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which they wandered. This was by no means a "desert,” or “wilderness,” in our sense of the term; but merely a tract of unclaimed country, and destitute in great part of settled habitations, though not without numerous posts, villages, and cities, of which the names of several, that lay in the track of the Israelites, are actually given.* The country called Arabia, is believed now to sustain a population of ten or twelve millions.t It is in many parts extremely fertile, producing abundance of wheat, millet, rice, and a great variety of vegetables and fruit, much of the latter being spontaneous; and the peninsula of Mount Sinai and the region about “ El Ghor," (the great valley between the Dead Sea and the Elanitic gulf,) in and near which the wanderings of the Israelites appear in great part to have been, contain by no means the least eligible tracts for pasturage and cultivation.
These tracts have actually been traversed, age after age, and continue to be traversed by the Bedouin tribes, whose manner of life may afford us a vivid representation of that of the Israelites, during the interval between their emancipation and their establishment. With their herds and beasts of burden, which carry their little property, these unsettled hordes pass from place to place, as they are tempted by the prospect of water and pasture; while for such wants, as their herds and flocks, with the tillage which they practise when stationary for a sufficient time, do not supply, they provide by the barter of horses and cattle with the inhabitants of the cities, and of the more settled regions, which occasionally they visit. The previous employments of the Israelites prepared them to adopt this manner of life. They had been herdsmen in Goshen; great part of their wealth,
* Numb. xxxiii. 16-36. Compare Ps. Ixv. 12.
when they left Egypt, consisted in this kind of property ; and a portion of them, when they reached Canaan, strenuously urged their suit to be permitted to occupy a territory suitable for keeping up their former habits.*
Again ; I suggested, that the Israelites are perhaps commonly conceived of as all dwelling, while upon their wanderings, in a compact camp; and then the question naturally presents itself, how a population, half as large again as that of the city of London, could live, under such circumstances, through so many years, in any degree of comfort, even if the truth of the common view should be granted, that a daily miraculous provision of food was made for them in the form of manna, which they needed to be at no further pains than to collect.
I will not reply to this by referring to the immense numbers represented by ancient writers to have moved together in military expeditions ; for instance, in the descent of Xerxes upon the Peloponnesus.f I find no reason for supposing, that the Israelites were subjected to any such restraint, as would have been necessary to keep them all collected in one body. I presume the
Gen. xlvi. 31 – 34 ; Ex. x. 26; xii. 38; Numb. xxxii. — For the fertility and productions of Arabia, see Malte-Brun, book 30, particularly pp. 195, 196, 200 (Boston Edit.); Niebuhr, “ Travels through Arabia," &c. $ 28, chap. 1 ; § 29, chap. 2, 7, 8. For a particular description of the country about
“ El Ghor," and near Mount Seir, see Burckhardt, “ Travels in Syria, and the Holy Land,” p. 410 et seq. The same writer (p. 573 et seq.) speaks of the fertility of the valleys of Mount Sinai. Niebuhr (§ 6, chap. 9, § 24) treats somewhat fully of the condition and manners of the Bedouin tribes of the present day. See also Norden's “ Travels in Egypt and Nubia," Vol. I. pp. 11, 61.
+ The Greek historians make Xerxes' army, with its attendants, to have amounted to more than five millions. Nor is it to the purpose to say, that this was probably exaggeration. Good writers may exaggerate; but exaggerations evidently absurd are a kind of statement which the laws of their art do not admit; and the mention of such a host of Oriental marauders, moving in one body, shows, at least, that to them, who knew, better than we, the habits of the time, the supposition was not incredible. See Herodotus, lib. 7, cap. 51 et seq.; Diodorus Siculus, lib. 11 ad init. Compare Mitford's “History of Greece, chap. 8, § 1.
fact to have been (what I find nothing in the narrative to discredit), that, while the Tabernacle, wherever it was for the time being, was the centre and rendezvous of the nation, all, beyond a number of warriors sufficient to secure it against any probable assault, were permitted to wander away at will, taking care, of course, to go in sufficient numbers to prevent their return from being cut off. The places of as many, as, at any given time, were in the neighbourhood of the Tabernacle, needed to be determined by a standing rule; else the tribes would have been liable to interfere with each other, and, if collision had not arisen, still the order, which was on all accounts desirable, would not have been preserved. The position of the several tribes, in relation to one another and to the Tabernacle, was accordingly thus fixed; and whatever portion of each tribe was required to remain, or chose to remain, near the central point of the nation, was obliged to occupy that position. But it does not therefore follow, that the tribes crowded upon the Tabernacle, and consequently upon each other, to the universal inconvenience. On the contrary, where their posts are first designated, * we are told, that they are to pitch “far off about the Tabernacle”; just as, in these days, the different divisions of a large army are so disposed, as not to interfere with each other's supplies. Nor do we read of any thing to impair the evidently strong probability, that, while each tribe had its post, held by a portion of its warriors, a large part of its number was at any given time absent, for the benefit of the best grazing-grounds they might find.
Even while in Goshen, it appears that they had wandered thus, extending their migrations as far as the confines of Palestine.t How far they
* Numb. ii. 2. + 1 Chron. vii. 20 - 22. — That, besides grazing, those who were in VOL. I.
may have been dispersed in such expeditions, during the forty years, we are now unable to say, nor can we so much as identify many of the places, which are related to have been the termini of their several stages. But I apprehend, that we have no authority for supposing them to have been confined to the peninsula bounded by the two bays of the Red Sea to the southeast and southwest, and by Canaan and the Mediterranean to the north, a considerable part of which (the northern portion) is a barren country. It is true, that to penetrate into the eastern and southern districts of Arabia, it may have been necessary for them to pass through a part of the territory of Edom, which lay about Mount Seir, and the Ghor, south of the Dead Sea; and that when they afterwards solicited permission for such a passage, it was denied.* But that which was refused to a numerous body, in warlike array, may have been willingly permitted to separate troops of harmless herdsmen; and in fact we find, that, notwithstanding this refusal, the whole host did subsequently pass to the country east of Edom by choosing a less frequented route.t
Another question, which it is natural to ask, is; Why did Moses leave no record of transactions of the intermediate years? The statement of this question, in the first place, needs to be modified. Some record he has left; for instance, the minute list of successive marches in the thirty-third chapter of this book; and the substance of instructions received in the interval (if my view be correct), which are brought together in the book of Deuteronomy. If we insist, that the record should have been continued, in the same circumstantial manner in which it had been begun, it is because we are satisfied, that events occurred, during the thirtyeight years so lightly passed over, which had an equal or a similar claim to be thus narrated.
immediate attendance upon the Tabernacle sometimes stopped at one place, during their wanderings, at least long enough to raise a crop, might be argued from Numb. ix. 22. * Numb. xx. 14 - 21.
† xxi. 4.
These events must have been either 1. incidents of a natural, or, 2. of a supernatural character, or, 3. the reception of new laws.
An outline of one class of occurrences, of the first description, is actually given in the list of marches just now referred to. That any thing else took place, of material importance, demanding a special record to be made at the time, or, if made, to be preserved, is certainly more than we have any right to assume. As far as we may judge of the condition of the people in their solitary wanderings, it was not such as would be likely to furnish the materials of a copious history.
Of new supernatural occurrences,* we have no authority for presuming that there were any. For supernatural operations to produce their intended effect upon the mind, it is necessary that they should not be made common and familiar. That which we frequently see, ceases to impress us. That which often occurs, whatever else be its character, ceases (if I may be pardoned the truism) to be, to us, out of the course of nature. Miracles had been wrought, in the view of the generation, which came out of Egypt, to sanction their acceptance of the national Law. The race which had come into their places, was, for its own satisfaction, to have momentary evidence of the same power in Moses.t
say “ of new supernatural occurrences”; because whoever supposes a perpetual miraculous supply of manna, and guidance of the column of flame, only supposes a continuance of what he understands to have been already recorded in comprehensive terms, covering the whole period of the march.
† E. g. Numb. xx. 7-11.