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Posts Tagged ‘wilderness’

The patriarchal clan migrations may have been the beginnings of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. However, it becomes much more than that. While we are most familiar with Joshua’s account of a sudden, bloody, and complete conquest (Joshua 1-12), the text also suggests it was a long and complicated affair (Joshua 13. 2-6; 15.13-19,63; 23.7-13; Judges 1).

The complications become evident when we find the following among the people of God; alongside descendants of Jacob there are Egyptians (Leviticus 24.10), Midianites (Numbers 10.29-32), Amorites (Joshua 6), Kenizzites (Joshua 14.6) and other fugitives. The list could be made longer but this short list is enough to demonstrate Israel was growing even while in the wilderness. Even some who did not experience the exodus were becoming converts. The text does not always tell how but does reveal God has always been interested in bringing new people into the gathering He calls His own.

John Bright tells us many of those who were grafted into the people of God had long been settled in Palestine and joined the Hebrews when they arrived from the desert. Some who were without a place in established society would have gladly joined the Hebrews. That the God who had delivered slaves from the Egyptians would include them in an inheritance of promised land would have been appealing. In such a company one could find an identity and connection they had never experienced before. Numerous conversions were likely taking place. Bright says “Clans and villages by the dozen must have been converted to Yahwism.” While this likely benefitted in military ways, it does suggest a mixed people as suggested in Exodus 12.38 “Many other people went up with them” or by Numbers 11.4 “The rabble among them.”

The fact remains that for those who resisted, conquest was bloody and brutal. This is likely part of the reason numerous towns and villages were ready to join the Hebrews. After hearing the stories, who would want to resist? Sometimes this occurred willingly, sometimes out of fear (Joshua 9). Others were likely conquered without military action but from uprisings within. Although enclaves of other peoples remained and tension continued for many years, Israel was in possession of the land they would occupy for centuries to come. Not long after this representatives gathered (Joshua 24) and made a covenant to be the people of Yahweh and to worship Him alone. It is evident this is no longer just a clan religion.

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We spend a significant amount of time devising strategies to help ourselves survive the wilderness. Perhaps that is what Exodus has in mind when we are introduced to Sabbath. A day we do not work and yet still receive. Exodus is asking “Do you think you are surviving out here on your own?” Exodus gives us Sabbath and then adds “Go ahead, take a day to rest and when you are still provided for you will know this was not by your own doing.”

Sabbath becomes increasingly important as Pharaoh increases his efforts to control us. Pharaoh and his scheduling issues offer no rest. God gives something different – Sabbath. It is counter to Pharaoh. It is a rebellious move. Sabbath is admission that we are not in control and neither is Pharaoh. Even as we rest, God continues to take care of us. This goes against any worldview that we control our own destiny.

Like Hebrews looking for manna on the seventh day, we challenge God for control. We convince ourselves for six days that we are surviving on our own. In contrast, Sabbath is a gift to remind us we cannot deliver ourselves; not from hunger, thirst, or slavery.

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After the singing of Exodus 15 we discover a problem. A lack of water (interesting in light of the fact we literally just walked through walls of water). Short version of the story, Moses throws a stick into bitter water and it becomes sweet. While we are curious about that stick and wonder if we could replicate that feat, the text is content with “If God can part the sea and rescue slaves from the Egyptian army of course He can make bitter water sweet.” Then, while we are still dazzled by the taste of sweet water, the Lord speaks.

It is of interest that the Lord refers to Himself as “your healer.” Not only is the Lord a healer, but “your healer.” It is as though healing a company of slaves has become the primary mission of the Lord. The text unleashes on the world not only One who can sweeten bitter water, but One who can counter the diseases of the empire.

Exodus takes us from a place called bitterness to a resort in Elim where there are twelve springs of water and seventy date palms. From grumbling to a place of rest. From testing and quarreling to a place of refreshment. And we did not find these on our own.

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In Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, I have this to say about the wilderness. “We recognize our dependence and recognize that we are not enough on our own.” I stand by that statement after spending significant time in the Exodus narrative. I am convinced that Exodus wants us to be aware of where we are. Early on, it takes us to Egyptian slave camp. Then it takes us straight through the Red Sea. By the time we get to chapter 16, we are dropped off in the wilderness where we are quickly reminded that “we are not enough on our own.”

Wilderness may not imply the same thing each time we find it in the bible, but it does not likely keep showing up by accident. In contrast, we seem to spend much time convincing ourselves we can avoid the wilderness. Still, Exodus insists on taking us there and making us aware that “we are not enough on our own.” Our best attempts at survival fall short and we must depend on something other than ourselves.

In the wilderness our situation is bleak. Think about it, us against the wilderness, us against hunger, us against thirst, us against an opposing army, us against the elements. The odds are not in our favor. Exodus is clear; we cannot survive on our own. Yet, there is more to the story, we are not on our own.

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The wilderness has a tug on me. It always seems to be pulling me in its direction. I have a natural preference to wade in streams and stare at sky and hike the forests. However, I often find myself surrounded by tall buildings and concrete sidewalks and asphalt lots. No matter the different places we might find ourselves, it remains important to keep our eyes open in order to capture the stories that may be found there. We cannot stop looking across the terrain, remaining attentive when walking alleys, sitting coffee shops, talking on the street. All the while exploring beauty, searching for wonder, and looking for ways that God is at work.

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One of the things that I look forward to each year is lighting candles each week during Advent.  Last week we lit the candle of hope.  Another thing I look forward to each year is a television program on PBS called “Christmas in Yellowstone.”  One of the interesting discussions during this program is about John Colter who may have been the first European settler to travel this land.

It is thought that John Colter may have served as a ranger in Kentucky for Simon Kenton.  There he learned frontier skills that were noticed by Meriwether Lewis who offered him a job on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition.  But the tale that ensured his legend occurs when Colter and John Potts are captured as prisoners of the Blackfeet tribe.  Potts was killed and dismembered.  Colter was stripped naked and told to run.  Perhaps one of the great foot races of all time, the Blackfeet intended to hunt him for sport, but Colter continued running for over five miles where he is said to have hid inside a beaver lodge and escaped.

As interesting as I find the legend of Colter, my current interest in the wilderness comes from reading the Old Testament book of Numbers, a book that tells of another wilderness experience.  Philip J. Budd prefers the Hebrew title “In the Wilderness.”  This is fitting since the movement of the book takes us from Sinai through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  Three geographical references help shape this movement.  These are “the wilderness of Sinai” (1.1), “the wilderness of Paran” (10.12), and “the plains of Moab” (22.1).

It is while camping in the plains of Moab we find a reading that is of particular interest to us this time of year.  Hear we meet Balak, king of Moab and Balaam, son of Beor. Moab was in great fear of Israel and Balak joined with the Midianites to summon Balaam to curse Israel.

During the course of this episode it appears that the people of God can not be cursed.  The efforts of the king of Moab are in vain and at one point a donkey speaks to Balaam.  It is of interest to us at a time when we are listening for a voice other than the dominant voices of culture that God is able to speak through a donkey.  It is also noteworthy that the donkey was more perceptive than the so-called prophet.

Eventually, Balaam realizes that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel.  At this point, “he did not go as at other times to seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness… and saw Israel camping… and the Spirit of God came upon him.”  He goes on to offer counsel for “the days to come.”  His words include “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, And a scepter will rise from Israel.”  It is difficult not to notice messianic overtones here.  Budd suggests that this is most likely a metaphor for a king.  And adds that this is a prophecy for the future.

Certainly Numbers wants us to be aware that God’s rule cannot be hindered by the schemes of men.  And I can’t help but think of a star that rose above a later descendant of Jacob to signal the birth of a King.  A reading like this one reminds us that no matter what kind of wilderness we may live in it is the perfect place to light the candle of hope.

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There is a section in the Old Testament where we follow David around in the wilderness.  He stayed in the wilderness of Ziph, he stayed in the wilderness of Maon, he stayed in the wilderness of Engedi.  Following David, we leave one wilderness only to find another.  David is on the run.  His life is in danger.  His only safety appears to be in strongholds.  While on the run, David is willing to lie to the priest, steal food, even pull out his sword for survival.  This is not our David of choice.  This is not the way we envision biblical heroes.

Eugene Peterson points out that David’s wilderness story is surrounded by two better known wilderness stories.  Between forty years in the wilderness where God’s people are struggling between worshipping idols and the Living God and forty days and nights where God’s son is struggling with the temptation of using God or submitting to God.  In both, worship is at stake.  In both, survival is at stake.  It should be no surprise that in David’s wilderness story – worship and survival are also part of the plot line.  It may be a surprise to find out how important food becomes in each of these wilderness stories about worship and survival.  (God provides manna for his people in the wilderness.  Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread in the wilderness.  David steals consecrated bread while hiding in the wilderness).

 This wilderness story finds David on the run, seeking food, fighting for survival.  David is a renegade, a rogue, hungry, wild.  We don’t want a wild David.  We don’t want a renegade David, running for his life, lying to the priest, eating consecrated bread, removing Goliath’s sword from the holy place.  We want a David writing psalms and building the kingdom of Israel, a David shepherding sheep and slaying giants.  We prefer a domesticated David in a tame wilderness.  But we get neither.  We get a renegade David in an unpredictable wilderness.

David’s story is one of death, hunger, and foolishness.  But also one of wealth, feasting, and holiness.  Of rescue and betrayal.  Of friendship and enemies.  Of escape and refuge.  Of espionage and prayer.  But no matter where his story takes us – David’s story, at every juncture, is about God.  This is not a God that we have figured out.  Not one that we can predict.  No matter what we are hiding or where – he knows and sees.  No matter how surprising our sins – God can surprise us even more.  David’s story demonstrates that God is not in our control.

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