This month's "Bible Characters?" section
focuses on Moses in the Wilderness, researched
and compiled by Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot.
- Moses' problems with the children of Israel
started less than three days after the parting
of the Sea
of Reeds? They were in the desert without
water and grumbling about it. Moses cried out
to God who told him to throw a piece of wood
into bitter water and it became sweet.
- The second time the Israelites grumbled (about
the lack of food) God responded before Moses
even had a chance to ask -- resulting in bread
from heaven (manna) every morning and meat (quail)
To this day scholars struggle with this concept
of "manna". They've identified a sticky
substance that grows in Sinai, but it is only
available during a few months in the summer. It
could never have fed so many people for such an
extended period of time. Nor does that explain
the phenomenon of having a double portion prior
to the Sabbath, or having it rot overnight if
too much was gathered. Most scholars agree that
the lack of awe on the part of the Israelites
testifies to the naturalness of the manna. We
just don't know what it was. Manna meant "what"
or "what is it." Regardless of its origin,
the manna was a gift from God.
- Soon they were without water again, grumbling
against Moses. Moses cried out to God. God replied
by having Moses strike a rock with his staff.
Water came out of the rock.
- During the battle with the
Amalekites Moses became fatigued in holding
up his arms to encourage the Israelites. In
helping him Aaron and Hur give us a wonderful
example of "nursing" or caring for
those who are in need. (Ex. 17:8-13)
- Like many of us, Moses had a problem with
delegating and asking for help. Fortunately
his father-in-law (Jethro) helped him see the
light in getting helpers to manage some of the
disputes among the people.
The result was the people got answers quicker
and they didn't have to wait in the hot sun all
day. Moses was free to work on the really tough
problems. A win-win situation all around. (Ex.
- Moses led the people to the base of Mount
Sinai, arriving three months to the day after
walking through the Sea of Reeds.
- Within the space of one chapter Moses climbs
up and down the mountain three times -- quite
a feat for someone 80 years old! It highlights
his role as mediator or negotiator between God
and His people. In truth, God had only put forth
a proposal; the people could have rejected it
- After receiving the Ten Commandments, the
people agreed to everything. Moses and Aaron
and 70 elders were invited up to worship the
Lord. Moses built an altar and sacrificed upon
it, throwing the blood upon the people -- that
made it binding. It was called the "blood
of the Covenant."
- Then elders went up and shared a covenant
meal. They "saw" the Lord, using words
for the senses to describe their experience
- Then Moses was called up into the cloud for
40 days and 40 nights to receive additional
laws and instructions regarding the building
of the Tabernacle.
In the meantime, of course, the golden calf
incident takes place down below. Did you ever
wonder how this could happen, given they have
just agreed not to have any other gods or to make
any graven images? (Thereby breaking Commandments
#1 and 2) Well....forty days is a long time. No
doubt the people down below thought that Moses
had perished on the mountaintop. He had been the
visible sign of the Lord among the people; they
needed a replacement. What better vehicle to use
than the image of a bull, an image of strength
and power! Some scholars think the bull was meant
to indicate the throne of the Lord, showing that
the Lord had power over the bull by sitting on
his throne. Perhaps, but the golden calf also
contrasts sharply with the conversation God has
just had with Moses. The instructions regarding
the tabernacle, including the painstaking detail
and offerings meant to safeguard the holy presence
of God, are undercut by the people's initiative.
If having God in their presence was their goal,
they blew it. Unbeknownst to them God was already
instructing Moses on this very subject.
- God's anger at the events down below and His
resolve to destroy those people brings Moses
to his finest hour. This same person who whined
in Midian that he was not eloquent becomes very
eloquent as he explores the depths of God's
character. Moses realizes that God saved these
people for a reason and that He would not destroy
what He has just saved. As a result, God "repents"
and changes His mind.
- Moses goes down the mountain, and his temper
shows again as he slams down the tablets, breaking
them. He grinds up the golden calf, making the
people drink it, which leads to a plague.
- Blood sacrifice again restores the covenant
-- only this time it is the blood of the unfaithful,
which are slain by the tribe of Levi.
- Moses again prays for the people and returns
to the mountain for a second set of tablets.
This time he comes down in glory with his face
radiant, shining with light. The people are
frightened just to look at him, so he covers
his face except for the times he talks with
the Lord in the tent of meeting. This represents
a whole new covenant with a gracious God, "slow
to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,
maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving
wickedness, rebellion and sin." (Ex. 34:4-7)
The Lord agrees to accompany His people on their
- They stayed at Mount Sinai for 14 months.
During this time, Moses often spoke with God
and received instructions necessary to turn
this motley group into a people obedient and
grateful to God for His saving acts. First and
foremost, Moses was obedient, passing
along God's instructions and commands.
- The people were hyped and oh, so ready.
- But almost immediately the people were grumbling
again. This time they were "tired and bored"
with the manna. They pine for the variety of
food that had been available to them in Egypt.
God gets angry and Moses loses his temper as
well. He asks why God has given him this burden,
claiming that God is ultimately responsible for
these people having given "birth" to
them. Moses did not choose this work; he had been
chosen. If God doesn't help in tangible ways,
he might as well put Moses to death right now.
- God sees that Moses needs help. He chooses
seventy elders to help and once again sends
"quail" every evening.
To some degree these incidents parallel events
on the trek toward Mount Sinai. Then, however,
these people were like newly adopted children
who didn't know any of the rules or what was expected
of them. Now, they've been given the Ten Commandments
and know what some of their responsibilities are.
They've already rejected God once; because of
that He nearly abandoned them, changing His mind
when Moses interceded for the people. This, then,
sets up a scenario that will be repeated many
times: people grumble, God's gets angry, Moses
intercedes on their behalf, and the punishment
- Grateful though they were for Moses' intercessions,
Miriam and Aaron (his sister and brother) had
issues with the primacy of their younger brother.
Bolstered by the possibility of joint leadership,
they grumbled against Moses for marrying a Cushite
and asked, "Has the Lord spoken only through
- Because Moses "was very humble, more
so than anyone else on the face of the earth"
(Num 12:3), God came to His defense saying that
He speaks with Moses "face to face,"
highlighting the intimate relationship that
exists between God and Moses.
- With the leadership issue temporarily settled,
it is time to send out spies to assess the Promised
Land. Their report strikes fear into the hearts
of the Israelites and once again the people
turn on Moses (and Aaron). Despite Moses' best
pleas to rely upon God, the people are ready
to kill him and find someone else to lead them
back to Egypt. (Num 13-14)
- This, then, becomes another pivotal decision.
The people said "no" when they should
have said "yes." It turns into a mob
scene with Moses remaining silent - maybe there
were just no words adequate to express his disappointment.
- Suddenly they all feel the presence of God.
There is quiet. Still, it takes a long time
for this one to be resolved. (Some liken this
to the Golden Calf episode in Exodus.) God offers
to start over with Moses; Moses pleads for the
people. Finally, God relents and says only Caleb
and Joshua will enter the Promised Land. The
remaining generation will perish in the wilderness.
- Presumably many years pass. Miriam dies.
The people are again without water and grumbling.
Moses loses his temper (again). God tells him
to strike the rock and he does. But he adds
a few extra words, "Listen, you rebels,
shall we get water for you out of this rock?"
Water gushed forth as it had so many times before,
but God is not pleased. He says to Moses, "You
did not trust in me; and you did not honor me
as holy." (Num. 20:13) Bottom line: Moses
and Aaron won't go into the Promised Land either.
- The next time the people start complaining
about lack of water and boring food (manna),
God sends fiery serpents. When the people repented,
God told Moses to make a bronze snake and raise
it up for all to see.
Perhaps this was one way to get these people
to really think about their confession of sin
and their commitment to God. The threat of being
bitten remained, but so did the cure. Those who
were bitten needed only raise their eyes, and
"look at it and live." (Num 21:8) And
it wasn't just a glance either. They had to fix
their eyes upon it and pay attention to it. Each
person had to make his or her own decision. God
provided for healing, but it required some effort
and motivation on their parts. It also required
some personal involvement with God. This called
for a response from the community and each individual
- But this was the beginning of the end for
the old generation. After a final plague, due
to their worshipping of false gods, the old
generation is gone.
- The new generation is more respectful, listening
to Moses' instructions and accepting of his
- Case in point, is when Reuben and Gad prefer
to stay outside the Promised Land because the
pasture is better on the east side. Moses worries
that their refusal threatens the safety of the
whole group (Much like the spy story of Chaps
13-14), but they come up with a compromise plan
that averts the danger.
- Moses' last job, then, is to pass the mantle
of leadership from himself to Joshua.
- Necessary though this is, Joshua will never
be a carbon copy of Moses. He does not speak
with God "face to face" and he will
need to rely on the Torah for his guidebook.
But the foundation is there.
- Moses' death is recorded in Deut 34:5 where
it says, "Moses the servant of the Lord
died there in the land of Moab, according to
the word of the Lord."
The legacy of Moses is over, but the next generation
is primed and ready to carry forward as heirs
of the promises given by God to their fathers.
Their story is, in a sense, just beginning and
it will continue as they work on trying to understand
what it means to be a people of God.
Ashby, Godfrey. "Go Out and Meet God,"
Exodus, International Theological
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998.
Ashley, Timothy. "The Book of Numbers,"
The New International Commentary on
the Old Testament.
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1993.
Beegle, Dewey. Moses, The Servant of Yahweh.
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B
Daiches, David. Moses: The Man and His Vision.
New York: Praeger Publishers,
Farmer, William. The International Bible Commentary.
Collegeville, MN: Liturgical
Gispen, WH. Exodus, The Bible Student's Commentary.
Grand Rapids, MI:
McGrath, Allister. NIV Bible Commentary.
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.
Meier, Rabbi Levi. Moses: The Prince, the
Prophet. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary
on the Bible. Macon, GA:
Olson, Dennis. Numbers, Interpretation.
Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989.
Noordtzij, A. Numbers, Bible Student's Commentary.
Grand Rapids, MI:
Sakenfeld, Katharine. "Numbers, Journeying
with God." The International
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1995.
Mary Jane Chapin Chaignot
the Bible | Kids
Bible Overview | Parenting
with the Bible |
Living with the Bible | Contact
Copyright © 2010, BibleWise. All Rights Reserved.