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Holman Bible Dictionary

Wanderings in the Wilderness

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Israel's movements from Egypt to the Promised Land under Moses, including the place names along the routes. A reconstruction of the Israelites' wilderness wanderings is more complex than a casual reading of the biblical account at first would seem to indicate. The “wanderings” refer to that difficult period in Israel's history between their departure from the area of Egyptian enslavement in the land of Goshen and arrival in the Jordan Valley to claim their long-standing inheritance of the Promised Land. (Exodus 12:31 —Numbers 12:31—33:49 ). The sequence of that extended event is complicated by the nature of the biblical data.

The itinerary from the border of Egypt to the oasis of Kadesh-barnea is relatively clear. Only three established trade routes across the northern Sinai were viable options for the movement of such a large contingent of people and livestock. Decisions in Egypt during the early stages of their migration reduced those options to only one. The shortest, most northerly, route along the Mediterranean shoreline was not taken because of a possible encounter with Egyptian military guarding oasis forts or returning from regular incursions and punitive raids in Canaan (Exodus 13:17 ). A second relatively direct route to Kadesh-barnea appears to have been avoided by divine plan when they approached the border at Etham and then were instructed to turn back to the seeming impossible situation “by the Sea” where God miraculously delivered them from the pharaoh's forces (Exodus 13:20-14:2 ). This route is identified with Marah (Exodus 15:23 ), Elim (Exodus 15:27 ), the Wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:1 ), Rephidim (Exodus 17:1 ), the Wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 18:5; Exodus 19:1 ), Sinai (Exodus 19:2 ), the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 10:12 ), Taberah (Numbers 11:3 ) or Kibroth-hattaavah (“the cemetery of the lusters,” Numbers 11:34 ), Hazeroth (“corrals,” Numbers 11:35; Numbers 12:16 ) where the mention of enclosures for the livestock and a series of events in the biblical account suggest an extended stay, and, ultimately, Kadesh (Numbers 20:1 ). A later reference to the distance between Mount Sinai (Horeb) and Kadesh-barnea (Deuteronomy 1:2 ) seems to suggest that the early itinerary took them basically along the major trade route used by the Amalekites between modern Suez at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez and the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba (Elath and Ezion-geber) and then northward into the extensive clustering of oases at Kadesh that would become their tribal center and the location of the tabernacle during the next 38 years.

The negative response to an immediate conquest following the spies' report resulted in the additional 38 years in the Sinai wilderness. When that generation of military died, the camp of Israel again was mobilized for the assault on Canaan. Their request to pass through Edomite territory and to proceed along the King's Highway through Moab and into the Jordan Valley opposite Jericho was blocked by a show of military force by the king of Edom. Their attempt to enter Canaan from the south was stopped by the king of Arad, and so a very difficult detour southward to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba and northeastward around Edomite and Moabite lands (Numbers 20:14; Deuteronomy 2:1 ) brought them finally to Mount Nebo overlooking the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea.

This itinerary is complicated by a comprehensive list of place names in Numbers 33:1 related to the Exodus and wanderings that includes many more locations seemingly playing a part in this extended event. Obviously, many of these places naturally may be related to the 38 years of the wanderings. More important is the fact that Numbers 33:1 indicates that in fact the Israelite itinerary from Egypt to the Jordan Valley did include passage through Edomite and Moabite territory along the King's Highway. This route cannot be associated with the Moses/Joshua-led Exodus because of the specific statements in Numbers 20-21 . Many scholars therefore conclude that Numbers 33:1 is a combined compilation of place names that are related to pre-Mosaic infiltration from Egypt to Canaan by way of the King's Highway, the place along the second route around Edomite-Moabite territory followed by the Moses/Joshua-led contingent and all those places visited by the Israelites during those 38 punitive years of desert wanderings when like the nomads of every generation they sought water and pasturage for their flocks within that hostile arid environment of the Sinai. See Exodus; Kadesh; Moses; Sinai.

George L. Kelm


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Wanderings in the Wilderness'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=6421. 1991.

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