Why didn't the Israelites believe after Exodus?


(SeanO) #1

So, as some of you know, I’ve been reading the Bible with a friend.

We were reading Exodus and he asked this question, “How is it possible that the Israelites did not believe after all of the amazing things that they saw?”

In his mind, the events of the Exodus were in some ways even more miraculous than the miracles of Christ - or at least more glaringly obvious. The 70 elders all saw and ate with God on the mountain, army destroyed, plagues…

I had my own answers for him, but I am curious how you all would answer the question.


(Carson Weitnauer) #2

Hi @SeanO, this is only a partial answer to an excellent question… the person I co-teach a Sunday class for skeptics and seekers put it this way, “How is it possible that WE do not believe after all of the amazing things that we see?”

In our class, we have recently covered the amazing details of the universe, the incredible beauty of DNA, the fact that there is anything at all, and so on. Week after week we have considered powerful arguments and magnificent realities that point to God. Furthermore, there are billions of Christians testifying that they have met the risen Jesus. Yet unbelief and half-hearted belief persists.

I hope this is one angle that is helpful in considering this question.

(SeanO) #3

@CarsonWeitnauer Indeed, that is helpful!

I pointed my friend to Luke 16:31 - “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

And what Jesus told the crowds in John 6 after Feeding of 5K - Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.

I suggested that the reality that “the pure in heart shall see God” runs much deeper than we tend to think. If people do not believe, no evidence can save them. Just like Simon the sorcerer, the heart that is not pure will try to seek dishonest gain and manipulate what they consider to be magic - they cannot acknowledge God as He is - because they are unable to see Him as He is…

So no amount of evidence can convince those without a heart that is ready to lay down its own pride and come humbly before the living God.

To me this argument is very convincing - I think my friend just had the idea that their unbelief was unbelievable stuck in the cogs of his brain and needed some time to let it process.

(Melvin Greene) #4

Early on in my Christian walk I would read about how God, through an amazing series of miracles rescued the Israelites from Egypt. I would read about the 10 plagues, and how God split the Red Sea to let the Israelites pass through and then drown Pharaoh’s army. Throughout their whole journey to the promised land God would provide for them through countless miracles, and yet each time they faced a challenge, or tough situation they would immediately turn on Moses and God filled with despair. It would seem that Israel had never seen God’s miracles before; like they were always forgetting what God had done for them. I would think what a dense, foolish group of people. Then the Holy Spirit pointed out that I was living the same way! I had seen God provide for me and my family over and over again, yet I would be filled with anxiety and despair at the very next problem! I think what Israel was demonstrating was the human condition. We seem to have short term memory loss. It took me several years to figure that out. So, I wasn’t so different from them.

(SeanO) #5

@Melvin_Greene You know, I’ve heard this point preached a few times and I’ve always struggled with the idea that we are just like the Israelites in the wilderness.

Hebrews 3 (quoted below) explicitly says that if we are like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we will not inherit eternal life. So while I agree we all struggle with unbelief, I think in the end we must be like Joshua, Caleb and Moses. Moses made mistakes - and was also not allowed to enter. But what set Moses apart is that he believed - at his core - even if he made mistakes. The Israelites who wandered - according to Hebrews - had hearts rooted in unbelief rather than belief.
-----Hebrews 3
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

(Melvin Greene) #6

Yes. Good point, @SeanO. I guess I was just thinking about they’re behavior and not the cause.

(Dave Kenny) #7

Hi @SeanO

is this friend of yours that you are reading with a believer?


(SeanO) #8

@Dave_Kenny Yes, he is a believer, but he does not attend Church and has a lot of friends who do not believe.

(Carson Weitnauer) #9

Hi Sean, yes, that’s a good passage for our discussion. But isn’t the same point there (roughly)?

There are those who see God’s miracles and believe - and those who don’t despite the abundant evidence of his reality - in every generation? Some are like Moses and the audience of Hebrews; others are like the Israelites and those who oppose or ignore the gospel.

(Helen Tan) #10

Hi @CarsonWeitnauer, do you think that part of the problem lies in a lack of gratitude? The Israelites were freed from their Egyptian masters by miracles brought forth by God, but instead of remaining in gratitude, they murmured and said that they would rather die in Egypt where they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted (Exodus 16). That reminds me of Esau who gave up his birthright for food. What is it about food that causes people to lose their priorities?

(SeanO) #11

@CarsonWeitnauer I think @Melvin_Greene made a good point about the passage in that it considers their motivation rather than simply their behavior.

Hebrews warns us to be careful of “the deceitfulness of sin” and believing the lies of the evil one in our generation or following after the lusts of our own flesh.

So I think the point is deeper than simply the reality of belief and unbelief in a generation. I think from a pastoral perspective it is important to help people understand the root of unbelief, so that they are not led astray like Adam and Eve in the Garden by desire and the deceit of the enemy.

@Helen_Tan also made a good point in that part of the warning is to not be ungrateful for God’s provision during our sojourning in this world, for Christ is the true treasure and even when there is little else to be thankful for we can also praise God for His Son.

(Carson Weitnauer) #12

Hi Sean, good points all around. The behavior of the twelve disciples was, even to themselves, relatively identical. But when it turned out this wasn’t going to be a profitable venture, Judas revealed his true rationale for serving as the treasurer. I find his unbelief hardest to understand of anyone in the Scriptures. Yet, if he could walk away from Christ, may I be humbled and in fear of God that my own motivations and desires for following him are true.

Helen, yes, I think gratitude is one of the most fundamental attitudes for a Christian. I am grateful to be grateful. :slight_smile: I think I would be quite afraid to be in a vast desert with no obvious signs of food or water, having to trust in a miracle for daily provision for myself and my family. I might prefer the ‘stability’ of an abusive situation than the dependence required to live by faith in the goodness of an unseen God.

Also, I just went to the grocery store and loaded up on food. It was quite easy and convenient. I have to think that it is difficult for me to have empathy for the life experience and perspective of a just freed Hebrew slave. I want to have that empathy, but I recognize my starting point for engaging with this narrative will require me to traverse a great cultural distance.

(SeanO) #13

@CarsonWeitnauer Personally, I agree with C. S. Lewis that under torture I am not sure how well I would hold up and that is a very humbling thought.

And it is certainly true that in Philippians Paul says we should “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” and Peter exhorts us to never forget that we were “cleansed from our past sins” lest in our arrogance we fall.

But I like Daniel much better in terms of his attitude towards sin. He determined not to do it and he did not. There is no mention of him constantly being afraid of stumbling back into sin. Nor of Joshua.

They knew who their God was and they knew that they would honor Him. I see no reason why this should not be our attitude as well.

Again, torture or starvation or some terrible illness - all of which can lead to altered mental states - I have no idea about and I pray for those who must suffer such things.

But, for me at least, the attitude of Paul, Joshua, Caleb and Daniel is much more edifying for my personal walk than one of self-degradation or fear.

And I have found that if I live with this confidence when everything is going well, then when things go badly I can continue to praise God.

I think the Israelites had a very specific problem pointed out in Deuteronomy chapter 8. God knew their hearts and he knew that when they were well fed and fat and happy they would go after other gods and worship their own work. Which is exactly what they did.

“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. 19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

In all honestly, if our hearts are just like those who went astray in the wilderness, I do not think we will inherit the Kingdom of God. For they forgot God in prosperity and cursed Him in suffering.

That said, I do not think that means we can never have doubts or feel extremely distant from God. I think those things are just part of living in a broken world and should not be viewed as symptoms of unbelief. Unbelief is a response to prosperity and suffering that pushes God away.

If we find ourselves trying to cling to God I think that there is at least a mustard seed of belief there - even if it doesn’t feel like much to us.

(Dave Kenny) #14

Hi @SeanO

Sorry that I’m late to the party here… this discussion moved in some interesting directions… I think I would like to sprinkle some contextual accents and one or two kernels of thought (non-developed) to see if there is any further insight to be gained…

a) in your response to @Melvin_Greene you sighted Hebrews 3 and stated that it was explicit that the children of Israel in the wilderness who demonstrated unbelief will not inherit eternal life. I feel that I need to soften the certainty of that interpretation as scholars are quite disagreed about how best to interpret the idea of “rest” in this passage, particularly in its typological application (IE: it is an anology, not identical). Technically speaking, this passage is not explicit… That’s the problem with the verse… it requires presuppositions to interpret. For instance, the overall pattern of the Old Testament in general is far more supportive of the idea that sin and unbelief does not cause God to disinherit Israel at all… it causes Him to punish them… it is a hermeneutical leap for us to interpret God’s judgment and wrath upon Israel as a disinheriting of his Elect (not necessarily wrong… just not necessarily right…)

b) we are discussing the general expression “unbelief” regarding the Israelites in the wilderness. When I examine the story of the Torah and the narrative, I discover that each instance of unbelief demonstrates a different learning/lesson… At the time of the desert wandering, the Hebrews (not even a nation yet) were spiritually immature… 400 years of slavery in a pagan nation will do that to you! So… there are many lessons and applications here… it just depends which story in particular we are looking at… that being said, the overarching story is a meta-narrative about God shaping and molding his Elect into a kingdom of Priests (Exodus 19:6)… we are importing quite a few assumptions when we take stories from the Torah which to the Jewish people are clearly stories of national spiritual formation and turning them into stories of individual soteriology (salvation)… this is something that we all need to be careful of

c) It is important to point out that Monotheism was not established in the time of the wandering in the desert. That the Israelites would ‘flip flop’ from one deity to another… based on who seemed to be winning at the time… was quite natural to their present day circumstances. The inappropriateness of this was one of the errors that Israel frequently committed that God needed to correct in his dealings with them

d) If we are speaking specifically of the Golden Calf incident… (which has not been stated)… there is a perfect example of the necessity of contextualization… after all… Moses went up the mountain, and after an incredible display of thunder, lightening, smoke, earthquakes and the intimate knowledge that all of the Israelites would’ve had that YHWH is not afraid to smote anyone and anything… it is no wonder that after 40 days of waiting… over a month… that they would begin to come to the conclusion that Moses was struck down by this god (yes… I used a small “g” on purpose… because they would have) for having done or said something wrong… When I consider the story as such… I can see myself relating with these Israelites (as per @Melvin_Greene) and being humbled with the reality that I may also have been led astray by the apparent facts of the moment… all this to say… that the discussion depends on which story of unbelief we are using… there were many :slight_smile:

e) If I might dare… I would offer a minor correction on @CarsonWeitnauer word choice when describing Judas… I feel that the Judas story is better understood as an incorrect belief rather than an unbelief. What we have been able to better understand about 1st century Palestine in recent years and the sect of Judaism that Judas belonged to, it is most likely that Judas had a passionate belief that Jesus was in fact the Messiah (as he understood the term… different than us…) and that he was attempting to accelerate Jesus elevation as Messiah by forcing the conflict… While Judas was categorically wrong and he completely misunderstood Jesus and his significance (a fact he quickly came to realize and couldn’t live with)… I believe Judas was a man who had a faith… just a wrong one…

Okay… enough from me…I have struck out… who’s next up to the plate?


(SeanO) #15

@Dave_Kenny Those are helpful thoughts.

It is clear that the author of Hebrews is exhorting us not to be like the Israelites who forsook God in the wilderness. So whatever interpretation of rest you decide is correct, it is not good to imitate their behavior.

I agree that God gave the law to the Israelites to try to help a hard hearted people learn how to follow a holy / righteous God and that they were spiritually immature.

I also agree they were most familiar with polytheism - especially if there had been cultural compromise with the Egyptians.

But can you give an example where God empathizes with the unbelief of the Israelites who wander in the wilderness from Scripture itself?

I realize God wanted them to repent - that He often sought to gather His children under His wings - even the Pharisees.

But where is an example of where He empathizes with their unbelief itself rather than the tragedy of their lostness?

(Jimmy Sellers) #16

Are you asking if there is a verse that shows that God is empathetic to the Hebrews of the wilderness wanderings or to anyone Hebrew or pagan every? I ask because God must have some idea of our plight and our needs else why grace?

(SeanO) #17

@Jimmy_Sellers To be blunt, I am being a bit of a stickler, but I think the distinction I am making is important :slight_smile:

So - my question requires that we differentiate between God desiring people to repent and desiring to extend grace (which you pointed out) and God being empathetic towards unbelief.

I think it is also important to remember that God makes it rain on the good and the evil - so I am not saying that God has no mercy even on those who persist in unbelief.

What I am trying to say is that a covenant with God requires belief. God’s covenants are always a two way street - He rescues us from our sin in His infinite mercy and grace and we live a life of trust and obedience to Him.

For Him to be our Savior, He must also be our Lord.

So - here is another stab at my question: does God, in Scripture, ever show covenant faithfulness to those who persist in unbelief?

Yes - God has mercy on all and remembers that we are dust. But to be part of His Kingdom - to be children of the covenant - we must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.

I hope I am communicating clearly - I am drawing a rather fine line.

What bothers me about ‘empathizing’ with the Israelites in their disobedience is that we are not supposed to be disobedient! Sure, just like God, we can have mercy on them, love them and pray for them to come to Christ.

But they will be judged for their unbelief on the day when Christ judges the living and the dead, so I think we must be careful not to let empathy move into a place where it excuses their evil, unbelieving hearts because then we may excuse our own unbelief and sin as just part of being human. And if we excuse our own unbelief, I think we are standing on dangerous ground.

Does that make more sense?

(Dave Kenny) #18

Hi @SeanO

I really like the way that you clarified your question:

“does God, in scripture, ever show covenant faithfulness to those who persist in unbelief?”

This actually makes the question easier to offer a response. I believe that this is entirely the testimony of the relationship between God and Israel. Israel IS the nation who persists in unbelief and yet God is faithful in His covenant to her… his punishments entitled as curses in Deuteronomy 27-30 are explicitly within the covenant… it is because of the covenant that they are experiencing punishment… the eventual effect of the punishment is repentance…

Over and over again the demonstration of God’s grace on Israel, the undeserving nation, is spelled out in the Old Testament

So… when Israel persisted in unbelief, it was precisely within the covenant that they were punished… they never left the covenant.

Now… to answer the question in the way that you posed it to me regarding God empathizing with their unbelief… my comment here would be the same. He does not empathize with it… he punishes it…dearly… but that is within the covenant. It is only his covenanted people that have this privilege (and indeed, punishment from God is a privilege)

The wildernesses unbelief was punished… it cost them their lives. The text is clear. The hermeneutical jump that I said was a bit more risky (but in fact may be correct!) is that it also cost them their souls… to that, we are not certain.

Ezekiel 36 and 37 make this and especially interesting topic…

An interesting passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 alongside John 6:55, 56

BTW @SeanO, I loved your emphasis here in your previous thread:

"But I like Daniel much better in terms of his attitude towards sin. He determined not to do it and he did not. There is no mention of him constantly being afraid of stumbling back into sin. Nor of Joshua.

They knew who their God was and they knew that they would honor Him. I see no reason why this should not be our attitude as well.

Again, torture or starvation or some terrible illness - all of which can lead to altered mental states - I have no idea about and I pray for those who must suffer such things.

But, for me at least, the attitude of Paul, Joshua, Caleb and Daniel is much more edifying for my personal walk than one of self-degradation or fear.

And I have found that if I live with this confidence when everything is going well, then when things go badly I can continue to praise God."

Amen to that!


(SeanO) #19

@Dave_Kenny Yes, at this point I think our views diverge a bit and that is okay. It is also a separate thread :slight_smile:

Over the years my views have flip flopped as I studied, but for the past few years I’ve settled into God ended His covenant with Israel as described in Deut (Roman destruction Jerusalem AD 70) and that the covenant curses can (and according to my reading of Revelation did) result in divorce. Jesus is the New Covenant and the land promises / new temple are the Church of God.

I think all people, like Abraham, are saved by faith. No matter whether they are God’s covenant people or not - only a circumcised heart can save you - not merely circumcision of the flesh.

If this is a topic you would like to discuss at length please start a separate thread, though I must admit I would prefer to sit down over a coffee at Starbucks on this one because the amount of typing required to discuss it at length may cause tendinitis.

(Dave Kenny) #20

feel like taking a trip to Winnipeg in Canada? I would love to share a coffee!

as I said, the interpretation you currently have may very well be correct in regards to covenant and Israel… many a Christian scholar are with you. Of course, many a Christian scholar are re-visiting these traditional interpretations, and I felt that a voice of representation was at least fair…