Several chronological markers throughout Numbers help us to determine the time period covered by the biblical data: (I use the scheme day/month/year).
|Ex 40:17||Nu 1:1||7:1||10:11||33:38||Dt 1:3|
|(tabernacle erected)||(leave Sinai)||(Aaron dies)|
Some observations emerge from this. First, 1:1-10:10 covers only twenty days, 10:11-33:38 covers thirty-eight-plus years, and the last few chapters cover six months. Two brief sections (chronologically) bracket a much greater middle unit. Second, the material in 7:1ff., although placed after the material of 1:1ff., actually antedates it, showing that at least here strict chronological sequence was not paramount.
Scholars have long debated the best way to outline Numbers to capture most effectively the essence of the book's contents. There have been almost as many proposed outlines as authors. I would suggest the most faithful approach (following Olson) is to divide Numbers into two generations. The census of the first generation appears in 1:1-46. The material in 1:47-25:18 tells the wilderness history of that first generation before it left Sinai (1:46-10:10) and after it left Sinai (10:11-25:18). Almost all of the material in 1:46-10:10 is last-minute directions to Israel about organization of the camp, plus various laws and regulations to be observed. It is in the second part, 10:11-25:18, that the first generation proves itself to be unfaithful followers of God. There is sin after sin, problem after problem, crisis after crisis. As a result, this first generation is condemned to die in the wilderness.
Then we find a census of the second generation, 26:1-65. The material in 27:1-36:13 provides the reader with a bit of its beginnings. It is a unit that begins (27:1-11) and ends (36:1-13) with the second-generation daughters of the first-generation Zelophehad. In both instances they act magnanimously, and so we start to reflect on the possibility that this new generation might not repeat the sins of their fathers. Still, we are not certain. At least her beginning is propitious. There is nothing ugly or vicious or disappointing as there was with the first generation. Numbers has taken us through the death of the old (1:1-25:18) and introduced us to the birth of the new (26:1-36:13).