And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord had disappeared. (Numbers 32:13)
Numbers follows the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan. The account of wilderness wanderings is replete with numerous cycles of testing, judgment, and redemption. Their precarious existence in the desert contrasts with the distorted memory of the bounty of Egypt. Moses bears the brunt of their bitterness and complaints, standing as an intermediary between God and the people. He appoints 12 spies to investigate Canaan. While the potential of the land exceeds expectations, the challenge of the conquest paralyzes their resolve. Only Caleb and Joshua contradict the narrative by reminding the people of God’s deliverance in the past. Overruled by doubt and cowardice, the Israelites turn back towards the wilderness after an aborted attempt to do battle on their own strength. Condemned to remain in the desert until all the original exiles over 20 have died, they begin 40 years of wandering. Even Moses is excluded from entering the promised land because he did not trust God to pour out living water from the rock. As his ministry draws to a close, authority transitions away from Moses to Joshua, God’s chosen successor. Through all the wilderness years, God remained faithful to his people despite their faith-less-ness.
“A Rock in the Wilderness”
In the wilderness, slavery’s sting vanishes in the mirage of nostalgia.
Under the cloud of God’s now but not yet,
Psalms of thanksgiving transpose into dissonance.
Wanderers complain about the present, idealize the past, and doubt the future.
Immobilized by cynicism and fear,
They turn back from the promised land,
forgetting God’s deliverance and grace.
Striking the living rock, Moses incurs God’s wrath along with his people.
As the healing waters flow, the journey comes to an end
And he glimpses the promised lands.
This is taken from the “Garden of Grace” collection: painting by Mindi Oaten; writing by Elaine Knudtson