11 Feb 2018

Training in the Desert

Religious 12 Comments

My cousin and I covered this from Numbers 9:

15On the day that the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony. And at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning. 16So it was always: the cloud covered it by daya and the appearance of fire by night.17And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. 18At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. 19Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the people of Israel kept the charge of the LORD and did not set out. 20Sometimes the cloud was a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the LORD they remained in camp; then according to the command of the LORD they set out. 21And sometimes the cloud remained from evening until morning. And when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they set out. 22Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, abiding there, the people of Israel remained in camp and did not set out, but when it lifted they set out. 23At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. They kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by Moses.

If we take the Bible accounts at face value, it means that hundreds of thousands of adult males (and some 2 million total people) marched around following the Lord. The entire “city” was oriented around God, with everyone’s purpose and plans kept entirely subordinate to His unpredictable lead.

This is amazing, and of course it has all sorts of significance for the believer in terms of how to live, even in our time.

Yet this raised a puzzle for me: How could Moses maintain order like this? With such a group of grumblers, would it really work for them all to keep marching and camping in unison, for four decades, wandering around in the desert? Why didn’t some hotheads talk up new ideas?

One possible explanation is that they were afraid of being executed. After all, there was plenty of corporal punishment on the books. (Incidentally, do Jewish scholars have ideas about the frequency with which these harsh penalties were enforced? For example, what parent would want to kill his kid for being insolent?)

Another possible explanation is that the Jews at this time were dependent on manna from heaven (literally). So perhaps cynics and rebels were afraid to secede, because they worried that the manna wouldn’t appear for them if they left camp?

If that’s right, it makes more sense of the whole situation (at least to me). All of the conditions came together to serve the function of training the children of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years, to raise a new generation who had not lived under slavery, and who were utterly dependent on God. Given their rebellious nature, the other elements of the situation “had to be that way” to make it work.

12 Responses to “Training in the Desert”

  1. Ben says:

    As a Talmudic scholar, a few points:

    There were several points where secessions we’re attempted. Counting Midrashic sources, there were at least three tries.

    The Talmud considers how often a Sanhedrin would mete out capital punishment. More than once in 70 years was considered excessive. But then again, this may reflect later times.

    Finally, the Talmud explicitly stated that capital punishment for child insolence was never actually done in reality. (There are various explanations for that, but I digress. )

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Ben, thanks, this is awesome. Can you give me link(s) if I want to learn more on these points?

      • Ben says:

        Sorry I can’t reference these things easily online. I haven’t yet found a publicly accessible, English translation of the Talmud.

        Would it be helpful if I give you links to the original Aramaic?

        What I wrote is not controversial though. Any somewhat educated Orthodox Jew can confirm what I wrote.

        Even googling the above should yield something useful. For example:


        The Mishnah (tractate Makkoth 1:10) outlines the views of several prominent first-century CE Rabbis on the subject:

        “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed’; Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: ‘If so, they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.'”[11]

        The Sanhedrin stopped issuing capital punishment either after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE or alternatively, according to passages in the Talmud and New Testament, in 30 CE when the Sanhedrin were moved out of the Hall of Hewn Stones. Other sources such as Josephus and other passages in the New Testament disagree. The issue is highly debated because of the relevancy to the New Testament trial of Jesus.[12][13] Ancient rabbis did not like the idea of capital punishment, and interpreted the texts in a way that made the death penalty virtually non-existent. The idea of killing someone for a crime they commit is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

        It was almost impossible to inflict the death penalty because the standards of proof were so high…

      • Heather says:

        Ben beat me to it, but food for thought for your questions and the missing links: How did Moses maintain order? Jethro and he set up an elaborate system of judges in Exodus 18. Yet rebellions did happen, massive ones like Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 and the tragic response of the community the next day (which leads to one of the most dramatic and beautiful pictures of salvation in Numbers as Aaron runs into the camp and positions himself between the living and the dead–one man atoning for sin and staying the plague for the nation).

        Regarding the rebellious son, there are two statements in Sanhedrin 71a (https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.71a.14?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=bi) regarding how often it was used and resulted in an actual execution: none and once. None comes from the paragraph with this quotation of a rabbi saying, “There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halakha.” The paragraph after that relates a testimony of one man who says he did witness the law used one time. The chapter is instructive, though, in how closely the law is mined for information about how to handle such cases and what the law teaches us about proper parenting.

        Sefaria is great; I look on Chabad.org’s website to find out where a biblical passage is discussed in the Jewish literature and then hop over to Sefaria to read the commentary in English.

        Blessings on your journey “in the Wilderness,” Bamidbar, Numbers, God’s honeymoon, the most romantic book of the Pentateuch.

    • Harold says:

      Why have capital punishment as a penalty if it is almost never carried out? Ehrlich did a ground-breaking study (my memory is a bit hazy on this) that showed by econometric means that each execution in the USA could prevent 8 murders. However, sentence of death not carried out had no effect.

      If one uses an extreme penalty, but then require ever higher standards of proof, this is self defeating, making it more likely that the guilty will go unpunished.

      It strikes me that to have a death penalty is in a way giving up the “moral high ground”. If this is never carried out, this is to no purpose.

      I understand that the “moral high ground” I am viewing through my 21 century eyes, but any way of looking at is a penalty on the books that is not used seems self defeating.

      Was there a lesser punishment that could be given if proof were not complete? That is, we are almost certain of guilt, so we give punishment X, but not quite certain enough to give death?

      • Dan says:

        Self-defeating in what way? Seems like the Jews did just fine for themselves over the years. Hard to argue with their results.

        • Harold says:

          Self defeating because IF the death penalty works as a deterrent it is by carrying out executions. IF it works as diminution of the sanctity of human life it is enough to simply be a possible penalty. By having it on the books but not using it you get the worst of both worlds.

          We don’t have a counterfactual for the Jews without a seldom used death penalty, so arguing that Jews still exists is not convincing. There are about 15 million Jews today, compared to 2 billion Christians, so I am not sure how well they have done.

          • Dan says:

            What religion did the Christians branch out from? Also, Jews don’t merely exist. They seem to, as a whole, do pretty well for themselves. Which is why I asked what you meant by self-defeating. Seems like you have a tough job to convince people that NOT killing your children for insolence when the option is on the books was/is “self-defeating”. Are you saying that other things being equal, had the Jews used the death penalty more often against their own children that they would’ve been better off? Do you think Jews would be doing better if they started using it today?

            • Harold says:

              No, I think if you are not going to carry out the penalty it is better not to have it on the books.

              • Dan says:

                OK, but you said having it on the books and not using it was the worst of both worlds. So do you think having it on the books and not using the death penalty against your own children is worse than having it on the books and using the death penalty against your own children?

              • Harold says:

                Maybe “worst ” was a poor choice of word. Perhaps it is clearer if I say that having the death penalty and not using it gives whatever disadvantages there may be for the State to sanction ending of life without the possible advantages that such ending might bring.

                Having it and using it arguably gives advantages in deterring crime.

                Not having it sends a message about value if life and may also deter certain crimes.

                Having it and not using it does neither.

  2. Steven M says:

    So, what you’re saying is that the Israelites were tripping on Psilocybin mushrooms for 40 years?

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