Story 4 of 12: DESERT JOURNEY
The promised land of Canaan should have been a two or three week's walk across the Sinai peninsula. But the Israelites ended up wandering around the desert for 40 years! God took this time to form His People, and the formation would not be pleasant!
Up until now it was the culture of all peoples to offer their first fruits to the gods they worshipped. In pagan religions (and even in a few remaining instances amongst the Hebrews themselves) this amounted to child sacrifice. To begin civilizing them more, instead of having them sacrifice their firstborns, God ordered that the Israelites descended from Levi (again, one of Jacob's 12 sons) were to be set apart as priests, sacrificing animals to God as a substitute ("expiation") for child sacrifice. These sacrifices also falsified the other gods and served as atonement for their sins against God, since no one could possibly keep every single law (there were over 600 laws given to Moses, not just the 10 commandments). But the 10 commandments were central, and violating some of them, especially working on the Sabbath, was punishable by death.
And so the Israelites marched on in the desert, eating manna and quails that God had provided, headed back to the land of their forefathers, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, the promised land! Along the way, when the people lost faith and complained to Moses, questioning God's choice of him as their leader, God subjected them to famine, disease, or even the sword. Repeatedly Moses would intervene for God not to destroy them all, reminding him of his earlier promises.
Before dying, Moses pronounced his blessings on all of Israel and commissioned Joshua to succeed him. The desert journey was about to come to an end. With the promised land visible just across the Jordan River, the Israelites were left with two clear warnings before entering: (1) to keep the laws given to Moses, and (2) to NOT intermarry with the Canaanite women they would find there, since they worshipped false gods.
In the end, the Israelites would go against both of these warnings after fighting their way back into the promised land. The would re-inhabit the land not because they deserved it, but on the sheer merit of God’s promises.
Moses died the greatest of all prophets, the great lawgiver and friend of God. The desert journey had been a time of solidification and testing of God’s people. In order to live long in their promised land, Israel was instructed to reject all other gods and accept only the one, true, God. Unlike the false gods, he not be represented with any visible images, being infinitely greater than any of the creatures he made. While unseen, the one true God visibly intervened in world history, leading and forming Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, accompanied with great signs and wonders. They were "his people", and he was "their God". Through their Exodus from Egypt into Canaan the people of God had found their identity.
The Ark of the Covenant
- the only allowable representation of God's presence
By the time of Christ the keeping of the Sabbath would degenerate into a legalistic imposition that forbade even charitable works towards others. But at this earlier stage in history Israel needed to have emphasized to them the importance of dedicating a day of rest to Yahweh, free from the worry of working to provide for oneself, in order to learn how to let go and trust in God’s providence.
The purpose of the priest is to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.
Many people today object to the idea of a "chosen" race, but the first to complain were the Israalites themselves! Subjected to disease, famine, and death, they repeatedly expressed their preference for slavery in Egypt over the trials they faced in the desert.
Why the importance of a Sabbath day of rest?
What is the purpose of a priesthood?
Who were the first people to complain that the Israelites were a "chosen" people?