20. The Exodus- the twelve spies of Moses; the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years; the mistake of Moses and Punishment by God

God told Moses about what happened at the foot of Mount Sinai and furious, He pronounced His intent of killing all the Jews and restarting the religion of Judaism with the descendants of Moses. Moses sought God’s mercy reminding Him of His covenant with Abraham-Isaac-Jacob and also pleaded with Him to forgive the Jews one last time.

Gradually God’s anger calmed down. Directing Moses to return to the foot of the mountain, He instructed him to clearly explain the situation to the Jews and make them see reason. Carrying with him the two stone tablets inscribed with the ‘Ten Commandments’ and other material, Moses returned in a dismal mood. What he saw at the Jewish encampment enraged him – He saw that the Jews were offering worship and other rituals to the idol of an animal that had been installed. Some were even engrossed in partying under the pretext of offering sacrifices. What he saw made Moses fly off the handle and he smashed the two tablets inscribed with ‘Ten Commandments’ by repeatedly striking them against the ground! Taken aback as it is, at his sudden and unexpected arrival, the rage of Moses rendered the Jews numb with fear.

Ten Commandments
Moses breaks the tablets of ‘Ten Commandments’

At once, Moses pulled the animal idol down and smashed it to bits. Punishing the group of Egyptians and the Jews involved in this act, Moses again left for the mountain for forty-day atonement. Later, God once again handed to Moses, two new oblong stone tablets, on which He had inscribed the ‘Ten Commandments’.

The same year also saw the completion of the ‘Tabernacle’, the details of which God had already dictated clearly and precisely. The Tabernacle stayed protected in the ‘Pillar of Cloud and Fire’ when the Jews camped at a particular site. When the Pillar left from above the Tabernacle, for the Jews, it was an indication to proceed with their journey.

The Jews camped at the foot of Mount Sinai for almost a year. Now Canaan was not too far. Hence in the meantime, in order to obtain a fair idea of what was in store for them in the ‘Promised Land’, Moses sent twelve spies to explore Canaan- one from each of the twelve tribes believed to be the founding tribes of Israel. Led by Joshua, they all went to Canaan and conducted a secret exploration of the land. They were to submit a comprehensive report on aspects like the culture, the local inhabitants, the resistance to be anticipated, the crops grown, the businesses, etc.

Toiling hard, day and night for forty days the spies gathered the information. The land of Canaan, they found, was a land of milk and honey. But the report about the local inhabitants was not very encouraging. It pointed out that there were tribes with hefty and cruel tribesmen and there were others who were brutal and barbaric. What their study revealed, was enough to give the spies cold feet, the exceptions to this being Joshua and Caleb (Miriam’s husband). In sum, they were of the opinion that it was advisable to return to Egypt since conquering the local inhabitants seemed pretty much impossible. Joshua and Caleb on the other hand, had unshakable faith in God and also in God’s word that He would indeed take them to Canaan.

Twelve Spies of Moses returning to him from Canaan

Hearing the reports of the spies, the faith of Jews began to dwindle and they were back to cursing Moses. Joshua and Caleb kept trying to convince them that God’s word was way more powerful than any worldly army or weapons. But their efforts were in vain! It was then that the dejected Moses again prayed to God. This time God told Moses, ‘If these people are not ready to believe in Me despite all that I did for their sake, they do not deserve to step onto the land of Canaan. Your spies explored Canaan for forty days. Hence the Jews will keep wandering in the desert for forty long years; a year for a day each! This generation which has rejected Me, may not enter Canaan; only their next generation may do so. As for the spies, only Joshua and Caleb may enter Canaan’.

And everyone soon experienced the truth in God’s words. Not one or two, but for forty long years the Jews kept going around in circles, wandering behind the Pillar of Cloud and Fire in the wilderness of the desert. During these forty years there were multiple instances where Moses had to face tests, rebellions against him, etc., but he emerged stronger than ever before. The forty years saw Moses sequentially teaching the ‘Torah’ (‘The law of God in entirety’) first to Aaron, then to his children, then to seventy extremely intelligent elderly persons, selected by God Himself before he taught it to all the rest of the Jews. With the passage of forty years a whole generation of the Jews had ended their journey of life on the earth. And now, it was this new generation of the Jews, born in the desert that was going to enter Canaan.

Moses’s sister Miriam passed away towards the end of the period spent in the desert. Following her death, what happened at Kadesh in the desert of  Zin was absolutely amazing, to say the least.

We read the story where, on God’s command, Moses struck a rock with his staff when he was faced with the unavailability of water. Water gushed out from the rock and quenched the thirst of the entire assemblage of the Jews. Wherever they went, the Jews surprisingly came across the rock that provided water. From it, they would also get the needed water, just like at Rephidim, so says the story. But it so happened that after Miriam’s death, the rock stopped giving water. The Jews thus faced water scarcity and like always pestered Moses. Once again Moses prayed to God; God asked him to gather together all the Jews and appeal to the rock to give them water.

The ‘Tabernacle’ protected in the ‘Pillar of Cloud and Fire’

The Jews always held Moses responsible for every difficulty that came their way. Moses could take it no more. Once, the angered Moses struck the rock with his staff, very much like he had done at Rephidim in the past. Water too gushed out like in the past. The act quenched the thirst of the Jews but the fact remained that Moses had erred. He had disobeyed the word of God. Forgetting to speak to the rock as instructed by God, Moses had instead struck it with this staff.

Generally speaking, this mistake could be regarded to be of little consequence. But spiritually speaking, for a person of Moses’s stature, even a trivial mistake could prove unpardonable because people tend to look at such personalities as models. And hence Moses received punishment, punishment for not obeying God’s command – ‘He shall not lead the Israelites to Canaan! In fact he shall not enter Canaan at all!’

(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar