In his book Mi-sinai Ba, Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv notes that the book of Numbers consistently incorporates the tribal chieftains in decision-making. When, for example, the tribes of Reuven and Gad (along with half the tribe of Menashe) request a special dispensation to remain in the grazing lands on the east side of the Jordan River, they stood before Moses, Elazar, the High Priest, and the tribal chieftains (Numbers 32:2). Readers will, of course, remember that earlier the chieftains represented the tribes during the consecration of the Tabernacle (Numbers 7), and the chieftains were the first to be paged by the sounding of the trumpets when a leadership assembly was needed (Numbers 10:4).
That the chieftains were to be engaged in the resolution of questions of tribal inheritance (Numbers 36:1) is no surprise since the chieftains were collectively named as assistants in the distribution of land in Israel (Numbers 34:17-18). The narrative in the book of Joshua confirms this role (Joshua 19:51). Accordingly, Rabbi Shaviv sees in this authority granted to the leadership the confirmation of the Rabbinic principle that the courts have ultimate authority on property ownership (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamot 89b; Gittin 36b).
But what Rabbi Shaviv mentions in passing is, I think, of greater insight. The role that the chieftains play, according to Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud, is similar to the role played by the patriarchs. The chieftains, like the patriarchs, were especially concerned with the transference of land ownership to successive generations. The chieftains, like the patriarchs, were intent on establishing an uncontested legal claim to the Promised Land in all its divisions.
What this means is that the biblical narrative comes full circle, in effect, making the book of Numbers the continuation of the patriarchal narratives in the book of Genesis. God creates the world and establishes a unique relationship with Abraham and his descendants. That relationship is concretized through dominion over a land of special significance, or, as the Midrash sees it, a unique land for a unique people. But the continuing habitation of the land of Israel is interrupted by pragmatic concerns: a severe famine forces the relocation of Jacob and his clan to Egypt. Initially a respite, the sojourn into Egypt turns into hundreds of years of bondage until the Exodus that opens the way to return. Now, the story continues. The patriarchs are long gone. In their place, however, are the chieftains who now engage in the very operation that pre-occupied the patriarchs: ensuring the continuity of the people Israel in the Land of Israel.