9 Apr. Numbers 20:1-13

9 Apr. The Israelites stay at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea for nearly 40 years

“In the first month all the people of Israel arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.”

“There was no water for the people, so they came together against Moses and Aaron. They argued with Moses and said, ‘We should have died in front of the LORD as our brothers did. Why did you bring the LORD’s people into this desert? Are we and our animals to die here? Why did you bring us from Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain, figs, grapevines or pomegranates, and there’s no water to drink!’”

“So Moses and Aaron left the people and went to the entrance of the Meeting Tent. There they bowed face down, and the glory of the LORD appeared to them. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Take your walking stick, and you and your brother Aaron should gather the people.’”

“'Speak to that rock in front of them so that its water will flow from it. When you bring the water out from that rock, give it to the people and their animals.’”

“So Moses took the stick from in front of the LORD, as he had said. Moses and Aaron gathered the people in front of the rock, and Moses said, ‘Now listen to me, you who turn against God! Do you want us to bring water out of this rock?’”

“Then Moses lifted his hand and hit the rock twice with his stick. Water began pouring out, and the people and their animals drank it.”

“But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe me, and because you did not honour me as holy before the people, you will not lead them into the land I will give them.’”

“These are the waters of Meribah [meaning ‘argument’], where the Israelites argued with the LORD and where he showed them he was holy.”

          (Numbers 20:1-13)



It’s difficult to spot it, but between verse 1 and verse 2 of Numbers Chapter 20, the narrative skips 38 years!

In Chapters 16-19, Korah’s rebellion and Aaron’s action to save the Israelites from a deadly disease took place in the second year after the Israelites left Egypt. In Chapter 20, the Israelites attempted to enter the ‘promised land’ through Edom, but as the Edomites blocked their way, the people skirted Edom and travelled further north before, several months later, Joshua led them across the River Jordan into Canaan. These events are separated by 38 years, but for some reason the text doesn't make this clear!

Numbers Chapter 20, verse 1 starts by saying “the people of Israel arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh.” Only in the Book of Deuteronomy does it say that the Israelites stayed at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea for “a long time” (see Deuteronomy 1:46, and 4 on the map on 2 April).

Although we’re 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 through the Desert of Sinai) would have been spent watering their flocks at a desert oasis, or moving between one oasis and the next.

So it’s highly likely that, for most of the thirty-eight years of ‘wandering’, the Israelites lived at the large oasis of Kadesh Barnea, from where they spread out to neighbouring oases to pasture some of their flocks.

Sometime during this 38 years, Moses’ sister Miriam died (see Numbers 20:1) – but we’re not told when. And the next incident recorded (in Numbers 20:2-13) was clearly not at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea as the people complained there was no water, so Moses struck a rock which became a spring of life-giving water. Indeed, the Bible tells us this occurred at Meribah (see Numbers 20:13).

So, for whatever reason, the narrative in Numbers tells us virtually nothing about the 38 years that the Israelites spent at Kadesh Barnea. The name itself, however, offers us a clue: Kadesh (meaning ‘holy’) was an oasis in the Desert of Paran, part of the much larger Desert of Zin in the Negev Desert. ‘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.

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 desert conditions similar to those encountered by the Israelites when they first arrived at the oasis of Kadesh.

The photo (by Andrew Shiva) shows Ein Avdat, an oasis in the Zin Valley of the Negev Desert.

You can see a photo of the crater at Maktesh Ramon @ https://www.thebiblejourney.org/biblejourney2/26-the-journey-continues-from-sinai-to-moab/the-israelites-remain-at-kadesh-barnea/

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