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In this lesson, we’re going to get an overview of Israel’s long journey through a desert wilderness. This what we might call her honeymoon period with Yahweh because it’s the very first chapter in her existence as God’s special nation—His metaphorical bride. But unlike a normal honeymoon which is supposed to be filled with joy and pleasure, Israel’s first experience of Yahweh is very negative. Not because He is being difficult—but because she proves to be a very non-committed bride.
What kind of a bride sneaks out of the hotel room on her first night with her husband to go sleep with other lovers? This is the kind of wife Israel is—only instead of just sneaking out one night, she sneaks out every night and every day to go be with other lovers. Those other lovers are the gods of Egypt, and the kind of “sex” she has with them takes the form of soul worship. The Jews are devoted to the gods of Egypt, and they brought idols of those gods with them during their great exodus. All throughout their wilderness journey in Period 2, they will be secretly worshiping those false gods in their tents, and teaching their children to do the same. Even after the Israelites invade the Promised Land under the guidance of Joshua in Period 3, they will still be worshiping their phony gods. So it’s not like these people don’t know what soul devotion is–they just don’t want to spend it on Yahweh.
In Leviticus 17, Yahweh complains to Moses that people are sneaking off to go make sacrifices to “goat demons” in the field—idol gods which they refuse to stop worshiping even after Yahweh’s tent Tabernacle is constructed and put to use. It is because of this shady activity in the fields that Yahweh forbids people from making their own sacrifices to Him. At first, people were making sacrifices to Yahweh wherever and whenever they wanted. But they were also sacrificing to other gods as well. Once you see someone barbecuing animal meat, there’s no way of knowing which god they are sacrificing to, and of course they will lie if they’re asked. So to discourage the public worship of idols and make it harder for people to sneak sacrifices to other gods, Yahweh demands that all sacrifices be brought directly to His Tabernacle where they can be processed by authorized priests. Anyone caught trying to sacrifice on their own will be exiled from the community.
“If any Israelite sacrifices a bull or a lamb or a goat anywhere inside or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the entrance of the Tabernacle to present it as an offering to Yahweh, that person will be as guilty as a murderer. Such a person has shed blood and will be cut off from the community.” (Lev. 17:3-4)
Now you can outlaw certain behaviors, but that won’t change soul attitudes. When people could no longer sacrifice to their gods outside, they just settled for worshiping their idols within the privacy of their own tents. Their external loyalty to Yahweh was merely a pretense, and the insincerity of their actions quickly surfaced in the form of bitter complaints whenever Yahweh didn’t do what they wanted.
THE FOUR BOOKS
Before we look at an overview of the wilderness journey, let’s learn about how the four books of this period are organized. Moses is the author of these books, and we find him speaking in the first person at times. We also find a whole lot of direct quotations from Yahweh. In the New Testament, we sometimes like to use red ink to show whenever Jesus is speaking. If we did the same for Yahweh, then we’d discover that the Old Testament has far more red in it than the four Gospel books. Almost the entire book of Leviticus is Yahweh speaking directly to people, so pay attention to those quotation marks as you read. Numbers comes in second place for having the most quotes from Yahweh, followed by Exodus and Deuteronomy. Our Bible publishers are really doing us a disservice by refusing to highlight Yahweh’s words in red. This inappropriate exaltation of one God over the Others only leads us astray and causes us to miss how often one of our Gods is talking throughout the Bible. If you want to get a more accurate view of things, get out a highlighter and start marking all the passages where Yahweh is speaking or being directly quoted. You’ll never view the Old Testament the same again.
Moses is our narrator through the wilderness journey, and his writings have been divided into four books (click on the image to enlarge it):
THE ORIGINAL PLAN
Yahweh’s original plan for Israel was that she travel directly from Egypt to the Promised Land, conquer the land by killing all of its native inhabitants, and then settle down there for a long life of obedience and bliss. After a brief journey that is filled with complaints and a few well-deserved spankings from Yahweh, Israel reaches the Promised Land in Numbers 12. Then we come to that famous story of twelve spies going out to survey the land. The idea was to get excited about what a lush place Yahweh was giving them and also to assess the best way to invade it. But when the spies return, their report is very grim. Yes, the land was lush, but the natives look like they are far too powerful for Israel’s army of foot soldiers to go up against. The spies get so carried away with their doomsday report that they squelch any enthusiasm the people might have had about conquering the land. Instead of obeying Yahweh’s commands to begin their military conquest, everyone weenies out and a huge pity party erupts. Oh, what a terrible lot they are in. Yahweh is a big meanie who can’t be counted on for anything. Moses is a dumb leader.
This insulting whine fest makes Yahweh so angry that He comes up with a very unexpected punishment. Israel will have to now wander for forty years in the wilderness and wait for the whole generation of faithless complainers to die off before He will allow their children to enter the Promised Land. This is what Yahweh says–but it’s not like He erects a barrier to physically block the Israelites from entering the land. So some of them decide that maybe this time they overdid the whining and they try to go back to the original plan of immediately conquering the Promised Land. But they’ve pushed Yahweh too far this time, and He refuses to take back His forty year death sentence. When the Israelite soldiers try to invade the land, He allows the native inhabitants to give them a brutal beating. The Israelites finally realize that they have no way of undoing the forty year curse they’ve brought upon themselves due to their foul attitudes. Let the wandering begin (see The Last Straw).
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE JOURNEY
Let’s now check out some major highlights of the wilderness journey.
UNDERSTANDING GOD’S WRATH
Yahweh’s dramatic outbursts of wrath in Period 2 are often cited by those who want to claim that “the God of the Old Testament” was a mean and merciless Guy. Yet as we look through this summary, we notice that Yahweh never kills anyone without serious provocation. Every time we see Him lashing out with some plague or ordering someone to be stoned, it’s always in response to willful defiance on the part of the Israelites.
In Period 2, everyone that Yahweh shows special favor to intentionally betrays Him. In Lesson 5, we learned that God set the tribe of Levi apart to have special access to Him. It was the Levites who were put in charge of caring for the Tabernacle—God’s Personal dwelling place. And of the three main groups of Levites, the Kohathites were most favored of all, for they had the priestly line and they were put in charge of caring for the most holy objects, such as the Ark of the Covenant. Yet in Numbers 16, it is a Kohathite Levite who betrays Yahweh by riling up a bunch of division among the people and trying to mutiny Moses (see Korah’s Rebellion).
The priests who served in the Tabernacle were super privileged. They got to enter the Holy Place and touch sacred things. Yet in Leviticus 9-10, it is priests who blatantly disrespect Yahweh by deciding they could bring Him offerings He did not approve of (see Abihu & Nadab Offer Strange Fire to the Lord).
It was Yahweh’s first high priest Aaron who helped make Israel’s golden calf god and then later joined with his sister Miriam in stirring up trouble against Moses (see Snarky Siblings). And it was both Moses and Aaron who tried to act like Yahweh was doing their bidding by causing water to flow from a rock (see Understanding Yahweh: Why Moses & Aaron Were Banned From The Promised Land).
In this period, we see a distinct pattern emerge: whatever Yahweh tells the people not to do is what they do. When He rains food down from the sky, He tells them not to collect more than they need. But they do anyway, so He turns the excess into maggots.
When He sets aside a special Sabbath day for everyone to rest and think about Him, people go right on with their daily activities. The first time, Yahweh is merciful. But then He gets fed up and orders a later offender to be stoned to death.
Here is another grim pattern: it’s at times when God is really pouring down generous blessings that His people really stick it to Him. It’s after He gives them a great military victory that they all badmouth Him so much that He finally plagues them with poisonous snakes just to hush them up (see The Fate of the Bronze Snake).
Then, it’s right after He miraculously shields them from an evil sorcerer and king that His people run off to worship a new god they have discovered (the Baal of Peor) and have illicit sex with the women who worship him. This new god is the same god that the evil sorcerer and king worshiped. So while God shields His people from what they would consider to be another powerful god, they run off to go offer themselves heart and soul to that very god while not even bothering to thank Yahweh (see Balak & Balam & Phinehas).
More miracles happen during these forty years than we first realize by reading through Numbers. When Moses reflects back on the journey in Deuteronomy, he gives us more information. We learn that Yahweh has been supernaturally preserving the Israelites’ material things as well as generously providing for them in every other way.
“For forty years I led you through the wilderness, yet your clothes and sandals did not wear out.” (Deut. 29:5)
When we take all the facts into consideration instead of just focusing on a few violent moments, we realize that Yahweh is being incredibly patient with people who are intentionally defying Him every single day. Remember that during this whole time, the Israelites are secretly worshiping other gods in their tents. Why can’t they just throw their stupid idols away? What’s so hard about hurling the offensive things into the distant sand and moving on? Is it really so much to ask? And yet as we move into the next period, we will find Moses’ successor Joshua urging the people to get rid of the idols that he knows they are still carrying around with them—and this will be after they have settled into the Promised Land. When we really understand the context of those famous words “Choose this day who you will serve,” and “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” it’s really rather depressing. The only reason Joshua said these words is because Israel was still refusing to commit her heart to Yahweh.
“Now fear Yahweh and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. But if serving Yahweh seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve: whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh.” (Josh. 24:14-15)
In this passage, all of the Israelites will swear to be faithful to Yahweh, just as they’ve sworn several other times throughout Period 2 that they would honor the Covenant He made with them. Yet despite their passionate promises and public declarations, a glimpse inside of their tents reveals where the people’s true loyalties lie. Those idols just never leave. Instead, they are passed down from one generation to another. The children see the sins of their parents and know that their parents were killed off in the wilderness because they were unfaithful, yet the children still cling to their parents’ idols, and then rush to serve every new god they come across in the Promised Land.
THE GREAT MERCY OF YAHWEH
Let’s be honest: if we were in Yahweh’s position, Israel would have never survived through Period 2. We would have turned her into smoke and rubble. How many times are you going to stand still and do nothing while someone slaps you in the face? As quick as we are to accuse Yahweh of being mean and short tempered, we are constantly proving in our own lives that we aren’t willing to put up with a fraction of the attitude that He does. Sure, sometimes we feel proud of our gracious behavior when we don’t return some nasty insult. But Yahweh was dealing with millions of people who were betraying Him every day.
Despite what many try to say, the main theme of Period 2 is Yahweh’s incredible mercy, patience, and grace, not His wrath. Yes, His wrath is real, and we certainly don’t want to start pretending that God never gets mad at His chosen people. But when we take an honest look at how much attitude Yahweh was putting up with during this period, we realize how out of line we are to accuse God of being short-tempered and hard to please.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SOUL ATTITUDE
Before we leave this period, there is one other issue we should discuss. These four books are some of Satan’s favorite ammo to use against the sincere Christian because it’s easy to miss the spiritual issues Yahweh is responding to when He breaks out some terrifying plague. When we read that the Israelites are eating the same manna every single day and then they get fed up and start grumbling about it—well, we can identify. And when the people have a hissy fit over not finding any water to drink, we can’t help but think of all the whining we’ve done in our lives over trials that really turned out to be quite trivial. The honest Christian will admit that he can’t even count how many times he’s doubted God, complained, and failed to show proper gratitude for all of the blessings in his life. As we read about Yahweh lashing out with fire, snakes, and killer diseases, it’s easy to worry that God might be fed up with us as well. After all, it’s human to whine and fuss. Humans are delicate wimps who quickly fall apart when there are sudden negative changes to their environment. Demons want us to believe that God has no compassion for our struggles and that He is totally disgusted with us whenever our faith in Him wavers. This is why it’s important to read the whole Bible, not just one period. When we know the whole story, we start realizing that our Gods are always responding to soul attitudes, not just external actions.
Job lived in Period 1, and what did he do besides complain incessantly? But did Yahweh respond with poisonous snakes and fire from the sky? Did He crack open the earth and throw Job into it? No. He sternly redirected Job from going down a wrong theological path, but then He blessed Job’s socks off. He blessed him even more than he’d been blessed before, and Job was already mega rich (see Job).
King David was like Israel in that he had a long history of miraculous blessings from Yahweh. But then, like Israel, he let carnal lusts rule over him and intentionally broke several of Yahweh’s Laws. He was too lazy to treat God’s holy Ark with respect, and he insulted Yahweh by glorying in human strength instead of in God’s protection (see When a Man Touched the Ark and The Deadly Census). David did his share of willful rebelling, yet did Yahweh strike him down in rage? Did He shove David off a balcony and permanently cripple him, as He did to King Ahaziah? Did He say David’s sins were unforgivable as He did to the priest Eli (see Three Priests who Went to Hell)? No. When David repented, Yahweh always forgave and then He commended David for his sincere devotion.
When Peter denied Christ, did Christ then spit on him when they met again? Did He say, “Some crummy disciple you turned out to be. Get out of My sight because you disgust Me”? No, instead He made a point to tell Peter that he was still counted among Jesus’ close friends.
“But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.’” (Mk. 16:7)
When Elijah threw a pity party about how unrewarding it was to stay faithful to Yahweh, did Yahweh take instant offense and strike the prophet down? No, instead He brought him snacks and then gently encouraged him (see Lesson 14).
So what’s the difference? All of these men treated Yahweh with disrespect, yet He didn’t cut them off or flip out on them. Why not? Because unlike the Israelites in Period 2, these men sincerely cared about pleasing Yahweh in their hearts. They really wanted to do right, but they just didn’t have perfection in them. It was the desires of their souls, not their ability to control their flesh, which God responded to. It’s the same with you today. No matter how much you want to please God, you’re going to have some carnal moments. You’ll do your share of whining and fussing. There will be times when you’ll get mad at Him and accuse Him of being evil. We humans are wimps and we can’t help it. Our flesh gets the better of us more often than we care to admit. But in the biblical records, Yahweh teaches us that we don’t have to be afraid of our flesh damaging our relationship with Him. Our Gods have never demanded perfection from us under either Covenant. They’ve only ever wanted our sincere soul devotion. If that’s what you are giving Them today, then you can know that They are very pleased with you.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 8: Entering the Promised Land
Click here to see all the lessons in this series.