“And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when He took an oath that they would never enter His rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed Him?” (Hebrews 3:17-18 NLT).
There is an old adage that warns us, “Be careful what you ask for – you might get it.” The Old Testament book of Numbers illustrates the truth behind that ancient maxim in describing the experience of the Israelites who departed from the land of Egypt.
In Numbers 14:2, we are told, “…all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness!'” God later accommodated their stated desire with the following response: “You will die and your corpses will be scattered across this wilderness. Because you have complained against me, none of you over twenty years of age will enter that land” (Numbers 14:29 CSB).
In the culture of that period, the manner of one’s death was almost as important as the manner of one’s life. Thus, an honorable burial was viewed as a fitting conclusion to a respectable life. Unfortunately, the opposite was true as well. The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes expressed these cultural sentiments by observing, “A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he” (Ecclesiastes 6:3 NIV).
One source adds, “In the ancient Near East the treatment of a corpse was very significant. If people, even enemies, honored a person, they treated his corpse with care and gave it an honorable burial, but if they did not respect him, they treated his dead body with contempt.” (1) Unfortunately, Hebrews 3:17-18 tells us that the overwhelming majority of those who left Egypt never received a decent and honorable funeral when they passed from this life. Thus, they suffered the final indignity that can be imposed upon a person: “…their dead bodies were scattered over the desert” (1 Corinthians 10:5 GNB).
While it is troubling to contemplate God’s attitude towards those He whom allowed to perish in this manner, this distasteful episode in Israel’s history should prompt us to avoid following their faithless example.
(1) Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 1 Samuel 2021 Edition “The aftermath of the battle 31:7-13” https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/ot/1samuel/1samuel.htm