Grumbling in the Desert

There’s this way that most Evangelicals I know read the stories of the Exodus and the Desert Wanderings. (Other people besides Evangelicals may look at those accounts this way, too, but I wouldn’t like to speak for them. Where did this blog-non-sequitur come from? Well, I’m reading Exodus these mornings, that’s where.) We read about the Israelites being stuck between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, and we say, “Well duh. Why would God have brought them out of Egypt in the first place if He couldn’t get them out of a bind like that? Didn’t they just see 10 pretty ridiculously incredible plagues? Those silly, whiny, imperceptive Israelites.” Then we find some scenario in our own lives in which we haven’t been (or aren’t being) very good at trusting God and we deplore ourselves, too: “And look! We do the same thing!”

I don’t actually think that’s a bad way to read those stories, because it’s true–the people leaving Egypt weren’t overly perceptive regarding the works of God, and nor are we, most of the time. At least, I’m not.

Yesterday morning I was reading that story and saw it from a slightly different slant. The Israelites are camped on the shores of the Red Sea. The Egyptians are having second thoughts about letting all their slave labour just walk out of the country and so the army has hustled after them. The Israelites, becoming aware of the encroaching Egyptians, are freaking out a bit, and they start reminiscing about the good ol’ days as slaves. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems a little bizarre, but there they are, fearing that they have only been brought out into the desert for God to exterminate them all. Wouldn’t it have been better to die a slave and be buried in Egypt? (Later, since they get stuck wandering around for forty years, they riff off this theme and start lamenting the absence of leeks and things in their Egyptian diet. This complaint is kind of all-purpose; no matter what they’re facing, there’s some reason staying enslaved in Egypt would have been better.)

Immediately after they say this, Moses says, “Stop being so fearful! Remain steady, and you will see how Adonai is going to save you. He will do it today–today you have seen the Egyptians, but you will never see them again! Adonai will do battle for you. Just calm yourselves down!” (Ex 14.13-14, CJB).

I never thought about it this way until yesterday, but in light of the fact that the Israelites had just been missing Egypt, I wonder if there weren’t one or two of them who felt a little pang when they were told they would never see the Egyptians again. I started wondering if this inspirational speech might not have been such a comfort to the people as it was supposed to be, because they didn’t really know or trust God yet. In spite of the fact that God had spared them most of the plagues, He must have seemed a harsh and frightening God. In contrast, the overlordship with which they were familiar was that of the Egyptians. They were clearly afraid of it, and it was harsh, but it was not all-powerful. You have to think that this group of people had been praying for deliverance for so many generations they didn’t even know what it would look like. Certainly they would not have known any other life than Egypt’s.

In further thinking about this, I decided that human beings, in a classically codependent way, “love” what enslaves us. After God destroyed that Egyptian army before their eyes, I suspect they were both relieved and terrified–God had annihilated the framework of their lives.

This in no way justifies forty years of doubt and whining (either in them or in me), but it does make it make a little more sense to me, I guess. It helps me also to see how small-thoughted and petty I am when God calls me to a new facet of trust. It also makes friends’ resistance to the “Good News” seem easier to understand. We’re all slaves to something, and it’s much simpler to perceive someone else’s slavedriver than the one that afflicts our own selves. I have friends whom I love and for whom I have been praying for years. I think I can see pretty clearly what the issues are that are holding them back from trusting Jesus, even though I have also seen Him working in their lives. I feel like they must see those issues clearly, too, and that they’re just being stubborn. “Well duh . . . ” But when any of our pet sins are challenged, we think we love those “gods of Egypt” and only see God as the harsh Destroyer, when really, He is the giver of true Life. Sometimes it takes something as drastic as His destroying the power of the captors in our lives, so that we never see them again. I’m not always sure I want to see the last of them. But little by little I’m learning that, sometimes-drastic measures notwithstanding, God is the one who is really powerful and who gives my life a framework and a purpose and, what cannot be said for any of the other gods, loves me. And my friends, too. I hope we learn to see and trust and know Him together.


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