Becoming God’s People: Into the Wilderness

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7

Last week where we left off, Moses and the Israelites are at long last on the far shore of the Red Sea.  They’ve crossed the sea on dry land, they’ve watched the waters roar back into place, they’ve seen the bodies of those who previously enslaved them tossed onto the shore.  Finally, freedom is theirs.

It might seem like this is a good time for the curtains to close on a happy ending.  Maybe add a few scenes of the Israelites’ new life outside of Egypt just for a nice little denouement.  But as I said last week, this is still the beginning of the story.  Because now that they’re free, it’s time to figure out what it means to live in ongoing relationship with the God who freed them.

On that far shore of the Red Sea, safe and free and headed for the Promised Land, the Israelites look around them and they see – wilderness.

It’s rocky.  It’s barren.  And it’s vast.  And most importantly, it’s not where they are supposed to end up.

And yet here they are.

And here they are destined to wander for a time, caught in between the land where they were slaves and the land that finally awaits them.

The wilderness is an in-between time. It is a time of wandering, going back and forth, wondering why they are there, never seeming to make much progress in the journey at all.  As one writer put it, in the wilderness the Israelites are a people “stuck between promise and fulfillment.”[1]

Have you ever been in the wilderness?

One of the books on my shelf I return to again and again is called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  Its author, Lauren Winner, wrote it as a series of thoughts and essays about feeling like she was in what she called the “middle of her spiritual life.”  She found herself there after two major life events: her mother died, and she got divorced.  She had come to Christianity as a convert, with all the passion and enthusiasm that entails, but now, she said, “as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die too.”[2]

But it wasn’t dead, it was just changing, being tested and making room for uncertainty.  I think this is the kind of experience that can be described as being in the wilderness: somewhere between the beginning and the end, where you’re not really sure where the road leads or if you’re on the right road at all.  You might find yourself there in any number of ways that life doesn’t follow the straight and sure path you once envisioned.

But the thing is it’s in the wilderness that the real story begins to take shape, the story of becoming God’s people.

It’s not long after the thrill of victory at the sea that things start to get real.

The Israelites journey for three days with no water.  Finally they come to a place where there is water, but the water is bitter, not fit to be consumed.  The thrill of freedom is already beginning to wear fade.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at God.  This is about to become a pattern.  But then God shows Moses a special tree and Moses takes a branch from the tree and sticks it in the water and suddenly, the water becomes sweet.

There, the Bible says, God tested them.  God gives them a “statute and ordinance,” and God tells them that if they obey, it will go well for them. God doesn’t say what happens otherwise.

That night they camp at an oasis.

But it’s not long before things start to go downhill again.  This time, the people don’t have any food.  They yell at Moses.  “Why couldn’t God have just killed us in Egypt?” they say.  “At least there we had food.  Have you brought us out to this god-forsaken desert just to starve us to death?”

Moses takes it up with God.    That evening quails cover the camp.  And the next morning, the people wake up to see that fine, flaky bread has fallen from the sky.  Manna, they call it, from the Hebrew for “What’s that?”

But God tests them again, telling them to only gather enough for the day, not to try to hoard it for tomorrow.  It would not be entirely fair to say the people passed the test.  The extra manna they collect rots away, but still the manna keeps falling, every morning, for the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert.

That brings us to today, in the wilderness of Rephidim.  The people’s bellies are full, but once again, there is no water.  The people yell at Moses.  This time Moses yells back.  “Why are you testing God?” he says.  You see, the Israelites can test God too.

These years that the Israelites spend wandering in the wilderness are many things, but one thing is that they are a time of testing.  And that should be expected.  Remember, this is a new divine-human relationship.  The Israelites have followed out of Egypt a God who spoke to their ancestors, but who seems to have suddenly remembered them after many years.  God has nothing less than the redemption of God’s creation in mind, but it remains to be seen whether this is really the people who God will use to accomplish that purpose.

New relationships are always, in a sense, a time of testing.

I don’t necessarily mean in an overt way, though I do think back to old episodes of I Love Lucy that I used to watch, where Lucy and Ethel would dress up and put on wigs to try to catch Ricky and Fred in the act of flirting with other women.  (Yeah, sometimes I just like to go for the really modern pop culture references.) That’s the kind of testing that would raise some red flags in pre-marital counseling with me these days.  But in new relationships, boundaries must be navigated, common areas have to be sought.  I think of this even as the parent of a toddler.  How far can things be pushed?  How can I best get you to listen to me and follow my instructions?  Will you still love me if I push things too far, or if I snap and yell?

These are things that have to be worked out together in real time.  And that’s what God and the Israelites are doing.

But of course this relationship between God and the Israelites is no ordinary relationship; it’s not a relationship between equals.  And that means the testing isn’t the same on both sides.  Maybe you remember this story from a little later in the Bible: When Jesus is in the wilderness, just before he begins his earthly ministry, Satan appears and tempts him.  In a vision, he brings Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem.  And he says, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for as it is written, God will send his angels to catch you so you don’t even hit your foot on a stone.” And Jesus says, “As it is also written, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”  (Luke 4:9-12).

Human beings aren’t supposed to test God.

If Jesus had done it, if he had thrown himself off of the Temple, he would have been demanding that God prove Godself.

And when the Israelites test God in the wilderness, demanding water, they’re doing the same thing.  The verse Jesus quotes to Satan even refers back to this wilderness period.  On the one hand, you can see where they’re coming from.  They need water.  It’s not like they’re demanding caviar here.  They’re not asking for special treatment, just fulfillment of their basic human need.  And I suspect that our most adamant prayers often do the same.  Most people don’t have a crisis of faith because God didn’t make them rich and famous.

And yet the last words of today’s passage are telling.  They tell us of the renaming of this place in the wilderness, from Rephidim to Massah and Meribah, because it was there, the story goes, that the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So far in the story, God has rained hail on the Egyptians, led the Israelites through the sea on dry land, brought them safely to the other shore.  When they’ve been thirsty, God has given them water to drink.  When they’ve been hungry, God has rained quails and manna from heaven.  When the Israelites test God by demanding water once again, by making water the condition by which they will believe that God is still with them, they forget all the ways God has already shown them God is.

And yet it’s such a human thing, to think that God is only with us and only watching over us when we have immediate and tangible blessings to point to.

In the wilderness of your own life, have you ever felt like God is testing you?  Maybe in a month when you weren’t sure your paycheck would stretch to the end?  Or during the long illness of a loved one? Or a time in life when everything just seemed to pile up and become more than you could handle?  Did it feel like God was putting all of that on you for a purpose, to see if you would be faithful even when it got hard?

Does God really work like that?  It seems kind of harsh.  And yet for these Israelites in the wilderness, maybe there are some things they need to learn, before they can move forward as God’s people.

Here’s what I discovered when I read the story again more closely.  God tests the Israelites, but God is never said to test them by depriving them of things they need.  The lack of water is not a test.  The lack of food is not a test.  Instead, God tests the Israelites by setting expectations.  Here are the rules I need you to follow.  Here is what it means to live as my people. Things like not hoarding your manna; trusting there will be enough again the next day.  The test isn’t how we’ll react when everything is taken away; it’s what we’ll do with the blessings that sustain us on the journey.

And then God sits back to see if God’s people will be faithful.

If you ever have been through a wilderness period in your own life, I wonder if you’ve been able to look back and find that there was beauty in the wandering, beauty in living in the in-between.  It’s the kind of beauty I think we often have to see in retrospect.  It’s not a place we want to be, we want to move ahead to the Promised Land, whatever that looks like, or at least be safely back in the familiar oppression of Egypt.  But the real story takes shape in the wilderness.  That’s where we learn and grow, where we figure out what we really need and what’s really important, who we are and who God is in relation to us.  Not in Egypt, not in the Promised Land, but in the wilderness.

Toward the end of her book Still, Lauren Winner tells the story of visiting a church out of town and ending up sitting near a woman who she says “looks like she has seen better days.”  She smells, she wears sunglasses through the whole service, she doesn’t sing the hymns or join in the responsive readings.  And then in the middle of the sermon this woman begins to tap her finger on her knee.  And she just keeps tapping.  And finally Lauren, without thinking, reaches out and closes her hand over this woman’s hand to stop the tapping.  She’s horrified at having done this, but then she says she realizes the woman doesn’t seem to be offended – instead, she realizes she is holding her hand.  And they hold hands for the rest of the service.

Lauren writes, “That is part of what I mean when I say it is life inside this Christian story that has begun to tell me who I really am.”[3]

And I add: even when the wilderness isn’t full of aha moments of growth and learning, or even when it is, maybe it is still full of small moments of beauty like this.

And in fact if you read later biblical traditions about this time in the wilderness, the record is mixed.  Some writers remember it as a time of grumbling on the Israelites’ part and well-deserved wrath on God’s part.  But some remember it as a time of grace and provision, when the Israelites, in the end, got everything they needed for their journey.

That’s what happened at Massah and Meribah.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at the people.  Moses yells at God.

And God tells Moses to take his staff, the same one he stretched over the Red Sea, and hit a rock.  And Moses does, and out gushes water.

And of course in the midst of it all it’s human to doubt, and human to despair, and human to wonder if God is really going to come through.  Because the wilderness is vast and barren, and sometimes we are there for a very long time.

But in the end, we look back and we say – God was with us all the time.



[1] Terrence Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, p. 187.

[2] Still, p. xv

[3] Still, p. 181

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