Moses finds himself in the desert on two separate occasions. First, he exiles himself to Midian after murdering an Egyptian for 40 years, and then wanders the desert of the wilderness for 40 years.
Moses is one of the most well-known characters in the Bible. He led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, met with God on Mt. Sinai, mediated the Mosaic covenant, and continued to lead the people all the way to the outskirts of the Promised Land.
But exactly how long was Moses with God’s people in the desert? Let’s take a look.
The Birth of Moses
Moses was born to Egyptian parents, but raised by the daughter of the Pharaoh. In that time, Pharaoh was incredibly harsh with the Israelites, to the point of commanding every newborn Hebrew boy be thrown into the Nile.
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”Exodus 1:22
Moses’ mother and Moses’ father placed him in a basket and set him off in the Nile to avoid having him killed. Pharaoh’s daughter spots the basket and essentially adopts Moses – though she coincidentally winds up having Moses’ birth mother nurse him. So Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house.
Moses in Exile in Midian for 40 Years
After Moses had grown up, he one day encountered an Egyptian beating an Israelite – one of his people. In his anger, Moses kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The next day, Moses comes upon two Israelites fighting. One mentions the dead Egyptian, causing Moses to fear for his life.
Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”Exodus 2:11-14
The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”
So Moses fled to the wilderness of Midian, exiling himself from Egpyt.
It’s here in Midian that Moses hears from God out of the burning bush and reluctantly agrees to play a role in the Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt.
In Acts 7, during Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin, we’re told just how long Moses was in Midian:
“When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian…” (Acts 7:23-24)
““After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.” (Acts 7:30)Acts 7:23-24…30
So Moses was 40 when he killed the Egpytian and fled to Midian, where he took his first wife, and he was there in Midian for 40 years before returning to Egypt.
Moses in the Desert for 40 Years
Moses and his brother Aaron obey God’s voice and approach Pharaoh requesting God’s people be let go. God sends ten plagues (or strikes) on Egypt before Pharaoh gives in. Even after giving in, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, only to be swept away in the waters of the Red Sea.
But once Moses and the people were on the other side of the Red Sea, free from Pharaoh’s rule, they found themselves in the desert wilderness.
God promised Abraham before he died that He would give His people a Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. But He would first lead them through the desert in a wilderness season – much in the same way Moses was led to Midian for a season of refining.
Moses leads the people to the Wilderness of Shur and then to Mt. Sinai where Moses meets with God, intercedes for the people, constructs the tabernacle (using sea cow hides for portions), and delivers much of the Law of Moses. They leave Sinai and head for Kadesh-Barnea, which borders the promised land of Canaan. Most scholars believe about 1-2 years passed during this time.
When they get to the outskirts of the Promised Land, they sent 12 spies to spy out the land they would be taking for their own. Ten of the spies gave a bad report about the land:
“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…All the people we saw were of great size…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes”Numbers 13:31-33
The people became nervous that they wouldn’t be able to fight and have victory over the current inhabitants, as God promised they would. Because of their lack of belief and grumbling, God disciplined them, not letting any of their generation step into the land. Instead, this generation would wander in the wilderness desert for forty years. Moses died and went to be with God at Mt. Nebo, just outside the Promised Land.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.Numbers 14:27-30
40 Years of Exile, 40 Years Wandering the Wilderness
So Moses was exiled to the wilderness desert of Midian for 40 years, and then wandered the wilderness desert with the Israelites for 40 years before his death. Altogether, Moses spends 80 years of his life in some kind of desert.
What’s interesting is that Moses also met with God on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights.
Numbers in the Bible often hold a lot of significance. The number 40 signifies testing, transformation, and a shift from one season to the next.
So it’s clear God used Moses’ exile to prepare him to lead God’s people to the Promised Land. God constantly tested Moses. Moses eventually died and was buried in Moab, but not before the Lord used him to usher in a new season for God’s people, and establish a new Covenant.