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Where the Wild Things Are: Developing a Working Wilderness Theology

Lesson # 7 — Wilderness as Exile

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Send men to scout out the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man who is a leader among them from each of their ancestral tribes.” Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran at the Lord’s command. (Numbers 13:1–3 HCSB)

In the previous three lessons, we have identified how God tested His people in the wilderness (lesson #4), how God purified His people in the wilderness (lesson #5), and how God joined (or tabernacled with) His people in the wilderness (lesson #6).

In this lesson, it is essential to recognize that the wilderness is also a backdrop for the strongest of corrections; the wilderness as exile.

One hopes that the reader captures the interconnectivity of previous lessons as this wilderness motif crests into a more difficult discovery this week. If God sees fit to test his people, purify his people, and join his people in the wilderness, it only makes sense that God would also use the wilderness as a place of exile for his people.

Previously, we learned that God saw fit to prepare Israel for a permanent dwelling that He was resolved to offer them. Such resolve was met by an equally fervent desire to achieve distinction with His people from among the nations.

Israel must resemble and bear witness to their set apartness, so that their affiliation with YHWH will be apparent for all the world to see. The prosperity God is ready to provide Israel is not without responsibility. This was the point behind the testing and purifying of Israel by God in the wilderness; for the moment when Israel is set to interact with the nations on behalf of YHWH.

Thriving in the midst of the desolation of the wilderness with God appears to be a prerequisite to prosperity in a future domain (also with God).

Israel arrives on the border of the Promised Land, and God does not immediately send the entire assembly of Israel into the land. Instead, Moses is to appoint twelve men — one from each tribe — to survey the land and bring a report back to the assembly.

Three things of note as we analyze this passage:

1- The leaders are to analyze the land. They are not to actually commanded to make any other observations. A clear contrast between the bounty of the land and the bareness of the wilderness will soon become apparent. Ironically, it is Moses who commands the men to scout the people, cities and strongholds.

2- Notice the present tense of God’s determination to gift Israel with the land of Promise. It is an action God is presently in the midst of doing. “I am giving.” Not, “I will give.” I believe this is important to what will happen next.

3- Finally, it is significant that the men will go out of the wilderness, into the land for forty days, and then back into the wilderness. This pattern is inverted when Jesus experiences His own wilderness testing prior to His public ministry.

The report the scouts bring back to the Assembly can be found at the end of Numbers 13, and the report centers on two things. The scouts find that the land is indeed as bountiful as God promised, but it is also (predictably) filled with people. YHWH has been unblinking in His promise to give Israel a land prepared for them. Here, the reader will recognize whether or not Israel has learned anything from their tests in the wilderness.

Caleb and Joshua, two of the twelve appointed scouts, are eager in their assessment that they must take up the land immediately, but they are significantly outvoted.

The issue at hand - as far as a great majority of the twelve scouts are concerned - is solely the presence of those who at that present time occupied the land. Israel did not yet see the people of Canaan as God saw them. They are viewed only as an inextinguishable threat.

The narrative reveals how Israel fails on no less than two levels:

1- They forget the power of YHWH. The people of Canaan were certainly not as great of a threat to the people of God as Pharaoh and Egypt were, and yet YHWH had no trouble with the world power of that time period. Why would Canaan be a problem to a living God who had demolished mighty Egypt? The exact words of the scouts is that the people occupying the land are stronger than they are. The strength of God is never mentioned. This is a failure. And it would be a mistake if we also did not recall God’s provision for Israel while in the wilderness. If God can provide for Israel’s needs in a barren setting, can God not also provide in a different setting?

2- Israel also could not discern the larger focus of their entrance into Canaan, which was as a mechanism of judgment for some and salvation for others. (More on this later).

Then the whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites complained about Moses and Aaron, and the whole community told them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to die by the sword? Our wives and little children will become plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell down with their faces to the ground in front of the whole assembly of the Israelite community. 6 Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who scouted out the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite community: “The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us. Only don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land, for we will devour them. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Don’t be afraid of them!” While the whole community threatened to stone them, the glory of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the tent of meeting. (Numbers 14:1–10 HCSB)

As the first ten verses of Numbers 14 clearly illustrates, only two men pass this test. Caleb and Joshua view this venture in light of who God is and what God has promised. The rest of the nation has failed to comprehend God’s tests and has failed to recognize the power of God’s presence among them. After everyone has had ample time to share their view (with a mutiny and return to Egypt planned) God enters the debate.

Interestingly, God speaks directly to Moses rather than Israel as a whole. While Israel fails her test, Moses must undergo his own test in the wilderness… and succeeds (read Numbers 14:11–19).

However, what is of direct relation to the wilderness motif we are investigating in this series is not Moses, but rather God’s bleak promise to the rest of Israel.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: “How long must I endure this evil community that keeps complaining about Me? I have heard the Israelites’ complaints that they make against Me. Tell them: As surely as I live,” this is the Lord’s declaration, “I will do to you exactly as I heard you say. Your corpses will fall in this wilderness — all of you who were registered in the census, the entire number of you 20 years old or more — because you have complained about Me. I swear that none of you will enter the land I promised to settle you in, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. I will bring your children whom you said would become plunder into the land you rejected, and they will enjoy it. But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds in the wilderness for 40 years and bear the penalty for your acts of unfaithfulness until all your corpses lie scattered in the wilderness. You will bear the consequences of your sins 40 years based on the number of the 40 days that you scouted the land, a year for each day. You will know My displeasure. I, Yahweh, have spoken. I swear that I will do this to the entire evil community that has conspired against Me. They will come to an end in the wilderness, and there they will die.” (Numbers 14:26–35 HCSB)

And so, the wilderness will serve as a place of exile for the same generation that was liberated from Egypt by way of the same wilderness.

It is critical to recognize that wilderness exile has multiple purposes for Israel:

1- Extinction — for a majority of the nation, the wilderness will be their grave. Here it is important to notice the consistency of God’s actions throughout Scripture. Briefly consider the following three passages and make note from where they are cited throughout Scripture:

  • You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:17 HCSB)
  • Yahweh — Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6–7 HCSB)
  • You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. (Matthew 5:13 HCSB)

What this consistent record reveals to us is both the unflinching loyalty of God and God’s equally strident standard of devotion for those commissioned to carry out His purposes.

The faithlessness of Israel’s first generation, liberated from Egypt, has disqualified them from carrying out the larger work at play in God’s cosmic venture of restoration.

We cannot forget even for a moment the persistent problem of the biblical narrative thus far — death. Disobedience leads to human demise. What/who can possibly be strong enough to intervene in the midst of this cosmic plight? This tension will continue to build as Israel’s failures metastasize.

2- Preparation … While one generation perishes, the other is prepared for the conquest forfeited by their elders. It is certainly an act of grace that these two actions intertwine. Why? Because, though the wilderness is a place of exile it is also still a place of provision and presence. God does not suddenly cease to dwell with Israel.

Historically, God’s people have viewed correction as a sign of the absence of God and blessing as a sign of God’s presence. This is not supported by the Biblical narrative. King David, The prophet Jonah, and Saul of Tarsus would all testify that God’s presence and provision in the midst of correction was undeniable.

3- Preservation … Joshua and Caleb, one might recall, succeeded in passing the test a grand majority of their generation failed. For them, the wilderness is a place of preservation. Both men will play a critical role in the conquest of Canaan. They are being preserved for future work in the same setting others are perishing.

This is certainly a timely lesson for us today. The same setting can be a place of flourishing for some and a place of correction for others. The wilderness, for Israel, is a versatile setting.

Finally, we do well to identify the grace of God in the entirety of this episode. Though virtually an entire nation has failed (and their leader Moses soon will too), this does not prevent God from continuing to provide and dwell amongst the people. Manna and quail continue to provide strength even to the disqualified.

In review, the same God who has tested, purified, and dwelt among His people in the wilderness, has now returned His people to wilderness for exile. This exile serves multiple purposes — extinction for some, and preparation/preservation for others.

Next week, we will examine the wilderness as a setting for healing.

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Ty Benbow

Ty Benbow

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