The people as a whole were problematic, as well as some individuals. Acts tells us that God endured their conduct for 40 years in the wilderness. Numbers says that the whole people failed except for two – two out of more than 2 million, not a high proportion. The people had one general problem and failed on three occasions of particular note.
The general problem with the people was ‘grumbling’. You need no talent to grumble, you need no brains to grumble, you need no character to grumble, you need no self-denial to set up the grumbling business. It is one of the easiest things in the world to do.
The people thought that because God was in the tabernacle, he did not know what they said when they went to their own tents. What a big mistake! They grumbled about the lack of water, they grumbled about the monotonous food. It says they grumbled because they could not have garlic, onions, fish, cucumbers, melons and leeks as they had in Egypt. God heard their grumbling and responded accordingly. Soon he sent them quails to supplement their diet of manna – so many that they lay 1.5 metres thick, covering 12 square miles of ground! The people went out to gather the quail, but while they were still eating the meat, God struck them with a severe plague because they had rejected him.
Grumbling probably does more damage to the people of God than any other sin.
OASIS OF KADESH
The first particular occasion for failure was when they arrived at the last oasis, 66 miles south-west of the Dead Sea (today called Ain Qudeist) in the Negev Desert. They were told to send 12 spies, one from each tribe, to spy out the land and return to tell the whole camp what it was like. They spent 40 days in the south around Hebron and also travelled up to the far north, and they found it a very fertile land. But the conclusion of their report was negative. They spread the rumor that the land would devour them. They would rather go back to Egypt.
Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, said that God was with them and there was nothing to fear. They agreed that the land was well fortified and that it was inhabited by much bigger people. We know from archaeology that the average height of the Hebrew slaves was quite small compared to the Canaanites. They agreed too that the walls around the cities provided an obstacle. But they argued that God had not brought them this far to leave them in the desert. They told the people that God would carry them on his shoulders (just as a small boy might feel like a giant on the shoulders of his father).
The pessimistic arguments of the other 10 spies were more persuasive, however. The crowd actually wanted to stone Moses and Aaron for bringing them all this way. It had been just three months since they had left Egypt, but they were prepared to kill Moses and Aaron for bringing them out of slavery! They preferred to trust in what the 10 spies saw and said. They took the majority verdict, which in this case was contrary to God’s intentions.
The contrast in the two reports is remarkable. The 10 men said they were not able to take the land and that was that; Joshua and Caleb said, ‘We can’t, but God can’. This was not merely positive thinking but a willingness to see the problems as opportunities for God.
As a result of the faithless outlook of the majority, God swore that not one of that generation would ever get into the Promised Land – except Joshua and Caleb. We are told that he swore by himself, because there is no one else higher by whom he could swear.
They had been spying out the land for 40 days, so God said that for every day they had spied out the land and come to the wrong conclusion, they would spend one year in the wilderness. He made the punishment fit the crime. This event becomes the hinge of the book of Numbers, just a third of the way through. Had they obeyed God, the rest of the events in the book would never have taken place.
THE VALLEY OF ‘SCORPIONS’
The next time the people tested God and failed came after a magnificent victory over the Canaanite king of Arad.
They made their way back down into the deep valley of Arovar, also known as the ‘valley of the scorpions’. It is just below Mount Hor and is well known for its scorpion and snake population. Once again the Israelites grumbled against God, returning to the theme of the poor diet, saying they would prefer to return to Egypt rather than remain in the desert.
This time God punished them by sending snakes so that many were bitten and died. Realizing their sin, they asked Moses to intercede for them. God did not stop the snakes, but he sent a cure for the snakebites. Moses set up a copper snake on a pole on the top of the mountain looking over the valley. If anyone was bitten by a snake, they could look at that copper snake on the pole and would not die. All they needed was faith to believe it would work.
PLAIN OF MOAB
The third and final crisis came when they got to the plains of Moab. They achieved a number of victories along the way. They wanted to use a main route through Edom. Their request was denied, despite their historical links (Edom was descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother). A battle ensued and God gave them victory over Edom and Moab, so they were feeling confident. They camped by the Jordan looking across to the Promised Land.
But there was opposition to their advance on Canaan. The people of Ammon and Moab, owning land bordering the Promised Land, decided to disrupt their plans and hired a soothsayer from Syria to achieve their aim.
This soothsayer from Damascus was named Balaam. He had built a reputation for seeing the defeats of the armies he had cursed. But he had never been asked to curse Israel, for, as he actually explained to those who hired him, he could only say what God gave him to say! It was customary for a soothsayer to curse the opposition prior to a battle and so Balaam was asked to pronounce ill words upon the Israelites. His motive was purely the fee he would be paid. However, he proved to be unable to utter curses against Israel and ended up blessing her instead. He was unable to help himself!
Balaam announces that God will bless and multiply Israel – a prediction about King David and the son of David. So we have an amazing account of a non-believer prophesying a blessing upon Israel.
The account also tells the extraordinary story of the talking ass who refuses to advance when he sees an angel in his path. After Balaam beats the ass for refusing to move, the ass finally tells him why he is not moving! (Those who question whether this took place forget that animals can be possessed by evil spirits and good spirits. The serpent in the Garden of Eden and Jesus sending demons into the pigs are two biblical examples.) The message is clear: the animal has more sense than Balaam!
It is a sad story because of the sequel. Balaam finally realized how to obtain money from the kings of Ammon and Moab. He told them to forget about cursing but instead to send some of their pretty girls into the camp to seduce the Israelites. As this was prohibited by the law, most of the illicit sex took place outside the camp. But one man, Zimri, had the affront to bring a girl to the very door of the tabernacle.
Seeing this awful act, a man named Phinehas pinned the couple to the ground with a spear. Thereafter he was given a perpetual priesthood for himself and his family. He was the only man to defend God’s house against what was happening in God’s sight. The judgement may seem harsh, but remember that the Israelites were heading for the Promised Land. One of the worst features they would find there would be immorality. There were fertility goddesses, occult statues and phallic symbols, and all kinds of licentious behavior. They needed to realize that such things were abominations before God.