A Journey Without A Destination
If one looks at a map of the region between Egypt and Israel, the question of why it took 40 years to travel a straight-line distance of only about 240 miles is rather startling. Why an average of only 6 miles per year, which seems incredibly slow, even for people on foot? The answer is because the 40 years wilderness wandering wasn't a journey, as much as it was a death sentence for those who had refused the opportunity to enter the Promised Land not long after they left Egypt. Instead of a relatively direct course from Egypt to Israel, the generation that refused to enter the land promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob turned back and wandered around and around in the wilderness until they were all gone. For them, the Exodus became a journey without a destination.
An Opportunity Lost
Numbers chapters 13 and 14 describes how, as the Israelites were approaching their entry into Promised land, from the south, through the Negev Desert (Numbers 13:17), 12 Israelite scouts were sent ahead to gather information. What they found truly was a land blessed with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27). However, it was also occupied by formidable Canaanite forces (Numbers 13:28-29), which caused all of the scouts, except Joshua and Caleb, to lose courage (while ignoring the fact that with God fighting their battles for them they were undefeatable), so they gave a false report to the people. This in turn caused the people to lose heart, and to actually want to return to their slavery in Egypt (Numbers 14:3). At one point they were about to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb who desperately tried to encourage the people to remain obedient and courageous (Numbers 14:5-6,10), but they wouldn't listen. It was a very costly mistake.
"but truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of The Lord, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to My voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers; and none of those who despised Me shall see it."
"But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea."
"And The Lord said to Moses and to Aaron, "How long shall this wicked congregation murmur against Me? I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel, which they murmur against Me. Say to them, 'As I live,' says The Lord, 'what you have said in My hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness; and of all your number, numbered from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against Me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun."
"But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know My displeasure.'" (Numbers 14:21-34 RSV)
Fact Finder: Did Moses later enter the Promised Land with the Israelites?
See also Mount Nebo