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God’s Word for You

Numbers 33:1-5

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Forty Stages of Israel’s Journey

33 These were the stages in the Israelites’ journey when they went out from the land of Egypt, lined up according to their military units, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. 2 At the command of the LORD, Moses recorded their departure locations according to the stages in their journey. These were the stages in their journey listed by their departure locations:

This chapter is something of a gazetteer, or index of places where Israel stopped and camped along the way. It is not complete. For example, Mattanah, Nahaliel, and Bamoth are all mentioned in Numbers 21:19, but do not appear in this chapter (they should fall somewhere among the stops listed in verses 43-46). Since Moses was commanded (verse 2) to write down this list of locations, and since the total number of departure locations totals forty in all, we see a symbolic representation of their journey: God was with his people every step of the way. Walter Roehrs (LCMS pastor and professor) said: “Every believer, particularly a senior citizen, needs to hear only the names of the encampments of his pilgrimage to be moved to recount gratefully what God did for him at these junctures of circumstances” (Concordia Self-Study Commentary, p. 119).

3 They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. The Israelites went out defiantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, 4 while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. The LORD also brought judgment on their gods. 5 The Israelites set out from Rameses and camped at Sukkoth.

Before we look at the long list of stops, we notice just the first two: Rameses and Sukkoth. Sukkoth means “huts” (or tabernacles), and we’ll come back to it. Rameses has given rise to some serious misunderstandings about the date of the Exodus. A Pharaoh named Rameses I (or Ramesses I) reigned just a year and a half, from late in 1292 until 1290 BC. But this was more than a century after Moses’ time. Rameses II, the grandson of the first one, reigned a short while later (he is the one often depicted in movies as the Pharaoh of the exodus). He is said to have built a city named after himself. But he wouldn’t be the first person in history to rename a place after himself, or even to overlay his name on an older city with the same name. What do I mean by that? When I was a missionary, I was commissioned to establish a new church in King County, Washington. King County was originally named for the (then) newly-elected Vice President of the United States, William R. King (under President Pierce, elected 1852). After the Civil Rights movement, and especially from 1986 onward, there was a movement to change the name of the county from King County (after Vice President William King) to King County (after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). This became the legal name of the county in 2005. Also, there are many examples throughout history of a city name being changed to a different name in every state in the U.S.

Our date of the exodus is based on two key benchmarks given in the Bible. First, the Judge Jephthah says to the Ammonites that Israel had occupied the land of Gilead, including Heshbon, for three hundred years (Judges 11:26). Later we are told that the fourth year of King Solomon’s reign was 480 years after the exodus (1 Kings 6:1). These figures place the exodus in about the year 1446 BC, some two hundred years before Pharaoh Ramesses lived.

So these are our possibilities about the city of Rameses:

1, The city in the Bible might have been named for the historical Pharaoh, but that would mean that all of the chronological details given by Moses and others in the Bible are questionable, or even wrong, and therefore most of the contents of the Bible are not to be trusted.

(Obviously I must reject the above)

2, The city name in the Bible was updated by a later scribe, so that people of his time would understand it better than some ancient name like Avaris. We do the same thing, such as when I say that my ancestors moved to the State of Wisconsin in the early 1830s, but this was before there was a State of Wisconsin.

3, The city name in the Bible was indeed the ancient name of the city, but a later Pharaoh (Rameses II) overlaid his name on the city as his capital, which we know to be possible and even a provable phenomenon (as with King County, Washington).

4, The city name in the Bible, Rameses, is not spelled exactly the same way as Ramesses, and therefore they are two different places, and the fact that they were similar (but centuries apart) in the Nile delta is no more than a coincidence.

Although I myself have given proof that the third case is possible, my opinion is that of the last three (each infinitely better than the first), numbers 2 and 4 are the most likely to be true.

It’s verse 3 in this chapter that tells us that the Israelites left Egypt “the day after the Passover.” I don’t know if there’s a way to properly estimate how quickly more than a million, closer to two million people, could move mostly on foot. It’s more than fifty miles from the easternmost arm of the Nile Delta to the Bitter Lakes; Sukkoth must have been quite a bit less than that, since three more stops will be recorded before the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

Israel left Egypt in full view of the Egyptians “while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn.” This is why Israel was not pursued immediately by Pharaoh, since his household had been struck by the same plague, and he was burying his own son (Exodus 12:29). Not long after, Pharaoh hardened his heart once again and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” (Exodus 14:5). We will return to the pursuit of Pharaoh and the incident at Pi Hahiroth with the next verses. As we will see, God had everything in hand. He had planned the route his people would take, a path that confused and confounded Pharaoh and still confuses and confounds commentators today. He is with us to guide us and to turn our attention to him. “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10), and “the Lord is at your right hand” (Psalm 110:5). Trust in him for your daily path just as you trust in him for your path to everlasting life. He will not leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). His mercy endures forever.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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