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.
- 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.
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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- The Netziv 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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
- Rashi, following the Sifre Zuta and 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
- 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