Question: "Why was Israel cursed with forty years of wilderness wandering?"
Answer: “Wilderness wandering” refers to the plight of the Israelites due to their disobedience and unbelief. Nearly 3,500 years ago, the Lord delivered His people from Egyptian bondage as described in Exodus, chapters 1–12. They were to take possession of the land God had promised their forefathers, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Prior to entry, however, they became convinced they could not oust the current inhabitants of the land, even though God told them they could. Their lack of belief in God’s word and promises brought forth the wrath of God. He cursed them with forty years of wilderness wandering until the unbelieving generation died off, never stepping foot in the Promised Land.
A seven-year famine was responsible for God’s chosen people ending up in Egypt. Initially, they flourished under the leadership of Joseph, number two in charge of the country after Pharaoh. “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt” (Exodus 1:8), and soon, “the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exodus 1:12). For the next several centuries they enslaved by the Egyptians who “worked them ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:13). Eventually, God heard their cries (Exodus 2:23-25) and sent Moses and Aaron to rescue them. After enduring the last of the ten plagues—the death of the firstborn males—Pharaoh finally agreed to release the Israelites.
Upon their arrival at Kadesh Barnea, which bordered the Promised Land of Canaan, they sent out twelve spies to survey the land and its people (Numbers 13:18-25). They returned after forty days of exploration. Ten of the spies had a bad report: “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…All the people we saw were of great size…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes” (Numbers 13:31-33). Only Joshua and Caleb dissented (Numbers 14:6-7). Believing the report of the ten doubters, the people lost heart and rebelled. They “raised their voices and wept aloud,” grumbling against Moses and Aaron saying “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword” (Numbers 14:1-2, emphasis added).
Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them” (Numbers 14:11). However, Moses once again interceded for his people and turned away the wrath of God (Numbers 14:13-20). Although God did forgive them, He decided that “not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it” (Numbers 14:23). Rather, they would suffer by wandering in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each of the forty days they explored the land (Numbers 14:34). Furthermore, God would give them what they asked for: “I will do the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall, every one of you twenty years old or more” (Numbers 14:28-29). Additionally, the ten men who had given the bad report were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord (Numbers 14:37). Only Joshua and Caleb survived, the two faithful spies who believed God’s promise to give the land over to them.
God had promised them victory. The land He commanded them to go in and take was already theirs; they simply had to trust and obey, but this they did not do. God will never lead us where His grace cannot provide for us or His power cannot protect us. Indeed, the Israelites had seen the powerful hand of God at work during the plagues and miracles of the Exodus. Yet, like many people, they walked by sight and not by faith and their unbelief displeased God. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Their failure to believe in God’s word kept them from entering the Promised Land. This truth has never changed.
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