The school year often ends before the reading of Numbers begins. Students using the Behrman House parashat hashavua books learn some of the contents of Numbers nevertheless, because those do not attempt to follow the actual schedule of weekly Torah readings. If the class followed the traditional schedule, their study would begin in the middle of Deuteronomy most years, and often end in the middle of Leviticus.
The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” Indeed, all of the action takes place in the wilderness; it is the history of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering.
The English name refers to the census figures that compose much of the first parashah. These, and the details about the organization of the Levites that follow, make it a tedious parashah to read or teach.
It can almost be said that nothing much happens in Numbers. What is most apparent to modern readers is that the people grumble a great deal, driving Moses to desperation and to an act of apparently minor disobedience (striking the rock instead of merely speaking to it) that traditional commentators considered the reason for his not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
There are also various encounters with surrounding nations and tribes, some of them memorable in themselves. Perhaps the most-discussed of these is the episode of Balaam, a prophet who is hired to curse the Israelites but who is only able to praise them. (If the idea of hiring a professional to curse the enemy seems strange, consider that Iraqi radio during the first Gulf War featured long recitations by poets brought in for exactly the same purpose.) Balaam’s praise is the text for the prayer and song “Mah Tovu.”
And Numbers also includes an episode that has become a touchstone for Jewish women: the daughters of Zelophehad, who demand of Moses that they be allowed to inherit their father’s estate. The ruling itself is only a small victory for feminists, because while they were allowed to inherit, it was only in the absence of any brothers—and they were then required to marry within their own tribe. It is important because Moses had to approach God for clarification of the law, indicating that Jewish practice can include changes from prior custom or popular belief about an issue.
The census figures at the beginning of Numbers present an obvious problem. If we take the word elef to mean “one thousand,” its meaning in modern Hebrew, the number of Israelite men eligible for military service totals at least 600,000, implying a population of more than two million. It is hard to imagine a group of this size moving about as the Torah describes, especially without any comment in other ancient sources.
Some commentators have concluded that elef had an ancient meaning other than the number 1,000, perhaps a large group or “contingent,” as the new JPS translation frames it. By the most conservative reasoning, the number of fighting men might have been closer to 5,500, a figure similar to the size of other ancient armies, corresponding to a total population of about 20,000.
Numbers itself reports, however, in chapter 3 that the population included 22,273 first-born sons. While this casts doubt on the figure of 600,000, it can only be reconciled with the 5,500 figure by assuming that nearly all the first-born sons were underage.
But while Numbers matters to us, these numbers ultimately do not. The question is one we probably cannot resolve, but it is the tradition they represent that is important.