Image: The Wilderness of Sinai
Read Part 1: Israel’s Journey to Mount Sinai
The Challenges of Sinai
After the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they traveled through a huge and frightening wilderness. In the Sinai Peninsula, most of the land is devoid of water and vegetation, except in oases and wadis, dry river beds that may be filled with water during the winter flood. The wilderness was a harsh and inhospitable area.
Because of the nature of the terrain, the Israelites faced many problems posed by life in the wilderness. They experienced lack of food and water, diseases, earthquakes, snakes, scorpions, and attacks from enemy tribes. The Bible indicates that the situation in the wilderness of Sinai was inhospitable: “[God] led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions” (Deuteronomy 8:15 NIV).
To the Hebrews, the wilderness was a desolate place devoid of civilization. In Hebrew, the word for desert reflects that which is beyond, that is, beyond the limits of settlement. Most people perceived the wilderness to be a dangerous place, the place of wild animals and wandering tribes.
The Psalmist portrays the wilderness as a “wasteland” (Psalm. 107:4). For forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert, without finding a good place to live, without much food and water, hungry and thirsty, staggering and stumbling, on the brink of exhaustion.
To many Israelites, the challenge of living in the wilderness was beyond their capacity to adapt. The biblical text reflects how the Israelites hated their wandering in the wilderness and many even had the desire to return to Egypt: “‘Oh, that we were back in Egypt,’ they moaned. ‘It would have been better if the LORD had killed us there! At least there we had plenty to eat. But now you have brought us into this desert to starve us to death’” (Exodus 16:3 NLT).
Thus, because of their desire to live in freedom in Canaan, Israel was made to experience the barrenness and bitterness of the wilderness. But the people of Israel were poorly prepared for what they encountered in their journey through the wilderness of Sinai. Many were disappointed and discouraged. Instead of joy and freedom, hunger, thirst, and bitterness were all they experienced. This brought disappointment and disheartenment. The failings of Israel in the wilderness were caused by their misconception of what they would find in the desert.
God’s Provisions and Israel’s Failure
The wilderness through which Israel traveled on their way to the Promised Land was a hard place. To many of those Israelites who came out of Egypt, the promise of deliverance had proven false. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, they got a desert that was ready to devour them. The people believed that they had escaped death in Egypt only to be delivered to death in the wilderness. The faith of the people had eroded with the cruel reality of life in the desert.
But, the Lord was constantly providing for Israel’s needs in the most dramatic ways. Throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Lord guided them by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). When the people marched in the wilderness, after leaving Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant moved ahead of them to show them where to stop and rest (Numbers 10:33). The Lord also provided them with water and food during their journey.
When Moses addressed the new generation of Israelites in the plains of Moab, on the eve of the conquest of the land of Canaan, he told the people that the hardship of the journey in the wilderness served as a test for Israel. Moses said:
He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Your clothes didn’t wear out and your feet didn’t blister those forty years. You learned deep in your heart that God disciplines you in the same ways a father disciplines his child (Deuteronomy 8:3-5 NLT).
The divine gifts were received by a complaining people with disdain, with an embittered attitude which reached its climax in the rejection by the majority of the people of the report of the spies and the opportunity to enter the land of Canaan a few months after their exile from Egypt (Numbers 14:1-10).
The complaints of Israel reflect internal dissent among the people as well as the hardship of the desert life, such as the lack of food and water, and the danger of attacks from wild animals and human enemies. The murmuring of the people reflects a lack of trust in Yahweh.
God had been responsive to the needs of the people and had provided for them through Moses, his mediator. Israel failed to realize that the gift of food was provided where provisions were almost non-existent; that the gift of water became available in an arid and rocky land; that the gift of healing was manifested where only pain was present. But Israel never appreciated those gifts.
In the end, the wilderness experience proved to be too much for many Israelites. Those who murmured against God and those who refused to trust in him were excluded from the blessing of entering the Promised Land, the good land that he had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants (Deuteronomy 1:35).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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