Parashat Bamidbar is the thirty-fourth weekly portion in the Torah and the first in the Book of Numbers (1:1-4:20). The Hebrew title literally means “in the desert (of),” and this book takes the Nation of Israel from the foot of Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. However, in this portion, the Israelites are not yet on the move; first, they must be counted. And counted they are — tribe by tribe in Chapter 1, camp by camp in Chapter 2, every Levite and every firstborn in Chapter 3, and every service-age Levite in Chapter 4.
Why are the details of a census from three thousand years ago still relevant? The numbers of the Book of Numbers actually tell us an important story.
At first, we encounter the tribes listed — in order to name their leaders, the princes — as we might expect (1:1-19): first the descendants of Leah (minus Levi), then the descendants of Rachel, then the descendants of the one-time handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah. Essentially, this is the order the Book of Exodus opens with.
However, when the actual population of able-bodies males from age twenty and up (“all who go out to war’) is listed, we find a new order. Reuben and Simeon are still first, but Leah’s oldest two sons are joined by the oldest son of her onetime handmaid, Zilpah. Next come the three remaining sons of Leah: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. Then we have Rachel’s progeny, followed by the remaining children of the handmaids. They naturally are divided into four sets of three.
We understand why when we get to Chapter 2. Judah, Issachar and Zebulun now move to the front, as they are the tip of the spear, those who will camp to the east and lead the Israelites when they travel. Reuben and Ephraim lead the next camps, which are positioned at the south and the west respectively. Dan brings up the rear and camps at the north. We now see in a practical sense the fulfillment of Jacob’s vision at the end of Genesis: Judah’s leadership, Reuben’s demotion, Joseph’s double portion, Dan’s role as the unifier and gatherer. This is the order by which they will travel though the desert, rank after rank, prepared to conquer the Promised Land.
On the other hand, the special status of the Levites — which is not mentioned by Jacob — seems to be a result of their actions at the Golden Calf. Thus, Parashat Bamidbar demonstrates the interaction of traditions from centuries past with initiative in the modern day. Together, they allow God’s people to march towards their destiny.
The portion from the Prophets is the first two chapters of the Book of Hosea, in which the Prophet uses the imagery of reconciliation between husband and wife to describe the renewal of the relationship between God and His people. On that occasion, Israel’s numbers will be beyond any counting or census, like the sand on the seashore, just as God promised Abraham.