This picture is pretty trendy on the internet right now. I’ve found myself talking about it in three different groups and on a good friend of mine’s wall on Facebook. With the steam it’s picking up, I thought it would be worth it to throw my two cents in.
I’m going to start with a word that opponents of Christianity hate: context. Let’s consider all the circumstances before making our conclusion. Yes, it’s true that the Israelites were wandering for many, many, MANY years. It should have only taken them maybe a week and a half, or two weeks at most (giving time to rest and taking into account all the children that were there, etc). So, why 40 years instead of 2 weeks?
Were they lost? The short answer is no. The long answer involves the state the Israelites were in as a people, the covenant God made with Abraham, and the conditions upon said covenant that had to take place for it to be fulfilled. The Jews of the day knew what God’s promises were and they even knew where the land was they’d eventually inhabit. Let’s take a closer look at the texts that verify their circumstances.
On the state of the Israelites: The way to the promised land began after the exodus out of Egypt. They could trust the God that brought plagues upon Egypt and freed them of their bondage that promised them a land to claim as their own or they could go back to where they came from. The choice wasn’t a difficult one. See the first fourteen chapters of Exodus for these accounts.
On the covenant made with Abraham: They were being led by God to the land that was promised to them generations before they knew the cruelty of slavery. God told Abraham specifically what land was to be inherited by his descendants. They already knew where they were going. That rules out them being lost.
“Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” – Genesis 12:1-7
On the conditions to be met: The Israelites were to be people that did things that were right in the eyes of God and to be heralders of justice.
“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” – Genesis 18:19
They failed to keep their end of the covenant. They made a calf out of gold and worshiped it instead of the true God (Exodus 32), they complained about their provisions and doubted God (Numbers 14:2-3), and tried to usurp Moses from his God appointed position (Numbers 16).
To be concise, the Israelites weren’t allowed to settle into the promised land because of their disobedience. God flat out tells them so.
“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” – Deuteronomy 8:1-3
This is reaffirmed in the new testament by the author of Hebrews.
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” – Hebrews 3:7-11
Most importantly, events like this one make a lot more sense when they’re tied to the person of Christ, because He is who they point to anyway. When Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness to fast, He faced the same temptations they did. He was hungry, tired, and was enticed by Satan to worship a false God. Jesus was faithful in the trials the Israelites were not. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and they were there for 40 years. Obedience made all the difference (Matthew 4).
Bonus: After the Israelites inherited the land of promise, they were actually given the boot out by God for the same reason. The people went astray and left their just ways.
Abraham and the Land of Promise