters 5–6 given? This approach might suggest that these laws were given during the course of the first year and first month of the second year.  If so, it is possible that the blessing that Aharon gave the nation during the Milluim ceremony was identical to the priestly blessing discussed in Chapter 6, and the formula was prescribed already then.
Dedication of the Altar in Bemidbar 7 – According to this approach, the dedication of the Altar took place in the first month of the second year, immediately after the Tabernacle was erected, as per the simple reading of Bemidbar 7:1.  It is unclear how it related to the seven days of the consecration of the Mishkan and whether the two ceremonies overlapped or one followed the other.
"הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים" – This view could maintain that the princes might have played a role already in the first part of the census which occurred prior to the dedication, and as such, can be described here as "הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים".  While Bemidbar 1:4-5 implies that the leaders were first chosen only during the second stage of the census, it is possible that this was just a reaffirmation of a status conferred already in the first year.  Cf. the NetzivBemidbar 1:4Bemidbar 7:1About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin who suggests that the Bemidbar 1 was merely a Divine reaffirmation of the earlier selection of the princes by the nation which took place already in the first year.10
Wagons for the Levites – If the Levites were appointed already in the first year, it is understandable that the princes' wagons were immediately designated for the tasks of the Levites.
Purification of the Levites in Bemidbar 8 – According to this approach, though the Levites are appointed in the first year, their purification ceremony needed to wait until after the Tabernacle was completed, and first took place in the first month of the second year.
Pesach in Bemidbar 9 – This position would explain that Chapter 9, which speaks of observing Pesach in the second half of the first month, chronologically follows the events of Chapters 7–8, which occurred in the first half of the first month.
Relationship Between Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar – There is chronological overlap between the events described in all three books, and the distinction between them is rather in their focus.  Shemot focuses on the construction of the Mishkan, Vayikra on the role of the kohanim, and Bemidbar on the rest of the nation.

Not in Chronological Order

The events of Bemidbar 1–10 are not recorded in the order in which they occurred.  This approach subdivides regarding which chapters were the ones shifted out of their chronological position and why.

Later Events Needed to be Recorded Earlier

The opening chapters of Sefer Bemidbar form a distinct unit which is not part of the grand chronological scheme of the rest of the book, but rather includes events which occurred only later than the main core of the book.  This approach subdivides regarding the borders and character of this distinct section:

Appendix

Chapters 1–8 of Bemidbar constitute an appendix to the Books of Shemot and Vayikra. They are therefore recorded at the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar, even though some of the events of these chapters occurred only after events described in later chapters.

What unites Chapters 1–8? As opposed to the rest of the book, all of the topics discussed in Bemidbar 1–8 relate to the Mishkan, and as such come merely to complete the subject matter (השלמת העניין) begun in Shemot and Vayikra.
  • Chapters 1–2 speak of the arrangement of the camp around the Mishkan.11
  • Chapters 3–4 focus on the status of the Levites and their tasks as porters for the Tabernacle.
  • The laws of Chapters 5–6 open with a discussion of the impure who must leave the holy camp, and then speak of the ritual procedures of the Sotah and Nazir which take place in the Mishkan.12
  • Chapter 7 deals with the tribal princes' gifts to the Levites and their dedication of the altar.
  • Finally, Chapter 8 describes the Levites' consecration.
Why leave these for Sefer Bemidbar? Neither R"Y Bekhor Shor nor Ramban explicitly address why this epilogue is found in the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar rather than at the end of Sefer Vayikra.
When did Chapter 1 happen? R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ramban maintain that the census of Chapter 1 takes place in the second month, as per the simple reading of Bemidbar 1:1.13  According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, this was the first census of the nation, while according to Ramban they had been counted only a few months before.  For discussion of both of their positions, see Censuses in the Wilderness.
Dating of Chapters 2–4 – Even though Chapters 2–4 are undated, since the events of these chapters are not only thematically related to Chapter 1 but also referenced by it,14 it is reasonable to assume that they also occurred in the second month.
When were the laws of Bemidbar 5–6 given? Ramban suggests that these laws were given after the camp was set up, i.e. in the second month.15  As these laws include the formula of the priestly blessing, Ramban suggests that Aharon's blessing of the nation during the Milluim (in the first month) may have been an entirely separate blessing.16
Dedication of the Altar in Bemidbar 7RambanBemidbar 7:1About R. Moshe b. Nachman contends that the dedication of the altar began on the eighth day of the first month, "on the day that Moshe concluded erecting the Tabernacle, anointing it and all of its vessels and the altar and all of its vessels".17  According to him, the anointing process took seven days, and these were the seven days of the milluim.  He thus avoids having overlap between the milluim ceremony and the altar dedication.
Consecration of Levites in Bemidbar 8 – Ramban claims that the purification took place in the second month, soon after (or together with) the Levites' official census and appointments.
Achronology within the appendix – As seen from the points above, according to Ramban, there is no internal chronology within the eight chapters of the appendix.  The chapters move from the second month (Chapters 1–4) to the first month (Chapter 7), and then back to the second month (Chapter 8).  Ramban implies that this is not problematic since the appendix is ordered thematically.18
Wagons for the Levites – This position must explain how the Levites were given wagons in the first month if they had not yet been assigned their tasks.19  It could suggest one of two possibilities:
  • The NetzivBemidbar 7:7About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin posits that even though the princes' gifts and sacrifices were brought to the Mishkan in the first month, the wagons and oxen were given to the Levites only after their appointment in the second month.20  The only reason that the verses regarding the wagons (7:4-8) are recorded as part of the account in Chapter 7 is in order to complete the story of the princes' offerings.
  • Hashem had previously appointed the Levites but their official assignments and census only took place afterwards, close to the nation's travels.  See Selection of the Priests and Levites for the possibility that, according to R"Y Bekhor Shor, the Levites were chosen even prior to the Sin of the Golden Calf.
"הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים" – According to this position, this description is a parenthetical statement of the narrator, meant for the reader who already knows that the princes officiated in the counting, even though they had not yet done so at the time of the story.21
Chronology in the Torah – Ramban normally posits that the Torah is written according to chronological order.  In the cases such as this one where he claims otherwise, he provides a literary explanation for the exception.
Relationship Between Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar – According to this position, there is chronological overlap between the events described in all three books and what distinguishes between them is their focus.  While the second half of Sefer Shemot and much of Sefer Vayikra revolve around the Tabernacle and its laws, Sefer Bemidbar's main focus is on the nation and their wilderness travails.
Introduction

The opening chapters of Sefer Bemidbar form an introduction to the rest of the book and are thus placed at the beginning of the book despite happening only later.

Which chapters comprise the introduction? There are two possibilities:
  • Only Chapters 1–6 – As these chapters mainly focus on the censuses, setup of the camp, and related laws22 they serve as a natural prelude to a book which deals with the nation's travels.  According to this approach, the core of the book first opens with Chapter 7 and continues chronologically from there.
  • All of Chapters 1–8 – Alternatively, one could suggest that Chapters 7–8 are also part of the introduction. They complete the discussion of the roles played by both sets of leaders mentioned previously: the tribal princes and the Levites.
Dating of each of the chapters – As in the above position, this approach assumes that the time markers in the verses should be understood simply and thus concludes the following:
  • Chapters 1–4 – The censuses occurred as dated, in the second month.
  • Chapters 5–6 – It is unclear when the laws of these chapters were given.
  • Chapter 7 and 9 – These chapters (speaking of the altar's dedication and the Pesach) both took place in the first month, as their headings imply.
  • Chapter 8 – The two variations of this position would disagree regarding the dating of this chapter.  See below.
Consecration of the Levites in Chapter 8
  • First month – According to the position that the core of Sefer Bemidbar begins in Chapter 7 and proceeds chronologically from there, the purification of the Levites must have also taken place in the first month.23  This, however, is difficult considering that Chapter 3 suggests that the Levites were first appointed in the second month!  As such, this approach must suggest that Hashem had previously appointed the Levites but that their official assignments and census only took place afterwards, close to the nation's travels.24
  • Second month – The position that includes Chapters 7–8 in the introduction could more simply suggest that the consecration occurred after the Levites' appointment in the second month.  This, however, creates internal achronology within the introduction.25 
Wagons for the Levites – To explain how the princes knew to give the Levites wagons if they had not yet been assigned their tasks this position could say, as above, that the Levites were chosen by Hashem beforehand.
"הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים" – This position would explain that this is meant for the reader who already knows the role played by the princes in the census.26
Relationship Between Shemot, Vayikra, and Bemidbar – According to this position, while the second half of Sefer Shemot and much of Sefer Vayikra revolve around the Tabernacle and its laws, all of Sefer Bemidbar's focuses on the camp and the nation's wilderness travails.

Earlier Events Needed to be Recorded Later

The recounting of the earlier events of Chapters 7–9 is delayed in order to present the nation in the best possible light.

When did Chapters 1–4 happen? This position assumes that the events of these chapters occurred in the second month, as the simple reading of the verses would imply.28
Dating of Chapters 7 and 9 – These chapters discussing the dedication of the altar and the Pesach are not in chronological order, and they occurred (as dated) in the first month.
Purpose of achronology
  • To avoid denigrating the nation – The Midrash Aggadah and Rashi address the achronological placement of only Chapter 9, and they do so in similar ways.  The Midrash Aggadah explains that the Torah did not want to begin Bemidbar with an account of the people who were ritually impure.  Rashi similarly suggests that Hashem did not want to open the book with the story of the nation's observance of the Pesach in the first month since it was shameful that this was the only Pesach they observed throughout their forty years in the wilderness.29  These suggestions are difficult as Sefer Bemidbar should have then begun with Chapter 7 (the description of the princes' sacrifices in the first month) which would have both maintained chronological order and also opened the book with a meritorious action.30
  • To praise the nation – Seforno suggests that though the description of the nation's travels in Chapter 10 really flows straight from Chapters 1–6,31 Chapters 7–9 are inserted in between as an introduction to Chapter 10 in order to explain why the nation was supposed to merit entering the land immediately without needing to battle the Canaanites.32 The events described in these chapters (the dedication of the altar, purification of the Levites, Paschal sacrifice, and willingness to follow Hashem in the Wilderness) were all praiseworthy deeds which made them deserving of a miraculous conquest.33
Relationship between מילואים in Vayikra 8 and חנוכת המזבח in Bemidbar 7 – According to RashiBemidbar 7:1About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki, the dedication of the altar ceremonies began on the first day of the first month.34  Thus, in order to avoid their overlapping with the days of the milluim, Rashi must follow the Midrashic position that the seven days of the milluim took place prior to this, or from the 23rd until the 29th of the previous month.35
When were the laws of Bemidbar 5–6 given? These sources disagree on this point:
  • Rashi, following the Sifre ZutaBemidbar 7:11About Sifre Zuta and Bavli GittinGittin 60a-bAbout Bavli Gittin asserts that the laws of the ritually impure and the priestly blessing36 were given in the first month, on the day that the Mishkan was established.37  As such, he identifies the blessing of Aharon during the Milluim with the priestly blessing recorded in Bemidbar 6.38  He does not explain, however, why the laws are recorded out of place.
  • Seforno suggests that the laws of these chapters deal with keeping the camp holy.  They were thus given in the second month following the instructions regarding the setup of the camp.39
Purification of the Levites in Bemidbar 8 – This approach can date the events of this chapter in one of two ways:
  • First month – Both Rashi40 and Seforno claim that these occurred in the first month.41  This preserves the internal chronology within the larger unit of Chapters 7–9, but must posit that the Levites were both chosen and purified before they were officially counted to replace the firstborns.42
  • Second month – Alternatively, this approach could suggest that the purification occurred in the second month, only after the census and the Levites' official appointment.43
"הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים" – This position could say that this is a clarifying comment intended only for the reader who already knows the roles played by the princes in the census.44  However, SefornoBemidbar 7:2About R. Ovadyah Seforno appears to state that the verse speaks of a causal relationship, and that the princes brought their sacrifices in order to atone for the sins they had observed while counting their tribes.45  This would appear to directly contradict his position that the census took place only in the second month after the dedication ceremony.
Wagons for the Levites – As above, this position could suggest either that the Levites were really chosen earlier and thus immediately received the princes' gifts, or (like the NetzivBemidbar 7:7About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) that the gifts were really given to the Levites only in the second month and are mentioned earlier merely to complete the story of the princes' offerings.
Chronology in the Torah – Seforno explains that, in general, the Torah will veer from the chronological order of events, in order to achieve a different important purpose (such as a homiletical message).  This appears to be also Rashi's position.46
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