After a year of camp at the base of Mt. Sinai (Horeb), the Israelites had received the 10 commandments and various laws to structure society and worship. They had also constructed the tabernacle tent where God dwelt with his people on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a vessel of gold which held the 10 commandments, Aaron’s staff, and the manna from heaven. Only the priests of the Levitical tribe could touch it, else they would die. The Ark would travel with the Israelites and lead them into battle. If they were faithful to God, they would always be victorious with the Ark in the battle.
Even with all the blessings God showered the Israelites, they still rebelled against Him consistently ***(the Golden calf). As they left the mountain of God to conquer the land of Canaan (the promised land), this trend would continue. At the edge of the promised land, the Israelites sent in twelve scouts, one from each tribe to spy on the land. After 40 days they returned with great news. The land truly was abundant as the Lord had promised. The vegetation and fruit of the land was bigger than they had ever seen. However, so were the people. Ten of the scouts came back fearful, and advised not to attack the people in the land. They feared a great defeat because of the size of the people. Only Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, urged the people to take the land because the Lord would be on their side.
The people listened to the fearful ten and threatened to rebel against Moses and Aaron rather than to fight. Moses and Aaron then turned to God whose glory appeared at the tabernacle tent to all the Israelites. God tells Moses that He plans to disown the Israelites for their stubbornness. Moses again intercedes for the people and God relents. But He promises that the current generations of Israelites will never enter the promised land. They will wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the last of them has died out. Only Caleb and Joshua who trusted in the Lord would enter the promised land. Upon seeing God’s glory and hearing their punishment, the people changed their mind. They decided it was best to attack, to make up for their lack of faith. Yet, Moses told them to not go against God’s word again and just accept the punishment. The people would not listen, and they attacked. Neither Moses nor the Ark accompanied them. The attack failed miserably and the Israelites retreated to the wilderness where they would remain for 40 years until the faithless generation died out as God had said.
In reading this passage, the temptation is to yet again look down on the Israelites because of their lack of faith. Yet, we have to remember that they did not have the whole picture, or the fullness of revelation of who God is. God is trying to teach them trust. This is not an excuse by any means, but for us to think that we would react differently in their situation would be the height of hubris. The Israelites show us exactly who we are without grace. Their lack of trust in God even though He has blessed and provided for Israel every step of the way is a result of their sinful nature. We are no different if left to our own devices. If anything, we should recognize that we are actually more at fault every time that we fail because we have been given the grace of the sacraments which is something the Israelites had not.
God’s mercy continues to be ever present in the sight of the mediator of Moses who again chooses the Israelites despite their rebellion against not only God, but Moses as well. Only because of the intimacy with Moses does God relent. How much more is the intimacy between the Son and the Father and our mediator Jesus does the same for us at the right hand of the Father until all of His enemies are placed under His feet.
Even with His mercy, God needs to purify his people. Before they can enter into the land promised to them, they will have to completely trust Him. It is only through trust in Him that they will be able to conquer and hold the land because of the fruits of the land and its position in the known world. Moses will lead them through continued intercession until it will be Joshua’s turn to lead them into the promised land.