Why the Israelites Wandered the Desert for 40 Years: Is God Vengeful? | Aleph Beta

How Can We Relate To Such A Vengeful God?

Why God Made The Israelites Wander The Desert For 40 Years

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this week's parsha, we see the ultimate undoing of the people of Israel – the sin of the spies. When spies are sent to the land of Israel to scout the land, they come back with a negative report, and the people despair, leading to God's wrath, and the death of the entire generation over the course of the next 40 years. What was so bad about the sin, and more importantly, how can we connect to such an angry, vengeful God?

To check out Rabbi Fohrman's past Exodus course which is referenced here, see: What Does It Mean To Be God's Chosen People


Hey, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Shelach, you are watching Aleph Beta.

A little while back you guys were introduced to Rabbi David Block who works with us here at Aleph Beta, he actually did a wonderful piece back in Parshat Tzav, and I've invited him back to share some thoughts with you on the story of the spies in this week's Parsha. David, take it away.

Hi everyone, my name is David Block, welcome to Parshat Shelach, you are watching Aleph Beta. This week we meet what seems to be a very grim portrait of God.

Why Did God Make the Israelites Wander the Desert for 40 Years?

We read about the tragedy of the sin of the spies. The spies are sent to check out the land of Israel and when they return they give a pretty negative report. And, as a result, the people fall into a kind of depression and they totally lose resolve. Now, at this point of the Torah's narrative we've seen God get frustrated with the people's complaining plenty of times before, but we've never seen God like this. The reaction seems particularly vicious; Akenu ba'Dever v'orishenu – I will smite them with pestilence and utterly annihilate them.

God doesn't end up destroying the people, but it's not because of the people's merit, it's because of an argument Moses makes; if You kill the people it will look to the other nations like You're weak. So fine, God doesn't destroy the whole nation, but He does wipe out that entire generation, about 600,000 people. Even at the Golden Calf when God also wanted to wipe out the people and also didn't end up following through, only about 30,000 people die, not the whole generation like here. What's going on here?

Yes, what the people did was bad, they spoke badly of the land, but this reaction seems exceedingly harsh. What was it about this sin that made God react like this? And perhaps more fundamentally, how are we supposed to relate to such an angry, vengeful God?

An 11-Day Journey Took 40 Days: How Do We Relate to a Vengeful God?

To answer these questions, to figure out why God reacts like this to the sin of the spies, let's take a closer look at God's reaction itself. Akenu ba'Dever v'orishenu – I will strike them with pestilence and annihilate them. So as we mentioned, God doesn't just say I'll destroy them, He's very specific as to how, why does God have to say how He'll destroy them? And, once he's doing that, why with Dever?

Hmm? Dever? Where have we heard of Dever before? Yes, Dever was the fifth plague that God brought upon Egypt, all of their livestock was killed. But the truth is there's another time in which Dever is used in the Egypt story and this time it's not the animals that are the subjects, it's the Egyptians themselves. Right after the sixth plague of boils, God says something fascinating to Pharaoh; Ki atah sholachti et yadi – now I'm going to send My hand against you; V'ach otcha v'et amcha ba'Dever vatichached min ha'aretz – I could have destroyed you and your people with pestilence and wiped you off the face of the earth. Doesn't that sound familiar? Not only is the same word – Dever – used, but it's used in the exact same way to mean the same thing; V'ach/Akenu, Dever/Dever – I'll totally you destroy you with Dever. Why does God use the same threat that He used in Egypt here by the spies?

But the parallels between the two stories don't stop there, in both cases by the sin of the spies and by the Egyptians God doesn't end up following through, He doesn't actually destroy either with Dever, why not? After the sin of the spies, after God says He wants to destroy the people, Moses makes an argument to God, an argument which God ultimately accepts.

V'heimata et ha'am hazeh k'ish echad – if You kill this people, as if they were one person, all in one shot;

V'omru ha'goyim asher shamu et shimachah leimor – the other nations who have heard all about the great miracles You did in Egypt, you know what they'll say?

Mibilti yecholet Hashem – that God was just not able;

L'havi et ha'am hazeh el ha'aretz asher nishbah lahem – to bring the Israelites to the land that was promised to them;

Vayishchatem bamidbar – so He killed them in the desert.

God didn't save the Israelite nation because they deserved to be saved, He saved them because of His own PR. Moses was saying, if You destroy them Mitzrayim will tell the other nations of the world that You're weak, that You couldn't complete the act.

Now let's go back to Egypt. Why didn't God destroy the Egyptians when He wanted to?

V'ulam ba'avur zot he'emadeticha – for this reason I have kept you alive;

Ba'avur harotecha et kochi – so that you see My strength;

U'lema'an saper shemi b'kol ha'aretz – and so that you spread My name throughout the entire world.

It's the same thing. God didn't save the Egyptians because of their own merit, but because of God's own PR, so that they would recognize God and spread His name. So what are we to make of these connections, both in God's desire to destroy the people and in the reason that He ultimately didn't? Why would God treat Israel in the same way that He treated Egypt?

Well if God wants to destroy them in the same way, perhaps it's because they sinned in the same way? Now that seems crazy to suggest, the Egyptians committed unthinkable crimes against others, how can what the Israelites did ever be considered similar? But maybe the sins really were similar? Well to understand that we have to understand what exactly was the sin of the Egyptians in the first place. Let's review what happened there.

God sends Moses to Pharaoh to try to persuade him to free the people. Over and over Moses says let my people go, and each time Pharaoh refuses God sends another plague on Egypt. But why did God need to do all the stuff in the first place, the constant meetings with Pharaoh, the barrage of plagues? God didn't need Pharaoh's permission, He could have just snapped His fingers and taken the people out, why did God not decide to do it that way?

Rabbi Fohrman discusses this in a past Exodus course, you can check it out on our website. The point of the plagues was not just about freeing the Israelites, God had an agenda, the purpose of the plagues was to educate the Egyptians, to show them, God says, that I'm the only God. It was to get Egypt to begin to relate to God, they couldn't ignore Him anymore.

When Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh for the very first time with God's message, look at what Pharaoh responds. He doesn't just say no, I won't let the people go.

Vayomer Paraoh – and Pharaoh said; Mi Hashem asher eshmah b'kolo l'shalach et Yisrael – who is this God that you want me to listen to, to let the people go?

Loh yadati et Hashem – I don't know this God of yours;

V'gam et Yisrael loh ashalei'ach – and I certainly won't let the people go.

Ahh, you don't know who I am, God says, no problem, I'll show you who I am.

That was the purpose of the plagues, and God says that explicitly right before the plagues begin. God says:

Yedaber el Paraoh – go to Pharaoh;

V'shilach et Bnei Yisrael mei'artzo – and tell him to let the Israelites leave his land.

But, God says, I'm letting you know that it won't work right away:

V'loh yishmah aleichem Paraoh – Pharaoh won't listen to you;

V'natati et yadi b'Mitzrayim v'hotzeiti et tzivotai, et ami, Bnei Yisrael me'Eretz Mitzrayim bishephatim gedolim – so I'll send My hand against Egypt, I'll take out My nation, the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with great wonders.


Va'yadu Mitzrayim ki ani Hashem bintoti et yadi al Mitzrayim – so that Egypt will know that I'm God when I put My hand against them.

The point of the plagues was not to free the people from Egypt, God says, I'm going to do that anyway, the point of the plagues was to get Pharaoh to recognize God, to begin to relate to God. That was God's agenda.

Now with that in mind, let's look again at what God says to Egypt when He wants to destroy them. When after six devastating plagues Pharaoh still refuses to let the people go, God says, listen Pharaoh, we've been at this for a while now and you still refuse to recognize Me. What game do you think you're playing here? You think you're going to ignore Me forever? Please. I could have wiped you and your people out already in an instant and it would have been well deserved, but I didn't, you know why? It's for this reason that I kept you alive so that you see My strength and that you spread My name throughout the land. That was the agenda, but you failed to recognize Me on your own so you deserve to die. But you know what, just because you failed doesn't mean that My agenda has to fail too, I can still use you as a tool to accomplish My goals.

So that was Egypt's sin, they failed to recognize God, they failed to relate to Him, that's why they deserved to be destroyed with Dever. But what about Israel, what was their sin? Why did they deserve to be destroyed? Well perhaps it wasn't only with Egypt that God had that agenda, it was with the Israelites too.

Why Did God Take the Israelites Through the Wilderness?

It was ultimately the same agenda, to relate to God, but it differed depending on where each nation was at. See, Egypt's challenge was to simply recognize God, but that wasn't Israel's challenge, they would have already known who God is from their own national history, and even if not, as the Israelites saw the Egyptians drowning in the sea; Vaya'aminu BaHashem – they had faith in God. They knew who God was. God's agenda with Israel was at a different stage, it wasn't just to recognize God, it was to build a relationship with Him.

At the very beginning of the Exodus, right before God set in motion the process that would eventually free the Israelites, God says; V'lakachti etchem li la'am – I will take you to be My nation; Vehayiti lachem l'Elokim – and I will be your God. Look at how God kind of switches between the two perspectives. You will become My nation, and I will become your God, it's a relationship, it's not just what I do for you or what you do for Me, it goes both ways. So there's an agenda with Israel too, but there's still something missing.

Egypt was given a tool to help them accomplish their agenda, to help them recognize God, that's what the plagues were, but how is Israel supposed to accomplish their goal, to build a close relationship with God? What tool did God use with them? I'd like to suggest a theory to you.

God's grand miracles didn't end when the sea destroyed the Egyptian army and the Israelite people were free, the miracles continued throughout their stay in the desert. That's how the people were sustained; God gave them water, God gave them Manah, provided protection with Clouds of Glory and Pillars of Fire. But these miracles weren't just done for the pragmatic reason of keeping the people alive, the miracles in the desert were really Israel's version of what the plagues were in Egypt. Those miracles were what Israel were supposed to use to accomplish the agenda.

So God seems to always use miracles to help people accomplish their mission. But what those miracles looked like was different depending on what the agenda was, and on how the subjects needed to relate to God. The agenda with the Egyptians was to recognize God, Egypt acted as if they were gods, like they had the ultimate power, so the only way the agenda would be accomplished is through power too. You Egypt, you think you're so great and mighty, I'm great, God says. The plagues were meant to humble the Egyptians, to show the vast difference between them and God.

But that's not what the Israelites needed. After years of slavery, years of oppression, what they needed was love. The miracles in the desert were about love, about closeness, God gave them shelter, God gave them sustenance, they were about cultivating that relationship, that's what Israel needed.

It's almost as if the loving miracles in the desert were really the inverse of the destructive plagues. What was the first plague in Egypt? The water turned to blood. Their greatest, sustaining life source, their drinking water, became totally unusable. What was the very first miracle that God performed in the desert? God turns the bitter water, water that was utterly undrinkable, and made it sweet into drinkable, sustaining water.

What was the last, great miracle, the ultimate retribution taken on the Egyptians? Well God split the Sea of Reeds and then made it collapse on itself just as Egypt was passing through. What was the last great miracle that God did for the people before entering the land of Israel? God split the Jordan River, lovingly, to allow them to pass through into the land of Israel. It's as if God was framing, really book-ending, the miracles in the desert within the context of the plagues in Egypt. What I did in Egypt, that was to create distance, it was to show them that I'm God, not them. What I'm doing in the desert that's to engender closeness.

If the framing of the plagues wasn't enough to show that the miracles are the inverse of the plagues, look at what God says right after He performs that very first miracle in the desert. He turns the bitter water into drinkable water, and then turns to the people and kind of lets them know what's about to come, what their stay in the desert will be like.

Vayomer im shamo'ah tishmah l'kol Hashem Elokecha – if you listen to all of God's commands;

V'hayashar b'einav ta'aseh v'ha'azanta l'mitzvotav v'shamarta kol chukav – and you do all that is right in His eyes and you listen to His Mitzvot and you keep His laws;

Kol hamachalah asher samti b'Mitzrayim loh asim alecha – then all of the plagues that I did to Egypt I won't do that to you.

You know why? Ki ani Hashem rofecha – because I am God, your healer.

Why does God have to say then I won't do to you what I did to Egypt? That's a strange thing to say. But that's exactly the point, that's the perfect introduction to all the miracles that God is about to do.

God says, look we have an opportunity to build a relationship, do you want that? If you do then everything that you've seen in Egypt, the God of destruction that you witnessed, you'll never see that again, you'll see the inverse, it will just be love. Give of yourselves to Me and I will give of Myself to you, I'm your healer. All the wounds that you incurred in Egypt, that's over now, now it's just you and Me.

Understanding Why the Israelites Wandered the Desert

When we look back at our Parsha, to God's reaction to the sin of the spies, we hear that same theme permeate God words. God yells at the people; Ki kol ha'anashim haro'im et kevodi v'et ototai asher asiti b'Mitzrayim u'bamidbar – surely all of those men that have seen My glory and My signs which I did in Egypt and in the desert; Vayenasu oti zeh esser pe'amim v'loh shamu b'koli – yet they tested Me these 10 times and have not listened to My voice.

You've tested Me these 10 times. God is hinting at something, you know what else happened 10 times? Ten times that I tried to show My miracles but no one listened – V'loh shamu b'koli? That's the 10 plagues. Before the Egyptians didn't get the message and now it's as if God is saying, I gave you a new set of plagues, this time as loving miracles, intended to build a relationship with you, and you're ignoring those too just like Egypt did.

Why did God react so harshly? What really was the sin? It wasn't just that they spoke badly about the land of Israel and lost resolve to enter. Yes, that's what they did, but at the core it represented something much deeper. Entering the land was supposed to be the culmination of Israel's long, difficult journey, and giving the people a land, that was supposed to be the ultimate expression of love. That's what it was all leading up to.

When they were too afraid to enter the land it was a rejection of everything God had done for them. Just like Pharaoh showed his rejection of God by not allowing the people to go, the Israelites showed their rejection of their special relationship with God by not allowing themselves to go. Despite all the miracles and love they still wouldn't let themselves believe that they had a real, intimate relationship with God.

Now look at how the people of Israel react to the report of the spies. The people panic; Vayomru ish el achiv – and each one said to the other; Nitnah rosh v'nashuva Mitzrayma – appoint a leader and let's return to Egypt. Now the people have reminisced before about how much better Egypt was than the desert, but never before have they actually proposed going back to Egypt.

It's like the text is hinting to us that the people had become like the Egyptians, they were rejecting their special relationship with God. We don't need a homeland, Egypt is our home. At that point God says, if after all of My love you still reject our relationship then fine, you want to be like Egypt, you want to ignore My miracles like they did, you want to reject the land that I'm giving to you and go back to Egypt? Okay, I'll treat you just like Egypt. Akenu ba'Dever v'orishenu – I will wipe you out with Dever just as I should have done with Egypt before.

The story doesn't have a happy ending, but the narrative of the sin of the sin of spies does give us a poignant insight into how God relates to us and how we're supposed to relate to God. How are we to relate to this vengeful, vicious God?

God isn't vicious, it was just the opposite, God related to and treated the Israelites with nothing but love, He sustained them throughout the desert, He nurtured them, He tried to build that bond. It was only when the people chose to reject that bond, when they chose to act like Egypt, when they chose to go back to Egypt, that God treated them just as they chose to be treated. But that wasn't the original plan.

The original plan was for them to recognize God's love and to reciprocate that love, to show that they want that relationship too. Entering the land was supposed to represent that commitment. All they had to do was recognize God's embrace, to feel it, to reciprocate it, and then that embrace would have lasted forever.

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