Numbers 1,1 And the Lord spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, 2 Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; 3 From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies.
Israel is still in the place where received the laws (see Ex 19:1). There is a perennial debate around the question of Sinai identification. Some scholars think of the top of the Gebel Musa – that is, Mount of Moses – but this identification is of theological and even symbolical nature. Sinai remains the mountain where man – Moses – meets God. The desert – in hebr. midbar – is an even more generic indication.
In exquisitely priestly style, the meeting between God and Moses takes place is the tabernacle of the congregation – in hebr. be’ohel mo’ed – that is, the model of what will later be the Temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 6). The priestly author set the actual institution of the Temple rebuilt in the Post-exilic times (ca. 515 BC) in the mythical time of the exodus. In this way, he wanted to underline the antiquity and the importance of the Temple.
The date on which God speaks to Moses comes from the priestly author too. A chronological system, that of the priestly author, whose fundamental point of reference is the exit from Egypt (see Exodus 12:2, 16: 1, 19: 1). It is practically impossible to reconstruct, from the chronological elements scattered here and there, the system of calculating the time used by the priestly author.
“Take ye the sum”. So begins the second verse, literally: raise the heads of the whole assembly of Israel (in hebr. Seu et-rosh). The sense is “counting” the heads. The census was a widespread practice in the Ancient Near East, to verify the consistency of the reign of a certain king. The purpose of the census was usually to see who among the people was fit for arms. In the book of Numbers it is God who makes the census and so he is the King of Israel. This also reveals the interests and the theological horizon of the priestly author, for whom the true sovereign of Israel – after the failure of the monarchy – is only God and his representatives on earth are the priests and the Law.
The sacral and liturgical horizon is also evident in the choice of the name of Israel itself: “community, assembly” (in hebr. edah). This term is quite similar to qahal. This reveals the intention of the author to present Israel not as an army no longer military, but rather as a religious group well ordered that is marching towards the promised land. In fact, the LXX translates edah with sunagoghé and qahal with ekklesia.
The stereotypical and classical language of the priestly author is also very clear in the social structure of Israel: the tribe, the clan and the family.