After the Children of Israel had been freed from bondage in Egypt they were commanded to take the land of Canaan as their reward and inheritance, but they quailed in fear. So God determined for the next forty years they would wander in the wilderness and that everyone of age, save Joshua and Caleb would die and would not enter the promised land.
Something that has struck me when considering the number of people that died over that forty years in the wilderness, how that concentration of death must have impacted these people. If there were roughly 600,000 men age twenty and up when they came out of Egypt (Exodus 12:37), we can assume then that there were roughly the same number of women, making an over-20 population of about 1.2 million people.
Those 1.2 million people all died in that forty year window of wilderness-wandering. Which means that, on average, there were
30,000 funerals a year.
580 buryings a week.
83 deaths a day.
3.5 eulogies read every hour.
Every 17 minutes someone died in the wilderness.
Isn’t that normal? People are always dying now. Well, let’s do a little comparison—in America today there are 260 million people, and about 6400 die every day. The death rate in the wilderness was nearly three times the death rate in America today. So that today 1 out of every 41,000 people in America die each day. In the wilderness, 1 out of every 14,000 people died each day.
The point being, with someone dying every 17 minutes, the wilderness sojourn was time of perpetual mourning, and grief and thoughts about death, and burial rituals. That was life in the wilderness during those forty years. In the camp of Israel, everywhere that someone went there were mourners. Everyone was losing or were about to lose their brothers, aunts, grandmothers and cousins to the grave.
When they refused to take the land, they were pining for Egypt and they longed to return (Numbers 11:5). Egypt was a place obsessed with death. Even today when we think of Egypt, the first image that comes to our minds are their pyramids – great tombs which dominated the landscape. Their pagan holy book was “The Book of the Dead”.
Because God’s people wanted to return to Egypt so badly, God did them the favor of allowing them to experience a little Egypt right there in the wilderness, by visiting them with death on an almost unimaginable scale.
And their apostasy is a warning to us. The psalmist exhorts us “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion… for forty years I was grieved with that generation…” (Psalm 95) God forbid us from longing to be part of and accepted by the culture of death and misery that we have been separated from, lest He give us a taste of it the way He did those in the wilderness.