Israel stayed 40 years in the wilderness

The Israelites Wandered for 40 Years and Later, Ezra, Nehemiah and Some Levites Retold Their History

Numbers Scroll
In the 40th year, as recorded in the book of Numbers, from chapter 20 on, some Israelites finally began to grasp the reality of God's presence and power. When Moses requested to pass through the land of King Sihon and the Amorites, Sihon not only refused, but attacked Israel. God favored Israel, and the Amorites were defeated, driven out and their cities taken.

King Og of Bashan brought his army out to battle Israel, but with God's guidance to Moses, Israel not only defeated them but took their land. The Israelites moved and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan across from Jericho. Balak, king of the Moabites, was aware of what had happened to the Amorites, and he was 'sick with dread' because of the massive number of the Israelites. He hired Balaam, a local prophet of sorts, to curse Israel. Balaam, however, blessed Israel, and prophesied of their future conquests, and even of the coming Messiah.

In a devilish attack on Israel immediately following Balaam's three blessings, some of the men of Israel became sexually involved with the women of Moab, and even were drawn in to their religious ceremonies and sacrifices to their gods. When they began worshipping Baal, God became furious and a plague began to spread among the people. By God's command, Moses had his leadership hang the offenders to turn away the anger of the Lord from Israel. One man brought a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle, flaunting his defiance. Aaron's grandson, Phineas, took a javelin and plunged it through both of them in one thrust. This action stopped the plague, which killed 24,000 people. The Lord instructed Moses to bless Phineas for his zeal and for making atonement for the people. God gave Phineas and his descendents a covenant of peace and an everlasting priesthood.

God had Moses and Aaron's son, Eleazar, number all of Israel at this time, as recorded in Numbers 26. This represented all of the people who would enter the Promised Land. God told Moses that he, too, would soon depart this life. Moses asked the Lord for his successor to be designated, and the Lord selected Joshua. As instructed, Moses brought Joshua before Eleazar and the congregation, laid his hands on him, and ordained Joshua. The Book of Deuteronomy records all the words Moses spoke to the people before his death. Moses looked out from the top of the mountain of Nebo and the Lord showed him all of the land promised to Israel. There he died at the age of 120: Moses, the man of God, the Law Giver, whom the Lord knew face to face.

Forty years, 42 journeys, and the wilderness years had finally come to an end, most of which are a silent void. Moses had fulfilled his ministry, almost flawlessly. In spite of the failures of the people, God was keeping His promises. Israel was liberated out of the bondage of Egypt, and they were now ready to enter the land of Canaan. But the lessons to be learned from the chapters God chose to have recorded are poignant. And no matter what criticism or disgust is thrown at the feet of the notorious children of Israel, the fact is, human nature hasn't changed a bit. If anything, the condition of humanity has degenerated.

About 1,000 yearslater, as a group of Judeans worked to rebuild the demolished walls of Jerusalem, Ezra, Nehemiah and a handful of Levites gathered together and again retold their history. They talked of the great story of Moses, the signs and wonders in Egypt, the miracle at the Red Sea, the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, the manna, the water from the rock, the time camped at Mount Sinai. “But they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them. Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness; They lacked nothing; Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.” (Nehemiah 9:16, 17, 19, 21)

In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 10 briefly recounts the exasperating escapades of Israel, as a warning to all Christians of today. “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters. Nor let us commit sexual immorality, nor let us tempt the Lord, nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition...” (10:6-11)

The book of Hebrews also speaks loudly to God's people today. “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called Today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12, 13)

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Written by: Pete Miller