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A little over a year before Numbers begins, the Israelites were (literally) slaving away in Egypt. Now, they find themselves facing a new set of dangers. Living in the wilderness is no piece of cake. It's no piece of manna either.
According to the census in the beginning of Numbers, Moses and company are sitting around in Sinai with 603,550 men eligible to fight. When you add in women, children, and Levites—that probably brings you to about two million people (Source 114). It's a big crowd and it's not always easy to please them.
Initially, though, things start out well. As God lays down law after law, the Israelites obediently follow his instructions:
They are so kicking butt at this whole following God thing. But once the group hits the road, trouble follows.
It seems crossing a dangerous desert wilderness isn't quite the fun and easy holiday they thought it might be. Once the community starts struggling out in the desert they slowly start to question whether or not this whole escaping from slavery thing was really a good idea:
The Israelites also wept again, and said, "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." (11:4-6)
"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?" (14:3)
"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?" (20:4-5)
Yes, that's how bad wandering in the desert for forty years is. These guys actually want to go back to the place where they were slaves!
To be fair, their concerns aren't trivial. They're hungry. They're thirsty. They could be attacked at any time and their families killed or taken prisoner. They could also die along with all their animals. In fact, everyone who was over twenty years old when they left Egypt is definitely gonna die. God's orders.
Not to mention that every time they start to feel bad for themselves, God unleashes a huge fire or poisonous snakes on them. We can see why they don't think the Lord is exactly in their corner.
So, in a way, it's easy to understand why they would want to head back to a life of servitude. At least in Egypt they knew what to expect. In the wilderness, anything could happen. It could be amazing or it could all turn out terribly wrong. And right about then, things were headed towards terribly wrong.
This is the Israelites' main issue throughout the story. They are called to be God's people and to follow his commands. Though they start out on the road to faithfulness, when the going gets tough, they swerve a little. Obedience turns to rebellion. Order becomes disorder. Holy becomes profane (Source 111). And God is not amused by any of it.
In the end, the younger generation of Israelites is able to enter the Promised Land having learned a lesson. Watching your older relatives all slowly die off over forty years will do that. Though they grew up as slaves in Egypt, during their time in the wilderness the people re-discover what it's like to be free. Well, free to follow God, that is. But trust us. In the end, it's way better than being forced to make pyramids all day.