Wandering the Wilderness
As a teacher of the Old Testament it always brings me delight to show people how much we can learn, still today, from the Old Testament. I cringe when people mistakenly argue the O.T. to be an outdated collection of moralistic or allegoric stories. Because it isn't. Or many well-meaning Christians will hide behind the mantra "All I need is Jesus" as an excuse to render the O.T. irrelevant to the Christian life today. While Jesus Christ is certainly the center and object of our faith, it doesn't follow to then eliminate the need to also study the rest of Scripture. After all, Jesus himself was the greatest student in all of human history of the O.T. and himself was a believer in the importance of the O.T.
In this post I'd like to explain how we can look at the wilderness wanderings of Israel throughout the books of Moses and how this compares to our life in the present. To elaborate on this connection I've broken it down into 4 basic similarities between us and Israel. In understanding these connections and understanding what happened in the time of Israel, we may gain new insights into life as a Christian today.
1. A Miraculous DeliveranceIsrael's entrance into the wilderness beyond Egypt involved two of the great miracles in all of the Old Testament. It began with the Passover. God spoke through Moses to Pharaoh that the final plague upon Egypt would be for all the firstborn in the land to perish. Israel was given the command to put lamb's blood over their doors and in so doing the angel of death would "pass over" their houses when the plague would come down upon the land. God also gave them instructions for a special Passover meal to be eaten that night. All of this would help prepare Israel to leave the land of Egypt. As if this wasn't enough, God then led Israel from Egypt to the edge of the Red Sea where he parted the waters of this sea, provided dry ground for them to pass through upon, and thus delivered his people to freedom in the wilderness. God even used the waters of the sea as they returned to destroy the army of Pharaoh. Indeed, Israel entered the wilderness through a miraculous deliverance.
What happened to Israel would be hard to top. Yet, I believe God has done just that for us today. We are miraculously delivered through a gift called baptism. God calls us into the Christian life through water and the Word. It is in Baptism that our enemy [sin & death] is drowned and we become inheritors of eternal life. On one side we are slaves to sin, and as we pass through these life-giving waters we exit on the other side free and into this wilderness of the Christian life.
2. Looking BackIsrael cried out to God for years and years for a deliverance from Egypt. They were enslaved for 400 years there and their time had grown bitter. In Exodus 3, God tells Moses that these cries have not gone unheard "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry... (Ex. 3:7)." And God proceeded to deliver His people as the first point above demonstrates. Yet, as God's people awaited the Red Sea to be parted and their deliverance to be given, they were already looking back. Exodus 14:12 tells us "Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." From our vantage point its hard to imagine the never of this people to already question God and ask for a return to their slavery. In the following chapters it only would get worse.
However, we shouldn't be too quick to judge. We are guilty of looking back as well. In John 8, Jesus explains "very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)" This describes where we've come from. We are born into sin and we live in sin from our very beginning. Thus, we are slaves to sin just as Israel was slaves in Egypt. We get freed from this in the deliverance of Baptism and this is good news. But we, like Israel, are quick to plot our return to slavery. By our sinful nature we often live as those who have not been delivered at all. We convince ourselves there is nothing wrong with our sin, or even, that we have no sin at all. We may even consider that life may have been better or freer before we came to know Christ. As we see the truth, we'll see these thoughts and this way of life is no different than the Israel who grumbled at their God-given freedom begging for a return to slavery.
3. WanderingBy the time their wilderness journey had ended, Israel had wandered for 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Numbers 32:13 describes this "And the Lord's anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone." Israel had rebelled against God in rejecting their opportunity to approach and enter the Promised Land. This happened when the 12 spies returned from their scouting mission in Canaan and 10 of them had suggested they not go to the land. Because Israel had decided against going to the land God essentially said "fine, you don't want to go, I won't make you go, wander in the wilderness 40 years."
Our wandering is not so much a geographical thing. It is more a matter of the heart. David describes it a bit in Psalm 119:10 writing "with my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments." Our wandering, sometimes like Israel, involves our ability to quickly stray from listening to God's Word. St. Paul in his 2nd letter to Timothy also catches on to this idea of wandering. He writes this: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." That is the danger of our wandering in this life today. We'll listen to just about anything. As a Christian we need to be tuned into and fixed upon listening to God's Word above all else. Yet, too many don't. Too many have wandered into myths like humanism and evolution. Just as many in ancient Israel wandering into disbelief in God and rejected the promised land.
4. Promised Land
This last point may almost be self-explanatory. All throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, Israel had as its end goal to receive its inheritance in the promised land of Canaan. This was to be a gift of God to them. And indeed, they did finally receive it as we can read in the book of Joshua.
Our life as well, at least the life of a Christian, has as its end goal to receive a promised land. This we know better as heaven. It too is a gift of God, by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9).
Wrapping it up
In understanding the highs and the lows of Israel's wanderings we can get a clearer look at our own wanderings in this life. Israel experienced some great lows in their day because of their faithlessness and their weakness for wandering into idolatry. We too share the same faults. Israel was also blessed mightily by God through great signs and wonders. We get a taste of this in Baptism and through all of God's work in our daily lives.
As a lover of the literal wilderness (i.e. the great outdoors) I take time to ponder these things often. No better place than to be out in the middle of nowhere, miles from civilization, to see how much we are blessed with a beautiful creation and an even more beautiful Creator.