Bemidbar: The Book of Tribes

This week we are reading Parashat Bemidbar, so … let’s do the numbers.

That’s right, there’s a reason this book is called the book of Numbers. Chapter one of the book is full of the numbers that make up the census of the Israelites, and all of those numbers are repeated again in chapter two, when we’re told how the tribes are supposed to camp and organize themselves for travel and potential military action. Chapters three and four give the numbers of various groups of the Levites, and chapter three has the numbers of the Israelite firstborn, whose job as assistants to the priests is being given to the Levites.

Chapter seven of Numbers has all kinds of numbers: paragraphs full of the amounts of the various offerings brought for the inauguration of the Tabernacle, one paragraph per tribal leader, and then a 13th paragraph where each of the numbers in those 12 equal paragraphs of offerings is multiplied by 12, and we are given those totals too. Then in Numbers 26 there’s still another census of the Israelites.

So it might seem as if “Numbers” is a very good name for the book, and indeed there is a Jewish tradition of calling it ספר הפקודים sefer ha-pequdim, which more or less translates into “the book of Numbers.” In fact, however, this is one case where the standard Jewish name of the book, Bemidbar, is better.

The book starts in the second month of the second year after the exodus and takes the Israelites all the way to the east bank of the Jordan River, where Moses is going to recite the book of Deuteronomy to them and then die. That means that 39 years of travel through the desert is covered in this book, and Bemidbar means “in the desert” — really a much better name. But there could be an even better name for the book and what I’m about to show you will tell you what it is.

Num 1:6–15 has a long list of tribal leaders who are going to assist Moses and Aaron in taking the census, to make sure that the count is accurate. Then the tribes are listed a second time, as the census actually occurs. In chapter two, those census totals are listed once more when we’re told how the tribes are to encamp and to march, and the tribes are listed for a third time.

Numbers 7, with all those 12 paragraphs of offerings — why are there 12 separate paragraphs? Because each of the 12 tribes has a leader who is going to bring an offering. Even though they all bring exactly the same offering, each tribe, with its leader, gets specific mention.

In Numbers 10, as the Israelites begin to actually move through the desert, each tribe is listed just as it had been in chapter two, so we know that the way they were camped in that chapter is the way they actually moved through the desert.

Numbers 13 has the famous story about the spies. Again, there’s one spy from each tribe, and each spy is named in association with the tribe he represents. Numbers 26, another description of a census, of course counts each tribe and mentions them all by name. Finally, in anticipation of crossing the Jordan and taking possession of the land, Numbers 34 lists the chieftains of each tribe, who are going to make sure the land is apportioned fairly. That makes eight (count ‘em) complete lists of the tribes:

  • Num 1:6–15, the tribal leaders who will assist Moses and Aaron in the census
  • Num 1:20–46, census of the tribes
  • Num 2:3–31, encampment of the tribes (listing their totals again!)
  • Numbers 7, each of the 12 tribal leaders brings an offering
  • Num 10:13–27, the tribes set out as described in ch. 2
  • Num 13:4–15, the spies: one from each tribe
  • Numbers 26, another census
  • Num 34:19–28. the chieftains from each tribe who will apportion the land

There are two more episodes that don’t list each tribe but only make sense in a system where Israel is organized by tribes. Numbers 32 tells the story in which the tribe of Gad and the tribe of Reuben and half of the tribe of Manasseh tell Moses that there is fabulous grazing land on the east side of the Jordan, and request that this grazing land be given to them as their portion, requiring a deal explaining how those 2½ tribes will help the other 9½ tribes conquer the land of Israel.

Finally, in Numbers 36 the episode of Zelophehad’s daughters describes the second episode in a dispute over inheritance law that first occurred in chapter 27. In that chapter, you might think of the dispute as an issue of women’s rights, but Numbers 36 asks what’s going to happen if Zelophehad’s daughters are allowed to inherit their father’s land and then marry someone from another tribe. The land would pass to their husbands’ tribes and away from the tribe of their father, the tribe of Manasseh.

In case you are wondering, there is no mention of the tribes in Genesis — obviously, since there are no tribes yet, just the brothers after whom the tribes will eventually be named. Our tribes, though — the Numbers tribes — eliminate Levi and Joseph, turning the Levites into a separate group who are not treated as one of the 12 tribes, and replacing Joseph with tribes named after two of his sons, so there will still be 12.

Jacob’s 12 sons are listed in the first paragraph of the book of Exodus, but there is no mention of the tribes in that book; none whatsoever in Leviticus, and none in Deuteronomy until you get to Deuteronomy 27, where in vv. 11–13 Moses tells the Israelites that six of the tribes are supposed to stand on Mount Gerizim for the blessing and six of the tribes are supposed to stand on Mount Ebal for the curses — but these are the sons of Jacob once more, with Levi and Joseph instead of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Finally, in Deuteronomy 33, we have the blessing of Moses, where Moses poetically and prophetically gives each tribe a kind of Chinese fortune cookie. Simeon is missing, but most of the tribes are there, including Levi and Joseph, with Ephraim and Manasseh included in Joseph’s portion.

So what’s the best name for the book of Numbers? “Numbers” is not bad; “In the Desert” (Bemidbar) is even better; but really the best name for the book would be “The Book of Tribes.” This book is the story of the tribes, the book that is organized with tribes in mind, a book that is less about the people of Israel than it is about 12 tribes that comprise the people of Israel. We call it the book of Numbers, but it should really be called “The Book of Tribes.”

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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