A Brief Overview
“The cloud of Jehovah was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by
night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:38).
— David Stein
Lack of faith has consequences. For ancient Israelites, the consequences were tragic. After being delivered in a miraculous and historically unprecedented way, the Israelites had every reason to confidently enter into the Promised Land. There was likely great excitement following the fear and uncertainty of escaping from Pharaoh. But Israel was weak in faith. Jehovah knew this and so prepared a series of experiences designed to build their faith.
The first 39 years of Israel’s wilderness wandering are recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus. and Numbers. Exodus provides a narrative of the first year of Israel’s leaving Egypt to setting up the Tabernacle. Leviticus does not have a timeline but includes several noteworthy events of the second year. The book of Numbers describes the rest of Israel’s second year experiences in the first 19 chapters.
Following is a brief overview of the first 39 years of Israel’s wilderness wanderings.
The First Year
After emerging from the Red Sea, Israel marched excitedly into the Wilderness of Shur, rejoicing to be God’s people and that Jehovah had plans for them as descendants of faithful Abraham. “Israel saw the great work which Jehovah did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared Jehovah: and they believed in Jehovah, and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
What a positive description of the nation! They “feared” and “believed” in Jehovah and His servant Moses. This is a great foundation on which to build an enduring relationship.
But as the nation traveled in the Wilderness of Shur, they had their first test. Jehovah led them with a pillar of fire and He knew that there was no water to be found. But the nation did not trust God as much as they professed. Three days without water troubled them. God led them to a wonderful water source, Marah. But the waters there were bitter, which is the meaning of “Marah.” Their reaction was sad. “The people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).
This was the first test after being delivered through the Red Sea, and they failed. They did not trust Jehovah or Moses and murmured against him. God corrected the problem and gave them sweet water. But this first test of faith revealed a need for improvement.
The next chapter of Exodus describes a second test. Israel continued their travels into the Wilderness of Sin. This experience is dated to day 15 of month two, just one month after their first Passover. Things were not going well for Israel, at least from the people’s standpoint. “The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness: and the children of Israel said unto them, Would that we had died by the hand of Jehovah in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2, 3).
Food supplies were getting low and the hardships of travel were wearing on many in the nation. They had second thoughts about the whole experience. Their minds went back to the imagined fullness of food in Egypt. Amazingly, they seemed to have forgotten the intense hardships of Egyptian servitude! But Jehovah remembered they had been slaves and were now put in a new situation with new challenges. In mercy, He told Moses that He would provide the nation with bread. Thus came the manna, a food source provided directly from God. Even more, He provided meat in the form of quail to remind the people that He was their God and would provide for them.
On this occasion Jehovah created a new institution which would be a blessing to them if observed according to God’s rule. It was the Sabbath. “This is that which Jehovah hath spoken, Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy sabbath unto Jehovah: bake that which ye will bake, and boil that which ye will boil; and all that remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning. And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade: and it did not become foul, neither was there any worm therein. And Moses said, Eat that to day; for to day is a sabbath unto Jehovah: to day ye shall not find it in the field. Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the sabbath, in it there shall be none” (Exodus 16:23-26).
In that first year, Israel traveled further into the area of Rephadim. But again, they were without water. Instead of trusting God, they murmured again. “The people strove with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why strive ye with me? Wherefore do ye tempt Jehovah? And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Exodus 17:2, 3).
From our vantage point, we marvel at their profound lack of faith. They demanded that Moses produce water for them! Where was their recognition of God? Every morning Israel could see that it was not Moses providing their necessities, but rather God Himself. So, their faithless request was quite upsetting to Moses. He immediately reproved them, saying again that it was Jehovah whom they were tempting.
But the people did not listen. They became so boisterous that Moses feared for his own life. “Moses cried unto Jehovah, saying, ‘What shall I do unto this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Exodus 17:4).
Of course, the Lord would not permit Moses to be killed in a rebellion against him. But He understood the people’s need for water. The Lord showed Moses a particular rock in this region of Horeb and told him to smite it with his rod and thus furnish the people with drinking water. The entire process was done with the elders as witnesses. This was to establish beyond doubt that it was a miracle from Jehovah. Exodus 17:7 concludes: “He called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us, or not?”
There is an interesting spiritual lesson connected to this passage in Psalms 95:8, 9 and Hebrews 3:8, 9. We quote from Hebrews 3:8: “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.”
Recalling the literal meaning of Massah and Meribah, we see that this verse contains both meanings: Meribah “provocation,” and Massah “temptation.” God thus calls attention to this incident, and to the fact that the entire 40 years of wandering was filled with provocations and temptations. This is truly a sad account of history, but one full of important and helpful lessons of faith for the saints of this Gospel Age. A truly tender heart has faith in God’s guidance and protection. It carefully keeps guard of the thoughts and intents of the flesh and exercises self-control and godly trust. God has once again shared practical lessons of faith through the weaknesses of others.
For Israel, Jehovah, miraculously provided water. They had gained a military victory against Amalek, camped before Mount Sinai, and heard the voice of God Himself! And yet, despite these powerful experiences, the lesson of trust was not engraved on their hearts.
By month three of their exodus God gave them the Law Covenant and instructions for building the Tabernacle. This occupies the remainder of Exodus from chapter 19 to the end.
The Second Year
The second year began with setting up the Tabernacle. “In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month … the tabernacle was reared up” (Exodus 40:17).
The book of Leviticus provides an exhaustive outline of the Law and its details. But it is not an historical record as are the other books of the Pentateuch. The book of Numbers then picks up a narrative of the second year.
The first item we encounter is Jehovah’s command to conduct a census. “Jehovah spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of the names, every male, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel, thou and Aaron shall number them by their hosts” (Numbers 1:1-3).
Notably, the tribe of Levi was excluded from the national census (Numbers 1:47). The Levites conducted their own census, separate from the rest of the nation, in Numbers 3. This exclusion perhaps served two purposes.
First, this census provides a clear view of how many soldiers the nation had for military operations. Levi was exempt from military service, so a separate census was necessary.
Second, Jehovah mandated that the tribe of Levi was to become the priestly tribe, a function previously held by the first-born. This exchange required both the number of Levites and the number of first-born. This exchange, which also involved a poll tax, formally transferred the religious responsibilities to the Levites.
In Numbers 9, the nation is instructed to keep the Passover.
Numbers 12 describes the murmuring of Aaron and Miriam against Moses. Jehovah was angry with their attitude and made Miriam leprous. Moses then asked God for healing and Jehovah consented. However, Miriam was cast out of the camp for seven days until she could return again — a memory that would certainly have stayed with her throughout her life.
Numbers 13 and 14 have the sad account of the spies sent to reconnoiter the land. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the report they gave and its acceptance by Israel brought tragic judgment against the nation. They were not permitted to enter the land. Instead, they would wander for 40 years. All of those 20 years old and upward would die in the wilderness.
Numbers 16 describes the rebellion of Korah and 250 men against Moses. All of the rebels were executed by God. But the people blamed Moses! This led to a further plague from God in which another 14,700 died. To ensure that the people understood God’s selection of Moses as His mouthpiece, and the tribe of Levi as His priestly tribe, Numbers 17 records the choosing and blessing of Aaron’s Rod. This seems to have ended murmurings against Moses until near the end of their journey.
37 Years of Silence
After Korah’s rebellion, the scriptures are silent regarding the next 37 years. We do, however, have a complete list of their 42 encampments in Numbers 33. It covers the entire 40 years, providing details of where they were. But no timeline is given for this long middle period. The narrative resumes in Numbers 20, with Israel in the 40th year, the last year of their wandering. And what a year it was! Just as the first two years are rich with historical experiences, so too is the 40th year.