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And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony. 

And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. 

Exodus 10:11, 12

Finally the time had come when Israel was ready to leave the mount of Sinai and to proceed on the way to the promised land. Over one full year had passed since they left the land of Egypt, and the greater part of that year had been spent encamped at the foot of Sinai. During that time many things had happened to deepen the spiritual understanding of those who held to Jehovah their God with true faith; while, at the same time, many others who had not that faith had been repeatedly offended and made more bold and ready to rebel. In the months to come it was destined by God to become even more clearly evident that the Word of God works both ways to expose the inner secrets of men’s hearts, whether they be good or whether they be evil.

Before Israel could proceed on its journey, however, it was necessary that some extensive preparations should be made.

First of these preparations was the numbering of the people. This was more than a mere counting of individuals. It was a census of the adult male members of the nation according to their tribal positions. The total number of such persons numbered was over 600,000, exclusive of the tribe of Levi, and were arranged in groups of 10, 100, and 1,000 as Jethro had suggested. In Israel the tribal, family structure of the nation was of utmost importance. In the order of tribes and families the children of Israel had been called upon to pay the atonement money of the tabernacle. Now in the same order the census of the people was taken. It was to be used in arranging the camp of Israel about the tabernacle, to determine their order in travel, and to determine the number and order of the fighting men as they prepared for the conquest of Canaan. But more important than all this was the fact that this family census reminded the Israelites that their place in God’s chosen nation was because they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, the Lord would dwell in the midst of them, and each family could have its place among the tribes encamped about the tabernacle. And therefore they could go forth to fight in battle without fear, because God would be with them and would give them the promised land. They were the children of God’s covenant.

Kept separate from the rest of the tribes in this census was the tribe of Levi. This tribe was set aside and dedicated to the service of God in the tabernacle in the place of the firstborn sons of the nation which were preserved from death by God at the first Passover in Egypt. Not only was Levi counted separately in the census, but it was given to dwell closest to the tabernacle, surrounding it on every side. The whole life of this tribe was to be different, for unto Levi was given the exclusive care of the tabernacle and its services. As a tribe it was separated to be holy unto the Lord.

Still a few more things remained to be done. First, the princes of the various tribes brought offerings to the Lord for the service of the tabernacle. Together they offered six wagons in which the various parts of the tabernacle could be carried on their journey. Individually each prince offered in behalf of his tribe one silver charger, one silver bowl, a golden spoon and a burnt offering, a sin offering, and a peace offering. Through these offerings they testified of their concern for the services of the tabernacle. Also two silver trumpets were made to be used as signals for the various activities of the nation. The sound of the trumpet throughout Scripture is symbolic of the Word of God, and so was it also then. Finally, during this time, the first memorial celebration of the Passover took place. Already in Egypt God had commanded that the Passover should be kept as an annual feast unto the Lord in remembrance of the deliverance that He had wrought. It was fitting that just as the original Passover preceded the departure from Egypt, so the first celebration of it took place just prior to the departure from Sinai. At last the camp of Israel was cleansed and preparations for the journey were made.

It was an excited and eager group of people that once again packed its belongings in preparation for travel. The extended hardships of the wilderness made them ever more appreciative of the promise of God to bring them into the promised land. There they would have prosperity and blessings as never before. Repeatedly eager eyes were cast toward the cloud of Jehovah that hung above the tabernacle. It was that cloud which would show them when the time for journey had really come. In that cloud was the Angel of Jehovah, revealing to them the will of the Lord. As long as it stood above the tabernacle, they were to stay in the camp; but when it lifted and moved before them the signal for travel was given. That cloud would guide them upon the proper route through the desert’s trackless waste even as at night it would provide them with light throughout the camp. It was the indisputable proof of the presence of Jehovah in their midst. Because of it their inheritance was sure, and they had nothing to fear. God would surely fulfill all He had promised.

All during the stay at Sinai, Hobab, Jethro’s son and Moses’ brother-in-law, had made his home in Israel’s camp. He had come with his father and had remained after Jethro left. During the stay at Sinai, he had rendered many invaluable services. Familiar with the wilderness in which they were camped, he had been able to show the Israelites the few places in the locality where water and pasture for the cattle could be found. His services had become even more dedicated because there had developed within his heart a true appreciation for the nation of Israel as Jehovah’s chosen people. Now, however, as the camp was being taken up, he thought that the time had come for him to return to his home. But with this Moses disagreed. Not only did he feel that Hobab’s services would be needed as they continued their wilderness journey, but he also felt that spiritually Hobab had become one with God’s covenant people, and his life in the future should be united with them. Thus Moses said to him, “We are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said, I will give it you: come thou, with us, and we will do thee good: for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.”

Hobab was hesitant for he did not feel that actually he belonged to Israel and that their future could be his. He answered Moses, “I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.”

But Moses was confident. He felt convinced that the spiritual relationship of the heart was stronger than even a direct relationship of blood. Thus he replied again, “Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.” Already in the typical times of the old dispensation, it was essentially true that anyone who was dedicated in the service of Jehovah was a true member of God’s covenant people regardless of his blood. Hobab believed this word of Moses, continued on with Israel, and was received as a living member of the covenant.

Early one morning, after all preparations had been completed, the children of Israel arose to see that the cloud of God’s presence had lifted and was going before them into the wilderness. Slowly the various tribes arranged themselves in a lengthy column for the march, while in the foremost portion the various portions of the disassembled tabernacle were borne by the children of Levi. There was a new orderliness in their journeying that had not been there before the encampment at Sinai, even as there was a new appreciation in the hearts of the spiritual members of Israel for the grace of God which upheld and guided them as they went. Israel was being prepared more and more as a nation peculiar unto the Lord.

At Sinai the whole national life of Israel had taken on a new ceremonial dimension. All centered in the ark of the covenant above which the Lord dwelt in the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. It was this ark that led the children of Israel in their journey, borne upon the shoulders of the Levites. Each morning as the ark was taken up by its bearers, Moses would stand before it and say, “Rise up, LORD, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” In turn each evening when it was set down, he would say, “Return, O LORD, unto the many thousands of Israel.” Israel was never allowed to forget that through the ark Jehovah went forth in their midst.

It was not long, however, after Israel had taken up its journey again that the eagerness of the people began to waver and die. Once again they began to taste the rigor of their travels, and they found it hard. And now the terrain was becoming even more rugged than that over which they had passed before. True, there was still ample evidence of God’s presence and of His grace that cared for them. The cloud still protected them from the scorching heat of the desert sun. Their clothing and sandals were miraculously preserved from wear and damage. Each day there was ample manna to eat and water to drink. But to all of these things they had become so accustomed that they hardly noticed them any more. The fact was that their travel was difficult, the way was rough, dreary, and hot. This was that “great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought.” This was fuel to kindle the ire of the chronic complainers in the camp. But a few days had passed before the joyful procession of God’s chosen people that had left their camp at Sinai was transformed into a long column of dissident, despondent people. Then, as always, there was a hardened core of rebellious people in Israel who laid hold upon the least opportunity to agitate against the way of the Lord. As so often before, Israel once again revealed itself susceptible to this poison of sin and murmured against its God.

Moses had been informed, however, upon Mt. Sinai that God would no longer bear with such manifestations of sin in silence. His presence would be a dividing force within the camp, having mercy upon whom He would have mercy but visiting the iniquities of countless others. Now it was becoming evident what this meant, for suddenly the fire of God descended from heaven and began to burn among the people in the outskirts of the camp. It was a divine fire flashing like lightning and searching out those who were the hardened leaders in this new manifestation of sin. It burned and consumed until the people humbled in fear began to cry unto Moses for deliverance. It was not until Moses bowed and prayed to take up their intercession that the fire of judgment ceased to burn and consume among them.

This all was but the beginning of a new phase of Israel’s life that would continue on into the future. The presence of God among them was a blessing unto the fulfillment of His covenant unto every true child of Abraham who was elect according to God’s promise; but at the same time countless of that nation who were Abraham’s children only outwardly according to the flesh would be consumed by God’s judgment, They were not all Israel that were of Israel; and many would perish in God’s anger that the elect might be saved through judgment.

—B.W.