Numbers 14:20-23 states, “Then the Lord said, ‘I have pardoned them, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.’” What is meant by “these ten times?”
One option is to understand this phrase as a rhetorical number. It would be similar to a parent saying to a child, “I have told you ten times to clean your room.” The parent has not necessarily communicated with the child exactly ten times. The point is that there have been countless times that communication has been made. In the Numbers passage, the point would be that the Lord has been persevering with His people through countless illustrations of rebellious behavior, which was testing Him. Another option is to understand this phrase as an actual number. This would mean, then, that the Lord had been tested an actual ten times by the behavior of the people.
Regardless of which option one might choose based on the evidence available, it is important to have an understanding of what it means to “test” the Lord. A clue is provided for us in Numbers 14:11, which is the Lord’s response to the people in the situation, which precipitates Numbers 14:20-23. In Numbers 14:11 it states, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?’” The Lord performed signs (Egyptian plagues, parting of the waters of the Red Sea, etc.) for Israel intending that it would produce belief in them. However, as soon as Israel moved beyond an event where they had seen a sign from the Lord and then encountered another similarly difficult situation, they did not evidence belief. Thus, they tested the Lord. Another clue for this is provided in Exodus 17:6, where it further defines “testing” as Israel’s raising the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Again, when the nation encountered difficulty, their response did not evidence a belief that the Lord could move on their behalf and meet them in their place of need. Indeed, in their minds, he was absent.
Either option for understanding “ten times” is plausible because we do not have a record of every event that occurred for Israel during this time period. All we have a record of is “snapshots” of various events that occurred through the nation’s journeys. However, the second option is supported in a rather interesting way from the biblical text. The “signs” of the plagues against the Egyptians are intended not only to judge the Egyptians, but also to instill belief in the nation of Israel. Israel watched the powerful work of God in the ten plagues. Then, the Lord delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians and took them out of the land. How does Israel respond when they encounter difficult situations along the way? Do they evidence belief or does their response “test” the Lord with their lack of belief?
If you were to read Exodus 14 through Numbers 14 (it is not necessary to search through the book of Leviticus) with an eye toward Israel’s response to the various difficulties encountered during their journey, it is interesting to note that there are ten occurrences where they grumble and complain rather than evidence belief in the Lord. Note the following passages:
1. Exodus 14:10-12
At the Red Sea where it seemed that Pharaoh’s army would destroy them
2. Exodus 15:22-24
At Marah where they found bitter water
3. Exodus 16:1-3
In the Desert of Sin as they hungered
4. Exodus 16:19-20
In the Desert of Sin as they paid no attention to Moses concerning the storing of the manna until the morning
5. Exodus 16:27-30
In the Desert of Sin as they disregarded Moses concerning the gathering of the manna on the seventh day
6. Exodus 17:1-4
At Rephidim as they complained for water
7. Exodus 32:1-35
At Mount Sinai as Aaron led the people in making the golden calf
8. Numbers 11:1-3
At Taberah where the people raged against the Lord
9. Numbers 11:4-34
At Kibroth Hattaavah in the grumbling provoked by the rabble for quail
10. Numbers 14:1-3
At Kadesh in the Desert of Paran when the people refused to receive the good report of Joshua and Caleb but rather wished themselves dead
So finally in Numbers 14:11, the Lord cries out “how long?” Repeatedly the Lord had demonstrated His faithfulness in each situation of difficulty. However, as soon as Israel encountered another difficult situation, they evidence unbelief through their grumbling and complaining. Their complaining cried out loudly, “Is the Lord among us or not?” As a result, the Lord concludes, “and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice.”
Is any of this important to us? Our response to this is to consider how we might put the Lord to the test in our own lives. We can read about the Lord’s faithfulness in the Bible, and we have seen his faithfulness in our lives. Yet, when we encounter our next difficulty, do we evidence belief in Him, a belief that knows we can trust Him through the difficulty?