Israel’s Experience in the Vast and Dreadful Wilderness

The Old Testament passages encompassing the Israelites’ wilderness experiences from Egypt to Canaan are Exod 15—Num 36; the Mount Sinai episodes, Exod 19:1—Nu 10:10, occupy the narrative’s center. The wilderness episodes have not received as much attention as other portions of the Pentateuch. For example, Martin Noth regarded the wilderness as a less important and dependent theme. However, when the Pentateuch’s final form is assessed, it is clear these episodes are essential to the Israelites’ story. Exod 15—18 are the pre-Sinai wilderness episodes, while Num 10:11—36:13 are the post-Sinai wilderness episodes; there is continuity between these episodes.

This paper will explore the significance of the pre-Sinai wilderness episodes, focusing on the concept of testing. The occurrences of the Hebrew verb נסה, often translated as “to test” in Exodus, will be assessed to clarify the nature and purpose of this testing. God tested the Israelites to ascertain the inclinations of their hearts and to see if they would keep his commands, but more importantly, through testing, he instructed and disciplined them. The notion of testing as instruction and discipline can be conceived as training. W. Ross Blackburn, among others, has suggested this (Blackburn, 2012, pp. 63—81). The people repeatedly complained in the wilderness, yet God did not punish them. When Israel complains, it provides “the opportunity for explicit instruction concerning the Lord’s expectations for Israel and the consequences Israel can expect for her compliance or lack thereof” (Blackburn, 2012, p. 68). The people needed to be trained to obey to prepare for the covenant relationship and their life in the promised land. The tests were the means by which God trained the people, and the wilderness was the setting. God continued to train the people at Mount Sinai. נסה occurs in Exod 20:20 and should be translated as “to give you the experience” (Greenberg, 1960, p. 276). God allowed them to experience a theophany that should have taught them to have a healthy fear of God, motivating them to obey and not sin.

This paper, building on Blackburn’s research, will then assert that even after the Israelites committed to the covenant and left Mount Sinai, the testing as training continued, for they were still in the wilderness with its same scarcities and challenges. Regrettably, the people again complained; they were now God’s covenant partners, so he judged them for their complaints. Due to the exodus generation’s unwillingness to take the promised land, they were sentenced to wander in the wilderness until their death. Yet, God promised the second generation would enter the land. Deuteronomy 8, with its occurrences of נסה, reveals that this generation was also tested in the wilderness. God humbled the people and tested them to ascertain the inclinations of their hearts and to instruct and discipline them. They, too, needed to be trained to obey and depend on God, for their well-being in the promised land would depend on it.

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