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Where the Wild Things Are: Developing a Working Wilderness Theology

Lesson #9 — The Wilderness is a Pulpit

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness…(Deuteronomy 1:1, HCSB)

The book of Deuteronomy is primarily a collection of three separate sermons given from Moses to the people of Israel following their 40-year sojourn through the wilderness. Israel is poised to enter the land of promise that Yahweh first promised to their ancestor Abraham. Prior to entry, Moses is first commissioned to offer a panorama of the events that have led up to this critical moment in the nation’s history.

Before Israel is to possess the land promised to their ancestor Abraham, they first must take to heart the difficult lessons they’ve learned in the wilderness.

It is for this reason that Deuteronomy opens and closes in this wilderness, with Israel eagerly awaiting entry to the land of Canaan. This pause in the narrative once again forces the observant bible reader to take note of this recurring setting in the Old Testament narrative.

The fact that Israel is given a final word from Moses in the wilderness rather than in their settled dwelling cannot be an accident, and this comes out in Moses’ address to the nation.

There must be something about the wilderness that makes it an ideal location for this seminal address from Moses.

And you saw in the wilderness how the Lord your God carried you as a man carries his son all along the way you traveled until you reached this place. (Deuteronomy 1:31, HCSB)

Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. (Deuteronomy 8:2, HCSB)

He led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty land where there was no water. (Deuteronomy 8:15, HCSB)

He fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers had not known, in order to humble and test you, so that in the end He might cause you to prosper. (Deuteronomy 8:16, HCSB)

I led you 40 years in the wilderness; your clothes and the sandals on your feet did not wear out… (Deuteronomy 29:5, HCSB)

But the Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob, His own inheritance. He found him in a desolate land, in a barren, howling wilderness; He surrounded him, cared for him, and protected him as the pupil of His eye. (Deuteronomy 32:9–10, HCSB)

This collection of wilderness references throughout the book of Deuteronomy reveals to the reader what makes the wilderness such an ideal pulpit for which Moses and Joshua can captivate the people of God.

The wilderness proved to be an effective pulpit for several reasons:

Perhaps the most useful feature of the wilderness setting for transmission and reception of proclamation is the simple fact that such a setting forces the people to be dependent on outside provision. When the One who wishes to address you is also the One providing for you in a desolate setting, this setting has proven itself effective for the purpose of grabbing one’s attention. One tends to be highly attentive to the surgeon from the vantage point of a hospital bed, pre-surgery. So too, Moses will have Israel’s attention in the wilderness as he addressed the assembly on behalf of their God.

As well, the longer this provision is sustained, the more effective the setting that necessitates the provision will prove to be. Israel has depended on God for survival for several decades. They’ve been forced to learn how to heed His voice in the wilderness. Time and necessity have created this paradigm.

Humility is another familiar fruit that blossoms when the wilderness is the pulpit for proclamation. It is impossible to maintain an ego in the wilderness. The harsh reality of the wilderness is a reminder of the fragile existence humans possess in a fallen world. A settled, manicured life insulates us from this reality on a daily basis. The wilderness strips us of this facade and reveals the true nature and our place in it. The appropriate posture in such a setting is to humble oneself. And, when Israel is in such a humble state, the provisions of God (which are many over a sustained period of time) prominently stand out.

Finally, the wilderness is the ideal pulpit for proclamation, because as ancestors of Adam the wilderness is the initial location where the Living God finds us, rescues us, and prepares us. This image of Israel as found and adopted by God in a desolate wilderness is a running theme in the Old Testament. It is in desolation that God finds us. This is a spiritual certainty.

It is in desolation that God finds us. This is a spiritual certainty.

It is for this reason that the wilderness is a most effective pulpit. It reminds us of where we were found by God, in a place of lowly need. The wilderness is where we discovered our fragility… our need for great aid.

Where better to hear from the One who gives us a future beyond what we are able to create for ourselves?

Perhaps now is the ideal time for Christians to embrace the reality of the wilderness as an effective pulpit in a time of significant uncertainty; a time when the typical pulpits of our churches are unable to operate as effectively in a time of social distancing. There is no need to fear in such circumstance if the wilderness offers itself as a platform for teaching and reminding.

And rest assured, this will not be the last time in the biblical narrative that the wilderness will be the pulpit of choice for the one whom God commissions to address His people.

We will find as this study continues that the wilderness is a time-honored pulpit for those to whom God desires to speak.

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Ty Benbow

Ty Benbow

Doctor of Ministry — Assistant Professor — Biblical Studies Department, Warner University