Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Why The Hebrews Wandered For Forty Years

Posted by foryourfaith on May 14, 2011


When Israel came from Sinai to Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, they were on the doorstep of the Promised Land. Their journey had been arduous. According to the Book of Numbers, the people had complained incessantly, and God had struck them with punishments. Even Moses had cried out to God because of the burdens he carried.

When at last the end of the journey was in sight, and the Promised Land lay before the Israelites, their entry was delayed. As they neared their destination, the Lord told Moses to send a leader from each tribe to scout the land they were about to invade. For forty days the scouts traversed Canaan. When they returned, they reported that the land was all that had been promised. “It flows with milk and honey,” they said, and showed a cluster of grapes, cut near Hebron, so heavy that it had to be carried by two men (Numbers 13:23-27).

However, they also reported that the land was fully occupied and fortified. “The land, through which we have gone, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature . . . we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” One interpretation of “devours its inhabitants” is that the land did not produce enough to sustain life adequately, a mysterious contradiction of their earlier proclamation of a land of plenty.

Only two the 12 spies, Caleb and Joshua, recommended that the invasion proceed. The people wept at the grim news and sought a new captain to lead them back to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4).

Yahweh responded to their lack of faith with a drastic plan. “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them,” he told Moses, “and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” But Moses begged Yahweh to forgive them: “Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee, according to the greatness of thy steadfast love, and according to thou has forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

The Lord responded by sparing the Israelites from death. Instead he subjected them to 40 years in the wilderness, a year for each day the spies were in Canaan. No one 20 years or older, except Caleb and Joshua, would be allowed to enter the land: “And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:33). “Turn tomorrow,” God said, “and set out for the wilderness” (Numbers 14:25).

When the people heard the Lord’s verdict, Canaan began to look much more inviting. The next day, rather than turning toward the wilderness, they immediately tried to invade the hill country of the Amalekites and Canaanites, leaving behind Moses and the Ark of the Covenant. The foolish attack failed, and Israel was left to her fate in the desert.

In later generations the image of the great company wandering in the wilderness became a powerful symbol. In Jeremiah, for example, it was portrayed as a time of Israel’s purification, a time of devotion to Yahweh and loving dependence on his care.

However, in the Book of Numbers, the actual period of wandering is not described at all. Some scholars believe that the 40 years in the desert were in fact an extended sojourn at Kadesh.

In the Bible, the number 40 had deep symbolic significance. Noah’s rains lasted 40 days, as did Moses’ sojourn on Mount Sinai (Exodus 2:11). Forty years was usually a period of a person’s prime – 20 to 60.

All those of the wandering generation except Caleb and Joshua had to die off before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land. This meant that those who finally entered Canaan would be young and vigorous. They had been disciplined by the desert and knew nothing of the enticements of urban life in Egypt, with its pagan cults. Nor had they been cowed by conditions of servitude. In that no man’s land of the desert, they had been molded into something that they had not been earlier, a nation that belonged to God.

Moses was also denied entry into the Promised Land. In Kadesh, God had told him, “You shall bring water out of the rock,” for “there was no water for the congregation.” When Moses took credit for the miracle, the Lord condemned both Moses and Aaron to die outside the land of Canaan. At the end of the Book of Numbers, the Israelites had encamped near the border of Canaan, and were preparing to attack. In Deuteronomy, Moses addressed his people three times, bidding them farewell and urging them to faithfulness. He said, “And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you” (Deuteronomy 4:1). After explain to them the commandments and laws, Moses gave a final blessing to the tribes. “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!”

Moses climbed “from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah.” From the height he viewed the land his people were to occupy. And there Moses died at the age of 120 years.


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