Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Israel to Wander in the Desert for 40 Years (Numbers 14:20-35)

Featured Image: Encampment in the desert, with Mount Seir in the distance. Coloured lithograph by Louis Haghe after David Roberts, 1849.

Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed My voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised Me shall see it. But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”

And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against Me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against Me. Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the LORD, what you have said in My hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and all of your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 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. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know My displeasure.’ I, the LORD, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against Me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

Numbers 14:20-35

When Caleb and Joshua had spied out the land God promised them, reporting that it “is an exceedingly good land” Yahweh will certainly give them, the Israelites refused, and they sought to stone them to death (see 13:25-14:10). Because of their faithlessness, this generation will not see the Promised Land and their children will suffer these 40 years in the wilderness for their parents’ and grandparents’ faithlessness until they themselves acquire possession of the land (v. 33). Now, there’s a meme that circulates around the internet every now and then that shows the short amount of time it would’ve taken Israel to get to the Promised Land, which is the image on the right.

The meme is usually shared by atheists who have the reader comprehension of a 4-year-old. Due to their biblical illiteracy, they think the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years because they were lost due to Moses’ inept navigation skills. When one actually reads the text, however (which is above), it is not because they got lost or because of Moses’ supposed ineptitude, but because of God’s curse upon them. Because of their faithlessness, God would not allow them to enter the land promised to them. It took them 40 years instead of 6 days because God Almighty would not allow them—to wait until the current generation passes and have their children enter the land.

Yet what does this wilderness wandering have to do with Christians? It has to do with what Christ did for us. Saint Augustine coined a theological term called recapitulation, which vis-à-vis Jesus means the repetition and fulfilment of a past event. In the temptation of Jesus, He recapitulates two things, but we’ll only be talking about one of them here. Jesus recapitulates the 40-year wilderness wandering of Israel in His 40-day fasting in the wilderness. Just as Israel had to wander in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land for 40 years (for the 40 days of spying out the land), so Jesus suffered in the wilderness for 40 days before beginning His ministry in the land of Galilee.

The Israelites complained about the manna God miraculously provided for them, yet Jesus says in His temptation, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3). The Israelites put God to the test whenever they complained about Him to Moses, yet Jesus says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test'” (Matthew 4:7; Deuteronomy 6:16). The Israelites worshiped the golden calf, yet Jesus says, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘”You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve”‘” (Matthew 4:10; Deuteronomy 6:13). When Satan tempts Him to turn stones into bread, instead of exhibiting His own glory, Jesus trusts in the Word of God when we and Israel have failed to do so. When we and Israel have tested God’s power as a dare to prove He truly exists and is all-powerful, Jesus refrains from doing so when Satan tempts Him to jump off a cliff. And when we and Israel have given into sin and temptation and every wile of the devil, Jesus commanded Satan to depart and vowed to worship God alone when Satan tempted Him to bow down and worship him.

Already in the wilderness, before He even began His earthly ministry, Jesus did what you and I fail to do every day: to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Therefore, we can trust Jesus in what He did in His life, death, and resurrection, and what He continues to do in His ascension. Because He is the One who has resisted every temptation, we can trust in Him to “deliver us from temptation” (Lord’s Prayer). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Theology Terms Used

  • Recapitulation: the repeating and fulfilment of a past event during Jesus’ earthly ministry (e.g., His 40-day fasting in the wilderness fulfils the 40-year wandering of the Israelites as well as Adam and Eve’s failure to reject the devil in the Garden).

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