The Wilderness Between Egypt and Israel, Circa 1500 BCE
All the action in The Book of Numbers takes place in the vast, open desert wilderness between Egypt and Canaan (which would—spoiler alert—one day become Israel). Though the Israelites spend the story wandering in the desert, they're also occupied by their past lives as slaves in Egypt and their dreams of a future in a fantastic new place—the Promised Land.
Walk Like Egyptians
The pre-story to Numbers takes place in Egypt (see Exodus for all the epic details). The Israelites were slaves there and God (with some help from Moses) gets them out. Yay, right? Not quite. See, the Israelite people have traded a life of forced servitude (bad) for a life of danger and uncertainty in the wilderness (also bad).
It seems it's so awful there, that the people can't help looking back on their time in Egypt and comparing it to now:
"If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (11:4-6)
"Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?" (14:2-3)
"Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." (20:4-5)
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." (21:5)
Apparently, you can take the people out of Egypt, but not the Egypt out of the people. In other words, even though they've been free from a lifetime of slavery, the people just don't know how to go about living as free people (Source 111). God even has to remind these guys that he "brought [them] out of the land of Egypt to be [their] God" (15:41). He went through a lot of trouble for you guys, so just knock off the complaining.
So, how bad is the wilderness that even slavery looks better compared to it? Well, not as awful as you might think. The place that the Bible calls a "wilderness" is actually an area known as the Sinai Peninsula today, which is part of modern day Egypt. Sure, it's hot there during the day. And it can get really cold at night. There's lots of sand and rocks, but there's also some plants and animals wandering around. It's no picnic, but the climate and land wasn't really that different from the rest of the region at the time.
What's really the big issue with the wilderness? Well, mainly the uncertainty about what's out there. At least in Egypt, the people knew what to expect. Get up, build pyramids, eat, and go back to sleep. Repeat until you're dead. But in the wilderness anything could happen:
- Oh, my gosh! A fire! (11:1-3).
- No meat! Wah! (11:4)
- We're gonna be attacked by giants! (14:1-3)
- No water! So thirsty… (20:2)
- Ah! Poisonous snakes! (21:5-7)
- And the plagues! Oh, the plagues! (11:33, 14:37, 16:46, 25:9)
A square meal, bed of straw, and forced servitude are starting to look pretty good right about now.
Forty Years In The Wilderness
So, just how long are the Israelites gonna have to stay out here? Well, we're glad you asked (because we just love answering questions). See, at first God is gonna take them directly to the Promised Land. But when the people get there and see who they have to fight, they get cold feet.
This makes God very, very angry, so he sentences the people to his harshest punishment yet:
"Your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure." (14:32-34)
Uh-huh. No slaps on the wrist here. God does not play.
Okay, so what does this forty years wandering in the desert actually mean? Well, it probably doesn't literally mean forty years. God basically sentences the older generation to exile from the Promised Land. That means that anyone over twenty years old doesn't get to cross the Jordan. Essentially, the number forty is just shorthand here for a single generation. Sorry guys.
The number forty is also sometimes used as shorthand in the Bible for "a really long time." In Genesis, it rained "forty days and forty nights" (Genesis 7:12). Moses stayed up on Mount Sinai with God for "forty days and forty nights" (Exodus 24:18). Later, Jesus would fast "in the wilderness for forty days" (Mark 1:13). Sure, that's pretty good, but try doing any of those things for forty years and see how you're feeling by the end.
So, you've just been told you'll wander in a dangerous, quasi-barren desert for the next forty years. What do you do? Well, it helps to have some hopes and dreams. Hey, that's how Andy made it out of Shawshank, too.
The Israelites are mainly looking forward to a future in the Promised Land. This place is, essentially, where modern day Israel is located (and where people are still fighting over the land.) Though it's never actually called "The Promised Land" in the Bible, it gets the name because God promised it to his people. Over and over again:
"When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance." (Exodus 12:25)
'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors.' (Numbers 11:12)
"The Lord your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you." (Deuteronomy 11:25)
You get the picture. God gave it. The Israelites are gonna take it. So, what is this super special divinely gifted land like?
- It's flowing with milk and honey. Obviously (14:8, 16:13).
- There's also fruit there. Grapes, pomegranates, and figs to be specific (13:23-24).
- It's "exceedingly good." Sounds lovely (14:1).
- Oh, but it's also inhabited by people. Really strong people (13:28).
So, right now, it's a mixed bag. But overall, the land is good. Or it will be once they finally get up the guts to go over there. The basic point is that this place is lush and fertile and perfect for raising a great nation. This is exactly what God has promised them and what gets them through those long, cold nights wandering in the wilderness.
Don't worry. They'll get there eventually. It might not be in Numbers, but eventually Israel is gonna make good on God's promise. For now, we leave them standing by the River Jordan, empty milk jugs and honey pots in hand. Here's hoping.
Journeys With Israel
Over the course of the Bible, the Israelites move from slavery in Egypt to a permanent home in Israel. But why do they have to make this journey?
That's a pretty good question. Some people have wondered why God doesn't just make the wilderness comfortable all the time (food and water for everyone!). Or why God doesn't just stop being a meanie and help the people get the land he's been talking about since the beginning of this whole Bible thing. Is God a total jerk or is there some bigger plan at work here?
One theory is that the people needed those forty years in the desert in order to become the people God wanted them to be. Think about it. They had just been freed from a lifetime of servitude. They were imprisoned and told what to do every second of their lives. Now, God has offered them freedom. And, for some crazy reason, they hate it.
They don't trust in God or believe that he can help them. They want to go back to the ways things were instead of working towards an uncertain future. God has to show them that he's there for them. And he is. Every step of the way. In both good times and bad, God is always looking over their shoulder to shape them into the people of action who are willing to fight to make a better life for themselves.
In the end, they finally get it. That doesn't mean the people don't ever mess up again. But it does mean that by the time all this wandering in the wilderness is over, the people have changed. They've become new creations and finally have the chutzpah to be God's chosen people (Source 111). It's pretty darn awesome.
Okay, now, onto the Promised Land!