This week marks the beginning of a new Bible study for Focused Living at CPC. Priscilla Shirer uses the story of the Israelites traveling to the Promised Land as a jumping off place for inspiring Christians to experience God’s power and abundance. If you’re like me, you learn best by seeing the big picture before zeroing in on specific details. Since the study jumps into the story assuming you know what happened earlier, I thought putting the story into context might be helpful. In case you don’t have time to read Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy this week, you’ll find a brief history of events summarized below with Scripture references included for you to read further. You might find this history helpful even if you aren’t doing Priscilla’s study.
Background from Genesis & Exodus
To understand the significance of the Jews’ wandering in the desert, we need to look at a brief history of the key people and events that led up to that time in their history. (Note: the names “Jews,” “Israelites,” “Hebrews,” and “Children of Israel” are used interchangeably here).
Abraham is known as the father of the Jewish nation. In Genesis 15 God made a covenant with Abraham telling him that he would be the father of a great nation and that he would give him a large portion of land (ie: The Promised Land). Side note: A covenant is a solemn promise or undertaking between two parties; a mutual understanding that binds the two parties together and agrees they will fulfill certain obligations. Sometimes God made covenant promises to people that did not require anything of them in return, other times He made them between people and Himself.
Many years later, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had a son, Isaac, when they were 100 and 90 years old, respectively. (In a weak moment prior to this, Abraham also fathered a son named Ishmael with his servant, Hagar, but that is another story.)
Isaac married Rebekah and they had twin boys named Jacob and Esau. (Genesis 25:19-34)
Although he was the second twin born, Jacob became the patriarch of the family by tricking Esau out of his birthright (another story for another day found in Genesis 27). God promised that He would give Jacob many descendants and that the earth would be blessed through him and his offspring. God promised to watch over Jacob and never to leave him. (Genesis 28:10-19). God later changed Jacob’s name to Israel. (Genesis 32:28) This name is where we get the terms “Israelites” and “Children of Israel.”
Jacob had twelve sons with four different women (two of them were his wives, Leah and Rachel, and two were his wives’ maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah). These twelve sons later became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Their names were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh were heads of the two “half tribes”), Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher (Genesis 35:23-26).
One of Jacob’s sons was named Joseph. He was Jacob’s favorite son from his most cherished wife, Rachel. Because of this favoritism, Jacob was despised by his older brothers. (Part of his story is told in the Broadway musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” Part is also told in the book The Red Tent) Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and lied to their father, telling him Joseph had been killed. Through a long chain of amazing events, Joseph ended up later in life being second in command to the pharaoh in Egypt. Joseph saved the Egyptians from a famine through God’s divine wisdom. During the famine, his brothers came to Egypt for food. They did not know Joseph was still alive or that he was second in command. Eventually Joseph revealed his identity to them and forgave them for selling him into slavery. He even noted how God had used their evil intent to bring good into his life and the lives of others. (Great story- check it out in Genesis 37 & 39-45). Eventually, with Joseph’s blessing, his eleven brothers brought their families and their parents to settle in Egypt. (Genesis 37-50 tells this story).
After Joseph died, a new pharaoh came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph or the history of the Israelites. By this time, Joseph’s eleven brothers and all of their family members were growing in numbers. The new pharaoh feared they would become so numerous and powerful that they would overthrow him if given the opportunity, so he enslaved them and made them do forced labor building his cities. (God had foretold this to Abraham in Genesis 15:13). The Hebrews continued to bear children and grow in numbers, leading the pharaoh to command that all Hebrew baby boys be killed.
Finally, after about 400 years of enslavement, Moses was born. To prevent him from being slaughtered with the other Hebrew boy babies, his mother strategically placed him in a basket in the Nile River near the location Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. The plan worked and Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from the river and raised him as her own in the palace. Moses’ mother even got to be his wet nurse. (Exodus 1 & 2)
Moses lived in Egypt as a son of Pharaoh for 40 years. At age 40 he killed an Egyptian slave master who was beating a fellow Jew. When the murder was discovered, he fled to the land of Midian, where he married and lived as a shepherd for the next 40 years. When Moses was 80, God appeared to him in the desert and spoke to him from a burning bush. He commanded Moses to go back to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to set the Israelites free. Moses was to lead them to the Promised Land, which had been promised to Abraham long before. (Exodus 3 & 4)
God promised He would be with Moses. God also told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and that miraculous signs would have to be performed before Pharaoh would agree to let the people go (Exodus 7).
God sent ten plagues on Egypt, one at a time, to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Each time, Moses warned Pharaoh in advance that God would send a plague, but he wouldn’t listen. The plagues were: 1) turning all the water in Egypt to blood 2) filling the whole country with frogs 3) filling the land with gnats 4) sending swarms of flies 5) sending a plague on all of the livestock 6) sending a plague of boils on people and animals 7) sending a violent hailstorm 8) sending a plague of locusts to ravage the land 9) sending darkness over the land for three days straight.
When Pharaoh still would not relent, God sent the final plague. This time, all the firstborns in every family would be killed. The Passover was God’s protection against this plague for the Israelites. (Exodus 12:1-30)
After the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites leave Egypt. (Later he changed his mind and pursued them into the wilderness. You may know it if you ever watched the animated movie “The Prince of Egypt” or the new movie “Exodus.”)
In Exodus 12:14-20 God commanded the Israelites to commemorate the Passover for the generations to come. The celebration was also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (This is the feast Jesus and His disciples celebrated together on the night before He was crucified.)
God led the Israelites as they fled Egypt and began their journey to the land He promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
After fleeing Egypt and passing through the Red Sea, on dry ground, Moses led the Israelites into the desert on their way back to the Promised Land. At the base of Mount Sinai, God re-established His covenant with the people, renewing what He established with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In Exodus chapters 19-24, God added further clarification to the covenant, which became known as the Sinaitic Covenant (because it was established at Mt. Sinai). One of the central portions of the covenant God gave was the Ten Commandments. These commandments explained God’s design to enable His people to have a right relationship with Him and others. (Exodus 20)
God promised that He would give the Israelites the Promised Land, but on the brink of entering it, they lost trust in Him. When the Israelites reached the border of the Promised Land, they sent spies to scout out the land and the people living in it. The spies reported that it was a good land that flowed with milk and honey. However, they also reported “The people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:28 & 31 NIV)
Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the twelve spies who disagreed with this assessment and encouraged the people to trust God and take possession of the land with God’s help. Ultimately, the people allowed their fear to consume them and refused to enter the land. (Numbers 14:1-24)
Joshua and Caleb were the only two people out of the roughly two million Jews who trusted God and believed He would deliver the Promised Land into their hands. This is what inspired Priscilla Shirer’s title One in a Million. The rest of the Israelites refused to trust God and carry out His plan. Once the people made this decision, God declared that they would be cursed to wander in the desert until they died. The ten spies who scouted the Promised Land and gave a bad report to the people were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. Only Joshua and Caleb survived. Because of this, the people changed their minds and tried to enter the Promised Land, although they no longer had God’s blessing. They were attacked by the inhabitants and turned away. (Numbers 14)
Because of their failure to trust God, the Israelites were cursed to stay in the desert for forty years until the entire disbelieving generation passed away. God would keep His covenant and go before them into the Promised Land, but only two members of the original group would enter the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb.
At the end of his life, Moses spoke to the next generation of Israelites as they were on the brink of crossing into the Promised Land. All of them were born while their parents and grandparents had wandered in the desert for forty years. He laid out the blessings they would experience if they kept their covenant with God and the curses they would endure if they didn’t. (Deuteronomy 28-30)
Priscilla Shirer refers to different segments of this Bible story throughout the study. She also uses the parts of it as symbols for different aspects of our spiritual lives:
-Egypt represents times when we are/ were in bondage to sin.
-The desert wandering/ wilderness times symbolize seasons in our lives when we are trying to follow God’s plans but are unsure of where He is leading us. They can also be actual times of difficulty, such as dealing with an illness or financial struggles; emotional, such as dealing with broken relationships or grief/loss; or spiritual, such as struggling to figure out God’s plan.
-The Promised Land represents abundant life found in Christ (John 10:10). Reaching the Promised Land is about our attitudes changing as we choose to trust God. Our actual circumstances may or may not have changed, but we’ve experienced a personal and spiritual transformation that causes us to approach them from a new perspective.
Hopefully this summary will help you to have a sense of the context of the Old Testament references as you complete the study.
If you can identify with being in bondage to sin or wandering in the wilderness then you will find comfort and encouragement in Kari Jobe’s song “I Am Not Alone.” Click on the link for five minutes of great worship.