Forty years in the desert: Why?

Straight Talk

The Question:

Why did God allow the Israelites to stay forty years in the desert if they were his chosen people?

– JM From Coon Rapids, Minnesota

The Answer
Part 1: Forty years for forty days

Forty years for forty days (Part 1)

Forty years is sure a long time isn’t it? Seems like a punishment and a pretty severe one at that. Well it was a punishment—but one well deserved. Forty years was not just picked randomly out of a hat. Here’s what happened.

In the four hundred plus years that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt their spiritual ears had grown quite dull. Their hearts were hard and they were far from trusting, believing, and serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph who had secured Egypt earlier for their provision.

Now they were delivered from Egypt and God instructed Moses to select twelve spies to view the land he was giving them in advance of their taking it. They scouted out Canaan for forty days and when they returned only two of them, Joshua and Caleb, gave the people a good report. The other ten had no faith and gave a bad report. “’We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.’” (Numbers 13:31)

Their bad report played into the worst fears of the congregation who moaned and complained and turned away from trusting God yet again. It was so bad “they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.’” (Numbers 14:4) The Lord was angry but Moses interceded for them and God forgave them—yet again. All of this is the set up to “why” they wandered forty whole years before ever really going in and taking possession of Canaan.

“’According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you will know My opposition.’” (Numbers 14:34) Yes, they wandered a year for every day the spies spent in the land. You wonder why God would do such a thing when these were his chosen people?

Think of it this way: he chose them but they had not yet chosen him. Rather than believe, trust and obey him, they wanted to return to the gods of Egypt instead of serving the only true God. In forty years time that entire generation of rebellious unbelievers would die in the wilderness. The only two left who would still take possession of the land were the two spies who gave the good report: Joshua and Caleb.