Why did Israel spend 40 years in the wilderness?

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By BibleAsk Team


Why did Israel spend 40 years in the wilderness?

The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness as a result of their lack of faith and disobedience to God. According to the biblical narrative in the Book of Numbers, after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were on the brink of entering the Promised Land. However, when twelve spies were sent to scout the land, ten of them returned with a discouraging report, causing the people to doubt God’s promise and power. In response to their lack of trust and their rebellion, God decreed that that generation would not enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would wander in the desert for 40 years, allowing time for the disobedient generation to pass away and a new generation, prepared to trust and follow God, to arise. This period of wandering was a time of testing and purification for the Israelites, intended to prepare them for the eventual conquest and settlement of the Promised Land.

God’s Promise to Abraham

God had promised Abraham that his descendants would return to Canaan “in the fourth generation” (Genesis 15:16). And at God’s appointed time, He delivered His people from the bondage of Egypt with mighty hand and great miracles (Exodus 1–12). And He promised to lead them to the land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

Israel’s Sin

When the Israelites reached Kadesh Barnea, at the border of the Promised Land of Canaan, they sent out twelve spies to survey the land and its people (Numbers 13:18-25). Ten of the spies gave a bad report saying, “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 had a hopeful report saying, “If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them” (Numbers 14:7-9).

Instead of listening to the good report, the Israelites chose to harbor unbelief and refused to believe in God’s power of deliverance. Their refusal was willful and deliberate, and persisted in spite of all the evidences God had provided for them. They took the miracles that the Lord had done for them in the wilderness for granted, as their due, and didn’t appreciate His good purpose in calling them out of Egypt and in making them a nation. They did not realize that God had planned their wilderness experiences for their good, to teach them how to trust Him, and thus prepare them for the Promised Land.

So, the Israelites “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). In addition, they tried to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

40 Years in the Wilderness

Then, God 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). When, in faithlessness the Israelites refused to learn the lessons they must learn before God could take them into Canaan, He finally had no choice but to leave them to reap the consequences of their unbelief.

God said to Moses, “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:12). But Moses interceded for the Israelites and pleaded that God’s anger be turned away (Numbers 14:13-20). The Lord listened to Moses’ prayer and forgave the Israelite’s sin. But He declared 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).

And the Lord added, that same generation of those that murmured will wander in the wilderness “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years” (Numbers 14:34). This judgement will fall upon those who are “twenty years old or more” (Numbers 14:28-29). As for the ten men, who had given the bad report, they were struck by God’s plague (Numbers 14:37).

Only Joshua and Caleb, who gave the good report, lived and entered the promised land, which they believed God would give them. Thus, God’s promise to Abraham was not fulfilled to that generation because of the rebellion at Kadesh-barnea (Hebrews 3:7–11) but was fulfilled to the following generation, who did, in fact, enter the promised land (Deuteronomy 3:18, 20; Joshua 21:44; 23:1).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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