Structural Analysis – Sefer Bemidbar
"From the Generation of the Wilderness to the Generation Which Entered Israel"

Boundaries of the Book

What distinguishes Sefer Bemidbar from the surrounding Chumashim?

  • Names – The book is commonly called "ספר בְּמִדְבַּר"‎1 because of its opening words.2 However, Rabbinic sources3 refer to it as "חומש הפקודים", in light of the two censuses found in the book (the census of the second year in Chapters 1-4 and the census of the fortieth year in Chapter 26). Taken together the two names capture much of the essence of the book, the censuses at both ends to prepare for entry into the land of Israel and the thirty-eight years in the wilderness described in the middle.
  • Setting – While the events recorded in each of Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Devarim all transpire in merely one location (Mount Sinai and the plains of Moav respectively), the events of Sefer Bemidbar occur in multiple sites throughout the wilderness.
  • Timing – Sefer Bemidbar describes a thirty-eight year time-span. The surrounding books, in contrast, take place over much shorter periods. Though undated, Vayikra appears to take place over less than a month,4 and the vast majority of Sefer Devarim5 spans no more than five weeks.6
  • Characters – The main characters of Sefer Bemidbar, like those of the books of Shemot, Vayikra, and Devarim, are Moshe and the nation. Shemot and Vayikra speak of the generation that left Egypt (דור יוצאי מצרים), while Devarim turns to the next generation (דור באי הארץ). Sefer Bemidbar segues between the two, with the first half of the book focusing on the first generation and the second half of the book devoted to the second generation.
  • Genre – While both Sefer Vayikra and Devarim are mainly prescriptive in nature, the majority of Sefer Bemidbar consists of narrative rather than legal material.
  • Themes – Commentators have pointed to various themes in the book which set it apart from surrounding ones:
    • AbarbanelBemidbar IntroductionAbout R. Yitzchak Abarbanel suggests that, in contrast to Sefer Vayikra which focuses on laws of holiness and purity, the main theme of Sefer Bemidbar is leadership.
    • NetzivBemidbar IntroductionBemidbar 20:5About R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin asserts that the book is about the transition from miraculous providence to natural order, as the nation moves from the supernatural existence of the wilderness towards life in Israel. The book thus transitions between the earlier books of Bereshit, Shemot, and Vayikra which focused on the miraculous, and Devarim in which Moshe prepares the people for self-government.
    • One might also suggest that while much of Torah speaks of the development of the nation's relationship with Hashem, Sefer Bemidbar stands out in that it underscores the people's challenging of that relationship.
    • The above notwithstanding, the themes and laws of the opening chapters of the book clearly relate back to those of Sefer Vayikra, dealing with the Mishkan and priestly responsibilities, and it is necessary to examine why these were not included in Vayikra.7
  • A book that should not have been? – To some extent, much of Sefer Bemidbar is one large parenthetical unit in the Torah.  It opens on the eve of entry into Israel and closes in the very same setting, once again on the eve of entry and conquest. Had it not been for the people's sins and the subsequent forty year delay, the whole book would have been unnecessary and Torah might have concluded with the blessings and curses of Sefer Vayikra.

Division into Units

I. The Generation of the Wilderness (1:1 – 20:29)
II. The Generation which Entered Israel (21:1 – 36:13)

  • Characters – The two main sections of the book focus on different groups of people. Chapters 1-20 speak of the events that befell the generation which left Egypt and died in the wilderness, while the rest of the book turns to the next generation and its preparations for conquest and entry into the land.
  • Timing – Most of the events of the first part of the book takes place in the second year of the nation's travels,8 while those in the second section take place in the fortieth year.9
  • Plot – AbarbanelBemidbar IntroductionAbout R. Yitzchak Abarbanel points out that the first section of the book10 deals with the nation's trials in the wilderness, while the rest of the book speaks of  the nation's battles upon arriving in settled lands.  NetzivBemidbar IntroductionAbout R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin adds that the first part of the book focuses on Hashem's supernatural guidance in the wilderness, while the second half of the book transitions to natural order, as evidenced by the natural way in which its wars are fought and won.
  • Setting – The events of the first part of the book are set in varied sites in the wilderness, while those of the second half take place closer to settled areas, primarily in the plains of Moav.
  • Chapter 20 – Chapter 20 serves as the turning point in the book.  The deaths of Miryam and Aharon and the punishment decreed upon Moshe highlight that the generation which left Egypt will not enter the land, and from this point on, the book switches focus to those who will. Thus, it is immediately after this chapter that the nation leaves the wilderness and conquests begin.

Subdivision of Unit I –  Generation of the Wilderness

A. Preparing for Conquest (1:1 – 10:36)
B. Conquest Delayed (11:1 – 20:29)

  • Plot – The first unit of the book subdivides into two almost equal halves, . the first of which speaks of the people's preparations to enter Canaan,11 while the second explains why this plan did not come to fruition.  Thus, Chapters 1-10 discuss the census, arrangement of the camp, and travel directives, all preparatory steps for the conquest,12 while Chapters 11-20 speak of the nation's many complaints and rebellions which proved that they were not yet ready or worthy to enter the land.13
  • Setting – The two subunits differ with regards to their setting, with the first taking place while still camped at Mount Sinai and the second transpiring throughout the wilderness.
  • Genre – Though both subsections contain both legal and narrative material, the proportions are reversed.  Much of the first subunit is non-narrative in nature, including lists, directives, and legal material, while the majority of the second unit is narrative, recounting the stories of the nation's various grievances and rebellions.
  • Characters – Though the main characters: Moshe, Hashem and the nation, do not differ between the two units, the roles they play do. In the first unit the nation is mainly passive, while in the second unit they are active players.  
  • Masoretic markers – The last two verses of Chapter 10, "וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן" are surrounded by backwards nun's. Opinions in Bavli ShabbatShabbat 115b-116aAbout Bavli Shabbat suggest that these come to indicate either that this paragraph is not in its correct place or that it is a "book unto itself". Perhaps the idea is that had the nation not sinned in the upcoming chapters, this unit would have indeed been in its correct place, and might have even ended Torah, as the people entered the land.14 As such, the markers might serve to distinguish the original plan of entry (Chapters 1-10) from the outcome (Chapters 11-20).

Subdivision of Unit II – Generation to Enter Israel

A. Initial Conquests (21:1 – 25:18)
B. Preparing to Inherit (26:1 – 36:13)

  • Plot – The first subsection of this unit details the nation's battles and encounters with enemy nations, including Canaan, Sichon, Og, Moav, and Midyan.  The second subsection moves from conquest to preparations for inheritance (of lands on both sides of the Jordan). [These two subsections, thus, parallel the two halves of the book of Yehoshua which is also split between conquest and inheritance.]
  • Characters – While Chapters 21-25 speak of Israel's interaction's with its enemies, most of Chapters 26-36 focuses on Israel itself, with  outsiders playing no role.15
  • Timing – It is possible that some of the events of the two subunits actually overlap in time but are separated to allow the text to focus separately on external and internal affairs. Thus, the conquest of Sichon and Og in Bemidbar 21 might have led, on one hand, to the attempts of Moav and Midyan to hurt the Children of Israel (described in Chapters 22-25), and on the other hand, paved the way for the nation to prepare to enter the land (Chapters 26-30).16  If so, both these units occurred simultaneously17 but are recounted in distinct subunits, in the textual equivalent of a split screen.18