Torah Ecology: Bamidbar (Num. 1:1-4:20)

The encampment of the Israelites in the desert. Formation order of the Twelve Tribes around the Tabernacle. Auguste Calmet, etching, 1725 Credit: Collection of M. Pollak, Antiquarian Books and Maps, Tel Aviv

And so we begin a new book, one I have not read as often and as closely as the three books that precede it. I don’t yet have a firm sense of how this book works and how it fits with the other four books of the Torah, so I’m just going to leave myself (and anyone who is interested or would like to share their views) a few comments to revisit at a later time.


I’ll start with this. I was puzzled that after chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its soaring and beautiful ideas of the Sabbatical and the Jubilee, the book ends with monetary valuations of people and animals. The fact that this is where Numbers (Bamidbar) begins suggests to me that each book of Torah points to the next:

  • Genesis begins with the story of the origins of humanity and moves on to the story of the origins of the Israelites.
  • Exodus begins with the story of the formation of the community of Israelites and moves on to the story of the formation of the desert Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus begins with the consolidation of the Tabernacle and its rites and moves on to setting the value of life in that framework.
  • Numbers begins with valuing and moves on to point, from the plains of Moab, to life in the Land.
  • Deuteronomy begins with Moses’ recap and detailed instructions for life in the Land and moves on to a choice the Israelites are now prepared to make (Deut. 29) and the death of Moses.

Why is this technique important? Because both Christians and Jews reuse it when they determine their canons of scripture.  Both the Christian and the Jewish canons begin with the story of creation and exile. Beyond the Torah, though, the order of the books changes.

The Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments conclude with the book of Malachi and the following:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse…”  (Malachi 4:5).

The Hebrew Bible (Masoretic Text) concludes with the book of 2 Chronicles and the following:

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him.  Let him go up…” (II Chronicles 36:23)

The simple ordering of the books, the structure of the collection, tells different stories. The Christian canon points to the coming of the messiah, the New Testament. The Jewish canon points to a return from exile, a return to the Land of Israel. This technique of using structure to tell a story, of pointing from one book to the next, is an old as our most ancient sacred scripture.

I hope I’ll come to understand better the spiritual meaning of numbering and assigning value to life as I work my way through Numbers.


Moshe Kline provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of The Literary Structure of Leviticus. He suggests that the overall structure of the book “is analogous to the movements of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.” Imagine, Leviticus uses words and structure to replicate the experience of approaching G-d and gradually returning to community “to participate in the divine history of ch. 26 by creating the just society portrayed in the laws of ch. 25.” (p. 28)

I want to spend some time with this interesting paper over the next year, absorbing the details. The analysis suggests to me something about the function of Numbers and its absorption with counting and valuing. Just as the first creation story offers a structure in which the 1st, 2nd and 3rd days set up an environment and the 4th, 5th and 6th days fill these environments with environment-specific life, perhaps Leviticus analagously creates an environment then in Numbers orders communal life in relation to it.


Following are thoughts related to this portion in Numbers I want to follow up on at a later time:

  • Leviticus is primarily concerned with place, space, things and rites, this portion in Numbers is concerned with valuing people and animals, genealogies and blood lines, and tasks or “burdens.”
  • The number that predominates in Leviticus is 7. The number that predominates in this portion is 2.
  • Leviticus has a sense of being stationary. This portion of Numbers has a sense of movement.
  • Leviticus describes a place for each thing and each person within the Tabernacle. This portion of Numbers describes the position of each tribe around the Tabernacle.
  • Leviticus focuses on issues internal to the community. This portion of Numbers focuses on external wars.

Clearly Numbers is another step in forging this local community. Beyond that I’m not yet quite sure about its specific role in the narrative of faith.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!