The Order and Contents of Sefer Bemidbar, Part 3:

  • Rav Aviya Hacohen


 [To read part I click here, for part II click here


From the Sin of Ba'al Pe'or Until the Conclusion of Sefer Bemidbar (Ch. 25-36: You had better keep an open Tanakh handy.)

The crux of this unit concerns issues of settlement in the land. The census in chapter 26 has as its aim to teach, "To these shall the land be divided as inheritance" (26:53). The two stories of the daughters of Tzelofchad (27:1-11, 36) deal with inheritance received by daughters. Chapter 34 deals with the borders of the land "which God commanded to give to nine-and-a-half of the tribes" (34:14), and chapter 35 deals with the cities which each tribe is obligated to donate from its inheritance to the Leviim, as well as with the cities of refuge - which are also Levite cities. Some of the parashot chronologically belong to this period - the sin of Ba'al Pe'or and the subsequent war with Midian (25, 31), the appointment of Yehoshua (27:12-23), and the parasha of the settlement of the tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan (32). Chapter 33, which summarizes the journeys (masa'ot), comes at the end of the Sefer and serves to conclude the period of the desert wanderings.

This unit gives rise to a number of serious questions with regard to the order of the parashot:

a. The most obvious problem concerns chapters 28-30. What are the instructions about the festival sacrifices (28-9) and vows (30) doing here? Could they not have been left out of this unit and placed elsewhere in the Torah?

b. The war against Midian (31) is the direct continuation of the story of the sin of Ba'al Pe'or (25). Proof for this can be found in the fact that there is a "parasha petucha" (in a Torah scroll, at the end of the story of Ba'al Pe'or there is a space left open until the end of the line) in mid-sentence. Chapter 26:1 reads: "And it came to pass after the plague... (open space)... and God said to Moshe... Count the number of the congregation of Bnei Yisrael" (26:1-2). The order of this parasha seemingly should have been different: "And God spoke... Bind up the Midianites and smite them... for the sin of Pe'or. And it came to pass after the plague..." (25:16-26:1), followed immediately by "and God spoke to Moshe... Avenge the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael on the Midianites..." (30:1-2). What is the reason, then, for the order being as it is, and why were chapters 26-30 "inserted" in the middle of the war against Midian?

c. Two parashot are devoted to the daughters of Tzelofchad (27:1-11; 36). Why are they separated from one another?

d. Chapters 34-36 deal with issues of settlement in the land. Why do they not appear directly after the census, which comes after all to teach us "To these shall the land be divided as inheritance"? This is particularly puzzling since, if we view the "masa'ot" as a conclusion, why does this parasha come after the conclusion?

The final unit of Sefer Bemidbar is a composite entity made up of many small parts. We may reach an understanding of the unit in its entirety through analyzing each constituent parasha individually from the point of view of its position in this unit and its connection with the first unit of the Sefer. These two questions need to be addressed simultaneously. For instance, the function of a parasha in its particular location is sometimes explained through a comparison to the first unit. This composite structure requires that we deal with each issue in an integrated way, and after each separate issue has been analyzed we will be able to look at the complete picture.

Let us start by comparing the end of Sefer Bemidbar to the beginning:

Beginning of Sefer Bemidbar End of Sefer Bemidbar

(Sin of golden calf [Shemot 32-3] Sin of Ba'al Pe'or [26])

National census by Moshe, Aharon(1-2) Census by Moshe, Elazar (26)

Count of Leviim (3-4) Count of Leviim (27:57-65)

Names of princes (1:5-17) Names of princes (34:19-29)

Expulsion of ritually impure (5:1-4) Expulsion of ritually impure (31:29)

SOTAH: "A man... whose wife errs" Vows: "These are the

(5:11-21) statutes... between man and wife" (30)

NAZIR: "A person...who assumes Vows: "A person who makes

to make a God" (6:1-21) a vow to God" (30)

Sacrifices of the princes (7) Festive sacrifices (28-9)

Trumpets (10:1-10) Trumpets (31:6)

"And on your new months" (10:10) "And on your new months" (28:11)

"These are the journeys of Bnei "These are the journeys

Yisrael by their armies" (10:28) of Bnei Yisrael...their armies" (33:1)

Issues pertaining to Mishkan (1-10) Levite cities, cities of refuge (35)

Spies (13-14) Inheritance east of the Jordan: "Why do you dishearten Bnei Yisrael..." (32)


Before entering a detailed analysis of each parallel, it is important to emphasize that the linguistic parallels are not coincidental. The word "trumpets" and the expression "on your new months" are mentioned nowhere else in the Torah but in these instances. The expression "man and his wife" is mentioned nowhere else in Sefer Bemidbar except in the parashot of Sotah and Nedarim.

a. Sin of the Golden Calf - sin of Ba'al Pe'or

There are a number of similarities between these two stories. Compare, "And they offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the nation sat down to eat, and they drank" (Shemot 32:6) to "And they called the nation to the offerings to their gods, and the nation ate" (25:2). Similarly, compare: "And (Moshe) said... let each man kill his brother" (Shemot 32:27) to "And Moshe said... let each man kill his company" (25:5).

In both stories, Moshe attempts to appease God's anger by calling for civil war. Although following the golden calf incident this was successful, after the sin of Ba'al Pe'or Moshe was at a loss as to what to do, and it was Pinchas ben Elazar who appeased God's anger. Moshe, the great leader, is unable to save the nation, and it is a simple individual - Pinchas ben Elazar - who saves them. This story forms part of the theme which we noted in chapters 20-21 and which continues to feature in subsequent stories. Moshe is no longer a lone leader; he is now part of an extended leadership body - Moshe, Elazar and the elders of the nation. This body is mentioned in both stories concerning the daughters of Tzelofchad (27:2 and 36:11), in the war against Midian (31:13) and in the parasha of the tribes who request their inheritance on the eastern banks of the Jordan (32:12). Yehoshua, the future leader, will stand before "Elazar the Kohen and before the entire congregation" (27:19); the parasha concerning vows is declared before "the heads of the tribes."

Sefer Bemidbar is actually a continuation not of Sefer Vayikra but rather of Sefer Shemot. (The blessing and curse at the end of Sefer Vayikra [26] indicate the conclusion of a Sefer. Shemot, on the other hand, ends its narrative in the first month of the second year [Shemot 40:1,17] and Sefer Bemidbar opens in the same year, in the second month - see Bemidbar 1:1 etc.) The issues pertaining to the Leviim and their redemption, which are mentioned in the first unit of Bemidbar (chapters 1-3), are a sort of continuation of the story of the golden calf episode, where we find the election of the Leviim to their priestly status. Hence we may perceive the sin of the golden calf as background to the census at the beginning of Bemidbar, just as Ba'al Pe'or serves as background to the census which follows it (chapter 26).

b. Mishkan - Levite Cities, Cities of Refuge

At the center of the first unit of Sefer Bemidbar stands the Mishkan, around which the camp is arranged. The Mishkan radiates kedusha on the nation encamped around it.Once the nation enters the land, the position which the Mishkan held in the desert is replaced by the cities of refuge and the Levite cities - it is from here that Torah and kedusha will now radiate to the nation. Proof of the connection between the cities of refuge and the Mishkan lies in the fact that the altar itself may, under certain conditions, serve as a "city of refuge." The main theme of the first unit is the spiritual development of the nation in the desert, while the main theme of the last unit is their spiritual development in the Promised Land.

c. Sacrifices Brought by the Princes - Festival Sacrifices

There are two parashot in the Torah which are built on short passages containing schematic lists of the sacrifices to be brought each day: the parasha of the dedication of the Mishkan, and the parasha of the festive sacrifices. In the desert, national life centered around the Mishkan; upon entering the Land they need to enter the "routine" of a sanctified life, as it were.

d. Vows (30), Census of the Nation (26) and the Daughters of Tzelofchad (27, 36)

Regarding the question of the connection between the parasha of vows and the concluding chapters of Sefer Bemidbar, several explanation present themselves. The true crux of the parasha of vows is not the laws of vows themselves, but rather the laws concerning a daughter and a wife, i.e., the family structure. The corresponding parasha in the first unit of the Sefer is that of Sotah, which is centered around the same theme. As noted above, these are the only two places in the Torah where we find the expression "a man and his wife." The spiritual edifice of the nation is built on its individual families, and before entering the land these "miniature sanctuaries" must be developed. This explanation is not a far-fetched inference; it arises clearly from the closing parashot of the unit.

There are many obvious parallels between the census in chapter 26 and the one found in chapters 1-2. However, there is one notable difference: At the end of the Sefer the nation is counted by families: "The children of Reuven, Chanokh; the family of the Chanokhi, of Pallu, the family of the Pallu'i...." (26:5). The two parashot which deal with the daughters of Tzelofchad appear as halakhic appendices, as it were, to the parashot of the division of the land. We may describe the situation thus: In the sin of Ba'al Pe'or, the nation prostituted with the daughters of Moav, thereby damaging their own family purity. Therefore in the census the nation is counted by family, and the halakhic discussions - the two parashot concerning the daughters of Tzelofchad and the laws of vows - concern this sensitive area of family life: the laws pertaining to daughters. This subject is emphasized again in the war against Midian: "And Moshe became angry... Have you left all the women alive? Behold, it was they who caused Bnei Yisrael to rebel against God through Bil'am's words" (31:14-16).

e. The Sin of Ba'al Pe'or and the War against Midian

Through the sin of Ba'al Pe'or the nation lost a measure of its greatness. Before fighting against Midian and entering the land, it was necessary to rehabilitate the nation's spiritual state. This rehabilitation is described in the parashot which seem to be "grafted" between Ba'al Pe'or and the war of Midian, and it is for this reason that these stories are indeed separated. It should also be noted that God says to Moshe, "Avenge the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael on the Midianites, and then you will be gathered to your nation" (31:2). In order that the war against Midian will be Moshe's last deed, Ba'al Pe'or cannot lead straight onto the war; there must be some separation.

f. Settlement of the Tribes on the Eastern Side of the Jordan

The tribes of Reuven and Gad request that their inheritance be on the eastern side of the Jordan. Moshe is concerned, sensing that history is repeating itself: "This is what your forefathers did when I sent them from Kadesh Barnea... and they disheartened Bnei Yisrael that they should not come to the land" (32:8-9). The representatives of Reuven and Gad set Moshe's fears to rest, however, when they demonstrate their willingness to fight together with the rest of the nation for the conquest of the land.

Here, at this point, we see quite clearly the difference between the first part of the Sefer and the second part; between the first generation and the last generation of the desert. The complainers of the first part of the Sefer continually express their longing for Egypt; they do not wish to fight. The tribes of Reuven and Gad demonstrate by their words that they are truly a new generation. There are no complaints in the last unit of the Sefer; Bnei Yisrael grow from strength to strength in their conquest of the eastern side of the Jordan. (I learned this perspective on this section of the Sefer from Mr. S. Heksher.)

g. Parashat Mas'ei

The list of journeys (33:1-49) is a sort of conclusion of the period of desert wanderings, and its location at the end of Sefer Bemidbar is logical. Chapter 33:50-56 deals with the command to demolish any trace of idolatry from the land, and the warning that "If you do not take possession... then it will be that what I intended to do to them, I shall do to you" (33:55-56). Why is this parasha placed here? Firstly, it makes sense that prior to the entry into the land the nation should be warned about idolatry in the land (Sefer Bemidbar contains no other warnings about idolatry). This aside, both Vayikra and Devarim conclude with a blessing and a curse, and hence it is not all that unusual that Bemidbar concludes with a curse that if the nations of the land are not dispossessed, Israel will not last on the land.

Now we can return to our original question: Why, after these concluding chapters, do we once again deal with issues pertaining to the division of the land (chapters 34-5)? These chapters should have been juxtaposed to the census, which came to teach us, "To these shall the land be divided as inheritance" (26:53). These chapters form a unit which opens with the borders of the land "which will fall to you as inheritance... to the nine and a half tribes" (34:1-15), followed by the list of princes "who will inherit the land for you." Chapter 35 deals with the cities which each tribe is obligated to donate from its inheritance to the Leviim. The cities of refuge, discussed here at length (35:9-34) are merely a sub-section of this topic, since the cities of refuge themselves are also Levite cities. Chapter 36 deals with the daughters of Tzelofchad. Following the census "by family" (26), these women had raised the problem of the continuity of their father's family: "Why should the name of our father disappear?" (27:4). In contrast, in chapter 36 the appellants are the "heads of the families of the children of Gilad," whose problem is the transfer of inheritance from one tribe to another. Now we can understand the separation of the parashot of the daughters of Tzelofchad: In chapter 27:1-11 the problem is a FAMILY problem; in chapter 36 it is a TRIBAL problem. Therefore it makes sense that this latter chapter should follow the division of the land among the tribes, where it serves as a sort of appendix. After the main issues of chapters 34-5 have been dealt with, we find a private incident at the end of the parasha (36).

If so, the question is why this body (34-6) in its entirety is found here, at the end of Sefer Bemidbar. I would like to raise the following suggestion: The natural location of this parasha is, indeed, following the census of the nation and the Leviim. There is one point, however, which causes this order to be changed. The parasha of the cities of refuge concludes with a warning: "And you shall not pollute the land... for blood pollutes the land. And the land shall not be cleansed of the blood which is spilled in it except by the blood of him who shed it. And you shall not defile the land in which you shall live, in which I dwell." The parasha dealing with taking possession of the land from the indigenous nations and destroying all idolatry from the land (33:50-6) also concludes with a warning. However, thmain body of Sefer Bemidbar does not contain any other parasha which concludes with such a warning. Thus it turns out that Bemidbar closes with two warnings regarding two different subjects: idolatry and murder. These two subjects are foundation stones, each of which stands at the head of one of the tablets of testimony. It is therefore worthy that Sefer Bemidbar close with these two issues. Bemidbar is then similar to Vayikra and Devarim insofar as they conclude with curses and warnings, but it is also different from them: The parashot which conclude Vayikra and Devarim have as their main theme the blessings and curses themselves, while in Bemidbar the concluding parashot (chapters 34-6) deal with other subjects, with the warnings coming only at the end.


Our intention in this article was to perceive Sefer Bemidbar, with all its various parashot, as a single and complete entity. We divided the Sefer into three principal units. The theme of the first unit was the physical and spiritual structure of the Israelite camp. At the base of this structure stands the question of the relationship between the nation as a whole and its chosen representatives. At the end of this unit the nation should have entered the Land, but they were not ready - as is apparent from all the stories of the complaints in the second unit. The picture that emerges from these stories is that the nation is incapable of self-leadership, and it is specifically the greatness of Moshe which is their stumbling block in this regard. The final unit deals with the renewed building up of the nation in preparation for their entry into the Land. The parashot comprising this unit are the building blocks of the nation's spiritual status. The question of the nation's position in terms of its own leadership, a subject which we dealt with in the first unit, plays a central role in the second unit as well; in the third unit we see attempts being made towards solving the problem.

Sefer Bemidbar begins in "the second month of the second year since the exodus from the land of Egypt" (1:1) and ends at the end of the fortieth year. This Sefer is more than just a chronological description of events; it explains the Divine process which brings the nation to its Land. We have witnessed the transformation of Bnei Yisrael from a situation whereby "the ark of God's testimony traveled before them at a distance of three days" to a nation which is self-motivated and leads itself naturally.

Let us conclude with the words of the Netziv in his introduction to Sefer Bemidbar. Our article serves merely to explain and expand on his words:

"This Sefer... is the Book of the Census (Chomesh Ha-pekudim).... Our Sages emphasized the two countings... more than the other issues in this Sefer... because this Sefer is principally about the change in the behavior of God's nation in their worldly actions when they reach Eretz Yisrael from the way in which they acted in the desert. Because in the desert they were... above the ways of nature, and in Eretz Yisrael they conducted themselves within nature.... This change began while they were still in the desert, in the fortieth year.... Concerning this change... our Sages said, in Bereishit Rabba chapter 3, "'And God divided between the light and the darkness' - this refers to Sefer Bemidbar, which divides between those who left Egypt and those who came to the Land." Indeed, the crux of this difference is recognizable in the two countings, which were equal in substance and action, but were conducted differently according to the actions of Israel. This was the intention of our Sages when they said that the words, "And it came to pass when the Ark traveled..." form a Sefer in their own right... And if so, this small section is the conflict between the two manners of Israel, such that each separate unit of this Sefer is a Sefer in its own right... for the story of any great and important matter is called a Sefer."

(Translated by Kaeren Fish.

This article originally appeared in Megadim 9.)