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After having heard an adverse report from the ten spies all the fighting men of Israel refused to enter Canaan and possess it.God condenmed all these men to death in a period of forty years.

Numbers 14:2,4 NASB

2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 4 So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.”

Then the judgement

Numbers 14:29 NASB

29 your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your [o]numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me.

(about 603 550 men died)

But earlier on they had come to mount Sinai and whilst Moses had gone up the mountain to God they had persuaded Aaron to make a golden calf.

Exodus 32:3-4 NASB

3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “[b]This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

Then the judgement

Exoduis 32:27 NASB

27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his [q]neighbor.’” 28 So the sons of Levi did [r]as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day.

(about 3 000 men died)

Incidentally by making a golden calf they had broken the second commandment which somehow should have attracted a heavier sentence

Exodus 20:3-5 NASB

3 “You shall have no other gods [b]before Me.4 “You shall not make for yourself [c]an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Why was the punishment for refusal to enter Canaan seemingly more severe than that of the golden calf?

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There are several things to note about this very interesting question. However, first let us be clear about the punishment for the golden calf which was three-fold:

  • Moses burned the golden calf, ground it to powder, scattered it in the water and made the people drink it (a very bad taste indeed!), thus polluting the most precious thing in the desert - water! (Ex 32:30) This is a mirror image of the process that Aaron (wrongfully) claimed had produced the calf (v24).
  • The loyal Levites killed about 3000 with the sword (Ex 32:28) - the Israelites had claimed that the golden calf had brought them out of Egypt (v4)
  • A plague from the Lord killed an unspecified extra number more calf worshipers (v35) - this was because they had rejected Jehovah and chosen the calf as their god who could offer no protection from such plagues.

The perception that one punishment being more severe than the other is just a perception that is not evidenced in the Bible itself. In fact, the punishment in both cases was the same - God gave them exactly what they had asked for:

A. For the Refusal to go into the promised land they wished that they had died in the desert (Num 14:2) - so that was granted!

B. For the golden calf they chose the calf god over the true God so they were given the calf god (albeit, ground up) to drink, and suffered the direct consequences of rejecting the protection from plagues provided by YHWH, and their immediate history of miraculous deliverance from Egypt.

In both cases, the consequences of rejecting the true God was (naturally) death.

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Indeed the punishment (number of killing) of casting the golden calf was not as severe than the refusal to enter Canaan. In the golden calf event, there was no reference to the number of Israelites involved in the disobedience. The 3000 Israelites being killed (vv28) might not be the total involved. According to verse 25

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. (NIV)

From The Contemporary Torah, JPS,2006 Hebrew to English translation may be more easy to understood

Moses saw that the people were out of control - since Aaron had let them get out of control - so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them

So these 3000 Israelite who killed by the Levites, were those who did not submit to Moses and were still out of control in the camp. These were immediate kill, and there were subsequent kill by a plague (vv35), as the Lord said, "However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin”. (vv34 NIV)

In the event of refusal to enter Canaan, the number was more certain, Numbers 14:2 read (NIV)

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!

So when it said "All the Israelites" and why would the Lord forgive those below 20 years of age? The answer was given in Numbers 1:3 (NIV)

You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.

Those below twenty years old were not counted in serving the army. So they did not count in the disobedience of refusal to fight to enter Canaan.

It is clear to be seen that the Lord punishment was precisely to those who committed the sin. No one can claim they were punished innocent.

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