The Forty-year Wandering of the Hebrew People, the Bronze Serpent
From Mt. Sinai the Israelites set out for the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Along the way, time and again, they murmured in dissatisfaction and resentment against their journey. The Lord punished them for this, but on account of the prayers of Moses, pardoned them.
Even his own sister, Miriam, and Aaron reproached Moses for having married an Ethiopian and thus abusing his dignity as an envoy of God. Moses was the meekest of all the people and patiently bore their reproaches. The Lord punished Miriam with leprosy. Aaron, seeing that his sister had leprosy, said to Moses, "Because we have acted foolishly and sinned, do not deliver us into harm."
Then Moses ardently besought God to cure his sister, and the Lord healed her, but only after she had spent seven days in confinement outside the camp.
When the Israelites reached the border of the Promised Land, in the Paran desert, at God’s command, Moses sent observers to survey the Promised Land. Twelve men were chosen, one from each tribe. Among those chosen were Caleb, from the tribe of Judah, and Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim.
When the observers had traversed the whole country and surveyed it, they returned in forty days. They brought with them a branch of a grapevine they had cut off there with a bunch of grapes. The branch was so big that two men had to carry it on a pole. They also brought pomegranates and figs. All of them praised the fruitful earth. But ten of the twelve men who had been sent, all except Caleb and Joshua, stirred up the people, saying, "The nation that dwells upon it is powerful. They have very great and strong-walled towns. We will not go, for we shall not by any means be able to stand up against the nation, for it is much stronger than us. There we saw such giants before whom we were like grasshoppers."
Then the Israelites started to wail and murmur against Aaron and Moses, saying, "Why does the Lord bring us into this land, to perish by the sword? Our wives and our children shall be plunder for the enemy. Now then, it is better to return to Egypt."
Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb persuaded the people not to go against the Lord’s will, for the Lord Himself would help them to conquer the land which God had promised to their fathers. But the Israelites conspired to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, appoint a new leader and turn back.
Then the glory of the Lord in the form of a cloud appeared in the tabernacle in front of all the people, and the Lord said unto Moses, "How long does this people provoke Me, and how long do they refuse to believe Me for all the signs which I have wrought among them? Say to them, ‘As I live saith the Lord, ‘surely as ye spoke into My ears so will I do to you. Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness and all that murmured against Me shall not enter into the land for which I stretched out My hand to establish you upon it, except for Caleb and Joshua, the son of Nun. Tomorrow turn and get you into the wilderness by way of the Red Sea. And your little ones, whom ye said would become a prey shall inherit the land which you rejected. According to the number of the days during which you spied the land, forty days, you shall bear your sins for every day a year, unto forty years, that ye may know what it is to be abandoned by Me.’"
The ten spies, who by their unfavorable reports concerning the land had stirred up the people, were immediately stricken to death in front of the tabernacle. Having heard this condemnation of their sin, the Israelites did not wish to submit to the Lord’s command and to go where they had been bidden. They said, "Behold, we that are here will go up to the place of which the Lord has spoken. We have sinned." This was as if to say, "We will now go and take the land. We repent of our sin. Why should we be punished for forty years?" Moses said to them, "Why do you transgress the word of the Lord? You shall not prosper." And he remained with the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant in the encampment.
Against God’s will, the Israelites dared to ascend the mountain, to the top where the Amalekites and the Canaanites were living. They were defeated and fled. So for forty years they wandered in the deserts of Sinai. Even during this time, however, the merciful Lord did not abandon them but visited them with many miracles.
Soon after being condemned to wander for forty years, a new revolt arose among the Israelites. Certain of them, whose leader was Korah, an elder of one of the tribes, were unhappy that the priesthood was a privilege only of the house of Aaron. Therefore the Lord punished them: the earth opened up and swallowed the rebels.
In order to end the arguments among the Israelites as to whom the priesthood belonged, Moses, at God’s command, ordered that all the elders bring their staffs and place them for the night in the tabernacle. The next day everyone saw that the rod of Aaron had blossomed, shooting buds, flowering, and bearing almonds. Everyone then recognized Aaron as the high priest. At God’s command, the rod of Aaron was placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant.
On another occasion, because of their murmuring against God, the Israelites were punished by a plague of poisonous snakes which bit the people and caused many to die. The Israelites repented and asked Moses to intercede for them before God. The Lord commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and to place it on a pole. Whoever had been bitten, and with faith looked on the bronze serpent, remained alive.
This bronze serpent served as a prefiguration of Christ the Saviour. Christ was crucified on the Cross for all our sins. Now we, looking upon Him with faith, are healed of our sins and saved from eternal death.
During the forty-year wandering, all the adult Israelites who had come out of Egypt died, except for Joshua and Caleb. A new generation grew up which was destined to enter the Promised Land. Moses died in the last year of their wandering. Before his death, he appointed Joshua, son of Nun, as leader to replace him.
Note: See Numbers, chaps. 11-14, 16-17, 21:4-9 and Deuteronomv chap. 1:19-46.
(from: The Law of God by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy)