Chronology of Bemidbar 1 – 10
Mixed Up Dates (Chapters 1–4 and 9)
Much of Torah is not dated at all, often leading commentators to dispute the chronological order of events.1 The introductory chapters of Sefer Bemidbar are exceptional in that they not only provide the reader with dates, but also explicitly suggest a lack of chronological order.2 The book opens in the second month of the second year, with a command to count the nation:
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר י"י אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. (ב) שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כׇּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כׇּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם.
(1) And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:
(2) 'Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;'
The following chapters discuss the arrangement of the camp (Chapter 2) and the appointment and census of the Levites (Chapter 3–4). These are undated, but as they relate to the census discussed in Chapter 1 and are referenced by it,3 it is likely that they occurred in the same month. However, Chapter 9, which is the next dated passage, reverts back to the first month of the second year, with Hashem commanding the nation to observe Pesach:
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר י"י אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְמִדְבַּר סִינַי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן לֵאמֹר. (ב) וְיַעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַפָּסַח בְּמוֹעֲדוֹ.
(1) And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:
(2) 'Let the children of Israel keep the Passover in its appointed season.'
How can we understand the organization of the chapters? Why are the events of Chapter 9 not recorded prior to those of Chapter 1?
Dedication of the Altar (Chapter 7)
Located between the two dated events discussed above is the dedication of the altar by the tribal princes in Chapter 7. Although this narrative does not provide the number of the month in which it occurred, it does open with a time marker:
(א) וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת כׇּל כֵּלָיו וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת כׇּל כֵּלָיו וַיִּמְשָׁחֵם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתָם. (ב) וַיַּקְרִיבוּ נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רָאשֵׁי בֵּית אֲבֹתָם הֵם נְשִׂיאֵי הַמַּטֹּת הֵם הָעֹמְדִים עַל הַפְּקֻדִים.
(1) And it came to pass on the day that Moses concluded setting up the tabernacle, and had anointed it and sanctified it, and all the furniture thereof, and the altar and all the vessels thereof, and had anointed them and sanctified them;
(2) that the princes of Israel, the heads of their fathers' houses, offered — these were the princes of the tribes, these are they that were over them that were numbered.
A simple reading of verse 1 suggests that the events of the chapter took place when Moshe finished erecting the Tabernacle, i.e. on the first day of the first month.4 Two aspects of the subsequent story, however, raise questions regarding this understanding. First, the princes are described as "those who officiated in the counting", yet the census seems to have occurred only in the second month! Moreover, a few verses later in the chapter, the princes give the Levites wagons to aid them in their tasks as holy porters, even though the assignment of the Levites to their various tasks appears to have happened only after their census.
Does this suggest that the heading should be understood differently? Does the wording of "בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים", perhaps suggests a prolonged process, thereby changing the dating? Does the opening relate to all of the events of the chapter or just to some? Alternatively, might this problem suggest that the dating of other chapters needs to be reconsidered?
Consecration of the Levites (Chapter 8)
Another undated event is the purification of the Levites discussed in Chapter 8. On one hand, its content connects it to the appointment of the Levites in Chapters 3–4, and thus, perhaps to the second month. On the other hand, it is sandwiched between two chapters which appear to be dated to the first month, suggesting that it too might have occurred then. If so, however, why are the Levites being consecrated before they are appointed? Conversely, if the purification did not happen in the first month, why is this event recorded here?
Undated Laws (Chapters 5–6 and 8:1-4)
A final question relates not to the chronology of the narrative sections of the unit, but to the dating of its legal passages. The laws in Chapters 5–6 and the beginning of Chapter 8 follow the events of the second month, yet some of them appear to be necessary prerequisites for events recorded in Shemot and Vayikra which took place in the first month. Thus, although the formula for the priestly blessing is first commanded in Bemidbar 6, Aharon blesses the nation already during the Milluim ceremony described in Vayikra 9. Similarly, though the laws regarding lighting the Menorah are mentioned only in Bemidbar 8, the Menorah was lit already in Shemot 40! These issues lead R. Levi in Bavli Gittin5 to suggest that these instructions were part of a whole assortment of laws actually given on the day the Mishkan was erected, despite being recorded in the text only after events of the second month:
דאמר רבי לוי שמנה פרשיות נאמרו ביום שהוקם בו המשכן אלו הן פרשת כהנים ופרשת לוים ופרשת טמאים ופרשת שילוח טמאים ופרשת אחרי מות ופרשת שתויי יין ופרשת נרות ופרשת פרה אדומה.
However, if so, why did the Torah record the laws only in Sefer Bemidbar? Is there any other way of understanding the Torah's order?