Why 40 Years in the Wilderness?
The weekly portion of Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13-15 is the account of the 12 men going into the Promised Land to reconnoiter it and come back to report to the people what it’s like. This is the point at which Yehovah decides that the Israelites are going to spend 40 years in the desert.
40 years! How old were you 40 years ago? It was the 1970s – What were you doing in 1970s? 40 years ago I was 11 years old. A lot has happened since then. What about ten years later in the 80s? I got my first career job. What were you doing in the 1990s and the turn of the century? Think about everything that’s gone on in just the last ten years.
40 years is almost half of our lifetime. It’s a long time. It seems like a harsh punishment.
This scripture portion really includes three distinct events:
- In Chapter 13 men are appointed to reconnoiter the Promised Land. 40 days after they depart, they return and report on how great the land is. But they put fear in the hearts of the people because of the giants in the land.
- Then in Chapter 14 Yehovah tells them because they believed the men’s reports instead of what Yehovah was telling them, they will never see the Promised Land.
- In Chapter 15 Yehovah begins giving instructions for when the people enter the land. But these people aren’t going to enter the land. Why would these instructions be included here?
We’re going to look at this and at some of the turning points in this account.
To recap the story… Yehovah tells Moses to gather leaders of each tribe, and he tells him which men to send. They set out and go from the Egyptian border North clear through the land up to where the Syrian border is today. The trip takes 40 days, and they return with a lot of giant fruit. Everyone wants to know what it was like, so the men tell the people how great it was, but with this one giant problem: an actual giant problem. There are giants in the land. The men are scared, and they scare the people.
But Caleb and Joshua try to reassure the people that with God’s help they can drive out the giants and take the land. But the people are so scared, they threaten to kill Caleb and Joshua.
Then the visible presence of Yehovah comes over the tent of meeting, and God speaks to Moses. Then Moses intercedes for the people so that God won’t kill them all right then. Then God makes this promise: he will let the people live, but they will not enter the land at all. Instead they’re going to wander in the desert and die there. Then their kids will go into the land.
Let’s pick up the story in Numbers 14:26-35 :
“Adonai said to Moshe and Aharon, 27 ‘How long am I to put up with this evil community who keep grumbling about me? I have heard the complaints of the people of Isra’el, which they continue to raise against me. 28 Tell them this: “As surely as I live, Adonai swears, as surely as you have spoken in my ears, I will do this to you: 29 your carcasses will fall in this desert! Every single one of you who were included in the census over the age of twenty, you who have complained against me, 30 will certainly not enter the land about which I raised my hand to swear that I would have you live in it — except for Kalev the son of Y’funeh and Y’hoshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would be taken as booty — them I will bring in. They will know the land you have rejected. 32 But you, your carcasses will fall in this desert; 33 and your children will wander about in the desert for forty years bearing the consequences of your prostitutions until the desert eats up your carcasses. 34 It will be a year for every day you spent reconnoitering the land that you will bear the consequences of your offenses — forty days, forty years. Then you will know what it means to oppose me! 35 I, Adonai, have spoken.” I will certainly do this to this whole evil community who have assembled together against me — they will be destroyed in this desert and die there.’”
Why 40 Years?
Numbers 14:22 also provides us clues to why Yehovah is so angry:
“None of the people who saw my glory and the signs I did in Egypt and in the desert, yet tested me these ten times and did not listen to my voice will see the land I swore to their ancestors.”
So we see that they have already tested Yehovah nine times before this, meaning they doubted him, they questioned him, rejected him.
And we see another aspect of this in Psalm 95: 9-11:
“When your fathers tested me, they tried me, though they had seen my work. “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know my ways. Therefore I swore in my anger, ‘Truly they shall not enter into my rest.’”
Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible puts it another way:
“Your fathers put me to the test; they challenged me, even though they saw my work. For forty years I loathed that generation; I said, ‘This is a people whose hearts go astray, they don’t understand how I do things.’ Therefore I swore in my anger that they would not enter my rest.”
“They don’t understand how I do things.” He’s saying, they don’t get me. He’s not able to use them because they don’t understand him. They don’t know him. The word “Know” used here, which Stern has translated as “Understand,” is the negative version of the same word used in Genesis when it says “Adam knew Eve and she conceived and bore Cain.”
This is an intimate knowledge.
In Genesis 19:8 in the story of Lot, when the men of the city came to his door and demanded he hand over the two angels, he offered his daughters “who had never known a man.” This is the same word (a form of H3045, yā·ḏə·‘ū). That’s this word in Psalm 95:10 “not known.” They do not know his ways. This speaks of an intimate knowledge with our heart, our commitment, our devotion. It’s not enough to know of him, or know about him, or be an expert in the Bible. He wants our hearts devoted to him as in a marriage, in a love relationship.
This is supported by Numbers 14:33 which we read earlier:
|Numbers 14:33 (CJB)
“and your children will wander about in the desert for forty years bearing the consequences of your prostitutions until the desert eats up your carcasses.”
|Numbers 14:33 (NKJV)
“And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness.”
|Numbers 14:33 (NIV)
“Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness.”
Yehovah is speaking of a relationship, and in this case he considers their unbelief adultery.
In Deuteronomy 5:25-29 we see a contrast of the heart Yehovah desires.
Just before the second generation of wilderness Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, Moses is recounting their journey and reminds them of when they saw and heard Yehovah’s voice from the mountain.
“At that time the people said ‘But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer. For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.’ (Moses says) ‘The Lord heard you when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me, “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!”’”
This is what Yehovah is looking for in these people – their heart. A heart that listens and obeys, fears him and keeps his commandments. But ten times this wilderness generation tested him and showed him that they would not do this. He calls it prostitution, infidelity, unfaithfulness. This is why they could not enter the land.
The land required faith in his supernatural power. What he wanted to do for them and to their enemies in the land could not be done on their own power. He needed a people that would align with his vision, that would believe that what he had done for them so far through the plagues, through the exodus and through the desert He would keep doing for them as they entered the Promised Land. It would take an intimate knowledge and devotion to him, a people that would listen and obey with their whole heart. They could not be successful without that. He could not use them to bring about his will without that.
We cannot be successful in bringing about his will without that.
40 Years of Preparation
In a previous post about counting the omer, I discuss the significance of 40 days and 40 years. What I found in my study was that each 40 day or 40 year event in the Bible shares three commonalities. These periods are:
- A time of preparation for those doing Yehovah’s work
- A time of preparation of the harvest – or those who would receive Yehovah’s work
- A time when Yehovah’s power comes forth in full strength after the 40 days/year period
Here are a few examples of this:
This is the pattern of preparation of the ministers, preparation of the recipients and Yehovah’s supernatural power poured out.
He orchestrates these things over a long period of time, then the last 40 days or 40 years are like the last minute preparations. These things take time – maybe years or generations to put in place.
So when we look at this Exodus generation being offered the Promised Land, it represents many, many years of preparation that has brought them to this place. Yehovah has prepared them, he’s prepared the Amalakites, the Jebusites, the Hittites and all the other “…ites” to be overthrown and driven out. He’s ready to supernaturally pour out his blessing on the Israelites and the land. He’s reclaimed his people, and his reputation through the Exodus, now he’s ready to reclaim his land, but the people reject him – not just once, but ten times.
What if you were trying to give someone a gift that would change their life and the lives of generations to come, and they rejected you every time? How many times would you keep proving yourself trustworthy and keep trying to bless them?
This is why Yehovah says, “They don’t know my ways, they don’t understand how I do things.” And this is why it’s another 40 years before he can set up the scenario again. He has to choose different ministers and prepare them. In this case he has to wait until a new generation of ministers are grown up.
Look at Numbers 14:29:
“In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.”
So he now has to wait until these teenagers and little ones who were not counted in the census grow up before he has another chance to reclaim his land. It’s going to take 40 years. He’s going to prepare the ministers, all the “…ites” in the land are going to go on sinning another 40 years, and then he’s going to pour out his supernatural power on the new generation.
By Numbers 15, Yehovah is giving instructions of what the people are to do when they enter the land. Why would he do that when he’s just told them they’re not entering the land? It’s because he’s now all about that second generation. He’s already starting to train that second generation how to live, how they can be successful in the land. These instructions were written down for those people who were going to live in the land. He’ll be training them for the next 40 years, and he starts right here.
This story has so many lessons that we can apply today. The questions it poses for us and our lives are numerous:
- Each generation is raised up for a purpose. Are we aligned with Yehovah and understanding how he works, so that we can say “yes” when he calls us to conquer the enemy?
- Are we paying attention to the preparation the Spirit is doing within us? How many times have we said “no” or not had the faith to move into the things he’s calling us to?
- Has he had to choose someone else? Are we testing him? Will our generation accomplish the purposes he has for us during our lifetime?
We see here that 40 days is a meaningful time frame in Yehovah’s kingdom. Maybe Moshe and Yeshua’s 40-day fasts are an example to us of a way we can align with Yehovah, hear his voice, and bring more of his power to bear on our harvest or place of ministry. 40 days and 40 years seems like a long time to us, but if we consider it preparation for critical assignments, we can use the time wisely, stay faithful to Yehovah’s word and guidance and end up exactly where we need to be to accomplish his supernatural will.