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Jojimar Kenneth M.

First Year Theology

Old Testament- Pentateuch

October 1, 2008

In the Wilderness

Desert Part I : Guidance in the Wilderness [ Exodus 16-18]

In the ancient near eastern tradition, the desert has a place in the mythology and religious

imagery, representing the abode evil spirits, threatening forces which might at any moment
destroy land and the people. The Old Testament uses of the desert imagery reveal only small
traces of this mythology. E.g. Leviticus 16:20-28. The desert or the wilderness indeed was for
Israels a place for danger; but this was also the place where Yahweh had shown His special
favor and provided extraordinary protection in behalf of His people. This is what gives to the
desert its special importance in Old Testament literature: there Yahweh showed His grace to
Israel in a land that was sown Jeremiah 2:2.1
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are fearful of the desert, certain that they will perish
in this bleak land. It would have been better to stay or remain in Egypt, or to have been
destroyed in the wilderness. They have might have escaped from the Egyptians but what
possibility of escape is there from the desert enemy? Yahwehs response is swift and shows the
extent of his providence and concern. In Exodus 15-18 sketches several incidents of Gods care
that were answered by Israels murmuring and rebellion against hardship in the desert.
1. The feeding with manna and quail
2. The gift of water from the rock
3. The complaints at Marah
The repetitions of the similar stories reveals two different sources we known, and both
were used to doubtly enforce the point of Gods continual care and the peoples continual lack of
appreciation and rebelliousness.2
Origin of the Sabbath

W. Hamelson, Interpreting The Old Testament, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 87.
L. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament. An Introduction, Paulist Press, New York 1984. 170-171.

It is remarkable that the Old Testament writers place origin of the Sabbath in this context.
We can see that in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The priestly story, as noted, presupposes a
rhythm of work and rest which Yahweh Himself observes. Yet this requirement is not laid upon
mankind; it is an obligation of Israel alone. Moreover, the Sabbath is not introduced as a
requirement of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery, as a presupposition for Yahwehs deliverance.
Rather, it is presented in the overflowing of divine grace: God gives food in the abundance to His
people in the parched and barren land. There, as they gathered the food, the Israelites are told to
set aside a day when they will not gather food. On the sixth day they were to gather a double
supply, so that on the seventh day they would be entirely free from work. Contrary to much
popular opinion, therefore, the Sabbath was not for Israel a day of painful religious obedience. It
was a day when the entire Israelite community took time to rejoice in Gods goodness, when
both beast and man could rest from labor. God in His mercy provided a day of rejoicing and rest,
when no one would lack food, when no one need anxiously strive to maintain himself and his
There is no way of thinking that Moses introduced the Sabbath observance during in the
wilderness. It is perhaps that it could be one days rest in seventh day was a part of the
administrative measures for preserving people in the wilderness. The significance of the Sabbath
fort the history of mankind can hardly overestimate. When the observance becomes a part of
Israels covenant faith in the Ten Commandments the community is provided with a means of
regulating work and rest out of which much of Israels later spiritual existence is to flower.
The Wilderness Period: Israels Childhood
Israelites were very dependent on God. We are told that they ate manna for forty years.
We should think that the earliest tradition speaking of Yahwehs providing manna for emergency,
feeding the Israelite when they were unable to find food for themselves. As the story tells us that
it primary speaks about for the later positive evaluation of the wilderness period of the Israelite
prophets. When Israel unable to care for herself, when she depended daily upon Yahwehs
guidance and sustenance, then she was faithful to Him. But when she came into the rich land of
Canaan she immediately forgot Yahweh, turned to the gods of fertility, began to trust in her own

W. Hamelson, Interpreting the Old Testament, 87.

power to provide for daily needs. In short, the wilderness period was the time of Israels
childhood [Hosea 11:1], when Israel displayed the ingenuous faith of a child in its father.
Motif in the Wilderness
In the wilderness, Israel was not always a faithful and trusting child; on the contrary, she
pouted and whined and long for the fleshpots of Egypt. This motif signifies that it can be
probably derived from the priestly tradition, indicates that Israel was provided with a sacred
center in the Holy Land of Palestine; she could not and did come to maturity. This motif provide
us a theme for the wilderness which the wilderness provided tests for of Israelites faithfulness
which probably resulted sometimes in obedience and faithfulness to Yahweh, sometimes in
murmuring and rebellion. But not as much as the demonic character in the desert has been
permitted to retain in the Israelite story God provided them a Holy day in order for them to keep
in mind the connection of the munificent setting of the table for all Israel out there. He also
tested His people and taught them obedience through the long wilderness journey.4
Threats in the Wilderness
1. The threat of famine and the deadly scourge of the wilderness thirst strikes .
When they were traveling, the people reach to a point where the water supply fails and
from this alarmed and murmur. They cried out to Moses and began to complain about the
shortage of water. Moses turn into prayer and he was told to strike the stone or rock and
produce the needed water. [Exodus 17:1-7].
Spring which flow from the rock are not unknown in the Sinai Area; one large spring can be
seen today at the place in Edom called Ayin Musa the spring of Moses. The story must have a
background some such as locality. The two place names, Massa and Meribah(vs.7), suggest that
two localities have been combined into one. It is impossible to identify the spot precisely; the
important thing is that once again Yahweh shows Himself to be the provider for Israels needs in
the wilderness.

Ibid., 89.

2. Amelakites Nomads
The Amelakites attack the Israelites in the wilderness. In this scene, Joshua appears. His
selection as Moses own decision; Joshua does not stand out as Yahwehs choice to lead the
army. Perhaps this is because, from the narrators point of view, it is Moses who actually directs
the forces against Amalek.
The description of the brief scene is very powerful and vivid: Moses stand on the hill
with Aaron and Hur, holding out his hands as a sign of the battle is to go to the Israelites. He
stands there throughout the day, with Aaron and Hur supporting his arms when Moses grows
The two traces of motif were seen in the story. First, One story is apparently related how
moses drew power from God for Israels warriors by holding his arms outstretched an
indication of the power of the cross symbol in sympathetic magic. The other story told of Moses
holding out his power filled rod, drawing divine power from this symbolic act.
The second Motif seems to be reflected in the name of the altar: Yahweh is my banner
As a conclusion in these threats, Yahweh did not abandon the Israelite people instead He
continued the aspect of Saving Guidance of His people in the terrible wilderness.
The Exodus Escape Route
In the Exodus 12:38 tells us that the Israelites left in a motley group of followers, and the
claim of six hundred thousand men, not including women and children, Israel was probably not
large enough a group to attract much notice in Egyptian record.
The Israelites stayed far from the military garrisons (Exodus 13:17) and probably would remain
unbothered once they manage to reach the Sinai wilderness. Many routes have been proposed.
Israel avoided the way of the Philistines, the normal road to Palestine, few suggest the coastal
route. Some would propose a trek through the desert in the northern part of Sinai straight to
Kadesh Barnea, even though this has little support in tradition; others defend a more popular
tradition of a route deep into southern Sinai to the imposing range of the mountains with the peak
Jebel Musa ( mountain of Moses). From there Israel would have journeyed up the opposite side

of the Sinai Peninsula to Kadesh Barnea. Even today, the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St
Catherine Stands at the foot of the Jebel Musa to welcome visitors.5

Desert Part II: Guidance in the Wilderness ( Numbers 10:11-14:45; Chapters 2024;31-32
According to the priestly chronology, the Israelites spent almost a year at the foot

of Mt. Sinai before finally breaking cam and setting out toward the wilderness of Paran. Taking
with them the portable ark and tabernacle as evidence of Yahwehs presence and accompanied by
Hobab the Kenite, they journey to the vicinity of Kadesh, where the remainder of the traditional
forty years in the wilderness is spent (Numbers 10:11 20:-21). Among the miscellaneous
episodes that have their setting and rebellion, some of it led by Aaron and Miriam; Moses
persistent intercession of the people; and Yahwehs provision of water, manna, and quail.
Various Stories within the framework of Israels movement from Kadesh to the plains of
Many additional stories and legends, plus the collection of various laws, stand within the
framework of the story of Israels movement from Kadesh. A number of these stories probably
derived from rival factions within the later Israelite priesthood: the pouring out of the spirit of
Yahweh upon the elders, including those who remained in the camp (Numbers 11:16-30); the
challenge of Moses authority of the Miriam and Aaron (chap 12); the rebellion of Koran
(chapter 16). Other stories owe their origin to disputes over the territorial rights of the tribes: the
daughters of Zelophehad (chap. 27; 36); the desire of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of
Manasseh to settle in Trans-jordan and have no part in the conquest of Canaan (Chap32). The
cycle of tradition connected with the name of Balaam (chaps.22-24) seems to be quite ancient
and to rest on sound foundation. The poem in 24 24:15-19 is a parallel to the blessing of Judah
(Genesis 49:8-12) and is of great importance for an understanding of Israelite eschatology and
messianism. Yet it is clear that Balaam supported the cause of Israel against his will; the tradition
reports that Israel put him to death despite his service to the people (Numbers 31:8; Joshua

L. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament. An Introduction, 170-172.

13:22). The actual relation between Israel and these Near Eastern soothsayers is therefore quite

The Parallelism in the Desert Episode I and II

There are similarities in the book of Exodus and Numbers and primarily lie in the great

stress on how Israel grumbled and rebelled against God during the years in the desert. In fact, the
two books often parallel each other in incidents. In the diagram below, we can see the parallelism
of the exodus desert part I and Numbers Desert part II.
Exodus 14- 17
Numbers 11-21
Ex 14:10 Complaint that Egyptians were Num 11:1 People grumble against Yahweh at
about to slay them: God opens the Reed Sea.
Taberah: fire punish them.
Ex 15:23 - People grumble at Elim about Num 11:4 People grumble about no meat at
bitter water: Moses curse the water.
Kibrothattaavah: God sends quail, but also a
Ex 16:3 - People grumble at no food in the Num 12 Miriam and Aaron rebel against
desert of Sin
Moses: God gives Miriam leprosy.
Ex 17:2 No water at Rephidim: God gives Num 14 People rebel at desert stay: God
water from the rock
extends the time to forty years.
Num 16 Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebel
against Moses: God consumes them in fire
Num 20 People grumble about lack of water:
Moses strikes the water from the rock.
Num 21 People grumble about food : God
sends fiery serpents.

The incidents or the story in Exodus primarily emphasizes the patience of Yahweh to His
chosen people. He is a God who always listens to Israels cries, needs and intervenes to help. In

W. Hamelson, Interpreting The Old Testament, Holt, Rinehart and Winston,Inc. 101

the chapter 11-21 of the book of Numbers, on the other hand, emphasizes that the Israels
constant rebellion led Yahweh to punish them time and again. But each time Moses intervenes
and begs for the sake of the people, and God soften his anger and turn back his punishments or
heals the victims.
In the chapter 11-20 is one of the series of grumbling and murmuring after another. The
issues are concerning about the hard condition in the wilderness and others are directed against
the authority and leadership of Moses himself. Some biblical scholars assesses that the traditions
found on both books reflect only a few of the many conflicts and struggles among the tribes
during these formative years as different ones fought for leadership and superiority. The scholars,
some would say that, not all of the twelve tribes were slaves in Egypt and escaped with Moses.
Those that had escaped sought their own way in Sinai and across the Jordan and so the other
clans and tribes joined with Moses group and accepted for themselves the God Yahweh who had
made himself known in Sinai.7
The leadership of Moses in the book of Numbers was manifested, but it shows us also
that the struggle to make one nation under Yahweh was not simple as we sometimes think. The
reiteration of the rebellion theme would not have been missed by the Israelites of the sixth
century for whom P wrote. They could look back on the centuries of injustice, disobedience and
false worship, the condemnation of the prophets, the failures of kings and know that the loss of
their own freedom and land in exile had been richly deserved.8
More than the other books of the Old Testament, the book of Numbers let us see why
Pentateuch came to be the way it is a gathering of the very old tradition and much later added
developments. For Israel, each part of the ancient faith tradition had a message for later

IV. Nature of the Desert - Nature of Life Apart from God

L.Boadt, Reading the Old Testament. An Introduction, 193


Deserts are dry. But there is much more to a desert than a lack of moisture. They are
complex places characterized by extreme aridity, hot temperatures, high winds, and horrendous
levels of solar radiation. Deserts have traditionally been considered dangerous, the haunts of
criminals and grotesque creatures.
Inspite of these consistent characteristics, scientists have been unable to come up with a
standard definition of a desert. According to the Encyclopdia Britannica Online, these varied
environments defy a "concise definition that satisfies every case." Intellectual understanding of
the desert is a challenge but the emotional response to crossing the desert is typically biased
against the experience. Yet, some people intentionally seek out the desert for peace, personal
renewal, and to pursue a closer relationship with God.
The Bible views a fascinating portrait of the birth and development of a nation as it
crossed the desert. The desert played an important role on the part of the Israelites. Through the
desert, they become more challenge and also God was challenged through the desert. In the
wilderness, Yahweh remained contact with the Israelite, providing everything that they need as
they went along the journey. Yahweh did not forsake the people instead He wanted them to be
more faithful as Yahweh challenge them in every mistake that they do considering the
punishments that awaits them.
The Israelites may have respected the desert landscape but their attitude appears to have
been motivated more from fear than love. The desert was often associated with death and the
presence of demons. Due to the importance of water for survival, biblical texts refer to water
more than any other single attribute of the desert. A lack of water causes landscapes to be barren
and lifeless. The scarcity of surface water in the Holy Land had a number of significant
implications for the Israelites; economically as well as spiritually .Great effort and ingenuity
were utilized to secure reliable water once they began to settle in localized communities.
Jerusalem is one of the better examples of successful water works in this region during the
biblical period. The Cisterns, fountains, and aqueducts were utilized to provide the Holy City
with an adequate supply of water throughout its history.

Surviving in the desert for an extended period of time fostered the development of
spiritual insight, as a simple dependence on God took root early in the life of Israel. Spiritual
growth was not retarded by a life of hardship in the desert. Rather, it was able to flourish. This
has led some to conclude that crossing the desert was an ideal time in the relationship between
God and the Israelites. Others, however, reject any notion of a positive perspective on the desert
experience by the ancient Hebrews. Perhaps there is no evidence of a positive attitude towards
the desert period. The extremely harsh conditions were considered anything but positive as the
Israelites faced death from dehydration or starvation at every turn. Like their desert neighbors
they viewed the desert as hostile, a land without of all comfort, and a place of judgment.
Regardless of how the Israelites viewed the desert while crossing it, the harsh conditions they
endured, influenced their cultural and spiritual identity for generations to come. 10

V. Theology
The Elements in the Wilderness
The elements of this wilderness will be presented here as we examine the Jewish people,
liberated in a land "that was not sown."
1. The desert environment revealed the reality of God.
God revealed Himself through the desert story. He manifested the unending love for His
chosen people. The spirit of dependency was being view in the desert but later on, it change as
they went through traveling and reaches the Promise land.
2. God is the Provider
The way in which the Israelites were sustained pictures a specific attribute of God, that of
provider. He actively met the needs of His chosen people as a loving father meets the needs of
his children. God provided everything from food and water for physical survival to discipline
and guidance for healthy spiritual and emotional growth.

W. T.Johnson, Ancient Desert Sojourns. Environmental Implications @ the National Level

3. The desert experience illustrated that disobeying God caused environmental disaster.
The desert they crossed sustained life when the Israelites trusted God but failed to do so
when they disobeyed Him. Through the physical experience of wandering in the wilderness, the
Hebrews learned a spiritual lesson of faith and saw how their corporate faith affected the
quality of the natural environment for the entire nation. This timeless lesson, if applied today
would result in significant environmental improvement worldwide. 11
4. The Good Shepherd and His Sheep
One of the most interesting pictures of God seen in the desert crossing of the ancient
Hebrews is that of a Shepherd. The Israelites had no idea where to go. In order to get where they
needed to be, where food and water could be found, they had to follow God's guiding hand. The
relationship between God and the Hebrews is pictured as that between a shepherd and his sheep
throughout Scripture. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that "All we like sheep have gone astray..."
(Isaiah 53:6). One of the best loved Psalms pictures the Lord as our personal Shepherd (Psalm
23). And the Lord Jesus described himself as the "Good Shepherd" (John 10:14), seeking His
sheep when they go astray (Luke 15:1-7).
Positive and Negative motifs
The theological development of the wilderness theme, both in Exodus Numbers and
elsewhere, is usually rich. It can be distinguish between a positive and a negative interpretation
of the wilderness is in danger of obscuring this richness, and negative motifs are already present
in the earliest surviving narratives.
The Positive motifs are, first, Yahweh unceasingly portrayed as the provider of the
Israelite people in times of need. This includes the guidance by the pillar of cloud in day and a
pillar of fire during the night. And they manifested that God is always on the side of the
Israelites. God is always everywhere ever ready to help them in times of need. Another will be
the movement of the ark. The ark also symbolizes as the covenant which God has been agreed
upon with His people, His chosen people.


On the other hand, the negative motifs in the wilderness are seen as they travel or
journeying in the desert. First, the complaining, murmurings and rebellious people because of
lack of food and drink. Although they have seen the works of Yahweh, they are not that
contented because of what they are experiencing in the desert, the thirst, the hunger, and the heat
of the sun. Second, the impatience of the people and Yahweh is also seen in the desert Part I and
II of the Episode in the wilderness. According to the priestly narratives, Moses was unable to
enter the Promised Land not because of old age but rather, in Moses own rebellion against
Yahweh which debarred him not to enter the promise land.

BOADT L., Reading the Old Testament. An Introduction, Paulist Press, New York 1984. 170-171.

DYRNESS, W., Themes in the Old Testament, OMF Publishers, Manila Phil 1979.
GAEBELIN, F. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Vol. 1. Zondervan Publishing House,
Michigan 1979.
HARRELL, W. Interpreting the Old Testament. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., NY 1964.
HAMELSON W. Interpreting The Old Testament, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 87.
HENRY, M. Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, Moody Press, Chicago.
HEINISCH, D. History of the Old Testament, tr., W.G. Heidt, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville
MN 1952.
JOHNSON W. T. Ancient Desert Sojourns. Environmental Implications @ the National Level.
MERRIL, E. An Historical Survey of the Old Testament. Baker book House, Grand Rapids
Michigan 21991.
PLAUT, W. G. ed., The Torah. A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew
Congregations, New York 1981.
RALPH M. Discovering Old testament Origins: The Books of Genesis, Exodus and Samuel.
Paulist Press, Mahwah. NJ 1992.
SPEISER, E.A. tr., The Wilderness, The Anchor Bible. Genesis, Doubleday and Company Inc.
Garden City New York 1964.