11. 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 men of Israel 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 manna,” they cried. “Who shall give us flesh to eat? For our whole being is dried up.” Like greedy children whose greed is denied, they stood 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 to bear all this people alone. Kill me, I pray, out of hand, if I have found favour in Your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.” 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 could scarce believe that such a thing might be 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 but to gather and slay and eat. For a day and a night, and another day, they gathered in their senseless greed. So mad 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 foolishness 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 spoken through them as well as him, so that he had no right to pre-eminence. Now Moses would have borne their folly 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 smitten with leprosy, and all her skin was hideously white. Even when Aaron confessed their sin and Moses who 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, lest, moving too rashly, they might fall into a snare and be destroyed. Therefore the Lord bade Moses choose out twelve men, one man from each tribe, that they might go through the land from end to end and spy it out, and so bring back word to their people of the task that 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, and mighty cluster of purple grapes, so heavy that it was 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 land is a rich and prosperous land, as you can see from these fruits which we have brought back — 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, 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 so 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 brethren’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 pardoned. 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 of 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 coward 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.” But there was no turning them from this new folly. 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.