When Moses had led the 600,000 men, with their wives, children, and cattle, beyond the reach of the Egyptians, they were in a small peninsula, between the arms of the Red Sea, with the wild desolate peaks of Mount Horeb towering in the midst, and all around grim stony crags, with hardly a spring of water; and though there were here and there slopes of grass, and bushes of hoary-leaved camel-thorn, and long-spined shittim or acacia, nothing bearing fruit for human beings. There were strange howlings and crackings in the mountains, the sun glared back from the arid stones and rocks, and the change seemed frightful after the green meadows and broad river of Egypt.
Frightened and faithless, the Israelites cried out reproachfully to Moses to ask how they should live in this desert place, forgetting that the Pillar of cloud and fire proved that they were under the care of Him who had brought them safely out of the hands of their enemies. In His mercy God bore with their murmurs, fed them with manna from Heaven, and water out of the flinty rock; and gave them the victory over the Edomite tribe of robber Amalekites at Rephidim, where Joshua fought, and Moses, upheld by Aaron and Hur, stretched forth his hands the whole day. Then, fifty days after their coming out of Egypt, He called them round the peak of Sinai to hear His own Voice proclaim the terms of the new Covenant.
The Covenant with Abraham had circumcision for the token, faith as the condition, and the blessing to all nations as the promise. This Covenant remained in full force, but in the course of the last four hundred years, sin had grown so much that the old standard, handed down from the patriarchs, had been forgotten, and men would not have known what was right, nor how far they fell from it, without a written Law. This Law, in ten rules, all meeting together in teaching Love to God and man, commanded in fact perfection, without which no man could be fit to stand in the sight of God. He spoke it with His own Mouth, from amid cloud, flame, thunder, and sounding trumpets, on Mount Sinai, while the Israelites watched around in awe and terror, unable to endure the dread of that Presence. The promise of this Covenant was, that if they would keep the Law, they should dwell prosperously in the Promised Land, and be a royal priesthood and peculiar treasure unto God, They answered with one voice, "All the words the Lord hath said will we do;" and Moses made a sacrifice, and sprinkled them with the blood, to consecrate them and confirm their oath. It was the blood of the Old Testament. Then he went up into the darkness of the cloud on the mountain top, there fasting, to talk with God, and to receive the two Tables of Stone written by the Finger of God. This was, as some believe, the first writing in the letters of the alphabet ever known in the world, and the Books of Moses were the earliest ever composed, and set down with the pen upon parchment.
Those Laws were too strict for man in his fallen state. Keep them he could not; breaking them, he became too much polluted to be fit for mercy. Even while living in sight of the cloud on the Mountain, where Moses was known to be talking with God, the Israelites lost faith, and set up a golden calf in memory of the Egyptian symbol of divinity, making it their leader instead of Moses. Such a transgression of their newly-made promise so utterly forfeited their whole right to the covenant, that Moses destroyed the precious tables, the token of the mutual engagement, and God threatened to sweep them off in a moment and to fulfil His oaths to their forefather in the children of Moses alone. Then Moses, having purified the camp by slaying the worst offenders, stood between the rest and the wrath of God, mediating for them until he obtained mercy for them, and a renewal of the Covenant. Twice he spent forty days in that awful Presence, where glorious visions were revealed to him; the Courts of Heaven itself, to be copied by him, by Divine guidance, in the Ark and Tabernacle, where his brother Aaron, and his seed after him, were to minister as Priests, setting forth to the eye how there was a Holy Place, whence men were separated by sin, and how it could only be entered by a High Priest, after a sacrifice of atonement. Every ordinance of this service was a shadow of good things to come, and was therefore strictly enjoined on Israel, as part of the conditions of the Covenant, guiding their faith onwards by this acted prophecy; and therewith God, as King of His people, put forth other commands, some relating to their daily habits, others to their government as a nation, all tending to keep them separate from other nations. For transgressions of such laws as these, or for infirmities of human nature, regarded as stains, cleansing sacrifices were permitted. For offences against the Ten Commandments, there was no means of purchasing remission; no animal's, nay, no man's life could equal such a cost; there was nothing for it but to try to dwell on the hope, held out to Adam and Abraham, and betokened by the sacrifices and the priesthood, of some fuller expiation yet to come; some means of not only obtaining pardon, but of being worthy of mercy.
The Israelites could not even be roused to look for the present temporal promise, and hankered after the fine soil and rich fruits of Egypt, rather than the beautiful land of hill and valley that lay before them; and when their spies reported it to be full of hill forts, held by Canaanites of giant stature, a cowardly cry of despair broke out, that they would return to Egypt. Only two of the whole host, besides Moses, were ready to trust to Him who had delivered them from Pharaoh, and had led them through the sea. Therefore those two alone of the grown-up men were allowed to set foot in the Promised Land. Till all the rest should have fallen in the wilderness, and a better race have been trained up, God would not help them to take possession. In their wilfulness they tried to advance, and were defeated, and thus were obliged to endure their forty years' desert wandering.
Even Moses had his patience worn out by their fretful faithlessness, and committed an act of disobedience, for which he was sentenced not to enter the land, but to die on the borders after one sight of the promise of his fathers. Under him, however, began the work of conquest; the rich pasture lands of Gilead and Basan were subdued, and the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, were permitted to take these as their inheritance, though beyond the proper boundary, the Jordan. The Moabites took alarm, though these, as descended from Abraham's nephew Lot, were to be left unharmed; and their king, Balak, sent, as it appears, even to Mesopotamia for Balaam, a true prophet, though a guilty man, in hopes that he would bring down the curse of God on them. Balaam, greedy of reward, forced, as it were, consent from God to go to Balak, though warned that his words would not be in his own power. As he stood on the hill top with Balak, vainly endeavouring to curse, a glorious stream of blessing flowed from his lips, revealing, not only the fate of all the tribes around, even for a thousand years, but proclaiming the Sceptre and Star that should rise out of Jacob to execute vengeance on his foes. But finding himself unable to curse Israel, the miserable prophet devised a surer means of harming them: he sent tempters among them to cause them to corrupt themselves, and so effectual was this invention, that the greater part of the tribe of Simeon were ensnared, and a great plague was sent in chastisement. It was checked by the zeal of the young priest, Phineas, under whose avenging hand so many of the guilty tribe fell, that their numbers never recovered the blow. Then after a prayer of atonement, a great battle was fought, and the wretched Balaam was among the slain.
The forty years were over, Moses's time was come, and he gave his last summing up of the Covenant, and sung his prophetic song. His authority was to pass to his servant, the faithful spy, bearing the prophetic name of Joshua; and he was led by God to the top of Mount Nebo, whence he might see in its length and breadth, the pleasant land, the free hills, the green valleys watered by streams, the wooded banks of Jordan, the pale blue expanse of the Mediterranean joining with the sky to the west; and to the north, the snowy hills of Hermon, which sent their rain and dew on all the goodly mountain land. It had been the hope of that old man's hundred and twenty years, and he looked forth on it with his eye not dim, nor his natural force abated; but God had better things for him in Heaven, and there upon the mountain top he died alone, and God buried him in the sepulchre whereof no man knoweth. None was like to him in the Old Covenant, who stood between God and the Israelites, but he left a promise that a Prophet should be raised up like unto himself.