The Judgment of Wilderness Death

NOTE: All English translations are NKJV

When "all the congregation" refused to enter Canaan, with "all the children of Israel ... the whole congregation" complaining against Moses and Aaron (Num 14:1-4), except "Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh" (v.6), then God pronounces judgment (emphasis added):

27 “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: 29 The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. 30  Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in" (Num 14:27-30)

Moses and Aaron will also not enter the promised land, but for other reasons (Num 20:12).

From the Numbers 14 passage, one is left with the impression that all but these four men are included in this rebellion and judgment.

The "Problem"

There is some evidence that one or two other subset groups from Israel were also not necessarily held accountable (i.e. not just these four men explicitly noted in Numbers 14 were "outside" the judgment of dying in the wilderness for this offense, but that two other groups may have been directly excluded, though still affected by the consequences of the judgment, just not necessarily sentenced to death in the wilderness).

Numbers 26:63-65

63 These are those who were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho. 64 But among these there was not a man of those who were numbered by Moses and Aaron the priest when they numbered the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai. 65 For the Lord had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” So there was not left a man of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.

This passage hints that:

  1. Perhaps it was only the men held accountable, for it references the census of Num 1:1-46, that the men from then (1:2-3) are not among the men at that time able to go to war (26:2), having died in the wilderness under judgment. That is, those who would go to war but did not were the ones that were judged—which might then exclude women, and...
  2. Perhaps the male Levites were also not held accountable, because they were explicitly excluded from that earlier census (Num 1:47-49; 2:33), and were not the ones going to war. But more importantly, evidence suggests at least one Levite over 20 survived to enter: Eleazar, Araon's son (see below for further discussion).

Possibly Reconciling the Levites

Levites Not Part of the "Congregation" of Israel

These passages support a reconciliation leaning toward point #2 of the "Problem" discussed above.

Num 8:9 - Levites gathering is separate from that of the "whole congregation of the children of Israel"

Num 8:14 - Levites are "separate ... from among the children of Israel" (also v.19, Num 3:9, 12)

Num 8:18 - Levites taken in place of firstborn of Israel (also 3:41)

Num 8:19 - Levites were a gift to Aaron

Deut 18:1 - Levites have no inheritance with Israel

The above passages point toward a precedent that the Levites would be excluded from the reference of the "congregation" and "children of Israel" in the Numbers 14 judgment.

Eleazar Survived and Entered Land

Aaron's son Eleazar is a Levite, an Amramite, of the Kohathites (Ex 6:18-23). He has a priestly service from the start of the priesthood at Sinai (Lev 9:36, 10:6-7; Num 3:4), one that involved important service in the tabernacle (Num 4:16), and he was also placed "chief over the leaders of the Levites" (Num 3:32). It seems likely that Eleazar was already married at the time of the Exodus (Ex 6:25), and since he was serving in the tabernacle, it would seem that he fell under the restriction of the Kohathites that he be between thirty years and fifty years old to enter that service (Num 4:2-3). He was thus old enough to marry, and if the other restriction was true, this would make him over 20 at the time of Num 14 incident, and yet he does live to go into the Promised Land and die there (Josh 14:1, 24:33).

If the thirty year old restriction was included for Aaron's sons (the Num 4 passage seems a bit ambiguous on this, as Aaron and his sons are also "separate" from the Kohathites in their duties), then this would be further evidence the Levites over 20 were not included in the judgment.

One Opinion

I found this opinion online (accessed 5-26-2014; emphasis added):

When we take a careful look at the listing of the 12 spies, we find the tribe of Levi was not represented. Each spy is named in Numbers 13:4-15. Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s two sons, plus Jacob’s other ten sons, but not Levi, make the number 12. Levi stands apart from what happens. Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons, had to have been at least 30 years old to “minister in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father” (Numbers 3:4). Eleazar succeeded his father as high priest and worked with Joshua after the nation entered Caanan. So Eleazar, like Joshua, Caleb, and probably a great many other older Levites, did not die during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The Levites had not participated in the spying, in the evil report, and it is likely they were also exempt from the judgment of death on those 20 years old and older.

He bases the conclusion largely off the evidence highlighted, but other than the circumstantial evidence above, it is not clear in Num 14 that they were not part of succumbing to "the evil report" (while granted that they were not part of giving it).

Answers Sought (Updated)

NOTE: I updated this to allow more flexibility of answering that women/Levites were included, as my original request favored answers of exclusion (and I don't want to skew toward an eisegetical reading).

I am seeking the following in answers (particularly #4 if the "Excluded" answer is pursued for the Levites).

New Testament references to evidence are okay (since I come from a Christian perspective), though Old Testament references would be better (to help those from a Jewish perspective have what would be for them a viable answer as well).

Of course, the answer might be included for one and excluded for the other (between women and Levites).

If Excluded from Judgment

  1. Is there other Biblical evidence that women might have been excluded from the judgment (i.e. is there any example of a woman 20+ who survived to enter the land, or some statement indicating not all the women of the older generations may have died).
  2. More explicit Biblical evidence (a) that Eleazar was over 20 at the time of the Numbers 14 incident (proof that the 30 year age was for the priests as well as just the generic Levite would suffice), and (b) that the Levites were not part of that rebellious act of Numbers 14.
  3. Any other relevant Biblical evidence that I have not thought of above that may indicate (even if circumstantial) that women and/or Levites were excluded.
  4. Credible commentaries that argue the Levites were not part of the 20+ year old's dying in the wilderness because of the Numbers 14 rebellion.

If Included in the Judgment

  1. More explicit Biblical evidence that women were included (more explicit being something similar to what is stated of the men between Numbers 1 and 26, though I don't expect the Bible has anything quite that explicit).
  2. More explicit Biblical evidence that Eleazar was under 20 at the time of the Numbers 14 incident, and thus that is why he lived to enter the Promised Land.
  3. Any other relevant Biblical evidence that counters the logic given above that may indicate (even if circumstantial) that women and/or Levites were included.
  4. There is no parallel request for commentaries arguing they were included, as I think most probably take that position by default based off the Numbers 14 passage exclusions (Joshua/Caleb) noted. However, credible commentaries that assume Levites are included but shed light on answering the apparent exception of Eleazar could be helpful.
  • I don't know if there is any distinction between "men and women" whose carcasses littered the desert(Heb. 3:17); as to Eleazar, he was the high priest who followed Aaron, therefore, being high priest for life he would be exempt from the '30-50' rule. The question is really,"Who did not participate in the rebellion of the 10 spies?" and there is no inference from Scripture that the Levites were any different. The other interesting statement is Num. 14:22 where the Lord says,"..they have tempted Me 10 times", so it wasn't JUST this time but the accumulation of times.
    – Tau
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 5:10
  • @user2479: Heb 3:17 is strong circumstantial evidence that women were not excluded (since the reference to wilderness implies the judgment). Your note about Eleazar seems irrelevant to the question, as your focus is on "for life," but the question is was he over 20 at Num 14 (doing priestly duties, but not yet the high priest), and thus if Levites were part of rebellion, he should have died in the wilderness, and perhaps Phinehas his son enter the Promised Land as high priest. Your note about 10 times might be fruitful to investigate further. Thanks for your thoughts.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 27, 2014 at 14:08
  • Great question.
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 16:18
  • Verse 29 in your first quotation states that this judgement is to fall only on "all of you who were numbered" in the first chapters of Numbers. That would explicitly exclude the women and Levites as neither were part of the census of fighting men.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 14:32
  • @FrankLuke: The reason that particular statement in Num 14:29 does not completely bring clarity is because the Levites were also numbered (Num 3:14-39) prior to this incident, they were just numbered separately from the rest of Israel (Num 2:33).
    – ScottS
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 22:27

3 Answers 3


As the judgment was against all those counted in the census commentaries that I have consulted strictly assume the judgment was literally agains only these 'men' excluding the Levites.

I think there is not much to add from what you have already listed except one item. The census counted those where were 'able to fight', i.e. men over twenty, not from the tribe of the Levites, or women. The judgment was for the cowardice of these soldiers. The Levites being dedicated to service of the Lord appear to be exempt from military service (Numbers 1:47–54) explaining their absence from this census. From this standpoint we can regard this census as partially to determine who is eligible for war and therefore the women must also be excluded from the cowardice of these men.

A sample credible expositor following this theory:

All that were numbered] in the census (ch. 1). The Levites, however, were not included in that census (1:47), and the priestly writer probably assumed that the sentence of death in the wilderness did not apply to them. Aaron’s son Eleazar succeeded his father as high priest on the borders of Canaan, and he must certainly have been over 20 years of age at this time, since he acted in a responsible position as priest before the departure from Sinai (see 3:3 f., 32, 4:16). (A. F. KIRKPATRICK, D.D. THE BOOK OF NUMBERS, P77)

And another sample:

From twenty years old and upward. Amounting, as we learn ch. 1:46, to 603,550, exclusive of the Levites who were not numbered at this time, and when they were numbered, they were numbered not from twenty years old, but from a month old and upward. Consequently neither the Levites nor the children under twenty, nor the wives of the offenders were included in the severe sentence here denounced, but only the adult men above twenty. This accounts for the fact that we find Eleazar, who is mentioned at the numberings of the Levites, ch. 3:32, alive at the dividing of the land of Canaan. It is evident, therefore, that the language of the following passage, ch. 26:63–65, is to be limited by the explanation now given: “These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. But among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest numbered, when they numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.” (NOTES, CRITICAL AND PRACTICAL, on the book of NUMBERS, BY GEORGE BUSH p209)

Of course after 40 odd years, many of the Levites and Women over 20 would have also died but not under the direct judgment of God.

  • +1 for a couple of commentaries arguing exclusion. I'm still hoping for more explicit Biblical evidence. I know the whole Exodus event is referred to at many points in Scripture, as well as the Levitical and priestly service, and so I am hoping someone knows/finds in one of those many references, something more stated that explicitly supports their exclusion (or explicitly denies it). Thanks for your thoughts and effort.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 15:24

Answering under the question:

Any other relevant Biblical evidence that I have not thought of above that may indicate (even if circumstantial) that women and/or Levites were excluded.

In Numbers 20, Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter because

And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”

This implies that they would have been able to enter had this incident at Meribah not happened. I believe this is evidence of Levites being excluded from the judgment in Numbers 14.

  • Thank you Tim and welcome to the site. That is a thoughtful answer, well formatted and it includes your sources (the passages you cited). Kudos. There is also a tour you might want to take: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour
    – Ruminator
    Commented Dec 1, 2018 at 2:57

Keep in mind that Moses' sister Miriam died in the 40th year. She was of the first generation and thus demonstrates that women died before Joshua took over the leadership. The daughters of Zelophehad were concerned about inheritance matters. Their mother does not seem to be in the picture. Perhaps, a slight argument from silence. Obviously, there is not very much data on the women of the first generation, but I think the assumption of natural death is valid or simply their solidarity with their husbands. Also keep in mind that periodic plagues broke out hastening deaths of the first generation as well as some out of the second. The ten spies were plagued immediately after the fall at Kadesh for example.

  • 1
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    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 12:46
  • 1
    This is a good beginning to an answer, but could use a bit more expansion in order to give a clearer Answer. Unusually, in this case ScottS has explicitly given a set of options to engage with which look fairly comprehensive - it would be good to declare which of these your answer aligns with (or none) and supply the sort of evidence he's looking for.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 12:49

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