Suddenly the mob closed in, pressing the guards against the underpinning of the platform. A few small stones shot out of the crowd and bounced off the platform where Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb stood.
Those who attempted to hurl heavier stones were hampered by the surging mass of human beings. A few men managed to squirm past the guards and climb on to the platform. They crouched around the four figures who were already there, eyeing them threateningly. It was evident that these intruders were waiting for more to join them for the purpose of seizing Caleb, Joshua, Moses and Aaron.
At that instant a blinding flash came from inside the tabernacle. Even though the curtains of the structure veiled its full brilliance, the brightness was so intense that people were temporarily blinded. A moment later an ear-splitting roar rumbled out of the tabernacle. The ground quaked as though a whole mountain had been dropped from the sky!
The intruders staggered off the platform and into the struggling mass surrounding. It. The words “stone them!” abruptly ceased from the crowd. The only sounds now were those of alarm in the frantic scramble to draw back from the platform and the tabernacle.
Realizing that God had intervened, Moses and Aaron gave thanks and got to their feet.
“Have the ten traitorous scouts arrested and brought to my tent,” Moses instructed Joshua and Caleb. “I must go now to the tabernacle to talk to God.”
At the tabernacle God asked Moses after he had knelt inside the tabernacle, “How much longer will these people vex me with their evil ways? How many more signs must I give them to prove that I mean what I say? Now I should have nothing more to do with them except to blot them out of my sight forever. Then, starting with you, I should build up a greater and mightier nation!”
Here is where the course of history would have been greatly changed if Moses had let his vanity get the best of him. With Israel wiped out, Moses would have claimed Abraham’s place as the “father of nations.”
“But if you destroy all Israel,” Moses replied, “the Egyptians shall hear of it. In fact, every nation on Earth will sooner or later know of it. Word has spread that you are the kind of God who dwells with His people, and Who leads them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When news goes abroad that Your people died in the desert, the nations will believe that You lacked the power to bring them safely into the land You promised to them. I beg you, God to forgive these people of their sins, but I’m not asking you to let go unpunished those who have stirred the people into wanting to return to Egypt instead of going on into Canaan.”
There was a silence. If was painful to Moses, who couldn’t be certain how God would respond. He realized that his mentioning the preserving of God’s reputation in the eyes of other nations – especially Egypt – wasn’t necessarily a strong point. God, with His perfect memory and awareness, wasn’t in need of being reminded. Finally the Creator replied.
“Because you have prayed as you have for the Israelites, I shall forgive their sins as a nation. I shall not make a complete end of them. My reputation for mercy and power and glory will one day be known in every nation of the world” (Num. 14:11-12).
Moses was greatly relieved and heartened to hear these words from the Creator. He remained for a little while with his forehead to the ground. But just as he raised his head and was about to utter his deep thanks, God’s voice boomed out at him again.
“I have just told you that I am willing to forgive the sins of the Israelites. At the same time, however, I will refuse them entrance into the Promised Land because they have broken their covenant with me. This means that those who have rebelled against me shall never come into Canaan! They shall die in the desert! This curse doesn’t apply to those who are under twenty years of age – the very ones whose fathers complained that they would surely die in the desert because I couldn’t protect them. Neither does it apply to obedient people such as Joshua and Caleb. But it does mean that most of Israel shall wander forty years in the mountains and deserts before reaching the land they have refused and hated. That is one year for every day required for the scouts to search Canaan!”
“But we have already spent most of two years coming to Canaan,” Moses said. “Do you mean that we are to spend forty years going to a place that is only a few hours distant?”
“Inasmuch as you have already been nearly two years on the way,” God replied, “it will require full thirty eight more. That is My judgment on Israel because of their rebellion.”
Just a few minutes previously Moses had felt as though a great weight had been lifted from him when he was assured that the people would not be suddenly blotted out. Now the dismal outlook of thirty eight more years of leading the Israelites was something he could scarcely face.
“Where must we go from here?” Moses inquired wearily.
“You must leave tomorrow and start southward through the Arabah by Mt. Seir,” God answered. “You must journey almost to the Gulf of Aqaba and then turn southwest into the desert where so many wanted to die. That is where the people over twenty years of age are going to die” (Num. 14:22-35)!
Told by God to carry this depressing information to the people, Moses and Aaron returned to the platform. A vast, murmuring throng was still present. Joshua and Caleb hurried to join Moses and Aaron.
“We didn’t have to arrest the ten scouts,” Joshua reported, pointing to a lot of people crowded around something on the ground. “They’re all dead!”
“Dead?” Moses repeated in surprise. “How could it be that all of them would die at the same time?”
“We couldn’t find out,” Caleb explained. “Just a little while ago they were seen talking together over there. An instant later they were lifeless on the ground.”
Moses quickly realized that God had taken their lives because of their false reports, but there wasn’t time just then to be concerned about the scouts and their families. Moses has to tell the people at once what was in store for them (Num. 14:36-38).
When he passed on to them what God had spoken, the people received the starling news with mixed emotions. Some were speechless. Others moaned and loudly complained. A small part of them were jubilant because of hoping to return all the way to Egypt. Most of them, sobered by the strange, sudden death of the ten scouts, were quite shaken by the outlook for the future. Many thought God wasn’t fair. Only a fraction of them were willing to admit to themselves that by their bad conduct they had spoiled a wonderful future and had brought hardship down on their children.
“Remember,” Moses concluded, “that from now on we no longer have the priceless blessing of God’s guidance and protection. We are like a flock without a shepherd. Only yesterday God wanted us to go into Canaan. If we had obeyed, God would have scattered any Canaanites who might have tried to prevent us. But now we don’t even dare stay here lest the people just over the mountains to the north come down and slaughter us! Be ready at dawn, therefore, to move southwestward through the Mt. Seir range and start south by the highway at the Red Sea!”
That night was a restless one for Israel. The more the people thought about God’s ruling to turn back, the more they wondered how they could make up for their sins. In fact, certain ones secretly met to plan what to do and how to organize the people into doing it.
Meanwhile, the Israelites were not the only ones aware of their blazing, all-night campfires. Alert and unfriendly eyes were peering down from mountain heights to the north, watching to see what the horde of people in the desert valley would do next.
Moses, too, was restless. He spent much of the night in thought and prayer. Very early in the morning he dropped asleep from exhaustion, only to be awakened by Joshua.
“People are breaking camp already!” Joshua exclaimed. ‘It isn’t even daybreak, but there are rumors that thousands are leaving!”
Moses stepped out of his tent. Most of the campfires were burning low at this hour, and it wasn’t possible, in the dense pre-dawn darkness, to see what was taking place. But in the still, cool air came the faint jangle of metal and the voices of men shouting commands to their shepherd dogs. Moses knew the sound well, and he sensed that a huge caravan was moving out. But why? And where was it headed?
“Should we call every available officer to try to stop them?” Joshua asked. “No,” Moses answered, shaking his head solemnly. “We’re already in enough trouble without shedding blood among ourselves. Just try to find out where these early risers think they are going.”
Aaron joined Moses before Joshua could report back. The light of dawn streamed in rapidly from the east, making plain to Moses and Aaron a long column of thousands, with their flocks and herds, slowly moving out of the camps. Moses was hopeful that he would discover the column moving to the southwest, the direction in which God had said they should go.
To Moses’ dismay the light of dawn showed that the wide line of people was moving up a steep mountain pass to the north. This was the road to Canaan! This was the way these people had refused to take only hours before. Having been warned not to go in that direction, thousands of the Israelites were disobeying by sneaking off that way (vs. 40-43).
“The Amalekites and Canaanites are just beyond that mountain!” Moses exclaimed, clapping his hand to his head. “Probably they’re armed and waiting! This could mean a terrible slaughter for all those people!”
Moses and those with him watched in discouragement as the thousands of Israelites and their flocks dwindled from sight in the distant pass.
“Even if all the rest of our armed men went after them,” Moses said, shaking his head, “it wouldn’t make much difference. God will not protect those who have departed nor those who would go to their rescue” (Num. 14:40-43).
Moses then instructed his officers to see that the tabernacle was packed and ready to move, and that the people should start breaking camp at once. He knew there was a possibility that their enemies, undoubtedly hidden in the mountains, would stage an attack on the camp.
Before the sun was very high, the remaining greater part of the Israelites was moving towards the southwest. Many a person left Kadesh before he wanted to, however, because of a hope to remain long enough to receive some word of what had happened to friends and relatives who had departed toward Canaan.
Meanwhile, the Canaan-bound Israelites and their plodding flocks and herds were close to the top of the pass that led northwest from Kadesh. The way was rather narrow. Steep boulders lined the rough and rocky path over which the twelve scouts had passed only hours before.
Suddenly hundreds of armed men leaped out from behind the trailside boulders! Shouting as though demented, they came running and sliding down the slanting sides of the ravine that formed the pass, and charged at the startled Israelites with spears and swords. Hundreds of Israelites died even before they could get their weapons ready for action. Shrieking women and children turned and tried to run back down the trail, only to trip helplessly over one another. To add to the confusion, the herds stampeded and the flocks swarmed wildly in all directions. The main body of Israelites gradually began to move backward. But by now a great number of the enemy – Canaanites and Amalekites-- had almost sealed off their retreat by thronging across the pass below and south of the agitated column of Israelites. The Israelites had walked squarely into a vast death trap (vs. 44-45)!
The slaughter that resulted was frightful. Even animals fell by sword and spear. The pass was littered with the bodies of men and women. But because their numbers were so much greater than those of the attackers, part of them escaped and fled back toward Kadesh. The Amalekites and Canaanites took after them, pursuing some of them quite a distance to the south. Most of those who escaped hid among the rocks until the enemy was gone. Then they set out to try to catch up with the main body of Israelites that had departed to the southwest from Kadesh, which was also called Bene-Jaakan – named after the sons of Jaakan or Akan, black folk who then lived there (Num. 33:31 and Gen. 36:27).
About sundown the Israelites made camp at a place called Hor-hagidgad, which was a few miles southwest of Kadesh. Hours later, when most campfires were either out or very low, there was great excitement from the north side of the camp. Weary, footsore escapers were beginning to arrive. Many who returned needed their wounds dressed. Some died. Others gave horrifying accounts of the bloody affair.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.