The Desert Wanderings


The first census

[Num 1:1-10:10] It has now been thirteen months since the Israelites left Egypt. A Census is taken of all the men of twenty years or older who are able to serve in an army, and the numbers recorded by tribe. The Levites are excluded from the census as they are to be responsible for the tabernacle and its furnishings, for the erection and disassembly of it, and for carrying it from camp to camp. The order of which the tribes are to camp around the tabernacle, and the order for marching is given, with the twelve tribes assembled in four groups of three headed by Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan. Before leaving Sinai, offerings from each tribe are given for the dedication of the tabernacle.

The journey from Sinai to Kadesh

[Num 10:11-12:16] The cloud now lifts from above the tabernacle and the Israelites prepare to leave Sinai, breaking camp and forming their marching order according to God’s instructions. After just three days of travelling, some of the Israelites start to complain about the manna, perhaps now becoming somewhat monotonous, and crave after the fine foods they remember from Egypt. In response, God provides them with quail, but so much of it they will eventually become sick of meat and again be satisfied with manna. But before they have finished their first meal of quail, the people are struck with a severe plague, their complaining having kindled God’s wrath. After this episode they then travel on to Hazeroth and camp there. Miriam and Aaron speak to Moses, apparently envious of Moses’ relationship with God. God summons all three to the Tabernacle and speaks directly to Aaron and Miriam, confirming the special relationship in which it is only Moses with whom God speaks face to face. As punishment for the complaint, Miriam was made leprous and had to remain outside the camp for seven days. They then travelled on to the Desert of Paran, in the region of Kadesh.

In the Kadesh region

[Num 13:1-20:21] The Israelites are now approaching the land God is to give them. God instructs Moses to send twelve men, one from each tribe, to explore the land and return with a full report. They pass through the Wilderness of Zin and explore as far north as Hebron. After forty days they return with some pomegranates, figs, and a cluster of grapes so large that it has to be carried on a pole between two people. However, ten of them report that the people are very powerful and their cities large and fortified. They also mention the Nephilim, to whom they seemed like grasshoppers. The report is soon known to all the people and they become fearful they will be killed. It’s even suggested that they should choose another leader and return to Egypt. Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb try to persuade them that God will deliver the land and its people into their hands, and they should not rebel against the Lord. Yet the crowd now begins to talk of stoning them. God, tiring of the people’s rebellious attitude, suggests he will disinherit them and raise a new nation through Moses. However, Moses intercedes on their behalf and God pardons them, but declares that none of the people aged twenty or more will see the promised land. They will continue to sojourn in the desert for a total of forty years, one year for each day of the exploration. Of the twelve spies, only Joshua and Caleb would see the promised land. The other ten were smitten with a plague. The next morning, some men attempt to enter the promised land to somehow make up for their mistrust, but do so without God’s approval and are defeated at Hormah by the Amalekites and Canaanites. Various laws are now given to Moses for when they eventually enter the promised land. A man is found gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and under instruction from God is stoned, effectively demonstrating the seriousness of Sabbath-breaking. The people are then required to make fringes in the border of their garments as a constant reminder to keep the Lord’s commandments. Korah, a Levite, along with Dathan and Abiram, rebel against Moses and Aaron, leading two hundred and fifty ‘princes’. Korah’s grievance is Aaron’s position over them in the priesthood, and Dathan and Abiram’s concerning Moses’ leadership over them all and his failure to take them into the promised land. Their rebellion is punished by God who causes the leaders and all their tents to be swallowed up by the ground, and the two hundred and fifty to be consumed by fire. To confirm Aaron’s leadership, God instructs that Aaron’s staff and twelve from the tribes of Israel are all to be placed in the tabernacle. The one that blossoms will identify the leader. In the morning it is Aaron’s staff that has bud and blossomed, demonstrating with certainty that Aaron is the head of the priesthood. The priesthood now confirmed, instructions for their duties are given, and for the support they are to receive from the Levites. As the Levites will not have any inheritance from the land, they will have what’s left over from sacrificial offerings and receive the nation’s tithes. They will then, in turn, give tithes to the priests. Instructions are now given for the elaborate ceremonial preparation of cleansing water, using the ashes of a red heifer. The cleansing water is used for purification rituals following contact with a dead body. The people again complain to Moses about lack of water. God instructs Moses and Aaron to speak in front of all the people to the rock, which will then bring forth water. But Moses strikes the rock rather than speaking to it. For this disobedience, which God says was a failure to sanctify Him in the eyes of the people, Moses and Aaron would not be the ones to take Israel into the promised land. Moses now sends messengers to Edom (Esau’s descendants) to request passage through their land, but this request is denied.

From Kadesh to the plains of Moab

[Num 20:22-22:1] The Israelites now journey from Kadesh to Mount Hor where Aaron dies and his position passes to his son Eleazar. Following an incident with, and subsequent victory over, some Canaanites, the camp heads south to avoid Edom, in the opposite direction to the promised land and passing near the Red Sea. This discourages the people and they again complain about the lack of water and food, expressing their loathing of manna. God punishes them by sending serpents with fatal bites, then instructs Moses to make a fiery serpent on a pole. Anyone who is bitten and then looks at the serpent on the pole is saved from death. They continue on their way, stopping at various places, and come to the top of Pisgah where messengers are sent to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, requesting passage through his land. This is denied and the king goes to war with the Israelites, but is defeated and they are able to stay in the land of the Amorites for a time.

On the Plains of Moab

[Num 22:2-36:13] Balak, son of a Moabite king, having seen Israel’s defeat of the Amorites, is terrified of them and assumes they have plans against Moab. Since Balak believes there is no military way to defeat Israel, he colludes with the Midianites to pay for the services of a diviner, Balaam, to put a curse on them. Balaam is told by God not to curse the Israelites, and uses the voice of his donkey and an angel of the Lord as a means of encouraging Balaam to do as He wishes. This is presumably intended to be more persuasive than any financial incentives from his hirers. Three times Balak asks Balaam to curse Israel, but three times he blesses them, as instructed by God, before returning home. Many of the Israelites have now been seduced by Moabite women and enticed into worshipping their gods. God’s wrath is kindled and a plague is brought on the people until Phinehas, a priest and grandson of Aaron, deals with two of the offenders. A second census is now taken in preparation for invading the promised land. Following a petition from the daughters of Zelophehad, God provides the law concerning inheritance when a man dies without sons. From Mount Abarim God shows Moses the land the Israelites are to inherit, but Moses will not be permitted to enter it. This is because of his disobedience in the Desert of Zin when he struck the rock to provide water for the people. Joshua is then formally proclaimed as Moses’ successor. Required offerings and feasts are restated and the law concerning vows is given. A man’s vow is binding, but a woman’s is only binding if a father or husband does not nullify it at the time the vow is made. The Lord instructs Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites as his last act before his death. After this battle, Moses is angry with the commanders for sparing the women and children. They were instructed to kill all the women who were not virgins, as they were those who were guilty of corrupting the Israelites, and all the boys, presumably because they would endanger the inheritance rights of Israelite men. The spoils of this war are divided according to God’s instructions to Moses. The tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh request to have the land east of the Jordan as their inheritance. This is reluctantly granted by Moses on the condition the men take part in the conquest of Canaan before returning to their new land and homes. Moses had been instructed by God to record the stages in their journey. These are given here (chapter 33). The boundaries of their inheritance west of Jordan, the towns and pastures for the Levites, and the six cities of refuge for those who cause death by accident, are all allotted. Safeguards for the inheritance for Zelophehad’s daughters are put in place, completing all the commands and regulations given by God through Moses on the east side of the Jordan.
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