Moses: the Years in the Wilderness

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After their escape from Egypt the Israelites lived a nomadic existence for forty years before eventually entering the promised land of Canaan. (For details of their journeys see Numbers ch. 33, vv. 1-49.) In fact they reached the borders of Canaan within a year of leaving Egypt but were deterred from entering by the reports of the scouts they had dispatched to spy out the land. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb these scouts falsely claimed that it was an inhospitable land inhabited by 'men of great stature' (Numbers ch. 13, vv. 32-33) and so the Israelites decided not to try and take possession of it. God punished them for this lack of faith by condemning them to wander in the desert for forty years and by decreeing that, apart from Joshua and Caleb and their children, no Israelite then over the age of twenty, not even Moses, would enter the promised land (Numbers ch. 14, vv. 1-39).

Moses led the Israelites throughout their forty years in the desert. During this time he had to deal with problems of many different kinds, and his relationship with the Israelites was often fraught: they frequently 'murmured against him' and complained that it would have been better for them to have been left behind as slaves in Egypt (Numbers ch. 14, v. 2). Among the problems which Moses faced were:

  • the necessity of supplying a very large group of people - well over half-a-million at least (Exodus ch. 12, v. 37, Numbers ch. 11, v. 21) - with food and water in harsh terrain. This problem became apparent immediately after the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea (see Moses: the Exodus from Egypt), when having gone three days without water they came to Marah where the water was bitter: Moses threw a tree into the water, which made it drinkable (Exodus ch. 15, vv. 23-26). (Lack of water was a recurrent problem - see, e.g., Numbers ch. 20, vv. 1-13: Moses caused water to gush out of a rock by striking it with his rod.) Soon after leaving Marah the Israelites complained about lack of food: Moses dealt with this problem by telling them to eat the quails which appeared in their encampment in the evening and the small round plant which appeared on the ground once the dew had disappeared in the morning (Exodus ch. 16, vv. 2-17). The Israelites, who had not seen this plant before, called it 'manna' (in Hebrew מָ‏ן‎ man) (Exodus ch. 16, v.31), and they lived off it throughout their years in the desert (Exodus ch. 16, v. 35, but see Deuteronomy ch. 2, v. 6) - though not without complaint (see Numbers ch. 11, vv. 4-5: 'Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic'.)
  • the hostility of some of the tribes through whose territory the Israelites wished to pass. Often the Israelites were able to avoid conflict with these tribes (see, e.g., Deuteronomy, ch. 2, vv. 2-8 & 16-23), but within months of leaving Egypt they fought and defeated the Amalekites (Exodus ch. 17, vv. 8-16), and later they were victorious in battle against Sihon, king of the Amorites (Numbers ch. 21, vv. 21-30) and Og, king of Bashan (Numbers ch. 21, vv. 33-35). The commander of the Israelites in all these battles was Joshua, who was consistently loyal to Moses and who eventually led the Israelites into Canaan (Exodus ch. 17, vv. 8-14, Deuteronomy ch. 34, v. 9, Joshua chs. 1-6).
  • the tendency to social unrest and disorder among the Israelites themselves. In the first months after leaving Egypt Moses spent a great deal of time listening to the Israelites' complaints about their neighbours' misbehaviour and settling disputes between them - judicial functions which he soon delegated, reserving for himself only the most important cases (Exodus ch. 18, vv. 13-26). The solemn proclamation of the Ten Commandments which God had communicated to him on Mount Sinai will have made clear to the Israelites the principles or 'laws' to which their behaviour was expected to conform (Exodus chs. 19 & 20), and harsh penalties for violation of these 'laws' will have helped to secure conformity (see, e.g., Leviticus ch. 20). (For more on this see Moses: the Ten Commandments and for another instance of delegation see Numbers ch. 11.) Even so the Israelites were not an easy people to lead; and in Deuteronomy ch. 9, vv. 7-24 Moses reminds them of their many 'rebellions'. The most serious of these occurred during one of Moses' absences on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites demanded to be allowed to worship idols and Aaron, Moses' brother, gave in to their demands and made a golden calf, which they then worshipped with singing and dancing. Moses' response to this act of disobedience was to order those Israelites who were loyal to him to kill those who would not abandon their worship of idols (Exodus, ch. 32).
  • challenges to his authority. Moses was an autocratic ruler, who was also a prophet and claimed to lead the Israelites on the basis of commandments he had received from God. On at least one occasion, however, his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam disputed his authority by arguing that they too, as prophets, could have knowledge of God's will (Numbers ch. 12, see also Exodus ch. 15, v. 20). Rather differently, some Israelites seem to have resented the way in which Moses kept all power for himself and his immediate family, and it was for this reason (Numbers ch. 16, v. 3) that Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and other eminent men initiated a protest which won wide support among the Israelites before Moses was able to suppress it (Numbers ch. 16, vv. 1-35).

Moses succeeded in bringing the Israelites a second time to the territory of the Moabites, a mountainous strip of land running along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea on the borders of the promised land of Canaan. Despite old age 'his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated' (Deuternomy, ch. 34, v. 7), and though he knew that he would not enter Canaan, he was able to go up to the top of Mount Pisgah near the city of Jericho and from there he looked out over the promised land. Soon after this he died and was buried at an unknown location in the land of the Moabites (Deuteronomy ch. 34, vv. 1-6).

Moses was a powerful and able leader, who skilfully maintained his authority over the Israelites in extremely challenging circumstances. In the sixteenth century CE the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1467-1527) cites Moses as one of the great rulers whose example he commends to those who wish to exercise political power successfully - see Il principe (The Prince) ch. VI.

The phrase 'manna from heaven' may be used to refer to any benefit or gift that comes one's way unexpectedly.