A. The Way of the Wilderness – The Roundabout Way
The journey of the Exodus was a journey to the Promised Land, the journey to freedom – through the wilderness. God leads the Israelites, not through the direct coastal route (the way of the sea) that goes up to Philistia, but through the Wilderness Road. Having lived for over 400 years in Goshen, around the basins of the Nile, you wonder if the escaping slaves were in a position to fully reckon with the realities of life in the wilderness. The journey through the wilderness was to become a long one, lasting for over forty years. It was certainly the more difficult option for Israel to arrive at the Promised Land. It was the one option chosen by God for Israel to enter into freedom.
“Why does God decide to make difficult choices for his people?” was the question put to me by a student in class. My retort, “why did God make the most difficult choice of winning our salvation by allowing his only Son to die on the Cross?” was not so much of a comfort for the student. How to make sense of a long and treacherous journey, when a more direct route could have saved time and cost, remains a challenge to faith for all generations of believers. And so the journey of the wilderness can be said to be the Old Testament equivalent of the journey of Jesus to Golgotha – both of them paschal journeys that resulted in the birth of new life and a new era of freedom.
The long Journey
Many times the church is afraid of daring to enter the wilderness – the long battles to be fought, the revolts and civil wars that are engendered in attempts to navigate uncertainty and negotiate diversity. Some Christians, in their vision of piety and holiness, suspect some church leaders of subversive intentions each time they attempt to embrace the world and open the church to the ‘signs of the times.’ In an age of global interconnections and intercultural exchanges, perhaps Christians today can find in the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness paradigms of how to arrive at a “Christian identity” shared across diverse local expressions all over the globe. But the diversity of interests, the conflict of opinions, and the battle for inclusion and legitimacy, must be recognized. I am reminded of a few subversive moments during the wilderness journey of Israel. The book of Numbers 11ff begins a series of narratives that focused on complaints and protests from groups within the liberated people. These chapters air the rancorous voices of individuals infected by doubts, of groups troubled by memories of Egyptian abundance, and unhappy with the privileges of the exalted position of Moses. For these groups freedom from Pharaoh should not translate to enslavement to Mosaic authority. Numbers 16 is instructional: Korah, Dathan and Abiram find faults with Moses and Aaron: “You take too much on yourselves! The whole community, all its members, are consecrated, and Yahweh lives among them. Why set yourselves higher than Yahweh’s community?” (Numbers 16:3). In their confrontation, Dathan and Abiram call Egypt ‘a country flowing with milk and honey’ and accuse Moses of intending to kill the people in the desert. Leading them out of Egypt, he had not led them to any land flowing with milk and honey, and he had not given the people fields and vineyards for their heritage. Instead he was trying to hoodwink the people with his absolute power – so the accusation. (cf. Ranen p.96ff).
Similar protests were heard few decades ago when Pope John XXIII was announcing the convocation of the Vatican Council II, where he mandated the Council Fathers to “open the windows of the Church to let in fresh air.” This convocation was like an invitation to Christians to embrace the daunting identity of a pilgrim’s existence, and not to be complacent and cramped within institutional forms of their Christian expression. The challenges in implementing some of the visions of this Council, especially in the dialogue with the outside world, in the introduction of new modes of liturgy, interfaith initiatives, the envisioning of the social presence of the Church in the world, etc, only go to buttress the urgency of a new wilderness journey for the construction of ‘models’ of the Christian mission and ministry in a rapidly changing world. It is important to ask where the Christianity of today stands with respect to the issues affecting the world of today – immigration, globalization, climate change, feminism, racism, etc. Today in some quarters in the Church, one has the feeling that the agenda and visions the Vatican Council II set before us continues to be uncomfortable for groups, structures and persons within the Church; that some of the windows that the Council wanted to open are beginning to get closed again; and that the Church is getting stuffy again for lack of fresh air.
The easy option
Many are the attractions of the easy option. The direct route to Canaan would have taken the escapees, already exhausted from centuries of hard labour, through the coastal regions to Canaan. Food and drink would not have become burning issues for the people. Imagine how differently the story would have been, if Israel were to have been spared the hazards of 40 years of trying to find a way to Canaan through the barren landscape! Yes, the easy option would have been the more comfortable, but it is difficult to know if it would have been the most rewarding. The direct route, for example, would have made it easier for Pharaoh’s forces to surround the escaping slaves and force their return. The roundabout option thus proved to be the veritable one that neutralized some of the advantages of Pharaoh’s forces, especially at the Red Sea.
And so we must endeavour to discover when and where God is inviting us to another wilderness journey as individuals, and as a church. Rabbi Sacks is certain that humanity cannot fully escape the shadows of the wilderness on its march through time: “There is … every indication in Exodus that freedom will involve a long journey. It is fair to say, thirty-three centuries later, that we have still not arrived at the destination. But freedom is not a blind journey, a road without a map. The destination is clearly signalled, though it lies beyond the horizon. It is the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, the land Moses spent his life leading his people towards but was not privileged himself to enter” (Sacks, 2010:16).
We the believers of today, it is perhaps easy for us – with the benefits of hindsight – to affirm the significance of the time in the wilderness as a period of preparation that equipped Israel for the many challenges of nation building later on in their history. But the escaping slaves then did not have this advantage. And so we could do well today to sympathize with some of their failings in the wilderness. We can understand their impatience against the ways of God at critical junctures during the journey. And there are still more lessons to be drawn from their persevering in the journey for over forty years.