So far, our heroes have fallen into slavery and escaped. All well and good. We’re about a third of the way into the Book of Exodus, but most of the action has already happened; it really gets kind of slow from here on. There’s just one single verse that makes clear that 40 years have passed:
Exodus XVI:35 “And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.”
Then in chapter 17 we have a rather brief description of a battle with Amalekites, and some of the earliest literary descriptions of what is now known to many Anglophones by its Yiddish name: kvetching.
Exodus XVII:1-3 “And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the LORD, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink. Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD? And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”
Beyond that, the remaining 20 chapters tell us about the giving of laws, and go into incredible, excruciating detail about the precise specifications of altars, sacrifices and priestly garments, but they aren’t really telling a narrative any more. The 40 years of wandering in the desert aren’t exactly accounted for, and yet what little is said about them makes it clear that they were difficult, so why such a long period?
I can think of at least three possible accounts. The first is if we take this as history. I’m quite wary of taking the Bible as literal history, but I do think that at least from Exodus onwards it has the broad outlines of a real history (I’m much more skeptical about Genesis, not least because the most likely origin story for the Jewish people strikes me as “everyone who escaped from Egyptian slavery in this big revolt”, rather than the version given there). Cairo and Jerusalem are less than 300 miles apart, making the direct route from any likely location for the slave revolt to the Promised Land shorter than the Navajo Long Walk or the route taken by the Mormon handcart pioneers, both of which were done by people with little more equipment than the Israelites would have had, across similarly harsh terrain, in far less than one year. So it’s pretty notable that the Israelites needed so much longer. If we do take this as historical, then my best guess is that there wasn’t really a specific, known Promised Land at the outset, and it took the Israelites two generations of wandering to find somewhere to settle down: another elaboration on the “making it up as they go along” theme from the escape itself.
The second explanation is the one I’m used to seeing in the Haggadah: that two generations needed to be born outside slavery before the people could be ready to settle and really be their own masters. There needed to have been enough people born without the memory of slavery before the nation could have an identity other than “the ex-slaves”. This makes a certain amount of sense to me, though it’s also kind of a raw deal for the original escapees, who took a great personal risk to get out, only to spend the rest of their days wandering around in the desert. No wonder there’s all that complaining.
I prefer a third explanation, which owes a lot to the first two. I see this part of the story as a warning that revolutionary change is extraordinarily difficult, and real progress is not won overnight but across generations. Without the wandering in the desert, this whole thing would have been too easy to be believable as a story, and too easy to serve as a useful preparation for future people. With the interminable wandering, it becomes a reminder to be patient about today’s problems. Not to give up and accept intolerable situations—if there’s one simple message from the whole Exodus story is that things can be made better—but to accept and be ready for the inevitable long periods of ambiguity, uncertainty and lack of visible progress along the way, just as we are seeing happen right now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and we will with every such upheaval.