Bible: Rebellion in the wilderness

Sep 16, 2019 by

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Imagine your family has been excitedly preparing for a two-week camping trip. You have a new tent and lots of supplies and food. The first few days are great fun — hiking, watching birds, swimming and eating around the campfire.

Reta Halteman Finger

Finger

But then it rains hard all day, the tent leaks and mosquitoes arrive. A bear raids your food supply. The heat rises, tempers flare, and camping is no longer fun. Half the family wants to go home early.

Now imagine you’re an Israelite who has been on this “camping trip” for years! The thrill of freedom from Egyptian slavery wore off long ago. You’re tired of manna with the occasional quail feast and the constant search for water. Many have died along the way. Moses and Aaron don’t always seem to know what they’re doing. Where is this “land flowing with milk and honey” that Moses promised?

At last your sprawling crowd of refugees is close enough to Canaan for Yahweh to tell Moses to send spies there — one from each of the 12 tribes — to find out whether the people will be able to move in and occupy it. What are you hoping for?

The spies bring a very mixed report. All agree the land flows with milk and honey, but 10 of them also warn the people of potential enemies in the area — Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites. These people “are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large.”

Caleb boldly encourages the people: “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Joshua supports him.

The immediate reaction is: You’re crazy! We’ll quickly fall by the sword, and our wives and children will be raped and enslaved all over again! Would that we had died in Egypt, or even in this wilderness!

This reaction makes logical sense. How can a crowd of ill-fed, ill-clothed, unarmed people ever conquer walled cities bristling with hostile soldiers?

The loudest complaints are from the older ex-slaves rather than youth born in the wilderness. They rebel and make plans to return to Egypt, although 14:10 probably exaggerates by saying that “the whole congregation threatened to stone [the leaders].”

In grief and anger, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces before the people, and Caleb and Joshua tear their clothes in lament. They, as well as Yahweh, are being put to the test.

Then the glory of Yahweh appears at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. Yahweh responds in anger at their lack of trust — and threatens to kill them all.

Then Moses negotiates with Yahweh, as if Yahweh is human and can be persuaded by a skilled diplomat. If you kill all these people, argues Moses, your reputation will be ruined among all the Egyptians and other nations who have heard of you.

Moses piles it on, quoting from Ex. 34:6-7, where Yahweh announced he is a God of steadfast love and forgiveness.

Convinced by Moses’ plea, Yahweh relents: “I do forgive, just as you have asked.”

Thus our lessons end, but it’s not the end of the story. Moses’ quote from Exodus 34 also includes Yahweh’s assertion, “I will by no means clear the guilty!” In this case, it means none of the former slaves from Egypt who rebelled “will see the land I promised to give to their ancestors” (14:23). Only the generation born in Sinai (and children born in Egypt) will see it.

Questions for discussion:

— Both Moses in this lesson, and Abraham in Gen. 18:23-33, argue with Yahweh and succeed in changing his mind. What does this say about Yahweh’s character?

— When Caleb returns from investigating Canaan, he wants to “go up at once and occupy it” (13:30). How does this compare with Israelis today, who often violently occupy Palestinian land and resources? Should Mennonites support BDS — Boycott, Divest, Sanction — against Israel?

Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.


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