6. A Pilgrim Nation
Now the Lord intended not to lead His people straight across the desert to the Land of Promise, but to make their journeying a time of discipline and training, so that, when they reached their heritage, they might be fit to possess and rule it. Therefore He led them southwards into a land of tumbled rocks and splintered hills called Sinai, that there He might teach them about Himself and His will.
For three dreary days they journeyed over burning, flint-strewn marl, where it was impossible to find a spring. At last there was a gleam of water in the distance, and all speeded up their march, dreaming of cool shade and refreshing draughts. But when they leaned over to drink, the water was bitter to the taste; and in their disappointment the weary, thirsty folk cried out against their leader who had brought them to such a spring. “Marah,” “Bitterness,” Bitterness,” they called it in their anger. Then Moses made his prayer to the Lord, and a certain tree was shown to him, and when he had cast it into the spring the waters became sweet, and the people drank and were refreshed.
Striking camp, they journeyed from Marsh one short stage, and then, winding down a narrow valley among low hills, they came into the valley of Elim. Here was a sight to gladden eyes weary of desert sands and cloudless glare of sunshine. Palm-trees waved their feathery crests in the air and cast a refreshing shade, tamarisks grew thickly, and everywhere was green foliage and bloom and scent. Down the midst of the valley babbled a clear, strong stream fed from twelve well-springs. So, in the coolness of this happy valley, the wanderers rested and were glad.
Then came a stage that brought back memories of the past, for their journey brought them down from the prosperous valley of Elim to the sea. There, beyond the tossing blue waters, lay the long range of hills that borders Egypt on the east. Black and grim their crests stood out against the red, setting sun. So the people looked their last upon the House of Bondage, and remembered their affliction only as waters that pass away.
But now for a period their way led through the barren wilderness of Sin. Nothing grew there to feed them, and the food they carried with them soon was consumed. Then fierce murmurings broke out against their leaders. “Would that God had slain us in the land of Egypt, where, slaves or not, we had plenty to eat. You have brought us out into this waste to kill a whole nation with hunger.” Then Moses spoke sharply to the people (for he was grieved at their senseless ingratitude), and sent Aaron to bid them draw near before the Lord. And when the people looked towards the wilderness, the light of God shone in the pillar of the cloud, and they knew that the Lord was there. And the Lord gave His word to Moses — “This evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have bread to the full; so shall you know that I am God.”
Then as the sun set, a vast cloud of quails flew up and settled around the camp, and the people slew and ate. That night there fell a heavy dew on all the earth about the tents of Israel; and when the dew had vanished as the sun climbed high, amazingly all the desert sands were covered, as it were, with hoar-frost, with a small, round grain. When the people saw it they marvelled. “Manna? What is it?” they said. And Moses answered them: “This is God’s gift of bread to you. Let each one gather it in the morning (for it melts before the sun), as much as is needed for their household. Let no one gather more than they need to take it into storage.” Yet in spite of his commandment, some of the greedy among the people gathered more than they could eat, and saved it for another day; but when they went to use it the next morning, it was loathsome and corrupt. No manna (for so they called it thereafter), remembering their first question, fell upon the seventh day; but on the sixth each household gathered a double supply, and what they stored for the Sabbath remained fresh and sweet. Yet, even so, some stubborn types among the people went out on the Sabbath to gather as they did on other days; but they came back empty-handed, and earned nothing but the rebuke of the Lord.
So in this wondrous fashion was Israel fed through all the forty years of the nation’s wanderings in the desert. Never did the manna fail them until they had reached the Land of Promise. It was a white, seed-like thing, sweet to the taste, like thin cakes sweetened with honey. And in memory of this great wonder, a vessel of the manna was kept in store among the holy things of the nation, that it might ever be a witness of the goodness of God.
Now, at God’s command, Moses led his people up out of the burning wastes of Sin into the foot of the long valley that runs up to the foot of the great mountain mass of Sinai. Feiran, they call it now, but in those days the name of it was called Rephidim. The upper valley was fertile, with shady trees and a pleasant stream tinkling through the greenery — a haven of rest and beauty, surrounded by wild, thunder-riven rocks that lift, on every hand, splintered pinnacles of fantastic shape and colour. But in the lower valley all was bare and desolate, for the upper stream exhausted itself before it could reach the lower levels. So once again the senseless clamour of reproach broke out. Moses had brought a nation up out of Egypt merely to kill them, by thirst this time. In his need Moses cried to God, and he was bidden to stand before a rock in the lower valley, holding in his hand the rod with which he changed the waters of the Nile, while the whole nation was gathered before him. Then, lifting the rod, he struck, as God directed him, the iron face of the rock; and miraculously a spring of freshwater burst forth, and the stream ran down the valley gurgling and foaming, and the people drank and were satisfied. Yet, to show his anger at the foolish murmurs of the people, Moses marked the place with names of evil significance. “Massah and Meribah,” “Provocation and Strife,” he called it, so that, with the memory of God’s bounty, should go the memory of a people’s folly.
Now the men of the tribe of Amalek had their home in the fertile upper valley of Rephidim, and they were by no means prepared to yield it to this horde of vagabonds which came pressing up from the desert. They prepared their horses and came forth to make a fight for their palm-trees and water-springs. On the side of Israel, Moses chose out a captain, Joshua, the son of Nun, and ordered him to pick the fittest men to go out to battle. So on the next day the battle took place in the valley between the towering hills, and all day long the strife swayed back and forth with changing fortune. Moses, with Aaron and Hur, stood on the hill overlooking the battle-field, and so it seemed that ever when Moses raised his hand with the wondrous rod in it, the morale of the men of Israel lifted high, and they drove the men of Amalek before them. But when Moses grew weary and his arm dropped to his side, the tide of battle turned, and the Amalekites thrust the Israelites down the valley.
Therefore Aaron and Hur came to Moses, and set him on a great stone; and, standing on either side of him, each one held up a hand of the great leader, and kept it fixed and steady. There stood the three, immovable as if graven out of the rock, all the long day of strife. Whenever the panting Israelite lifted his eyes, he saw the hands of his great leader raised as though in appeal to the Lord, or pointing the way to victory.
So, as the red sun sloped westwards, and the shadows grew long across the valley, Israel at last drove the Amalek back, with cruel slaughter, and took possession of their valley of Rephidim. And on the hill where he had lifted his hands to the God of Battles, Moses built an altar and called it “YHVH-Nissi,” “The Lord My Banner.”
In all this time Moses had been severed from his wife and his children. But now when the nation was free and safely camped in Rephidim, there to remain for a season, Jethro, the priest of Midian, came to their camp, bringing with him his daughter Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and her two sons Gershom and Eliezer. There was great excitement between them when they met, and Jethro marvelled much over all the wonders that God had wrought by the hand of Moses. So the old man dwelt with his son-in-law for a time, and then departed to his own home. Yet he left behind him a proof of his wisdom, and did no small service to Moses in his governance of Israel. For, seeing that everyone who had a grievance brought it to the leader of the nation, till he was exhausted with the hearing of a multitude of little wrongs and follies, Jethro counselled Moses no longer to waste his strength on such trifles, but to save himself for his true work. “Choose out good and honest men” he said, “and make them rulers, to order the affairs of the people — rulers of tens, of hundreds, of thousands, as it may be. Let them hear the small matters with which you are burdened at present. Only when the matter is too great for them to judge, let them bring it to you to determine. So shall you be able to endure, and the people shall be ruled in peace.”
Jethro’s counsel seemed good to Moses, and so, before the ancient priest of Midian went back to his own home, the lesser judges were appointed, and Israel began to govern itself.