The connection between the end of Parashat Pinchas and the beginning of Parashat Matot is relatively easy to explain. Parashat Pinchas ends with the laws of the daily sacrifices and the additional offerings on sabbaths and festivals. That section ends with this verse:
“All these you shall offer to the LORD at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings, be they burnt offerings, meal offerings, libations, or offerings of well-being.” (Bamidbar 29:39)
The “votive offerings” are sacrifices offered as part of a vow. Parashat Matot opens with the laws of vows:
“If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Bamidbar 30:3).
So the transition from votive offerings to vows in general is understandable. What is more difficult to comprehend is why are these two sets of laws here at all. At the beginning of Parashat Pinchas, God commands Israel to attack the Midianites, as vengeance for their instigating the events of Baal Peor (Bamidbar 25:17). That war does not occur until later in Parashat Matot (Bamidbar 31:54). In the interim chapters there are a number of passages that can be understood as either related to the war with Midian, or the upcoming conquest of the Land of Canaan. There is an additional census (which is important for organizing the army), laws of allotting the conquered land to the tribes and families, and the appointment of Yehoshua as Moshe’s replacement and the leader of the conquest. But why should the laws of the seasonal offerings be included here? Don’t they belong in the book of Vayikra, either with the laws of the sacrifices in Parashat Vayikra or the laws of the holidays in Parashat Emor?
One explanation found in the medieval commentators, is that during the many years in the wilderness, those offerings were not brought, and so the laws were given right before Israel was to enter the land.
According to Ramban on Bamidbar 28:2, during the period in the wilderness, Israel did not bring the additional festival offerings (musafim), even though they did bring the daily (tamid) offering, which is also mentioned in Shemot 29:39-42. According to R. Elchanan Samet, Ramban offered this opinion (even in opposition to the explicit mishna in Menachot 4:3) because he was dedicated to the approach that unless there is no other choice, the Torah should be understood in chronological order. If God only mentioned the festival sacrifices in Parashat Pinchas, then they hadn’t been commanded previously.
Ibn Ezra takes even a more extreme approach. In his commentary to Shemot 29:42, he quotes this rhetorical question in the book of Amos:
“Did you offer sacrifice and oblation to Me, those forty years in the wilderness, O House of Israel?” (Amos 5:25)
Based on that verse, Ibn Ezra claims that Israel only offered sacrifices during the 50 days from the dedication of the mishkan until Israel left Mount Sinai. For the following 38 years, no sacrifices were brought at all – not even the daily sacrifices. His explanation is one based on logic. He points out that in the desert it was not possible to obtain all the oil, wine and animals necessary for the rituals in the mishkan. (See for example, Moshe’s complaint about lack of meat in Bamidbar 11:21-22). Only when Israel had “looted the Midianites and the lands of Sihon and Og in that year did they have an abundance of cattle.”
So in Parashat Pinchas, when the people had enough cattle, and in proximity to the settled lands they had conquered, did God command them to bring the festival offerings (and renewed the commandment to bring the daily offerings).
Following Ibn Ezra’s approach, we can fully understand the placement of these sets of laws at the end of Parashat Pinchas and the beginning of Parashat Matot. During the previous decades in the desert, while the people were fed by God, they did not have more than they needed – not even enough to bring sacrifices. But with their recent military victories, they faced a new challenge: abundance and prosperity.
The first lesson was that they were obligated to bring sacrifices to God: daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally. But even beyond that, they may choose to make vows as signs of additional piety and appreciation. That is welcomed, but if one does make such vows, they must be fulfilled. They cannot let the distractions of affluence prevent them from carrying out their obligations – either external or voluntary.
While this message is perhaps only alluded to at the end of the book of Bamidbar, it will become a dominant theme in the book of Devarim. Moshe will repeatedly remind the people, that as they enter the land flowing with milk and honey that the greatest danger will be to forget their obligations to God. They will need to remember the time in the wilderness, when they were entirely dependent on God, and recall that even in their settled land it is still God who sustains them.