As a child I remember being perplexed by the fact that each one of the Five Books of Moses had two names. In my younger years I did not realize that the books had Hebrew names used by Jews, and other names when they were referenced as part of the Old Testament by members of the Christian community.
When considering the Christian names of the books, in all but one case they speak to the content of the book as a whole: Genesis is about the formative introductory stories, Exodus focuses on the Exodus from Egypt, Leviticus contains the Levitical/Priestly laws and Deuteronomy is the second telling of the laws. The exception is the Book of Numbers, whose name makes reference to the census at the beginning of the book, and little else. In contrast the Hebrew names of the books are taken from either the first or second word of each book in the case of Bereishit (first), Shemot (second), Vayikra (first) and Devarim (second). The exception is the book of Bamidbar, which uses the fifth word and has a meaning of ‘in the wilderness’, which would be a good name for the book in terms of its overall content. Combining the two names you get ‘Numbers in the wilderness’.
As we begin a new book of Torah this week, it is quite striking how we pick up the story from where we left off at the end of the book of Shemot. There we read the instruction: ‘on the first day of the first month shall you set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting’ (Exodus 40:2). Here at the beginning of Bamidbar it says: ‘And Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt’ (Numbers 1:1). The first instruction from God, following this introduction, is ‘take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel’ (Numbers 1:2).
One might question why a census was the necessary first act of our people following the dedication of the Tabernacle. The taking of a census allowed for them to make order in what could have been an unmanageable situation. The census recorded a total of 603,550 (Numbers 1:46) male Israelites over the age of 20; alongside this one would need to add the tribe of Levi, all of the women, and all of the people under the age of 20. One might therefore justifiably assume that there could have been almost two million Israelites in the wilderness. This would have had to be a rather unruly and large number to navigate on a journey from Sinai to the Promised Land.
The two names of this book of Torah may also offer an additional insight – Numbers Bamidbar, Numbers in the wilderness. In the Biblical understanding the wilderness is this in-between place, it is neither Egypt nor the Promised Land; it is the space in between. It is a place lacking of structure and settlement, a place which is not supposed to be permanently inhabited. The wilderness is therefore a place which could be rather chaotic for two million Israelites. In this light a census in the wilderness (Numbers Bamidbar) allowed for the establishment of order out of potential disarray. It was only a small step, but nonetheless it offered an important way in which Moses and the leaders could begin to take control of their situation; making order out of chaos.
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