The Pathos of the Forty Years. The stories of this period have running through them an element of pathos arising especially from two sources. (1) Perhaps the experiences of Moses are most sorrowful. That he should now, after faithfully bringing this people to the very border of the land which they sought, be compelled to spend forty monotonous years in this bare and uninteresting desert must have been a disappointment very heavy to bear. During these wanderings he buried Miriam, his sister, and Aaron, his brother and helper. He was often complained of by the people he was trying to help, and because of it was led to sin in such a way as to cause God to refuse him the privilege of entering Canaan. It was necessary for him to appoint his successor and himself be buried in these lands. He was compelled to renumber the people to find that all but two of those who were above twenty when they left Egypt had perished. (2) Surely the experience of the people of Israel during these years is sufficient to arouse a feeling of pity. Forty years of suffering and unhappiness and the loss of all opportunity to enter Canaan by those who fell in the wilderness beclouds the whole story.
The Events of the Forty Years' Wandering. It is now impossible to trace exactly any except the latter portion of their journeyings. It is clear that they went from place to place, not of course marching continuously each day, but changing their location as often at least as the requirements of pasturage demanded. Of the early portion of these years we know but little. They seemed to have remained a long while at Kadesh (Dt.1:45) and indeed may have made it a sort of headquarters. The story of the rebellion of Konah with the consequent punishment, and the budding of Aarons rod by which the appointment of the family of Aaron to the priesthood was attested are the important incidents of this period.
Final Scenes at Kadesh. After about thirty-eight years had elapsed (Dt.2:14), and the period of wandering was nearly at an end, Israel is again found at Kadesh (Num.20:11) on the borders of Edom where the spies had been sent out and they made their calamitous blunder. Here at this time happened three important events; (1) Miriam died and was buried, (2) Moses smote the rock and brought forth water, but because he smote it instead of speaking to it Jehovah was angry with him and told him he should not enter the land of promise. (3) Moses asked permission of the King of Edom to pass peaceably through his land and was refused. They were, therefore, compelled to take a long journey around Edom to reach there own land.
From Kadesh to the Jordan. When they were refused passage through the land of the Edomites, their kinsmen, (Num.20:14-21), the Hebrews made a long journey around. On this journey occurred three important events. (1) The death of Aaron in Mount Hor (Num.20:22-29). (2) The defeat of the King of South Canaan and the laying waste of his country to Hormah where they had been routed nearly forty years ago. (3) The sending of the fiery serpents and the brazen serpent as a remedy. They also passed the country of Moab and came finally to the river Arnan (Num.21:13), which is the boundary between Moab and the Amorites. Here they came into conflict with Sihon the King of the Amorites, whom they defeated, and possessed his land. (Num.21:23-24). The overcoming of this strong and ancient people brought Israel into contact with Og, king of Bashan, who was himself a giant and whose country was far more formidable than that of the Amorites. By defeating him and possessing his cities Israel was enabled to pass on and come to the plains of Moab beyond Jordan at Jericho. In Psalms 135 and 136, written hundreds of years later, the victory over Sihon and Og and the overthrow of Pharaoh are dwelt on together in such a way as to show that their conquest was regarded as an achievement worthy to rank along side of that of their deliverance from the power of Egypt.
The Prophecies of Balaam. (Num. Chaps.22-24). The Moabites were greatly distressed about the settlement of the victorious Hebrews in the region just north of them and feared lest they should suffer the same fate as Shihon and Og. Balak, the King of Moab, had beard of Balaam, a famous soothsayer or wise prophet of Chaldea, whose curses and blessings were reported to carry with them extraordinary effects. He sought at any cost to have him cripple Israel by placing a curse upon them. But instead of cursing Israel and blessing the Moabites, he revealed how wonderfully Israel was blessed Of God and how a scepter would rise out of Israel and smite and destroy Moab.
This strange man Balaam seems to have had the gift of prophecy without its grace. He had the knowledge of future events but sought to use it for his own advantage instead of for the glory of God. He was a covetous, money-loving prophet and sought the rewards offered by Balak. He tried repeatedly to find some way by which he could speak good for Moab and thereby earn the much desired fee. On the other hand he was afraid to speak against Israel lest the curse should recoil on him. No other word seems to describe his course except to say that he was compelled by Jehovah to speak to Israel's advantage and to predict her future greatness. His language fittingly describes the material splendor and the splendid victories and reign of David. The spirit of Israel described is that of the united kingdom standing at the zenith of its power. In a beautiful way also he pointed to the Messiah who should put all enemies under his feet.
He may have secured his reward, however, in another way. He seems to have led Balak to entice Israel, through pretensions of friendship, to partake in the idolatrous and impure festivals of the Moabites (Num.25:1-5; 31:15-16; Rev.2:14). These and other acts of their own brought down upon Israel the curse of heaven and made them the subject of such calamites as Balaam could not himself pronounce against them. By suggesting this course to Balak, he may have obtained the coveted pay without directly disobeying God. This whole story would seem to imply that the Hebrew historians did not believe that divine relations were limited to seers and prophets of their own race.
The Last Acts of Moses. Events are now transpiring in rapid succession and the story hastens to the close of the career of Moses, the great leader prophet, priest and judge of Israel. Several matters are worthy of study: (1) The sending of an expedition to destroy the Midianites. (2) The final numbering of the people preparatory to their entrance into Canaan. (3) The appointing of Joshua as his successor. (4) The settlement of the two and a half tribes on the east side of Jordan. (5) The appointment of the cities of refuge. (8) The delivery of a farewell address, or of farewell addresses.
The Last Scene on Moab. There were far too many of the Israelites to hear his voice and he probably gathered together the princes and elders who listened to him from day to day, each of whom went home and repeated to his own people what he had heard from their inspired leader. In these addresses Moses recounted their wanderings and Jehovah's goodness to them. He reminded them of all that God had commanded them in his law and gave such new instructions and interpretations as would be needed in the new conditions that they would meet on coming into the Promised Land. He painted in frightful colors the fearful doom that would befall the disobedient and eloquently described the blessing of loyalty to God. After being called of God to depart into the mountains and die, he pronounced in one of the most beautiful passages in all the scripture, his farewell blessing upon each of the tribes.
And how solemn must have been the occasion. They are listening for the last time to his voice. With what veneration they must have gazed on him. He it was that Jochebed with loving hands had laid in the bulrushes when 120 years ago Pharaoh had persecuted them. He was the man that had so nobly chosen to suffer affliction with the people of God instead of the attractions of Egypt. His eyes under the shadow of Horeb had looked on the burning bush. His hand had stretched out over Egypt and overwhelmed it with the plagues. His was the face that had reflected the divine glory of the mount after forty days of fellowship with Jehovah, during which he received the substance of the law. That was the faithful and tried man that had often been wrongly accused, that had meekly borne so many trials, that had guided the people so faithfully, and advised them so wisely, and had refused honors himself because he loved them so well. How they must have hung on those last words! And the echo of his last words had hardly died away until his spirit had been called away and unseen hands had laid his dust in an unknown tomb.
The Significance of the Work of Moses. Humanly speaking, he explains the great difference between the Hebrews and the people kindred to them. He accounts for their development from a company of disheartened slaves, and from the careless habits of wandering tribes into a conquering nation, made irresistible by its belief in the guidance of Jehovah. Humanly speaking, he was the creator of Israel. (1) He was a leader and as such heartened and disciplined them. (2) He was a prophet and as such taught them ideals of social justice, purity and honor. (3) He was a lawgiver and as such furnished them with civil, sanitary, social and religious laws that channeled them into a sober, healthy, moral, and right-minded people. (4) He was the founder of a religion and as such led them into a real loyalty to Jehovah as their God and gave them such a conception of the divine character and requirements as to stimulate in them a growth in goodness.
Lessons of the Period. The student will readily collect for himself lessons that have been brought to his attention. The following, however, should not fail of consideration: (1) God's law is inflexible. It is of universal operation and can not be evaded or revoked. Even the best men must suffer if they violate it as was the case of Moses. (2) To rebel against God's appointed leaders and to speak disrespectfully of them will subject one to the outpouring of divine wrath. (3) God never forgets his covenants as seen In the case of his refusal to give to Israel the land of Edom and of Ammon. (4) That God decides the fate of armies in battle and is therefore the God of nations as well as individuals. (5) Early hardships often fit us for a more glorious destiny later.
For Study and Discussion. (1) The rebellion of Korah. (2) The story of Balak and Balaam and the present day truth which it suggests or the problems of today to which it is applicable. (3) The story of the budding of Aaron's rod. (4) The sin of Moses because of which he was not allowed to enter Canaan. Find every reference to it. (5) The different victories of Israel recorded in the period. (6) The fiery serpents and serpent of brass. (7) The cities of refuge, their names, location, purpose and the lessons for today to be drawn from their use. (8) The principal events of Israel's past history mentioned in Dt. chs.1-4, and find where in previous books each is recorded. (9) From Dt. chs.27-28 list the curses and blessings, showing the sin and its penalty and the blessing and that for which it is promised. (10) The farewell blessing of Moses on the tribes (Dt. ch.33). List the promises to each. (11) The death of Moses (Dt. chs.32 and 34). (12) The incidents of the period that have in them a miraculous element. (13) Other prominent leaders besides Moses, Aaron and Joshua. (14) The nations mentioned with whom the Hebrews had contact. (15) The geography of the places and nations noticed in this period.