There were so many. How did they all die?
After the sin of the spies, God unleashes the most severe punishment in the whole of the Torah. The spies had come back from the land of Canaan in a state of panic, and they warned the people that God was sending them into dangerous territory:
Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt! (Numbers 14:3)
וְלָמָה ה מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל–הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב—נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ, יִהְיוּ לָבַז; הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ, שׁוּבמִצְרָיְמָה.
God is outraged at this critique and, measure for measure, decides that those with the gall to defame the promised land should not be allowed to enter it. Instead, says God:
In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were recorded in the census lists, from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one of you shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you…Your children who you said, would be carried off – they will be allowed to enter, and they will know the land you have rejected. But your carcasses shall drop in the wilderness, while your children roam the desert for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness. (vv. 29-33)
בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל–פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל–מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה: אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם,עָלָי. אִם–אַתֶּם, תָּבֹאוּ אֶל–הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת–יָדִי, לְשַׁכֵּן אֶתְכֶם בָּהּ… וְטַפְּכֶם—אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם,לָבַז יִהְיֶה: וְהֵבֵיאתִי אֹתָם—וְיָדְעוּ אֶת–הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר מְאַסְתֶּם בָּהּ. לב וּפִגְרֵיכֶם, אַתֶּם—יִפְּלוּ, בַּמִּדְבָּרהַזֶּה. וּבְנֵיכֶם יִהְיוּ רֹעִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, וְנָשְׂאוּ, אֶת–זְנוּתֵיכֶם—עַד–תֹּם פִּגְרֵיכֶם, בַּמִּדְבָּר.
So every man of fighting age is sentenced to death. Now that is over six-hundred thousand people – an astonishing number. But they were not to perish all at once, in some plague or mass execution. Rather, the forty years of desert wandering was to serve as a force of attrition, slowly wearing the people down until a whole generation had fallen away.
How exactly did this work? We might imagine them staggering through the desert, a massive pack of bodies pushing forward in the sweltering heat – and every so often, a body would drop. Someone had grown old and weak, and had used up all their strength. There would be shouts of alert, then the group would stop, the dead would be buried – with perhaps some tears and a word or two of prayer – and then they moved on.
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