Deut 1:46 The Israelites stay at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea for “a long time” (Deuteronomy 1:46) (see 4 on Map 45).
Although we are accustomed to thinking of the Israelites ‘wandering’ in the desert for forty years, it would have been impossible for about two million people to trek continuously across a barren desert. Most of this time (as on the journey from Egypt) would have been spent watering their flocks at a desert oasis, or moving between one oasis and the next.
The Arif makhtesh, a valley in the Negev Desert (Wilson)
It is highly likely that, for most of the next thirty-eight years, the Israelites lived at the large oasis of Kadesh Barnea, from where they spread out to neighbouring oases to pasture some of their flocks.
Kadesh (meaning ‘holy’) was an oasis in the Desert of Paran, part of the much larger Desert of Zin in the Negev Desert. During much of their forty years of ‘wandering’ in the desert, the Israelites probably camped at Kadesh Barnea (‘Barnea’ means ‘desert of wandering’, so the full name means ‘the holy place in the desert of wandering’).
The exact location of Kadesh Barnea has been hotly debated for many years. Victorian scholars equated Kadesh with the small spring at Ain Qudeis in the Wadi Qudeis, situated about 50 miles / 80 km south west of Beersheba. Most modern archaeologists, however, believe that Kadesh was located at Ain el Qudeirat, the largest oasis in the northern Negev Desert, about 6 miles / 10 km north of Ain Qudeis, near the Egyptian village of Al Quseima.
The narrow Ain el Qudeirat valley (a seasonal river valley or ‘wadi’) still contains remains of a fortress on a settlement mound (a ‘tell’) dating from c.1150BC (c.250 years after the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan, during the time of the ‘Judges’). It also has remains of an earlier stone-lined aqueduct leading from the spring itself, where the burnt-lime mortar was radio-carbon dated in 2007 and found to date from between 1440BC and 1640BC – a period which includes the Israelites’ arrival at Kadesh Barnea in c.1445BC.
Long before the Israelites settled at Kadesh, Abraham had lived in this area following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 20:1), and the LORD appeared to Hagar, Abraham’s slave-girl, at a well “between Kadesh and Bered” (Genesis 16:14). After the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, Kadesh was at the south east border of the land of Judah (see Joshua 15:3), and was probably fortified at this time to protect Judah’s boundary.
Modern-day travellers driving through Israel’s Negev Desert along Route 40 from Beersheba to Eilat cross the Mt Ramon ridge of the High Negev and descend into the huge natural crater known as Maktesh Ramon. About 15 miles / 25 km north of Mizpe Ramon, a small track leads to the desert oasis of Ein Avdat, in a narrow gorge leading to the Wadi of Zin. Here travellers can experience similar desert conditions to those encountered by the Israelites when they first arrived at the oasis of Kadesh.
Ein Avdat, an oasis in the Zin Valley of the Negev Desert (Andrew Shiva)
Num 20:1 Nearly forty years after leaving Egypt, Moses’ sister Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh Barnea in the Desert of Zin.
Num 20:2-13 The Israelites become desperately short of water. Moses strikes the rock twice with Aaron’s stick and water gushes out. The spring at Kadesh is called Meribah (meaning ‘complaining’) because the people of Israel complained against the LORD (see also Numbers 27:14).