Moses: Listen ~ Love ~ Live
The Book of Exodus in Continuous Narrative
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
• To many readers, this would be thought of, simply as an account of the Passover,
and the exodus from Egypt.
• It is “core material” in the span of what is often referred to as “Salvation History”.
Our account follows the Biblical presentation with the addition of annotations
where a clarification may be helpful. These have been added by the editors and
are not part of the original works. Our text is based on a range of sources
published over the past Century. The details are presented in a Bibliography at
the end of this paper. Some of the language has been modified to render it closer
to contemporary English without compromising its dignity and somewhat
formal style. The account attempts to offer a continuous narrative, ensuring
the inclusion of any information necessary for adequate understanding, without
the reader having to piece it together from various books or other relevant
passages of the Hebrew Scriptures.
• With the approval of the publishers, we offer an excerpt from the Jerusalem Bible:
We also attach a copy of the Law — The Complete Shema — recited several times each day by practising Jews. This will remind us that the very first Commandment of God is that He alone is our God, and we are to love Him before all others.
Chapter One In the House of Bondage
Chapter Two The Coming of the Deliverer
Chapter Three A False Start and a Vision of God
Chapter Four Pharoah and his slaves
Chapter Five The Great Dliverance
Chapter Six A Pilgrim Nation
Chapter Seven At the Mount of God
Chapter Eight The Vision of God’s dwelling place
Chapter Nine The Golden Calf
Chapter Ten The Scapegoat
Chapter Eleven Murmurings and Misfortunes
Chapter Twelve The Aimless Years
Chapter Thirteen A Wise Fool from the East
Chapter Fourteen A Death in the Desert
Chapter One In the House of Bondage
The years that followed after the death of Joseph brought many changes, both to the family of Jacob in Goshen and to that ancient land which had given them a welcome and a shelter. For in that pleasant eastern province of the great land of the Nile the Israelites grew fast into a strong and prosperous clan. They numbered seventy when they came down out of Palestine; but generation by generation their numbers multiplied, until you might count them by thousands. The land around was high quality and fertile. Nowhere else in all the world, except perhaps in the other great river-land of Mesopotamia, was there such wealth, such skill in all the arts and crafts of life, or such wisdom as in Egypt; and the sons of the wandering shepherds who had come down at Joseph’s bidding out of Canaan were fast being changed into a nation, and were learning the ordering of a nation’s life from all they saw around them.
But if they were changing, Egypt herself was changing yet more rapidly. Joseph had not been long laid in his coffin, when the native-born princes of the land began to murmur against the rule of the desert kings who had lorded it over them for so long. Far up the great river, in the city of Thebes, which later grew to be one of the mighty cities of the world — “hundred-gated Thebes” — there arose a prince of the ancient race, who cast off the yoke of the foreign Pharaoh and sought to free the whole land from its foreign overlords. Then came many years of fierce war, and the struggle swayed up and down the long valley, as success turned to the Theban or to the shepherd princes. The prince, Seqenen-Ra, who led the revolt, was slain in battle; but ever, as the years went on, the Southerners (native race) grew stronger and stronger, and the Outlanders (Pharaoh and his foreign overlords) grew feeble.
At last they were driven into their great stronghold, Avaris, and beleaguered there. They persevered in defending the strong walls, fighting fiercely attacks upon the besieger’s camp, and dashing out in warships on the canals around the city; but in the end it all proved of no avail. Unwillingly they had to loose their hold upon the land, and sullenly they withdrew beyond the deserts from which they had come in earlier times. And so there arose up a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph, and many kings after him whose only thought of the men of Israel in Goshen would be that they were friends of the hated foreign princes who had been driven forth from the land.
So for generations Israel lived in the shadow, as they had previously lived in the sunshine, and were despised and hated where once they had been welcomed. And during these days Egypt became a mighty conquering power, and sent her hosts abroad over Palestine and Syria, even unto the great river Euphrates; and all the nations of the world bowed down before her star, and kissed the ground before her Pharaoh, as before God manifest in the flesh. Now after many years there came to the throne of Egypt a Pharaoh whose name was Ramses. Ramses the Great he is still called; but he was not great — only in pride and ambition. He was a fierce soldier, and, above all other things, a mighty builder.
Everywhere, throughout the land, he errected vast temples to the gods, and in the pride of his heart he set before them great statues of himself, hewn out of mighty blocks of granite, such as have never been handled by any other men in all the world, either before or since. For the carrying out of these great works he cast his eyes upon the men of Israel in Goshen. They were taken from their shepherding and husbandry and forced to bend their backs to all the bitter labour of Pharaoh’s building. Under the burning sun, and the cruel lash of the slave-driver, they moulded bricks, and dragged great blocks of red granite and white limestone and heaved huge stones up the long slopes of earth till they reached their place upon the wall. Two store cities in particular they built for their tyrant; Pithom, the sacred city of Atum, god of the Setting Sun, and Ramses, the name-city of a mighty monarch.
Yet, though many died in these labours and many were broken, not all the cruelty of Pharaoh could diminish the numbers of the men of Israel. Indeed it seemed that oppression only made them stronger. Then the cruel heart of the King was shaken with fear, because the number of this race of slaves increased continually; and he sent forth a cruel and hateful command. “Every son of the Hebrews that is born,” he said, “you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.” In this way he reduced their numbers so that the race of Israel should be cut off altogether out of the land.
Chapter Two The Coming of the Deliverer
Now it happened that in these days of sorrow a child was born in an Israelite household. It was a fine healthy boy, and when his mother looked upon him, she could not find it in her heart to yield her little one to the cruel river. For three months she hid him, and when she dared keep him no longer, she took a little papyrus boat, made water-tight with pitch, and therein she laid her baby, and set the boat in the shallow water among the reeds by the river-bank. And the boy’s elder sister Miriam stood near to observe what might take place.
It so happened that the beautiful princess, daughter of the Pharaoh, came along one day with her assistants and walked along the river-bank, and as she went she noticed the little boat among the reeds. Wondering what might be in it, she had it brought to her; and when she saw the baby and heard his cry, she recalled with sorrow her father’s cruel law, and she said, “This is one of the Hebrew’s children.” Miriam was quick to see her chance. Coming forward, she bowed before the princess and said, “Shall I call for you a Hebrew nurse to nurse the child for you?” And the princess, doubtless knowing well in her kindly heart the meaning of it all, agreed. So Miriam went and called her mother, and the princess gave the child into her keeping. “Take this child away,” she said, “and nurse it for me, and I will give you wages.”
So the glad mother took her baby, thus strangely given back to her, and nursed him for the princess. Then she brought him back to the princess, who took him as her own son, and called his name Moses. In the great College of the Priests, in the City of the Sun, which the Greeks call Heliopolis, and the Hebrews, On, the boy was put to his schooling, and he grew and became wise in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was a mighty man, both in word and deed, and, as some say, a famous soldier in the army of the tyrant king.
Chapter Three A False Start; and a Vision of God
Prince of Egypt though he had become, Moses could not forget that he was a son of Israel first. He had reached forty years, when his heart moved him to go forth among his own people and see their troubles; so he went out among the builders and the brick moulders, and always, as he saw their heavy lot, his anger grew the hotter. Now it happened that one day in a solitary place, he came upon a Hebrew toiling; and the Egyptian overseer lifted his rod and struck the slave. The anger of Moses flared up, and glancing quickly around to see that no one was in sight, he slew the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. But, unknown to him, his hasty deed had been noted; for next day, when he attempted to settle a quarrel between two Hebrews, the wrong-doer of the two answered him: “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?”
When Moses heard that, he knew that his life was in peril, for Pharaoh’s rage would be hot against him. Therefore he fled for his life beyond the great frontier wall of Egypt, and southwards into the desert of Sinai. Weary with his journey, he sat and rested by a well-side in the land of Midian. As the evening fell, there came along to the well the seven daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, to water their father’s flock; but when they had filled the troughs, some rude, ill-bred shepherds drove the girls away with their sheep. Moses came to the help of the shepherdesses, and put the rough-necks to flight, and watered the sheep; and when the priest’s daughters returned home, they told their father how a strange Egyptian had helped them. “Why have you not brought the man?” said the old priest. “Call him to come and eat with us.”
So Moses came into the house of Jethro, and dwelt there. Eventually the priest wedded him to his daughter Zipporah, and they had a son whom Moses called “Gershorrf,” which means “a stranger here,” because he knew that Midian was only his shelter for a while, and not his home. Many a year he who had been a prince in Egypt dwelt as a shepherd in the land of Midian. Day by day he led the flocks of Jethro to the pastures in the narrow valleys that run up among the splintered cliffs and frowning hills of Sinai. All the time his heart was with his own people in Egypt, and he thought of their misery and their cruel toil. But One greater than he was thinking of them also; and in His own time God showed His servant that He remembered the promises which He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This is how it occurred. Moses had brought the flock of Jethro to a valley in the mighty range of Horeb, and, as he sat in the sunlight, and dreamed of the sorrows of his enslaved people, he saw, against the burnt rocks of the mountain-side, the flicker of a moving flame. It rose and fell and waved among the branches and leaves of an acacia bush; yet no branch or leaf seemed burnt by the fire that flickered around them. Then said Moses, “I will take a look at this wonder, and see why the bush is not burnt.” But as he drew near, the voice of God came from the midst of the burning. “Do not come any closer; take off your sandals, for you are standing upon holy ground.” And Moses knew that the Lord was in the flame.
He covered his face, for he dared not look upon God; and the Lord’s voice spake again. “I have seen the affliction of My people in Egypt, and their sorrows; and I have come down to deliver them and to lead them out of Egypt into a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Come, now, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
When Moses heard that word his heart sank, for though the stern and cruel Ramses was dead, yet he knew how terrible a thing it was to face any King of Egypt, who held himself to be a god among human beings. But, in spite of his hesitation, God commanded him go, and meet with the leaders of Israel, and tell them of God’s promise, and urge them to demand leave from Pharaoh to go three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD. “I Know”, said the Lord, “that Pharaoh will not let you go, except by force; but I will cause wonders to occur in his land, till he dare not keep you.”
In spite of all God’s promises, Moses hung back from this great task, pleading one excuse and then another, until the Lord’s anger was kindled against him. At last he yielded, and God had him take Aaron, his brother, as his companion and his spokesman. So Aaron, at God’s command, came forth from Egypt and met in the wilderness the brother whom he had not seen for so many years; and together, old men now, both of them (for Aaron was eighty-three, and Moses, eighty), set out for Egypt on their great adventure.
Chapter Four Pharaoh and his Slaves
Now when they met their people, they gathered the elders of the nation, and told them what God had promised; and the hearts of the people were filled with joy at the thought of deliverance. Then they sought the presence of the mighty King of Egypt. “Thus says the Lord God of Israel,” they said to him, “Let My people go, that they may hold a feast in my honour, in the wilderness”. But Pharaoh looked upon them with scorn. “Who is this Lord,” he sneered, “that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know such a Lord; neither will I let Israel go.” And when the two brothers pleaded with him, he cried: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, hinder the people from their work? Get to work!” In fact, so much was his mind set against them, that he ordered the overseers to withhold from the brick makers, the straw they were to mix with the clay of their bricks, yet also ordered that they must not reduce the number of the bricks which they made.
So it seemed that the case of the Israelites was only made the more grievous by the intervention of Moses and Aaron; for now the poor folk had to waste time hunting through the fields for stubble whereby to bind the clay, yet had to deliver still the same number of bricks as before. The overseers beat the Israelite leaders when the number of bricks fell short, and when they complained to Pharaoh, he mocked them. “You are idle, you are idle. Go and work.” Then the leaders turned upon Moses and Aaron. “Useless helpers you have been. God judge you, for you have made us hateful to Pharaoh, and put a sword in his hand to slay us.”
Once more the brothers went into Pharaoh’s audience-chamber to plead for the release of their people. Pharaoh sat upon his throne, with his wise men and magicians around him, for the Egyptians had great trust in art magic. The King jeered at the two pleading before him. “Show us a miracle,” he said. Then Moses said to his brother, “Cast down your rod before the King.” As the rod fell, it changed into a serpent, rearing its fiery crest and flaunting its coils before the very face of the lord of the Two Lands. But Pharaoh gave a sign to his wise men, and by their black art and illusion it seemed that their spears became serpents also. Yet even so the victory was with the Hebrew brothers, for the serpent of Aaron darted upon the others and devoured them. But even this did not move the stubborn King.
With the morning light the next day, the King went forth with his priests and his wise men to the river-bank to worship the great god Hapi (as the Egyptians had named their god of the river Nile). And as he came, there stood between him and the river, the two stern Hebrew brothers, presenting their old request. And when Pharaoh rejected it once more with scorn, Moses spoke a word to Aaron, and the elder brother lifted his rod and smote the shining water of the river. At that moment the great Nile flowed dark, and heavy, and horrible, a crimson stream of blood. No one could drink from the river; the fish died; and over the whole land there hung the dreadful smell of stale blood. For seven days the horror endured, so that people were forced to dig for water in every Place; then the plague passed, and the river ran clear as before.
Again came the word of God to the King — “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” — and again Pharaoh refused to listen. Then the rod of Aaron was stretched forth over all the waters of Egypt, and, as it waved, there was a sound of croaking and moving, and then great numbers of huge loathsome frogs came forth out of every stream, canal and pond throughout the land. They swarmed upon everything, defiling all with their slimy touch. They leaped into the ovens and mixed themselves with the dough in the kneading-troughs; they squatted on the royal bed of Pharaoh himself, till Pharaoh felt repulsed himself. However, when he called for his magicians, they could only bring more frogs, and so worsen a plague that was bad enough before.
This time Pharaoh was afraid, as well he might be, at such a foul plague. “Beg the Lord to take away the frogs,” he said, “and I will let the people go.” So Moses and Aaron prayed to God, and the frogs perished as suddenly as they had come. In huge, filthy heaps of rotting frogs they were gathered together, so that the whole land reeked of their decay. But when Pharaoh saw that the frogs were gone, he hardened his heart, and paid no heed to the Hebrew brothers.
Therefore God smote him and his land with other plagues, increasingly more grievous and horrible. First the rod of Aaron touched the dust of the earth, and, all Egypt swarmed with lice, till even the magicians of Pharaoh said to their master, “This is the finger of God.” And when the King would still not listen, there came myriads and myriads of foul flies, blackening the whole land, sparing only the land of Goshen, and infecting everything they rested on. At that Pharaoh made a show of yielding, but only till the plague could be removed. For when the flies were dead and gone, he hardened his heart and became stubborn as before. So there came a very serious disease upon all the cattle of the Egyptians, their horses, their oxen, their camels, and their sheep, and everywhere throughout the land the innocent beasts suffered and died because of the hardness of the King’s heart.
But in the land of Goshen, when Pharaoh sent to make inquies, it was found that nothing had perished.
And when even this had no effect, Moses stood before Pharaoh with ashes of the furnace in his hand. He cast them up in the air, and, wherever the wind carried them, sore boils broke out on everyone and their animals, so that neither Pharaoh nor his courtiers could remain in the presence of Moses, by reason of the boils that were breaking out all over them. Yet still the heart of the King was hard as ever, and he would not listen to the voice of God.
Therefore Moses came once again into Pharaoh’s audience-chamber, and once again he presented his request. Solemnly he warned the stubborn King that, if he would not listen to the command of the Lord, all his greatness and glory would only serve, by their humiliation and overthrow, to magnify the name of God in the earth. “Do you still exalt yourself against my people that you will not let them go? Tomorrow about this time I will send a terrible hail such as Egypt has never known since the day it was first made. Gather in your cattle, therefore, because, if anyone or their animals gets caught in the field by the hail, they shall die.”
When Pharaoh’s counsellers heard that word of warning (for hail and rain are strange things in the land of Egypt and seldom seen), some of them were wise and gathered in their cattle and their servants; but some, like their master, believed that the threat of Moses was only an idle word. Then, next day, Moses lifted his rod towards heaven; and the great clouds gathered, and the lightning flashed, and the thunder rattled, and there fell upon the cowering land such a storm of hail as Egypt had never known. Nothing out in the open was able to withstand it; plants and cattle and workers, all were brought to the point of death by that storm from heaven. Even the King was cowed for the moment. “I have sinned,” he said. “The Lord is righteous; I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord for me that this dreadful hail and thunder storm may cease, and I will let you go.”
Then Moses went out from the presence of Pharaoh, and spread his hands abroad to heaven; and lo! the hail ceased and the thunders rolled away to the far horizon, and the clear blue, of heaven shone forth once more. But when the King saw that all was bright again, his royal word was nothing in his eyes, as Moses well foresaw. Stubbornly, he refused once more to listen to the command of the Lord to let Israel go.
Even when Moses brought upon the land the devouring armies of locusts, so that not one green blade or leaf was left in Egypt, not even then would the king bow his pride for long. His courtiers pleaded with him to yield, and told him that Egypt was destroyed; and when he saw the countless myriads of locusts swarming upon the land, and every tree and bush white and dead where the devourers had passed, his hard heart trembled for a moment, and he seemed to bow in submission. But hardly had the prayer of Moses brought the west wind that swept the locust armies into the Red Sea, than he lifted his rebellious head again, and took back his pledged word.
So then there came upon the land a plague, strange, and frightening, and spirit-shaking. For there fell, in the midst of the day, a dreadful darkness upon the whole country. It wrapped the land as with a black mantle, till everyone felt it weighing upon them and oppressing them like a heavy weight. For three days it hung over all, and in those days no one saw their neighbour, no one went forth from their dwelling; but in the darkened houses all Egypt sat and trembled. Only the land of Goshen was spared the black veil for there, everything was as usual.
In sore dismay Pharaoh summoned Moses. “Go, serve the Lord,” he said, “you and your children: only your flocks and herds shall be left behind:”‘ No,” answered Moses, “not a hoof shall be left behind. How shall we have what we need to sacrifice to the Lord, unless we take our cattle with us?” Then all the bitterness of Pharaoh’s hatred overflowed. “Out of my sight,” he cried. “Guard yourself well, and never dare to enter my presence again; for in the day that you see my face you shall die!” And Moses made grim answer, “You have spoken truly, I will never see your face again.”
And deep within him he felt to add in his heart: “And even you will also obey the word of the Lord”.
“On a certain night, about midnight, said the Lord, I will go out through the land of Egypt. In that night, all the first-born in the land shall die, from your son, O Pharaoh, to the first-born of the slave-woman who grinds the corn and the first-born of the cattle in the fields. Such mourning shall there be in Egypt as never yet has been, nor ever shall be again. Your servants shall come to me imploring me and my people to go forth from the land and when your pride has been humbled in the dust I will go out.” In hot anger Moses left the royal-chamber; and behind him the furious King rallied his courage and doggedly awaited the outcome of the strife.
Now, in the hush that fell before the coming of the storm, Israel made ready. For Moses counselled them to remember that, when Pharaoh’s pride was broken, their freedom would come suddenly. So each household asked of its Egyptian neighbours a tribute of gold or silver for the service of the Lord, and the Egyptians were ready to give, for their heart was not with their king, but with the people of Israel in this long strife. And in particular, Moses had come to great honour in the minds even of Pharaoh’s counsellors, and was held by them to be a mighty chief.
So the days dragged on, heavy with doom. On the tenth day of the month, Abib, which is now called April, each household in Israel chose for itself a yearling lamb or kid, without blemish. For four days they kept it. Then when the fourteenth day of the month came, and the Full Moon rose in the east as the sun was sinking in the west, the sacrificial lamb was slain. Its blood was gathered, and, dipping into it a bunch of hyssop, each householder marked the side-posts and the lintel of his door with a blood-red stain. Within the blood-marked door, all was made ready. The lamb was roasted, and, as the darkness came, all the family gathered around the table and feasted. It was a special meal for they ate as if in haste, standing with their garments tied close about them, like travellers, and each with pilgrim staff in the hand. And with the flesh of the sacrifice they ate unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Then they waited, and none moved out of doors.
The full bright moon climbed the sky reaching its midnight position, and suddenly there sounded throughout the night air a dreadful cry. It came from every side. It sounded in Pharaoh’s great, white palace, and echoed in the houses of his courtiers and his priests; it rose and gathered in the narrow streets of the mighty city, and swept from lonely house to lonely house in the far fields. When the children of Israel heard it they trembled, even in their security; for they knew that the angel of the Lord was passing in the cold moonlight over the length and breadth of Egypt, and that in all the land, except in their homes, there was not a house where there was not one dead. But, as for themselves, the stain of the blood upon doorpost and lintel had been a sign to the destroying angel, and Death had passed over the homes of Israel and left them unscathed.
Pharaoh rose up from beside his dead and sent his messengers to the Hebrew brethren. “Go, get out,” was their message, “you and all the children of Israel, and serve your God as you will. Take with you your flocks and herds and get out. Yet bless me also!” From every Egyptian house and village, the sobbing people crowded round the people of Israel. “In God’s name get out,” they cried, “before we are all dead!” So, from all the land around, the Hebrews gathered in their agreed meeting place by the city of Ramses, and under the April moon they marched forth — a free people.
Four hundred and thirty years they had dwelt in that wondrous land, since the day when Jacob and his sons came down to Goshen, and now they went out on the self-same day in which they had first set foot in Egypt. Henceforward that April month became to them the beginning of their year, and all their seasons were reckoned from it. Moreover, since by the first-born of Egypt had Israel been set free, and by the first-born of every animal had Israel been preserved, it was ordained that the first-born of every couple should be given for ever to the Lord. And from that time each first-born child of Israel was redeemed by a price which was given to the High Priest of the Lord. Above all, year by year, through the whole story of Israel, the feast that had been held on that night of awe was repeated in each Hebrew home. The Feast of the Lord’s Passover, it was called, because on that night the angel of the Lord had passed over the houses of the children of Israel, when he went forth to execute throughout the land of Egypt.
Chapter Five The Great Deliverance
You can picture the mighty gathering beyond the walls of that city which the people of Israel themselves had built with hard-labour and suffering from their oppressor. Old men and women bowed with long years of serfdom, fathers and mothers, in their middle years, young men and women rejoicing in the new light of freedom that had dawned upon them, little children, wondering in themselves what might be the meaning of all the stir, but glad to have a new excitement — all were gathered together for the march. Even in the haste of their departure the ancient pledge to Joseph was not forgotten, and the painted coffin of the dead viceroy was borne in the midst of the host. With them went all their flocks and herds, and on every side was the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep. With them, too, went a crowd of aliens — foreigners who could not thrive in Egypt, and slaves eager to be free.
Eastwards they marched from Ramses to Succoth. It would have been shorter to have journeyed by the shore of the Very Green Sea, which is now called the Mediterranean, and so up the great coast-road into Palestine, but the Lord in His wisdom ordered otherwise. For a race from the Isles of the Sea had settled in the coast-land of Palestine. They were war-like, and God judged that His people should not face as yet the hazard of conflict with such foes. So He led the Hebrews towards the upper end of the Red Sea, till at last they came to the great castle of Etham that guarded the southern end of the frontier wall of Egypt. Beyond them lay the desert and liberty; but the Lord suffered them not to storm the wall. Instead He led them southwards, always going before them in a pillar of dusky cloud by day, and a pillar of red fire by night. He led them to a reed-covered shore with an outpost watch-tower looking upon it from the hill behind. In front rolled the shallow upper waters of the Red Sea, and on the farther shore rose Baal-zephon “the Mountain of the Lord of the North.”
Now Pharaoh’s guards in the watch-tower sent swift riders to the King, telling him of the wandering host that was camped between the tower and the sea; and Pharaoh knew that it was the Hebrew host—his former slaves. King and people, stunned at first and overwhelmed by the death of the first-born, were be¬ginning to take heart again, and to deem that they had been hasty and unwise in yielding to the Lord’s command. “Why did we let them go?” they said. “Now we have none to serve us.” So when the messengers came, and Pharaoh learned that Israel lay helpless, as it seemed, between the sea and the desert, his heart was glad. Swiftly he summoned his captains, and ordered them to gather all the chariots of the Egyptian army to pursue. At the front line he set a picked brigade of six hundred chariots, with the swiftest horses and the most skillful archers in them; and immediately behind them, he and his men set forth after their slaves.
The motley camp of the Hebrews lay along the sea-shore, and evening was falling, when between the fugitives and the setting sun there rose on the far horizon a cloud of dust. Higher and higher it rose, and now the sentries of the camp could catch the glitter of spearheads and of mail. Then came the dull rumble of many chariot-wheels and the clatter of harnessed warriors as the light chariots jolted over the rough ground. It was the Egyptian host pursuing, and the hearts of the Israelites melted for fear. Angrily they turned upon their leader — “Were there no graves in Egypt, that you have brought us to die in the wilderness? Did not we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’ ? Better to serve Egyptian lords than to be slaughtered in the desert.”
Boldly Moses answered them: “Fear not, but stand fast, and see the salvation of God! Watch these Egyptians today? You shall see them again no more. For the Lord shall fight for you, and you shall be silent.” But deep down his own soul trembled at the fearful hazard in which his people stood, between the sea and the foe, and he sought the help of the Lord. This was His answer: “Why are you complaining to Me? Order the children of Israel to go forward.” Then the angel of the Lord turned from the front of the host of Israel and stood as rear-guard between them and the Egyptians, and the pillar of the cloud came with him. It was all dark on the side next the Egyptian pursuers, so that, when the sun had set, the cloud hid the Full Moon from them, and they groped and stumbled in the darkness; but it glowed with heavenly light on the side next to the Israelites so that they saw clearly.
Then Moses stretched out his hand seaward and a mighty wind came roaring up from the east, and before its blast the shallow waters of the sea were driven, until a broad stretch of bare sand lay from shore to shore before the men of Israel. Down that strange pathway they marched, tribe by tribe, household by household, with the foaming waters roaring in baffled rage on this side and on that as they passed. All night long, under the light of the Passover Moon, the stream of life flowed across the sands, and the morning light saw the last of their rear-guard step to the eastern shore.
But the pursuers had no thought of letting their prey escape so lightly. Pharaoh gave command, and his chariots filed before him, as he stood on the African shore, and drove down the path between the watery walls, where their slaves had gone before. Then, as the morning broke, a breath of dread passed over the long column of toiling chariots. The deep sands sucked down the wheels, and, as the frightened horses plunged and tugged to free them, axles broke and wheels were splintered, till the warriors of Egypt turned to flee. “The Lord fights for Israel against Egypt,” they cried.
It was too late for flight. Moses stretched forth his hand again, and, as the sun arose, the wind whirled round into the west. Forward swept the angry waters, freed from their restraint, and beneath them all the chosen chivalry of Egypt met their death. So Pharaoh, who had thought to avenge his shame upon a helpless people, learned what it means to fight against the Lord God, and turned from that shore of death, a broken man, to his desolate home. On the eastern beach the rising waves were tossing shattered chariots and stark corpses; and the people of Israel looked their last on the dead faces of their tyrants, and knew that they were free. . Then with songs and dances the ransomed nation gave praise to God who had delivered them; and the great chorus rolled from the men, ranked on the one side, to the women on the other:
“Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider has He thrown into the sea.”
So Israel went out from the House of Bondage, to journey through the desert to the Promised Land.
Chapter Six 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 Marah 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 merely 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; in this way you shall 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 (as 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 trickling 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 “YaHVeH-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 the time being, 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.
Chapter Seven At the Mount of God
Three months had come and gone since Israel came out of Egypt, and now the people were camped at the head of the fertile valley of Feiran, under the great Mount upon which God was to give them His Law. On either side of the valley rose a wall of mighty cliffs; a sparkling stream babbled down the glen, through groves of palm-trees and green bushes; in front towered the giant mass of the great mountain, Serbal, its cliffs flushed with strange colours, purple, and black, and gold. Now when the camp had been pitched before the Holy Mount, the Lord called Moses to Him in the solitude of the mountain slopes and commanded that the people should prepare themselves to receive His Law.
For two days they were to purify themselves. Then on the third day, with clean-washed garments, they were to stand before the mount to pay attention to the voice of God. They were to be close to the mountain so that all might see and hear; but no one was to touch it, or set foot upon its slopes, on pain of death. The third day dawned; and on the crest of the mountain there hung a great, black cloud, and from the heart of it there broke forth lightning, and the rolling voice of thunder, and the high, shrill blast of a trumpet, sounding loud and long. Below in the valley the people of Israel trembled for fear; for the mighty rocks around them quivered and shook and sent forth flashes of fire, and the smoke rolled heavenwards from the hill like the smoke of a vast furnace. Once again the Lord called Moses to Him on the mountain-top to bid him warn the people, lest in vain curiosity they should break through the barriers encircling the mountain and so perish; and Moses did as the Lord commanded him.
Then, from the midst of the dark cloud that veiled the trembling mountain-peak, came the sound of an awesome voice.
Exodus 20: 1 — 17
NEW AMERICAN BIBLE
(1 Then God delivered all these commandments:)
2 “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that
3 You shall not have other gods besides me.
4 You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the
5 you shall not bow down before them or worship them. For I, the LORD,
6 but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children
7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD
8 “Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
9 Six days you may labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may
11 In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that
12 “Honour your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the
13 “You shall not kill.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your
As commandment after commandment pealed forth from the cloud-encircled cliff above their heads, in the terror of trumpet blast and lightning and earthquake, the hearts of the people melted within them. In great dread they drew back from the mountain, and cried to Moses: “Be God’s messenger to us. God’s words we can respond to, when you speak them; but let not God Himself speak to us, lest we die.” Their leader calmed down and told them that God did not mean to destroy them, but only to test them, so that, having seen His mighty power, they might always stand in awe of Him, and might reverence Him.
So passed that amazing day. Early next morning Moses arose, and built an altar to the Lord under the face of the cliff from where the thunder of the Law had rolled. It was flanked with twelve pillars, one for each of the tribes of Israel, and young men chosen from the tribes made a sacrifice of oxen thereon to the Lord. Half of the blood of the sacrifices Moses laid aside in basins; with the other half he sprinkled the altar. Taking then the roll on which he had written all that God had spoken the day before, he read it aloud in the hearing of the people; and all the men of Israel lifted their hands and made oath: “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient.” So Moses took the remainder of the blood that he had set apart, and with it he anointed the people. In this way there was a blood-covenant made between the Lord God and His people Israel, before the Mount of God in Sinai.
To consecrate the covenant the Lord called Moses to come up into the mountain, bringing with him Aaron and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of the nation. And to these men it was given to see something of the glory of the Most High; yet all that they could later report was that beneath the feet of the Eternal there seemed to stretch a pavement of sapphire, blue as the very vault of heaven itself. No harm came to them in that presence of the Almighty; but before the feet of God they ate from the covenant-sacrifice, and then went back down to the people again. But Moses remained upon the Mount of God, shrouded from the eyes of the people of Israel by a shining cloud that seemed to them the very glory of God. For six days he remained there; and then, at last, God spoke to him once more out of the glory, and for forty days and forty nights Moses dwelt with God on the mount, learning from communion with Him the manner in which the children of Israel were to serve the Lord, and how they should bear themselves towards one another and towards those of other races. Many, and wise, and merciful were the laws which God taught to His servant, and Moses wrote them all in the book of the covenant so that they might be the appointed teaching, procedures, rules, rites and rituals for Israel for all future generations.
Chapter Eight The Vision of God’s Dwelling-Place
While Moses dwelt within the cloud on the Mount of God, the Lord revealed to him the manner in which He would have His people fashion a place in which to worship Him. He directed him to speak to the children of Israel, and say to them that they should bring gifts of their best and richest—yet only if they had willing hearts, and not feeling any pressure. Gold, and silver, and brass they were to bring, cloth also, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, fine linen of Egypt, and rough goats’ hair cloth, rams’ skins, crimson-dyed, and the skin of the sea-cow# that dwells in the warm waters of the Persian Sea, acacia wood, oils and spices, and precious stones of all sorts.
# Sea cow — large marine animal extinct from mid 19th Century
“Let them make Me a Holy Place,” said the Lord, “that I may dwell among them.” And as He spoke, there shone before the eyes of Moses a vision of the Holy Place of the Lord, as it was to be. It was made in the fashion of a tent, since it had to be struck and pitched with the other tents of the camp, as the people journeyed; but such a tent as no one had seen on earth before, or has seen since.
It was glorious outside and within, with the glitter of gold and silver and bronze, and the rich glow of crimson and purple and blue, and the spotless white of fine Egyptian linen. In the midst of a great court, whose length was an hundred and fifty feet (46 metres), and whose breadth was seventy-five feet (23 metres), rose the tent itself. It was flat-roofed and the outer covering was of sea-cow’s leather dyed blue, the inner, of rams’ skins dyed crimson. Within this tent stood the sanctuary. Its walls were made of acacia planks overlaid with gold, which stood in heavy sockets of silver; and over the gilded wood, and across the top, stretched curtains of white linen, and of blue, purple, and scarlet cloth, all ornamented with skilful embroidery of cherubim#. Forty-five feet long (14 metres), and fifteen feet (4.5 metres) broad it stood, beneath its outer leathern tent, and four pillars of gilded acacia wood divided it into two parts.
# ….. embroidery of cherubim — Not to be confused with the winged children seen in Renaissance
art, these angelic beings are amongst the highest orders of heavenly
beings and are a sign of God’s presence.
The inner part, which lay westwards, was one half of the size of the outer, but it was the place of God’s dwelling, the Holy of Holies. Another veil of many-coloured embroidery hung from the pillars, and the cherubim embroidered on it seemed to guard the entrance against the profane; for into this Most Holy Place might only one man come — God’s chosen High Priest — and he, only once a year, with blood of sacrifice in his hands. Beyond the veil lay the Holy Place where priests, and priests alone, might enter for the daily service of God’s House; and its door was another curtain of softly glowing multi-coloured needlework, lacking only the angel guardians that were placed upon the inner veil.
Around the holy tent lay the outer court, where the people might gather for sacrifice and worship. Sixty pillars of bronze surrounded it, and between them, from silver rods, hung curtains of fine, embroidered linen. And its gate, also, was a curtain of many-coloured needlework.
Then in his vision Moses saw within the Holy of Holies. There was no image of God there, as in the mighty temples of the land of Egypt. There was nothing but a small chest of acacia wood, plated outside and inside with solid gold; and on its sides were golden rings with gilded staves passing through them, so that the priests could lift the Ark of the Lord, and carry it in front of the people as they journeyed. “Within the Ark,” said the Lord to Moses as he looked, “You shall put the stone tablets of the commandments that I shall give you.”
The covering of the Ark was one slab of solid gold. Upon it, at either end, there stood an angel with wings stretched high over the Ark, and each with their face turned towards the other at each end. This was the Mercy-seat; and “there I will meet with you,” said the Lord God, “and from between the two cherubim, I will talk with you, of all things about which I will instruct you for the children of Israel”.
The embroidered veil dropped again, and Moses was outside it in the Holy Place. There he saw a table of acacia wood, covered in gold,bearing loaves of unleavened bread, to be laid weekly in offering before the Lord. Chalices and crucibles of gold were there also, with offerings of wine. On the other side stood a lamp stand of pure gold. It was shaped, and from a single stem there rose seven golden branches, each bearing on its tip a lamp filled with pure oil. And the seven lamps were to burn night and day, and never to be extinguished. Last, before the door of entrance, was a small, golden altar, upon which was to be offered by the High Priest, morning and evening, only fragrant incense.
Beyond, in the outer court, Moses saw a great bronze altar where the daily burnt-offerings might be presented, and a mighty vessel of bronze filled with pure water, in which the priests could cleanse themselves before they came to make offering at the altar.
Besides all this, the Lord showed to Moses the fashion of the stately robes in which Aaron the High Priest, and all who should follow him in that holy office must be clothed. His innermost garment was a coat of fine linen reaching from throat to ankle. Over it there came a robe of dark blue. On its hem were wrought pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet; and between each pair of pomegranates there hung a little golden bell, so that every step that the High Priest made, as he went about the service of God’s House, was accompanied with the mellow chime of bells.
Above the robe came a kind of top coat, named the ephod. It was woven from fine linen, with gold threads running through it, and was broidered with blue, purple, and scarlet, and bound with a waist-belt of the same material. It was fastened on either shoulder of the priest by a clasp of onyx, and on these two stones were engraven the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six tribes on each stone. On his breast, above the outer coat, the High Priest wore a breast¬plate of broidered linen, bearing, within golden settings, four rows of precious stones, three in each row; and each of the twelve stones was engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Now this was the manner of the ordering of the engraved jewels:
Sardius (Judah) Topaz (Issachar) Carbuncle (Zebulun)
Emerald (Reuben) Sapphire (Simeon) Diamond (Gad)
Jacinth (Ephraim) Agate (Manasseh) Amethyst (Benjamin)
Beryl (Dan) Onyx (Asher) Jasper (Naphtah)
Upon his head the High Priest was to wear a mitre of fine linen, bearing on its front, fastened by a dark-blue cord, a plate of pure gold, engraved with the words “Holiness to the Lord”.
Many other things the Lord caused His servant to see and understand as to the manner of the service of His House, and when He had taught him all these things, He gave him two tablets of stone, written by the finger of God, that they might preserve the Laws and teaching He had given for Israel to treasure and apply from generation to generation.
Suddenly this profound and beautiful communion of God with man was broken, and in fierce anger the Lord ordered Moses to get down to the people in the valley. For during the long days and nights when they were left without their leader, evil thoughts had come to them and had blossomed into evil deeds.
Chapter Nine The Golden Calf
While Moses dwelt with God on the Holy Mount, the hearts all of Israel grew anxious and doubtful. At last they could endure no longer. They gathered themselves together before Aaron, and cried to him, “Make a god to go before us; for as for this man Moses, who brought us up from Egypt, we know not what has become of him. In weakness, Aaron yielded to them. “Bring me,” he said, “your earrings, and all the golden ornaments of your wives and children.” And when the gold was brought, Aaron cast it into a furnace. Recalling to mind the image of a calf he had seen raised up high as a god in the land of Egypt, he fashioned and shaped a copy, using an engraving tool and then he set it before the people.
Their wandering hearts were glad when they saw the lifeless image. “Behold your god, O Israel,” they cried, “which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And Aaron, adding sin to sin, built an altar before the calf, and proclaimed a feast to the new god. So the next day the people offered burnt-sacrifice and incense to their idol, and turned to feasting and merriment.
High on the mountaintop, the Lord spoke fiercely unto Moses. “Get down,” He said, “for your people have corrupted themselves. So soon have they turned from their obedience and have made a golden calf to worship. Even now they are offering sacrifice to it and saying, “Behold your god, O Israel. I have borne long enough these stubborn rebels. Do not hold Me back therefore, for in My anger I will destroy them, and I will make instead a great nation of your children.” But Moses pleaded with God for his people. “Lord,” he said, “please reconsider. Why should the Egyptians mock, and say that You have led the people forth with such might only to disadvantage them? Have mercy on them, and let Your fierce anger die down. Remember Your covenant, and Your promise to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, that You would multiply their children and give them the beautiful Land of Promise for a heritage forever.” And at that pleading, the anger of the Lord was held back — for the time being.
So Moses turned and went down the mountainside. In his hand were the two tablets of stone, graven on both sides with the words of the Lord’s testimony, and with him was his servant Joshua. Now as they came down the hillside and drew near unto the camp, the sound of shouting reached their ears, and Joshua cried, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” “No,” said Moses, “this is no sound of warriors slaying or being slain; it is the sound of singing.” They came nearer until they could see the calf of gold standing in the midst, and the crowd of excited people and dancing and singing before it among the tents. Then the heart of Moses grew hot with anger. He flung from his hands the tablets of the Lord’s testimony, and they were shattered to pieces on the rocks beneath.
He came swiftly through the gaping multitude to where their idol stood; he cast it down boldly and threw it back into the furnace from where it came; then he ground it to powder and threw the golden dust into the stream that ran through the camp, and ordered the people to drink the water, and they obeyed in silence and in dread.
Turning to his guilty brother, he rebuked him sternly for his sin. Then he stood, indignant and in a threatening appearance, at the gate of the camp. “To me,” he shouted, “every man who is on the Lord’s side!” At his cry all the men of the tribe of Levi gathered themselves in rank beside him. “Draw your swords,” he said, “and go through this camp from gate to gate. Slay all whom you meet, brother, neighbour, or friend, that this vengeance may cleanse you in the sight of God!” So the men of Levi slew and spared no one, and under their swords there fell that day three thousand.
Next morning, after that grievous day, Moses gathered the people before him. “You have greatly sinned,” he said, “yet now I will pray to the Lord for you: I may be permitted to make atonement for your sin.” Then he went up once more into the Holy Mount, and, standing before the Lord, he made his prayer to Him in this way: “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold. Yet now, if You will, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray, out of Your book which You have written.” At that prayer, God turned from the fierceness of His anger. “No,” He answered, “not you, but those that sin against Me will I blot out of My book. Go, therefore, and lead your people as I instructed you, and My Angel shall go before you. Yet let the people beware of sin in the future, should I choose to visit them in judgment”
After this great intercession, Moses took the tent where he had been accustomed to pray to God, and pitched it beyond the camp. And when anyone of Israel desired to worship the Lord, they went out to this sacred tent, and there Moses besought the Lord for them. And when Moses entered the tent, the pillar of the cloud stood like a guard before the tent-door, so that the people, seeing it, knew that God was there, and bowed in worship each one before his own tent. Thus Moses spoke with God as a man talks with his friend.
Now into the heart of Moses there came a great and elevated desire. “I implore You,” thus he spoke to the Lord, “show me Your glory.” “No,” answered the Lord, “not My glory—My goodness you shall see, you shall behold My grace and My mercy; but you cannot see My face, for no one shall see Me, and live. Cut, therefore, two tablets of stone, like the first which you prepared, so that I may write on them once more the words of My testimony—My Commandments. # And in the morning come up into the mountain before Me; but come alone, and allow neither man nor beast to draw near the mount.” So next morning Moses acted according to the command which God had given him. With the two tablets in his hands he climbed the mountain and stood before the Lord. And God set him in a great rock-cleft and covered him while the glory of the Lord passed, and as it passed Moses looked out and caught a glimpse of the vanishing of that wondrous splendour. And as he gazed, a mighty voice proclaimed, as a herald proclaims the title of the king, his master, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet in no wise clearing the guilty; visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” Then Moses hastened to bow his head to the ground, and worshipped.
For forty days and forty nights he remained there upon the mount before God; he neither ate nor drank throughout those days. At length he came down from that extraordinary fellowship with God, bearing the two tablets engraved with the ten words # of God’s commandments. Aaron and the people of Israel came forth to meet their leader as he drew near; and when they beheld him, his face shone with a strange and awesome light, so that they were afraid to come near to him. Himself, in his humility, he knew nothing of it; only when he saw their fear and learned the reason for it, did he veil his face, that they might no longer fear him. Yet when he entered the tent of meeting to speak to the Lord, as was his practice, he took the veil from his face; and as usual when he came out again, it seemed to the people that the light had grown brighter upon their leader’s countenance.
# ….. My Commandments — The commandments are often referred to as the Law. In Hebrew tradition, the reference to the word or words of God conveys the meaning of instruction, teaching to which the term “torah” is applied. The Torah, the Teaching of God, is binding on God’s People, not as a burden, but as the way they are to follow, the truth they are to uphold, and the life they are to enjoy, bound to God in His Covenant.
So for many days the nation remained camped before the Mount of God; and, while they had rest from their wandering for a period, the Tabernacle of the Lord’s Dwelling-place was constructed according to the vision that God had shown to Moses. For the people brought, with willing hearts, abundance of gold and silver and bronze, of precious stones, and of fine linen and many-coloured cloths—all that was needed to make the tent, until indeed there was more than enough, and command had to be given that no more should be brought. Two skillful workmen, Bezaleel and Aholiab, were set over all the working, and under their guidance the whole nation, men and women alike, toiled with willing and glad hearts to make God’s dwelling place.
After long hard work it stood at last complete, stately and beautiful, and when Moses saw how well and truly Bezaleel and Aholiab and their fellow workmen had constructed it according to his vision, he lifted up his hands to God and blessed them for their faithful service. On the first day of the first month of the second year of their journeyings all was finished. Then for the first time Moses lit the golden lamps on the seven-branched candlestick to burn for ever before the Lord, and he and his brother Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron’s sons purified themselves and made offerings upon the altars of gold and of bronze. Then the glory of the Lord descended in the cloud upon the Tabernacle, and so great was the awesomeness of it that no one, not even Moses himself, dared enter for a time into the tent of the Lord. And from that time in their journeyings, this cloud, with the glory of the Lord shining in it, became a sign and a leader to the Israelites. For if the cloud rested and dwelled upon the Tabernacle, then the camp remained where it was, but if the cloud rose high and drifted onwards, then the tents were packed up and the people of Israel followed their mysterious guide. Day by day and night by night, the cloud was there, dark in the daytime, fiery red throughout the darkness, so that the people might always know that the Lord was with them.
Now when all was ready, and the service of the Lord’s House had been ordered and arranged as it should be observed in all generations, Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests for the work of the Lord; and upon Aaron alone were put the holy and beautiful garments of the High Priesthood—the mitre, the robe, the ephod, and the jewelled breastplate. So, being purified and anointed, Aaron drew near to the altar of the Lord, and thereon he offered sacrifice. And when the sacrifice was ready upon the altar and Moses and Aaron had blessed the people, then came there forth lightning from the presence of the Lord and consumed the sacrifice with fire. So the people knew that the offering was accepted, and great awe fell upon them, so that though they shouted for joy, they also knelt and bowed their faces down to the ground, and worshipped.
Yet even in this time of rejoicing there occurred a tragic event. For the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, were puffed up with pride beyond measure over their new dignities; and, when the first sacrifice had been consumed, they came near to the altar with their censers and with incense, and offered the in¬cense with fire of their own kindling, and not in the way the Lord had commanded. Then came forth lightnings from the Lord and struck them, so that they died immediately in their presumption. And Moses said to his brother, “This is what God warned us, saying ‘Let them that come to Me be holy; but Aaron bowed his head in speechless sorrow. So Moses had men carry forth the bodies of the dead priests and bury them. And to the other sons of Aaron, Eleazar and Ithamar, he forbade all mourning for their brothers, seeing that Nadab and Abihu had died by the judgment of the Lord. And upon all those who served the House of the Lord he laid his warning, lest any of them, by carelessness or by wilful default, should mar God’s worship, and so bring down upon the people the anger of the Lord. And so at last all was ordered correctly, and Moses was content.
Chapter Ten The Scapegoat
To relate all the ordinances that the Lord appointed for His people in Sinai would take many pages. Among these there were certain examples that are of particular significance, and of these the most important was the setting apart of the scapegoat to bear away the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. Once every year on the tenth day of the seventh month, the whole nation was assembled before the Lord. On that day no work was to be done by any person, nor was any food to be eaten. Early in the morning the High Priest purified himself, and arrayed himself in his robes, and, after slaying a bullock for a sin-offering, he entered into the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the Mercy-seat. Then on coming back out, there were brought to him two goats. One of these was chosen by lot to be sacrificed before the Lord, and the other was marked “for Azazel,” the evil spirit that was believed to dwell in desolate places.
The goat on which the lot of the Lord fell was slain, and its blood was borne by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies and there sprinkled, like the blood of the bullock, upon the Mercy-seat. Once more Aaron came forth from before the Lord, and the other goat, the goat of Azazel, was brought to him. Upon its head he laid both his hands, and, then, standing in this position, he confessed over it the sins of the people. The goat, thus bearing, as it were, the nation’s guilt upon its head, was handed over to a man appointed for the task, and he drove it far away from the camp into the middle of the desolate wilderness. There he let it go loose, to wander until death should come to it; and thus God gave His people the sign that their sins were borne away from them and should be remembered no more. He who led the goat, and all who had a share in the sacrifices of this Great Day of Atonement — these purified themselves and washed their clothes before they returned to the camp. In this manner were the sins of Israel atoned for, and year by year, so long as the nation endured, this statute of the Lord was observed.
There were many commands laid upon the people to guide them, and of these, while all were just and righteous, some were full of mercy and kindness, and of thoughtfulness for the poor and the weak. Thus in the days of harvest, or vintage, or of the gathering of fruit, no Israelite was allowed to reap the corners of his field, nor to glean after the reapers, nor to strip his vines and fruit-trees completely bare of their fruit. Something was always to be left for the poor and the stranger, that everyone might have a share in the plenty and joy of the ingathering. Moreover, once in every seven years the land was to have its Sabbath. In that seventh year the fields were not to be sown, nor the vineyards pruned, nor was the farmer to gather, for his own profit, what might grow if left to itself. It was to be left for all who needed to gather and use.
And after seven times seven years, in the fiftieth year, there came the Jubilee, which was proclaimed by sound of trumpet throughout all the land on the Great Day of Atonement. Throughout that year the land had rest, and even those on whom trouble and misfortune had fallen in the past, even they shared in the joy of the nation. For with the Jubilee, all heritages were restored, and all servitudes were broken. It might be that, in their poverty and need, a person had been forced to part with their land or to sell themselves as a servant. But when the fiftieth year came round, their land was given back and the person was set free. Thus the Lord commanded, in order that the strong and rich might not oppress the weak and poor, and that no one of Israel might be a slave or be shut out from hope.
Even the foreigner and non-Jew (referred to as “stranger” who might be dwelling in the land was to be mercifully and kindly treated. “You shall not oppress them,” said the Lord, “but they shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Thus, with mercy and with judgment, God ordered the future of His people. And He taught them to remember that if they kept His Laws and were obedient, His mercy would be with them and His strength would give them victory; but if they forgot His words, and turned to disobedience and foolishness, then trouble and disaster would fall upon them. So the Lord brought to completion all the statutes and judgments and laws which He made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses. These became referred to as the Instructions of God—His Teaching—His Divine Will for the people—in Hebrew, the Torah.
Chapter Eleven Murmurings and Misfortunes
Now the long sojourn of Israel before the Holy Mount drew to an end, and the time arrived for the nation to journey onwards to the Land of Promise. On the twentieth day of the second month in the second year of their journeying, the Israelites looked towards the Tabernacle of the Lord, and the cloud had risen and was slowly moving onwards. Then they knew that the day had come for the long march to begin again. The great tent of the Lord was dismantled and packed and carried forwards by the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari. In four great battalions the nation marched and camped, and each battalion was made up of three tribes. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun marched under the banner of Judah; Reuben, Simeon, and Gad under the banner of Reuben; Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin under the banner of Ephraim; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali under the banner of Dan. And the banner of Judah always went at the front, and the banner of Dan led the rear-guard.
So, in ordered line, they took their departure from the Mount of God, and for three days they marched and camped among burning valleys and desolate mountains. Morning by morning the cloud rose and led them onwards, and, as the Ark followed it, Moses said, “Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let them that hate You flee before You.” Evening by evening the cloud sank down and rested, and, as the march was halted, Moses said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.”
But it was not long before the people wearied of this steady journeying, and murmurings grew loud on the outskirts of the camp. And while they grumbled and complained, great thunder-clouds rolled up across the hills, and fierce lightnings flashed forth, and many of the murmurers were slain. For a little while the dread of the storm quelled the discontent, and in terror the people asked Moses to pray to the Lord for them. As he prayed, the storm rolled away, and with it the dread of God’s anger. Before long the murmurs were heard again on every side. This time it was their food that displeased them. Forgetting their bitter bondage in Egypt, they remembered nothing but the plenty and variety of their food in the House of Bondage. “We are weary of this endless, boring manna,” they cried. “Who can give us flesh to eat? For our whole being is dried up.” Like greedy children whose greed is denied, they stood performing and weeping in their tent-doors, and Moses was ashamed to think how poor-spirited a people he led.
His heart was bitter within him, and he cried out to the Lord: “I am not able alone to bear all the burden this people cause me. Kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favour in Your sight; and spare me from having to bear this wretched situation.” Then in His anger the Lord told Moses speak in this way to the murmurers: “The Lord shall give you flesh and you shall eat. Not for a few days, but for a whole month shall you eat, until you are sick of flesh just as you have grown tired of the manna, and the very sight of it has become loathsome to you; because you have despised the Lord.”
In his inmost heart, Moses couldn’t really believe that such a thing might be available in the wilderness; but God rebuked his doubt. “Is this beyond the Lord’s reach? You shall see now whether what I promised takes place.”
So there came a great wind from the sea; and, driven before it, came enormous flocks of quail. Overspent and wearied with their flight, they fell all around the camp, so that the ground was piled high with them on every side, and the people had only to gather and stay and eat. For a day and a night, and another day, they gathered in their uncontrolled greed. So extreme was their gluttony, that, even as God had warned them, it brought its own judgment. The sudden change of food and the over-indulgence sent death swiftly through the camp, and, while the flesh was still in their mouths, people were dying in every direction.
So the name of that place was called “The Graves of Greed,” and from that ill-omened spot the children of Israel journeyed to Hazeroth, glad to be gone from where the Lord had granted them their hearts’ desire in His anger.
As though the trouble that Moses had to put up with in the impatience of the people were not enough, his own family added to it. For Aaron and Miriam had a quarrel against him because of his wife, and her bitterness concerning another woman. Angrily they taunted him, boasting that the Lord had spoken through them as well as through him, so that he had no right to pre-eminence. Now Moses would have borne their bickering and ill-will in silence, for he was the most patient and meek of all men; but as they taunted him, they heard the voice of the Lord: “Come out, the three of you, to the Tabernacle of the Congregation.” And, as they stood before the holy tent, the cloud came down upon it; and from the midst of the cloud the Lord rebuked Aaron and Miriam. “How is it you were not afraid,” He said, “to speak against My servant Moses?” The cloud lifted again, and as Aaron looked in terror upon his sister Miriam, she was infected with leprosy, and all her skin went hideously white. Even when Aaron confessed their sin and Moses interceded for his sister, she could not be healed at once. For seven days she was shut out from the camp as unclean; then the plague departed from her, and she was received among her people once more—a wiser woman.
Now after many days of weary marching they came at last to Kadesh, on the edge of the south country of Canaan. Before them the land rolled up in long slopes to the highland of Palestine, and they saw their heritage. It seemed prosperous land, with its green grass and its trees and the sparkle of its springs, to eyes wearied, and dazzled with the fierce glare of the desert rocks and sands. Yet before they were to enter the land, they needed to learn what manner of land it was, who its inhabitants were, and the attitudes of the tribes that dwelt there, in case, moving too rashly, they might fall into a snare and be destroyed. Therefore the Lord directed Moses to choose out twelve men, one man from each tribe, that they might go through the land from end to end, spy it out, and bring back word to their people some idea of what lay before them.
So the twelve spies were chosen, and whilst their names are still remembered to this day, there are only two that deserve to be held in honour, and these are Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, of the tribe of Judah, and Joshua, the son of Nun, of the tribe of Ephraim. All of them were chiefs in their own tribes, and before they set out Moses gave them command to go through the land, even to the great mountain, Hermon, in the far north, and to bring back a report of all that they saw—as to the people, whether they were many or few, strong or weak, whether they dwelt in tents or in fenced cities, and as to the land, whether it was fertile or barren, wooded or bare. And the last word he spoke to them was, “Be of good courage!” and had they taken notice of that, they would have done well. But it was not to be so, and thus much harm and loss came to their nation and to themselves, — or at least certainly to the ten of them who forgot the command of Moses.
So the twelve spies set out on their adventurous journey Northwards. They travelled from their southland camp along the mountain ridge of Judea, through the hills and valleys of Samaria and Galilee, until they came to Rehob and made their northern most camp in the wide-spreading skirts of the great, snow-clad Mount Hermon; and wherever they went they searched the land with eager eyes. Turning southwards again, they came at last to that ancient city, Hebron, hard by the spot where Abraham’s camp had stood for so long. It was the pleasant time when the heavy clusters of grapes begin to ripen with the sunshine, and as they passed through the vale of Eshcol they gathered of the fruit of the land, pomegranates and figs, a huge cluster of purple grapes, which was so heavy it had to be slung upon a staff and borne between two men. After forty days of wandering, they came back to the camp on the edge of the desert and relayed their account to Moses and the assembled people.
“Surely,” they said, “this is certainly a rich and prosperous land. As you can see from these fruits which we have brought back, it is a land flowing with milk and honey. But the people that dwell there are powerful, and the cities are strong and walled. Many tribes dwell there — the sons of Anak, mighty and strong, the Amalekites in the southland; the Hittites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites in the northern mountains, and the Canaanites on the sea-coast and in the Jordan Valley.”
Now when they heard the explanation about the nations that must be conquered, the men of Israel were deeply troubled. But Caleb stood forth. “Let us go up at once,” he said, “and take possession; for we are well able to conquer the land.” But all his fellows of the twelve, except Joshua, were of a timid mind. “No,” they cried, “we cannot do it. These people are stronger than we are. The land is full of war and slaughter, and its men are bigger and stronger far than us. Truly when we saw the sons of Anak, stark and tall, we felt like grasshoppers before them, and in fact, that is what they called us.”
Then the spirit of the nation broke, and all the people wept. “Would to God,” they said, “that we had died in Egypt, or in the desert. Why has God brought us to this land to perish by the sword and to leave our wives and children as captives? Let us choose a captain; and turn back again to Egypt.”
Shamed at their brother’s faint-heartedness. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the Lord. Caleb, also, and Joshua, tearing their clothes in sign of sorrow, strove to encourage the people. “The land is truly magnificent,” they cried. “God is with us, we shall possess it. Do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear your enemies. They shall be but bread for our eating. What defence have they to match with the Lord who is on our side? Have no fear of them!”
But Israel in its terror was ready to stone the faithful two. In that moment the glory of the Lord flashed out in the cloud before the people, and His voice was heard. “How long will this people provoke Me? Will they never trust Me, after all the wonders I have done before their eyes? I smite them with the pestilence, I will take from them their heritage, and from the seed of Moses I will raise up a mightier nation.” “Ah, Lord,” cried Moses, “Do not shame us in that way. The Egyptians will hear of our disgrace, and will tell it in mockery to the people of this land; and all the glory of Your presence in the cloud and fire shall seem but a foolish dream. They will say, ‘Because their Lord was too feeble to give them the land which He promised, therefore He slew them in the wilderness.’ So shall Your name be despised! Now, therefore, according to Your long suffering and Your mercy, pardon this people, as You have done, from their journey out of Egypt until now.”
Then God made answer: “I have granted pardon. The land shall go to the seed of Abraham, as I have promised; but never to these timid murmurers. Not one of them that is of twenty years and upwards shall possess it, except Caleb and Joshua, who have been faithful. In the wilderness they shall wander forty years till they fall and die, and their bones shall bleach among the sands. Forty days you searched the land to bring a factual report on it; forty years you shall wander and find no rest, a year for a day.” And, at that word, the plague fell upon the spies, and ten of them died in that very hour before the Lord, — Caleb and Joshua alone were left.
That night the people spent in mourning. Next day they thought it appropriate to atone for their cowardly fear by rash haste. They gathered themselves and addressed Moses. “We are here,” they said “to confess our sin; we will go and take the land.” But Moses would have none of their foolhardiness. “Too late now,” he said, “the Lord will not be with you. Do not proceed with that plan or you will fall by the sword.” There was however, no turning them from this new foolish plan. Nevertheless, Moses would not authorise the Ark of the Lord to lead them, nor would he himself set foot beyond the camp; and, as the leaderless rabble marched confusedly onwards, the hosts of the Amalekites and the Canaanites rushed down on them from the mountain slopes and swept them away in a savage rout. Thus, in utter failure ended Israel’s first attempt to enter upon its heritage.
Chapter Twelve The Aimless Years
The children of Israel were now indeed in a predicament. Still they must journey, yet never arrive; and still challenge, yet never gather the spoil. Is it any wonder, perhaps, that there rose discontent among the people and weariness in the heart of their leader! Not surprisingly, there was rebellion before long in the camp, and that, long before the fruitless years had passed, even the meek spirit of Moses was worn down to fiery anger, so that even he erred against the Lord.
For Korah the Levite planned in his heart to question the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and he shared his plan with Dathan, Abiram, and On, men of the tribe of Reuben, and they in turn to others, till they had poisoned two hundred and fifty of the chief men of the people. Crowding around the two brethren, they vented their venom and jealousy in bitter words. “You have lorded it over us long enough,” they said. “The rest of us are as holy as you, and the Lord is with us as well as with you. Why should you lift yourselves up above your fellow countrymen?”
It was indeed bitter for Moses to know that such unreasonable jealousy was in their hearts towards him. Yet he answered them quietly: “The Lord shall judge and choose between us. Tomorrow, you Korah and your company shall come, bringing your censers, with fire and incense, before the Lord, and that man whom the Lord shall choose shall be holy. No small thing did the Lord grant you, as sons of Levi, when He set you apart from the rest of the nation to serve the Tabernacle, and to be near to Him; yet now you desire the priesthood also!”
# censers — containers holding incense being burnt to honour God’s presence.
So Korah and his party agreed to the test; but when Moses summoned Dathan and Abiram, they answered with insults and refused his summons. Next day, therefore, the rebels came, two hundred and fifty men, with Korah at their head, and each man with his censer in his hand, to the door of the Tabernacle, to await the Lord’s judgment; and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. Then came there a voice from the glory, saying to Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this people, that I may consume them in a flash.” But the person, pleaded with the Lord that He would not destroy the whole nation for the sin of one man, and God directed them to command the people to come apart from the tents of the rebels and leave them alone. So it was done. The congregation shrank away on every side from the guilty men, and Dathan and Abiram and all their families came forward and stood in the doors of their tents to see what might occur.
Then said Moses. “You shall now know that the Lord has sent me, and that I have done nothing on my own judgment. If these men die the death that is common to us all, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord should do a strange thing and the earth open her mouth and swallow them alive, then you shall know that He has judged their guilt.” Even as he spoke, so it occurred; for the earth yawned with a great earthquake, and Dathan and Abiram, and all their households, went down alive into destruction. So that all who heard it fled, lest the earth should swallow them also. And while the earth still shook, fire came forth from the cloud and withered the two hundred and fifty incense-bearers where they stood. Their brazen censers, with their unblessed fire lay there before the tabernacle. Eleazar, the son of Aaron, gathered them together at the command of Moses, and from them were fashioned plates to cover the altar of burnt-offering, that so there might be a perpetual remembrance of the danger of presumption.
Even after all this, the trouble was not allayed. On the next day murmurings broke out again. “Moses and Aaron have killed the people of the Lord.” Then the Lord’s anger grew hot. “Move aside from them,” He said to Moses again, “that I may consume them.” But Moses ordered Aaron to take a censer and stand between the Lord and the people, and make intercession. Already the plague had fallen; and Aaron stood there, between the living and the dead, swinging his censer and praying to the Lord, and at his prayer the plague ceased. Nevertheless in that brief space of doom there had fallen fourteen thousand, seven hundred men of Israel, over and above those who died in the rebellion of Korah.
After all this, God expressed an intention to give a sign that the people of Israel might no more question the authority of Moses and Aaron. Therefore He ordered the prince of each tribe of Israel bring his main staff #, —twelve of them in all, each man’s staff engraved with his name. For the tribe of Levi, Aaron’s staff was taken, with his name upon it. The rods were laid up before the Lord in the Tabernacle. “And it shall come to pass,” said the Lord, “that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall blossom. So shall the murmurings of the people cease.”
# main staff — ornamental rod of office.
When the next day came, Moses went into the Tabernacle. Aaron’s rod had budded and blossomed, and it bore almonds, but all the rest were dry and sapless as before. Moses came out of the tent, bearing the twelve rods, and in silence each prince witnessed the living rod of Aaron, and each took his own staff and went to his own place. Then at the Lord’s command the rod of Aaron, with its buds, and blossoms, and fruit, was laid up in the Holy of Holies with the tables of stone and the pot of manna, to be a memorial in all the days to come against rebellion. And great fear fell upon all the people when they saw these things.
So passed the slow years of aimless wanderings, with few things to mark or to record, until the forty years of Israel’s punishment were all but over. Few were left of the generation that saw God’s wonders in Egypt when they came again to Kadesh, where they had failed before. Here Miriam died, she who had watched by the ark of bulrushes where the infant Moses lay, and had led the song of triumph over Pharaoh and his host. Now she was laid to her rest, and Moses and Aaron were left alone.
It seemed as though a blight were on the place, and on the fortunes of Israel there; for the new generation began again to fret and complain as their parents had done. There was no water, and the old cries against Moses were heard again in the camp. “Why have you brought us into the desert to perish? Would to God we had died when our brothers died by the anger of the Lord.” Then God ordered Moses to stand, as he had stood once in the past, before a rock and command water to come forth from it. Moses took the rod of power from the Tabernacle, and he and his brother gathered the people before the rock. But the leader’s heart was sick and weary with the endless struggle. In hot anger he spoke to the grumbling crowd. “Hear now, you rebels, must we deliver you water out of this rock?” Saying this, he struck the rock twice. A spring of living water leaped from it, and the people drank and were satisfied.
Moses, however, acting as he did, had failed, and God laid on him and his brother a heavy sentence. “For your lack of belief and for your anger,” he said, “because you did not glorify Me before My people, therefore you shall not lead this nation into the land that I have given them.” And with a heavy heart Moses named that spring the Water of Meribah, that is “The Water of Strife,” — a costly strife for him.
Now the fortieth year arrived, and the end of the wandering grew near. From Kadesh, Moses sent an emissary to the King of Edom; for the men of Edom were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s elder brother, and Moses did not want strife between them and Israel. “Being your brother Israel,” so ran his message, you know all our troubles in Egypt, and how the Lord brought us forth. Now we are camped at Kadesh, on your border. Let us pass through your land. We will harm nothing, we will use nothing, but what we do use we will pay for; only give us the right to pass through according to the principle of the king’s highway.” But the son of Esau had none of Esau’s spirit. In a surly and ungracious way he refused, and when a second request was sent, he set his army in battle-array to keep the border closed against Israel. So, to avoid shedding the blood of their brothers, the men of Israel turned away, and made the long sweep round the south of Edom, to reach their goal by another route.
On the edge of the Edomite highland of Seir rose Mount Hor, solemn and rugged. When the camp was pitched beneath its shadow, God spoke to Moses and Aaron. “The time has come when Aaron must die, for he may not enter into this land because of your disobedience at the Waters of Strife.” So the two great brothers, old men now and weary, climbed the long slopes of Mount Hor, and Eleazar, the son of Aaron, went with them. There, on the summit, in the last of the sunlight, Aaron stood, clad in the splendid robes of the High Priesthood. Then Moses, with faltering hand, stripped them from him, one by one, and placed them upon Eleazar, that he might be High Priest in his father’s place. And when all was completed, Aaron lay down upon the hilltop under the great vault of heaven above and died. Leaving him there, Moses and Eleazar came down together, silent and sorrowful; and all Israel knew without asking that their first High Priest had gone back to God; and they mourned for him thirty days.
From Mount Hor they marched southwards till they had turned the southern flank of Edom; then passed northwards once more through the eastern desert. Once more, and for the last time, Moses heard the weary cry of discontent. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? It was answered by swift judgment, for from the hot sand there crawled among the tents vipers, with burning poison, and bit many of the people, and whosoever was bitten died. In despair they cried to the man who had to bear all their burdens, and he prayed to God to save them. “Make a serpent of fiery, gleaming bronze,” said the Lord, “and set it upon a pole; and whosoever, being bitten, will look to it, he shall live.”
Then Moses swiftly did God’s bidding, and raised the bronzen serpent high before the camp. And from all sides the dying turned their dim eyes towards it, and, as they looked, they revived. So the plague was halted, and the symbol of God’s mercy was kept as a hallowed relic through many generations, until at last the good King Hezekiah was constrained to break it in pieces, calling it Nehushtan ― “a bit of brass” — because everyone made an idol of it and burned incense to it.
Slowly they journeyed up the eastern borders of the land of Moab. There is little to tell of their experiences although this single verse, one of the oldest of Israel’s songs, has come down to us from those far off days. For at one of their camps God ordered them to dig for water. The heads of the tribes themselves laboured at the task, and when the well was dug and the pure, sweet water bubbled up, the people broke into singing:
Then it was that Israel sang this song:
“Spring up, O well! — so sing to it —
The well that the princes sank, that the nobles of the
people dug, with their scepters and their staffs.”
(Numbers 21: 17 — 18)
The time for war was at hand, for the eastern land through which they journeyed was to be part of their heritage, and they were to win it by the sword. First of the native kings who came forth to try the fortune of battle was Sihon, King of the Amorites. In pride and vainglory, and needlessly, he came, for Israel had offered him peace if he would grant a passage through his land for the tribes. At Jahaz he fought, and was beaten; and the men of Israel took all his land, and dwelt even in Heshbon, his royal city. An ancient song of the land tells of the downfall of the Amorite splendours.
Passing northwards, Israel came to Bashan. Now the King of Bashan (his name was Og) was of a very strong, tall men who had so terrified the spies of Israel. For a long time the great royal bedstead of black basalt, which he had had made to feed his pride and vain glory, might be seen in Rabbath in the land of the children of Ammon. It was thirteen feet and a half in length, and six feet wide. A sheer boast and vanity, since no one, not even of the sons of Anak, needed such a bed. Nevertheless, despite how great his stature might be, and how much greater his pride in it, it availed him nothing in the day of battle, for he and his host were utterly overwhelmed and routed, and Israel took his land in possession.
Chapter Thirteen A Wise Fool from the East
Balak, the King of Moab, was bitterly perplexed. The thrones of his neighbour kings were crumbling on every side of him, and he spoke to his sheikhs and wise elders. “As an ox licks up the grass of the field, so this multitude shall lick us up.” Since he doubted he could prevail by fair fight, he intended to try black art. Therefore he sent to Pethor, in the river-land of Mesopotamia, to a wise man, a magician, who dwelt there, whose name was Balaam, son of Beor. This was his message to the man: “A people who have come out of Egypt are darkening the whole land, and are forming up against me. I cannot fight them by myself, for they are incredibly strong. Come and curse them for me; then it may be I shall strike them and drive them out: for I know well that those you bless are blest, and those you curse are cursed.”
So the sheikhs whom Balak sent came with much treasure, and gave this message to Balaam. Now Balaam was something of a true seer, and had some knowledge of the Lord. “Lodge here with me tonight,” he said to the men, “and I shall tell you tomorrow what the Lord bids me do.”
So that night Balaam laid the matter before the Lord, and God forbade him to go. “You shall not curse this people, for they are blessed.” In the morning, therefore, Balaam dismissed the chiefs of Moab, and ordered them to tell their master that the Lord refused to let him do the King’s bidding.
Balak was not to be outdone. Again he sent sheikhs, more in number and higher in rank than before, and they brought great promises of honour from the King, if the prophet would but come and curse Israel. Balaam spake boldly enough to them but with some reserve. “Even if Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord, my God, to do less or more.” However, in his heart he coveted the honours and the wealth. Therefore he had them stay with him again, that he might ask God’s will.
Now the Lord was ill-pleased with Balaam, for his willingness and intended to teach him so. “Go with the men,” He said, “but you shall do nothing in Moab except what I command you.” So on the next day Balaam saddled his ass and went with the Moabite chiefs. For a while he rode on, his two servants running beside him. Then they came into a lane between two vineyards, and there was a wall on either side. Suddenly the ass swerved aside. She had seen, what Balaam could not see: the LORD’s Angel standing in the midst of the way, with a drawn sword in his hand. Balaam knew nothing of this, and struck the ass to turn her back; but rather than face the terror ahead, she pressed close to the wall till Balaam’s foot was crushed, and in his pain and anger he struck her again. But now the angel drew back into a narrow neck of the lane where no one could pass him; and as the ass went forward and saw that she must face the source of her fear, she lay down under her master.
Angrily he struck her with his staff, and at that moment the Lord gave the dumb creature the power of speech. “What have I done to you?,” she said, “that you struck me three times?” “You have made a fool of me,” said the angry man. “If I had a sword a sword in my hand, right at this moment, I would kill you!” “No,” said the ass, “you know your own ass, on which you have ridden for so long. Did I ever act like this before?” And Balaam said, “No,” and began to reconsider. At that point his eyes were opened, and he saw the Lord’s angel standing over against him with his sword drawn in his hand, and in great fear he fell upon his face. The angel then spoke to him. “Have you struck the ass? I have come out to oppose you, because your will rebelled against the Lord’s. Your ass, wiser than you yourself, saw Me and turned aside three times. And had she not turned, I would have slain you and spared her.” Then Balaam trembled and said: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the way against me. Now, if it displeases you, I will turn back again.” But the angel knew that the man’s greedy heart was set on going. “Go with the men,” He said, “but you are to speak only what I tell you.”
To the borders of Moab they came at last, and Balak met them. “Why did you not come sooner?” he said. “Did you not think I could reward you? I have come;” answered Balaam; “let that be enough. Whether my coming should bring good words to you or bad, God only can tell, for what He put in my mouth, that I must speak.”
Next day, Balak took the seer to Bamoth-baal, “The High Places of Baal.” Standing on the heights where the false god was worshipped, they looked out over the wide-lying camp of Israel. “Build me here seven altars,” said Balaam, “and bring a bullock and a ram for each.” Then the sacrifices were offered, and their smoke went up to heaven. “Remainhere with your burnt-offering,” said Balaam to the King. “I will go apart to seek the Lord, if indeed He will meet with me, and what¬soever He says to me I shall tell you.” So the seer departed to a lonely cliff, and there the Lord spoke to him, and put words in his mouth. “These words” , he said, “shall you speak to Balak when you return to him.”
With orders from the Lord, Balaam returned to the hill of sacrifice. There stood the King of Moab, motionless, eagerly waiting, and around him stood all the sheikhs of his land. Like a man in a dream, the prophet did not obey his own desire, but rather the impulse of the Lord’s spirit, and his answer came to the unwilling ears of the King — a chant in praise of his dreaded foes!
From Aram has Balak brought me here, Moab’s king,
from the Eastern Mountains: “Come and lay a curse
for me on Jacob, come and denounce Israel.”
How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the heights
I behold him. Here is a people that lives apart and does
not reckon itself among the nations.
Who has ever counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered
Israel’s wind-borne particles? May I die the death of
the just, may my descendants be as many as theirs!
(Numbers 23: 7 — 10)
Great was the reaction of the King of Moab! “What have you done?” he cried. “I ordered you to curse my enemies, and you have blessed them altogether!” But the prophet answered, “What the Lord has put into my mouth, that only must I speak.”
Then said Balak: “Come with me to another place, from where you shall only see the outer edges of their camp, in case their numbers frighten you. Curse them from that place.” So he led the seer to another hilltop, and again seven altars were raised, and a bullock and a ram offered on each. Once more the King remained with the sacrifice, while Balaam went to meet the Lord; and when he returned this was the manner of the prophesy which he uttered:
Be aroused, O Balak, and hearken; give ear to my testimony, O son
God is not man that he should speak falsely, nor human, that he should
change his mind. Is he one to speak and not act, to decree and not fulfill?
It is a blessing I have been given to pronounce; a blessing which I
Misfortune is not observed in Jacob, nor misery seen in Israel.
The LORD, his God, is with him; with him is the triumph of his King.
It is God who brought him out of Egypt, a wild bull of towering might.
No, there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor omen against Israel. It shall
yet be said of Jacob, and of Israel, “Behold what God has wrought!”
Here is a people that springs up like a lioness, and stalks forth like
a lion; It rests not till it has devoured its prey and has drunk the
blood of the slain. Numbers 23: 18 — 24
In hot anger Balak spoke to the seer. “In God’s name, don’t curse them and don’t bless them!” “Did I not tell you,” answered Balaam, “that I must do all that the Lord speaks?” But Balak’s heart still hungered to hear his enemy cursed. “Come,” he said, “to yet another place, and it may be that God will bid you curse them there.” Therefore, they went up to the hill, Peor, which looked down on the waste called Jeshimon, “Desolation”, and again seven altars were built and seven sacrifices offered.
Now Balaam saw that it was the Lord’s changeless will to bless Israel. Therefore he cast aside his spells, and looking towards the wilderness, he observed the tents of Israel ranked in due order, tribe after tribe, and God’s spirit came mightily upon him, as is recorded in the Book of Numbers:
The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor, the utterance of the man whose
eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what the
Most High knows, Of one who sees what the Almighty sees, enraptured,
and with eyes unveiled:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel!
They are like gardens beside a stream, like the cedars planted by
His wells shall yield free-flowing waters, he shall have the sea within
reach; His king shall rise higher than Amalek and his royalty shall be
It is God who brought him out of Egypt, a wild bull of towering
might. He shall devour the nations like grass, their bones he shall
He lies crouching like a lion, or like a lioness; who shall arouse him?
Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you!
Numbers 24: 3 — 9
When Balak heard that word, he struck his hands together in anger. “I called you to curse my enemies,” he cried, “and, you have totally blessed them three times. Go home to your own place. I intended to advance you to great honour; but the Lord has held you back from it.” And Balaam answered him, “Did I not speak to your messengers, saying, “Even if Balak should give me his house of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the Lord’s commandment to do good or bad on my own judgment — what the Lord says, that I speak’? And now, behold, I shall return to my own people; take note, therefore, as to what this people shall do to your people at the end of the days.” At that point the prophet’s utterance came upon him again, and he sang in this way:
The utterance of one who hears what God says, and knows what
the Most High knows, Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star
shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel, That
shall smite the brows of Moab, and the skulls of all the Shuthites,
Till Edom is dispossessed, and no fugitive is left in Seir. Israel
shall do valiantly,
and Jacob shall overcome his foes.
Upon seeing Amalek, Balaam gave voice to his oracle: First of
the peoples was Amalek, but his end is to perish forever.
Upon seeing the Kenites, he gave voice to his oracle: Your abode
is enduring, O blacksmith, and your nest is set on a cliff;
Yet destined for burning – even as I watch – are your inhabitants.
Upon seeing. . . . he gave voice to his oracle: Alas, who shall
survive of Ishmael,
to deliver his people from the hands of the Kittim? When they
have conquered Asshur and conquered Eber, He too shall perish
forever. Numbers 24: 16 — 24
In this way Balaam spoke, and left Balak, and returned to his own river-land of the East. Yet before he parted from the King of Moab, he gave him one last piece of advice, so that, as a result of the deception and enticements which he put into the heart of the King, many people of Israel were enticed, and many of them perished. And so, for this wickedness of Balaam, he met his deserved fate: he joined himself finally to the men of Midian when they fought against Israel, and in the defeat of these unbelievers, there the “wise fool” fell, who once had prayed, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
Chapter Fourteen A Death in the Desert
Now drew near the time when Israel should enter upon the Land of Promise, and with it the time when the great leader of Israel must lay down his heavy burden and rest from his labours. For because of his fault at the Waters of Strife, God would not allow him to go into the “Promised Land”. As the time of his death drew near, Moses gathered all Israel, and there in the wilderness, on the eastern side of Jordan, on the borders of their inheritance, he spoke again to the new generation that had not heard, like their fathers, the living words from Sinai, the Torah—the Law of the Lord their God.
Moreover he rehearsed in their hearing all the wonders that the Lord had wrought for His people, since the day when Israel turned back from the southern border of the land because of the false report of the spies.
And he gave them wise advice, encouraging them to observe diligently all the instructive words of God—the Commandments of their God, the Holy Torah. Then, calling before him the sheikhs of all the tribes, he blessed them, as Jacob had blessed his sons before his death, a blessing to each tribe according to his vision of its future. Over the whole nation he spread forth his hands in blessing. “The eternal God,” he said, “is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
So at last came the day when he must die in the desert. Yet, before his eyes closed to earthly sights, God gave him the vision of all the “Promised Land” which should come to his people in the days to come. For He had him climb the mountain called Nebo, to the peak of it called Pisgah, which looks down upon the deep Jordan Valley and the city of Jericho. There, in the clear eastern air, all the land was spread before his eyes, brilliant and smiling, and God had him look upon it all. Northwards he gazed, along the eastern side of Jordan over the brave country of Gilead, to be mother, in the days to come, of a prophet as mighty as the one who gazed. Westwards across the mountain of Judea, the stronghold of the race, even till his eyes caught in the far distance the silver glimmer of the Great Sea now called the Mediterranean. Southwards lay Jericho, the city of palm-trees, in the midst of its date groves, and the green Jordan Valley stretching to Zoar, the little city to which Lot escaped, while beyond lay the Dead Sea, amid its desolation. And the Lord spoke to His servant as he stood there gazing, with a life’s desire in his eyes. “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’. I have caused you to see it with your own eyes, but you shall not go over the border into it.”
Thus came the long service of Moses to an end, and he laid down alone, and, there on the lonely top of Pisgah, he passed to his rest. And the Lord buried him in a valley of Moab, looking to Beth-peon; but the place of his grave no one knows. He was one hundred and twenty years old, yet his eyesight was undimmed and the blood ran strong in his veins till the day when he entered into rest.
Below, in the plains of Moab, Israel mourned their lost leader for thirty days; then they prepared themselves for the task ahead of them. In place of Moses, Joshua led the host, for Moses had set him apart for this service, and everyone obeyed him as they had obeyed their former chief. Nevertheless, since the day of that death in the land of Moab, Israel has known no such prophet as Moses, who saw God and spoke to Him face to face, and who saw all the signs and wonders of the Lord which He worked on Pharaoh and his servants and the land of Egypt before all Israel, in the day of the great deliverance.
Among other references, the following have been especially helpful in guiding the preparation of our narrative texts.
1 Waiting For Christ, by Ronald Cox, C.M., S.T.L., S.S.L.
2 The Whole Story, by Martin J. Healy.
3 Jerusalem Bible, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1966.
All major passages from this translation have the following acknowledgement
attached to them:
Excerpt from the JERUSALEM BIBLE,
copyright (c) 1966 by Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd.
and Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.
Reprinted by permission.
4 A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London. 1953.
5 The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1968.
6 The Hadock Bible
7 The Men and Message of the Old Testament, by Peter Ellis, 1963.
8 The Holy Bible, Confraternity Text, Good Will Publishers, North Carolina, 1960.
9 The New American Bible.
All major passages from this translation have the following acknowledgement
attached to them:
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
revised edition (c) 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of
Christian Doctrine, Washington D.C. and are used by permission of the
copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American
Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing
from the copyright owner.
10 The Bible Story, by James Baikie.
11 A God Who Speaks, by Jaques Guillet, S.J. Gill and McMillan, Dublin, 1979.
12 Meditation and the Bible, by Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc. New York, 1978.
13 From Moses to Elisha, by L. Elliot-Binns D.D. (Clarendon Press, 1929).
14 Dictionary of the Bible, by John L. McKenzie, S.J., Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1965.
• Base texts for the narrative are:
The Whole Story
The Confraternity Bible
The New American Bible
The Bible Story