Do you know what the Israelites were doing for nearly 40 years after getting to the Promised Land?
I thought I knew, too. Wandering in the wilderness, right? Well, not exactly.
At the beginning of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have finished their 40-year excursion through the wilderness, they’ve defeated their first enemies just outside of the Promised Land and Moses stands up for a speech:
“Not another speech, Moe,” someone groans.
Moses summarizes for us what happened from the time of God’s first command to enter the Promised Land while the Israelites were camped in Horeb, to present. I’ll summarize the summary: the Israelites left Horeb and came to the land of the Amorites–not yet even to the Promised Land. The people said “Hey, let’s send scouts ahead to check this place out!” (1:19-22) And as you’ll remember, Moses sent twelve scouts into the land who came back reporting that the land was wonderful! But there’s a catch – the cities are strong and tall, the enemies are numerous, and the sons of giants called the Anakim are in the land. (1:29)
So the Israelites rebelled and refused to go up into the land. And God made an oath that their entire generation would lose their inheritance in the land – when the people heard that they said, “Okay, we’ll go up!” but in spite of God’s warning not to go they went anyway and suffered crushing defeat at the hands of their enemies and were driven back by the Amorites. (1:34-46) And that brings us to the beginning of their 4o-year detour in the wilderness.
“Then we turned and journeyed into the wilderness of the Way of the Red Sea, as the Lord spoke to me, and we skirted Mount Seir for many days.
2 “And the Lord spoke to me, saying: 3 ‘You have skirted this mountain long enough; turn northward. 4 And command the people, saying, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. 5 Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6 You shall buy food from them with money, that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink. -Deuteronomy 2:1-6
“Okay, that’s interesting, but what’s your point, Mo?”
That’s just stop number one. After going through Seir they traveled to Moab:
8 “And when we passed beyond our brethren, the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir, away from the road of the plain, away from Elath and Ezion Geber, we turned and passed by way of the Wilderness of Moab.9 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.’” -Deuteronomy 2:8-9
Are you starting to see a pattern here? Moses explains with an aside:
10 (The Emim had dwelt there in times past, a people as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim. 11 They were also regarded as giants, like the Anakim, but the Moabites call them Emim. 12 The Horites formerly dwelt in Seir, but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them, and dwelt in their place, just as Israel did to the land of their possession which the Lord gave them.) -Deuteronomy 2:10-12
Ooh, wait a minute; something important is going on here.
God is taking his people on a tour of the lands he’s delivered to their relatives from their own giants. And there’s one more stop – Ammon:
13 “‘Now rise and cross over the Valley of the Zered.’ So we crossed over the Valley of the Zered. 14 And the time we took to come from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed over the Valley of the Zered was thirty-eight years, until all the generation of the men of war was consumed from the midst of the camp, just as the Lord had sworn to them. 15 For indeed the hand of the Lord was against them, to destroy them from the midst of the camp until they were consumed.
16 “So it was, when all the men of war had finally perished from among the people, 17 that the Lord spoke to me, saying: 18 ‘This day you are to cross over at Ar, the boundary of Moab. 19 And when you come near the people of Ammon, do not harass them or meddle with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot as a possession.’” -Deuteronomy 2:13-19
Moses goes on to explain that this was also a land known to have been possessed by giants called the Zamzummim prior to the Ammonites’ entrance – people who were ‘as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim’.
It’s like God said, “Okay – you don’t trust that I’ll deliver this land to you? You don’t think I’m big enough for your giants? Come along, I’ll show you the promised lands I delivered to your cousins from enemies and giants as numerous and big as the ones in the land I gave you–no you can’t stay here, this is their inheritance, you’ve got your own to possess.”
The Horites, the Emim and the Zamzummim, and God delivered their lands to Abraham’s descendants for an inheritance – and now it was time for the Israelites to go take their own land. And you know something? Maybe they were all fired up by seeing all the land God gave to their relatives, and hearing the histories of God driving out giants, but when God told them it was finally time to go and take over the Promised Land, they went whooping and hollering for war.
The rest of chapter two tells the story of their first victory; God sent them back to the Amorites with instructions to destroy them. Moses, as he had done for all the lands they had traveled through during the last 38-some-years, sent messengers ahead to King Sihon offering to purchase food, water, and to pass peacefully through the land. But Sihon came out in force because God ‘hardened his spirit’, and the Israelites utterly defeated him; no city too strong, no army too large. It must have been a big morale boost after that 40-year walk-of-shame.
So what do they do next? In chapter 3 they go on up the road to Bashan, ruled by a giant king named Og who sleeps on a 13.5-foot-by-6-foot bed of iron; he’s big, he’s the last of the giants in the region, and he’s the first giant the Israelites defeat: they completely annihilate his kingdom. And finally, the Israelites can go up, cross the Jordan river and enter their Promised Land. Boom. God wins again.
I’ve been feeling pretty burned out in the wilderness. I heard an expression recently that went along the lines of, ‘you’re either in the wilderness, on your way into the wilderness, or on your way out of the wilderness’. It was in the context of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. Because I used to think that God sent the Israelites to just sort of aimlessly wander in the wilderness, I never realized that maybe, God had something for me to see there–something that might give me the key to fighting some giants.
I said the wilderness might hold keys for fighting your giants.
So why a wilderness? I don’t know. But what I do know–even if I don’t feel it–is that it isn’t a place where God is absent; he’s right there in my stubbornness, showing me the promises he’s come through on.