12. The Aimless Years
Now were the children of Israel indeed in a predicament. Still they must journey, yet never arrive; and still contend, yet never gather the spoil. Small 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 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 base 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!”
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 men pleaded with the Lord that He would not destroy the whole nation for the sin of one man, and God bade them 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 befall.
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 remem¬brance 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.”
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. Forth from the tent 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.
# main staff — ornamental rod of office.
Moses, however, 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, even, except that 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 way.
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:
“Spring up, O well! Sing back to her!
Well which princes sank,
Well which the nobles dug,
Bearers of the sceptre and leading staff.
A gift from the desert it is.”
Num. 21: 17
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.