The first half of Numbers recounts the fate of the old generation of Israelites who had been eyewitnesses to the exodus out of Egypt and the covenant with God made on Mount Sinai. The birth of this first wilderness generation had been marked by a census list already back in the book of Exodus, chapter 1. There seventy people were counted among the twelve tribes of Israel who came down to Egypt (Exod. 1:5). The new census list of the twelve tribes of Israel that appears in Numbers 1 marks a major transition in the people’s wandering. They have been liberated from the bondage of Egypt. They have received God’s commandments and entered into a covenant with God at Sinai. Now with Numbers 1, this first wilderness generation is ready to organize and begin its march in earnest toward the promised land of Canaan.
This first section of Numbers in chapters 1–10 is dominated by a positive tone. The people of Israel obediently follow God’s instructions to prepare for the march from Sinai to the promised land. The twelve tribes of Israel undergo a census in which all warriors are counted and then organized into a four-sided military camp with three tribes on each of the four sides. Laws are given that preserve the holiness of the camp. The people dutifully prepare for a holy war against the Canaanite inhabitants of the promised land. These preparations for the journey through the wilderness dominate Num. 1:1–10:10.
Numbers 10:11–36 continues in this section with the actual inauguration of Israel’s march and the events of the first three days. The holy camp of God’s people sets out for the first time from the Wilderness of Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran. The first three days of the journey go smoothly and without incident. All seems to be moving according to God’s plan and desire. That favorable impression will linger only for a time, ending abruptly when we come to Numbers 11.