Wilderness wanderings

The biblical book of Numbers is our only account of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites after they departed from Mount Sinai. The editor of this work drew his material from three sources, E, J and P, as defined in the Documentary Hypothesis. None of these sources provide a complete account, and the version in each source naturally reflects the concerns of the people at the time it was first written down.

P Source

The framework of the book of Numbers is provided by the priestly account (the P Source). Despite reasonable reservations about the P Source as a whole, there is little reason to doubt the historicity of the two censuses presented in this work. The first census is reported to have been organized once the Israelites left Mount Sinai and prepared themselves to proceed to invade Canaan from the south. The second census was from nearly 40 years later, being organized as the Israelites planned to invade Canaan from the east, across the Jordan River.

The two census tables in Numbers have given scholars much difficulty. The numbers shown are quite extraordinary, listing about 600,000 fighting men. This is thought to represent a total population of 2 million, including women, children and old men. Yet this number is definitely impossible to reconcile with the external evidence from both Egypt and Canaan. However, if we look a bit closer at the numbers we can see that there could have been a significant error in the reading of the Hebrew (and Akkadian). The problem arises because the same word is used for “thousand” and for “clan” in both Akkadian and Hebrew. So, if we look at the count for the tribe of Judah it is possible that it can be read to say that there were 75,600 able-bodied men; it is also possible that it can be read to say 75 clans and 600 fighters. The former reading is impossible (even though it was adopted in a different context in Ephraim’s Israelite history – the E Source), but the latter reading is feasible and believable. Since each of the twelves tribes presented similar numbers of fighters, it totalled 5,500 able-bodied men in total. This was a very large number of fighters for those times. It would have made the Israelite army a terrifying offensive force, particularly in the relatively undefended parts of Canaan. For example, during the previous century the king of Jerusalem asked the Pharaoh to allow him a force of fifty bowmen with which to confront raiders who were troubling his city.

Other usable historical information in the P Source includes the listing of the names of the scouts Moses sent into southern Canaan, the names of the leaders of the tribes at the point of the eventual conquest, and a story about Phineas executing judgment. In this story, a man took a Midianite woman – probably actually a Moabite woman – into his tent, in clear defiance of “non-fraternization” rules. Phineas took his spear and ran the couple through while they were engaged in sexual intercourse. Phineas’ action is plausible, since it can be made to fit quite well into the period when the Israelites were sojourning with the Moabites. Phineas is likely to have been a hot head; he was not a model of mature judgment, which is revealed later when he had a role as a priestly leader in the period of the judges.

Yet there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the P Source material is an idealized account, presented as if everything was very rigidly organized. Yet we know that the early organization of the Israelites in Canaan was not highly structured, and certainly not in the way described in Numbers. Indeed, even the kind of formal organization in religious matters presented in Numbers is not found in early Israel at all, perhaps not even after the reforms of King Josiah in the 7th century BC.

Judah’s Israelite history

Although Judah’s Israelite history (the J Source) has only a little information about the wandering in the wilderness, that which it does provide is useful. It begins by referring to Moses recruiting a relative by marriage to be a guide to the Israelites. (This provides a useful counter-weight to the proposition, also found in Judah’s Israelite history, that the cloud of Yahweh guided the Israelites every day, not just when they were escaping from Egypt.) After this, Judah’s Israelite history reports that Moses sent scouts out through southern Canaan, on the west side of the Dead Sea. These scouts included Caleb, who we learn from elsewhere was associated with the tribe of Judah. While Caleb acknowledged that it would be difficult to conquer the land, he thought, with Yahweh’s help, they would be able to achieve it. However, Caleb was unable to convince the people, so they did not go up into the land.

It was Moses’ initial plan to invade Canaan via the strong points still held by the Egyptians. Perhaps this was foolhardy, since the Egyptians were at the high point of their power and authority in this region. Indeed, if the Egyptians had brought all their forces, including chariots and trained fighters, to bear on the invading Israelites, it is unlikely that the Israelites would have been able to withstand the battle. On the other hand, it is possible that Ramasses II (1279 BC – 1213 BC), the likely Pharaoh of the exodus, had already decided not to resist the Israelites after being humiliated in the confrontation with Israel at the time of the exodus.

In any event, according to Judah’s Israelite history, the rejection of Caleb’s advice greatly offended Yahweh, who declared that those who were not willing to go up into Canaan would never do so. Yet there is little doubt that this recording of Yahweh’s anger reflects the disgust of Caleb and his successors in Judah at what they perceived to be the cowardice of the rest of Israel. According to Judah’s Israelite history, the Israelites repented of their cowardly attitude and sought to take the battle into southern Canaan (but without Moses’ authority). They were defeated by the Canaanites and the Amalekites. According to that history, Yahweh’s rejection of that generation continued to carry force despite their repentance. At the very least, it was now obvious that the Israelites were not soon to enter into Canaan. As a result, Moses suffered a small rebellion led by three Reubenites. Judah’s Israelite history reports that these rebels were swallowed up into the earth, thus bringing their rebellion to an end.

The next nearly 40 years are lost in Judah’s Israelite history – apparently it was of little interest to Caleb’s successors.

When the time came for another attempt to made at taking Canaan, the Israelites made overtures to the king of Edom, seeking permission to access Canaan via the (Egyptian) King’s Highway that ran on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. That king was not willing, probably being afraid of retaliation from the Egyptians. [It is likely that the Edomite king was a client of the Egyptians, and had a responsibility to warn the Egyptians of any significant events in their region. Despite this, there is no indication that the Egyptians sought to respond to this renewed activity of the Israelites. Perhaps the king of Edom kept his own counsel about these events, advising the Israelites to go around them in order to avoid complications with the Egyptians.]

From this response, it was now clear that the Israelites would have to fight their way to Canaan. The response began quite quickly, with the king of Arad (in the Negev) setting himself in opposition to Israel. He even defeated Israel in one encounter, taking some Israelites as prisoners. However, Israel eventually prevailed, and the settlements of the people of Arad were destroyed.

We can assume that the Israelites somehow avoided a confrontation with the Edomites, and forced their way in finding a transit into Moabite territory.

The Israelites came to live amongst the Moabites. This was the first time Israelites had lived in settled society since they left Egypt, nearly forty years ago. Easy access to the city prostitutes was a new factor to be taken into account, and this led to some Israelites joining in the worship of the Moabite gods. The same event is presented in the P Source, which appears to have good knowledge of the precipitate action of the Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who executed a man and women caught in flagrante delicto in the Tent of Meeting itself. In Judah’s Israelite history Phineas’ action has been extended to now encompass the execution of lots of offenders (the nature of oral traditions means that there is a lack controls that can hold back exaggeration and hyperbole).

After their sojourn in Moab, the Israelites sought to pass through the territory of King Sihon, to the immediate north of Moab. Sihon refused the Israelites passage, and also set out to engage them in battle. However, he was defeated and the Israelites took over his whole territory.

(For the progress of these battles, the writer of the Judah’s Israelite history had available a written text, called the Recounting of the Wars of Yahweh.)

The Israelites came to control all the territory on the King’s Highway up to the northern end of the Dead Sea. This territory was such an attractive place to graze sheep and cattle, the tribes of Reuben and Gad sought permission to settle on that side of the Jordan River. This was granted provided they participated with the rest of Israelites in conquering the territory on the other side of the Jordan River. Some from the tribe of Manasseh were also given permission to occupy territory on the east side of Jordan River, a little to the north of the territory of Gad, on the same conditions.

Ephraim’s Israelite history

When we meet the Israelites again in Ephraim’s Israelite history (the E Source) they are grumbling, this time about the tastelessness of the manna they received each day. Moses complained to Yahweh that the burden of this ungrateful mob was too great to bear. So Yahweh consecrated seventy elders: they were to help Moses lead the people. Furthermore, Yahweh gave the people quails to eat, but they were still not satisfied. As a result, some were struck down as a result of Yahweh’s anger. After this Miriam and Aaron rose up in rebellion against Moses, for which sin Miriam was punished. Some time later, the people again spoke against God and Moses, and Yahweh released fiery snakes among the people and a great many people died. So Moses made a bronze snake and set it on a pole, so that if any man was bitten he could look at the snake on the pole and then he would live. (In later times the Israelites were condemned for worshipping this snake, and King Hezekiah had it destroyed.)

This is a collection of “misery stories,” in which the Israelites complained about Moses or Yahweh, and were severely punished for their failures. Yet it would have been extraordinary if there had not been any such complaints. These stories seem to serve the purpose of pointing to futility of complaining about the appointed ruler of the nation. It was Moses in this case, but the author was possibly pointing his audience to Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor, and (with a measure of hyperbole) hinting at God’s punishment likely to come upon the people for their rebellion in accepting Jeroboam as their king.

Finally, among Ephraim’s Israelite history, we have the story of Balak, the king of the Moabites, who summoned Balaam from the (Euphrates) river intending that he would curse the Israelites. Balaam, a prophet of El Shaddai (the old name of God of the Israelites), blessed the Israelites instead, angering Balak greatly. Balaam then went home. It is an interesting piece, which defies analysis according to the ordinary canons of the Documentary Hypothesis. The account contains so much detail, it is hard to accept that this story was handed down orally; it was either written down at the time, or it has been created by an inventive and imaginative author. Since it has no obvious anachronisms, and the concluding oracles actually reflect conditions at the time the oracles were said to be delivered, the first alternative (of being written down at the time) seems the most likely.


We cannot be sure about the exact historicity of most of the content of the Biblical book of Numbers, although we can be more confident about the major events described in that work:

  • The nation of Israel was assembled for war, and a census was taken, revealing a body of 5,550 able-bodied men. This was likely to be quite sufficient for the job at hand, provided they were not directly opposed by the Egyptians.
  • The Israelites eventually arrived in southern Canaan, having taken the long way around, via the Sinai peninsular, rather than having taken the coastal route.
  • Moses sent scouts into southern Canaan, but when they returned only Caleb believed that it was feasible to achieve this goal. It is possible that Caleb was being foolhardy with his daring bravado; in any event Moses did not support his plan.
  • The Israelites found a way to live off the land in the wilderness for forty years. According to Numbers 33, it appears that they finally camped near Mount Hor before beginning military action to take the territories to the east of the Dead Sea.
  • The Israelites were victorious over the king of Arad, and then travelled east to begin their progress northwards.
  • Since the king of Edom did not formally allow them to pass through his land, the Israelites skipped through the Edomite territory, until they had reached Moab.
  • As they were approaching Moab, its king, Balak, summoned Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam blessed the Israelites, and did not curse them. After this, Balak allowed the Israelites to pass through their land.
  • King Sihon of the Amorites would not allow the Israelites to pass through his land, and sent his troops to defeat them, but was himself defeated. The whole of this king’s territory passed to the Israelites. It became the territory of the Israelite tribe of Reuben.
  • In preparation for the subsequent, planned, entry into Canaan across the Jordan River, the able-bodied men were counted again, with 5,730 men being available for the coming battles.

Perhaps more can be recovered than is mentioned here, but this listing is sufficient for the purpose of understanding the movement of the Israelites, and of Yahweh’s actions in supporting the establishment of the new nation.