Israel’s Animals in the Wilderness
One of our readers has submitted a very interesting question: “We know that the Israelites in their millions were sustained by manna for 40 years but what about their many animals? From what I know, there is little grass in the wilderness of Sinai.”
Scripture gives no specific answer to this question but there are some things we know. We know that well over a million people left the land of Egypt, as the questioner points out (Ex. 12:37). We know that they left with their “flocks and herds,” described in Exodus 12:38 as “very much cattle.” Moses had insisted on this (10:26), and God spared the cattle of the Israelites when He destroyed the flocks and herds of the Egyptians (9:6-7). We also know that they still had their cattle with them when they came to the land of Canaan after forty years in the wilderness and that the number of animals was enormous (Num. 32:1).
Our questioner is correct in his assumption that there was not enough grass in the wilderness for so many cattle. The desert is described in the Bible as a “waste howling wilderness” (Deut. 32:10), and as a “great and terrible wilderness” where there was neither sufficient water or food (8:15). There were specific encampments where there was insufficient food and water for the people and for their animals (Ex. 17:1-3; Num. 20:2-4; 21:5). They stayed in some of their encampments for many months, including almost a year at Mount Sinai, and what grass there was in these places must quickly have been devoured. It is impossible to imagine the amount of fodder needed over such a long time and for so many beasts.
The answer to the question about their animals is that they were kept alive miraculously, just as the Israelites themselves were. We know about the manna and the gushing water from the rock (Ps. 78:15-16, 20; 105:41)—which also must have caused grass to grow—and how God provided for the Israelites by these miracles, but we sometimes forget that their whole existence was under the miraculous care of God. They were miraculously fed and given drink, miraculously protected from their enemies, miraculously guided, and miraculously brought to the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy 8:4 tells us that even their clothing and health were miraculously preserved by God: “Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.” He must, therefore, have miraculously provided for their animals as well.
Referring to Deuteronomy 8:4, the Levites in the days of Nehemiah confessed in prayer, “Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not” (Neh. 9:21). They lacked nothing, the Word of God says, not even food and water for their animals. How exactly God provided for their animals we do not know and it is useless to speculate, but that He did so and did so miraculously we may be sure. Nor is it necessary for us to know. No more than we always know how He will provide for us, is it necessary to know how He provided for Israel’s animals. He provides and we must trust in Him.
We may be sure that God provided for their animals, just as He provided for them, not only because of verses like Nehemiah 9:21 but also because God cares even for the beasts (Ps. 147:9; I Cor. 9:9). They too are the work of His hands and are included in His covenant (Gen. 9:15; Jer. 33:20-21). These beasts belonged to His people and must have been for that reason especially under His care.
There is a lesson in all this, a lesson grounded in the truth that the things that happened to Israel happened as examples (types) for us (I Cor. 10:6). God provides for His people now and in every way, just as He did then. He does so miraculously, just as He did then. We do not mean, of course, that our bread falls from heaven and lies on the ground for us to pick up each morning. We do not mean that we do not suffer from swollen feet as we make our pilgrimage to the heavenly land of Canaan, or from any hurt or harm.
God’s provision for His people is miraculous in that He makes all things work together for their good (Rom. 8:28) and that for Christ’s sake. Never does He give them stones for bread or fail to give them His Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). They may have empty stomachs but He never fails even in that to feed their souls unto life everlasting. They may suffer and be ill, but it is all part of that great healing which will bring them to the land they have not seen but love. They may suffer physically, but God keeps them in spiritual health and strength until that day when “the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).
Nor does God always tell His people how He will provide, no more than He tells us how He provided for Israel’s beasts. But that makes no difference. It drives us to trust in Him, and to believe that He will never leave or forsake His own. How foolish we are when we, like the Israelites, living out of the hand of God Himself, say by our murmuring and complaining, by our lack of trust, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Ex. 17:7).
In riches and poverty, in health and sickness, in fruitful and barren years, God provides. He is Jehovah Jireh (Gen. 22:14), Jehovah Provider. He provides salvation and eternal life, fellowship with Himself and such blesssedness that it has not entered our hearts to imagine. All else pales in comparison. What does it matter if we have insufficient to eat or are in poor health, when He has given us His only-begotten Son, making sure in all the circumstances of life that nothing will ever separate us from His love in Christ Jesus our Lord. What do a few days of poor health mean when we remember that before long “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev. 21:4).
Let us trust in Him and say, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Hab. 3:17-19).
He who cares for the little sparrow will certainly care for His own eternally loved, blood-bought and Spirit in-dwelt people. Rev. Ron Hanko