The events recorded in Parsha Pinchas take place about thirty nine years after God had decreed the death of a generation; those that had shown doubt in the power of God and in the strength of leadership by Moses had (almost) all perished in the wilderness. Only three men, who bore witness to the escape from Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Mt. Sinai, remained alive: Caleb, Joshua and Moses. Caleb and Joshua would lead the fight into the Promised Land, but Moses would die on the approach; he was only allowed a lingering look upon the destination that had been the entire focus of his being for the past forty two years, before God would take his soul.
The second major narrative of Parsha Pinchas describes the results of a census of all Israelites over the age of twenty and capable of taking up arms. The count is made at the tribal level and its results were used to allocate the still to be conquered Promised Land. As part of the count, the Torah identified the various clans of each tribe, the banner men. All told, there were over six hundred thousand eligible males. The tribe of Levi, who had been sworn into service in the Temple and for the priests, was counted separately and every male over the age of one month was eligible. Exactly twenty three thousand were eligible for the count, but not the poll to determine land allocation; the Levites would have no realty, they could rely in the tithe and various donations made to the temple for sustenance.
It may be observed that some of the laws promulgated and recorded in writing as part of the Torah were anachronistic to a rural nomadic society but were complete necessary as the Israelites gravitated to a more settled existence. Laws relating to the devolution of real property were premature but would be necessary once the Children of Israel settled in Canaan. Central to the initial allocation of lands was the premise that land belonged to a tribe; even if sold to a non tribe member; land would revert to the tribe in the Jubilee Year, celebrated every fifty years.
Parsha Pinchas contains a very interesting aside to the question of land ownership and the importance of the clan system. In a short, but very telling episode, Moses referred a legal case to the Heavenly Court, at the behest of the five daughters of Zelophehad, a luminary of the tribe of Menashe. He died of natural causes during the forty year exile in the wilderness; the Torah pointedly records that though he had been personally loyal to God, he, like many other Israelites, were collectively liable for the perfidy of the traitors within the nation. He died without sons, and therefore his family would not be eligible for land, and his family name would forever disappear. God ruled that if a man died without sons, his daughters would be next in line to inherit. In that way, his family name would be preserved. This ruling stood unique in the western world for many centuries, establishing that women were eligible to inherit land if they had no brothers.
There are a number of very extensive genealogies recorded in the Torah. The one recorded in Parsha Pinchas backs the provenance of the various clans that had developed in the tribal system. The number of clans in each tribe varied; Menashe and Gad each had seven clans identified, but Dan had only one for their sixty four thousand four hundred eligible men. Size of tribes differed; Judah was the largest with seventy six thousand and five hundred men; Simon the smallest with twenty two thousand two hundred years.
Genealogies have by themselves no intrinsic value, but they have been critical to the development of the chronology of the Torah, thus providing a historical framework to the background narrative of the Torah; the telling of the story about Abraham and his descendants. In his best seller “The Gift of the Jew”, author Thomas Cahill suggested that the genealogies, mostly of “ordinary folk” demonstrated that the Torah was history and not mythology, a distinction the some may be uncomfortable with. In fairness it can be stated that the Torah is a history of God’s pursuit of a just society, based on the rule of law, and of Abraham and his descendants accepting the challenge.