The first two chapters of the book of Numbers have been written on the basis of the norms on the building of the sanctuary in the desert and the sacred furnishings (Ex 25-31), the execution of the works (Exodus 35-40) and the rules for the sacrifices of the priests (Leviticus). Of course, these chapters are profoundly and entirely marked by the language and style of the priests circles, i.e. the school of thought led by the priests who have come back from exile (end of the 6th century BC). Now the priests outline the picture and the composition of the twelve tribes of Israel (Nm 1) and the arrangement of their camps as they proceed in the desert (Nm 2).
Let’s now take a look at the literary disposition of these two chapters:
- God’s order to register the people (verses 1-3)
- Twelve people were chosen to help in the census (verses 4-16)
- Transition text (verses 17-18) to the new part introduced by v. 19
- Census (vv. 20-46)
- The verses 47-53 explain a. the reason why Levi did not enter the census; b. the description of the marching tribes as a procession to the promised land
- conclusion (v. 54) which recalls v. 19, emphasizing the execution of what God had ordered
- camp disposition (vv 1-31)
- linking verses with chap. 1 (see 32-34)
The reading these chapters of the book of numbers could appear boring. In fact, Numbers is a book that has not enjoyed great fortune in the literary tastes of Christians. However, together with the Leviticus, the Numbers were fundamental books for the Jewish community that needed to reorganize itself, returning from the Babylonian exile. The book speaks of a glorious past, twelve tribes wanted by God who marched in the desert to enter the land that – after the exile – the Jews possess. It is a majestic retroprojection of theological and social interests far from the historical period suggested by the texts, i.e. the thirteenth or twelfth century B.C. The writing of these texts dates back rather to the end of the 6th BC when the priests, the cult in the reconstructed Temple and the cult system guaranteed the identity of a humiliated community subjugated by the Babylonians seventy years before.