Christians, Israel, and the Wilderness Wanderings

We are all familiar (or should be) with the time of Israel in the wilderness. Given that much of Christendom has spoken of the value of our “wilderness experiences”, it is worth looking at this event a bit more closely. How do the Old and New Testaments view this experience? Does it contain positive elements? Can Christians in fact gain any comfort from it?

One group at least seems to argue against any such consolation. I refer to the word of faith teachers, or the positive confessionists. They basically claim that all “negative” experiences, such as sickness, suffering or poverty, are of the devil, and have no place in the believer’s life.

Consider the comments of just one representative figure here, Charles Capps. In his book, Why Tragedy Happens to Christians, he says: “We have heard many sermons about how God led the children of Israel in the wilderness: and most of these sermons seem to convey that the ‘wilderness experience’ was to perfect them or make them stronger. But it did not make them stronger. It did not perfect their faith. It was not the will of God that they be in the wilderness all those years. Their ‘wilderness experience’ was not God’s blessing – it was a curse!”

There are a number of biblical passages on this episode, and they seem to give a rather different slant to the story. The relevant texts speak of God leading Israel through the desert (Ex. 13:17,18; Deut. 8:2; Ps. 136:16); of blessing them (Deut. 2:7; Ps. 78: 24-25); of caring for them (Hos. 13:5); of giving his spirit to instruct them (Neh. 9:20), and so on.

Indeed, as Dale Allison notes, “despite the tradition of disobedience and murmuring in the desert and the fact that there is no nomadic or desert ideal in the OT, the time in the wilderness was sometimes described in glowing terms (e.g., Is 63:11-14).”

All this does not sound like a curse to me. Sure, it is true that Israel did snub God’s good provision and blessing, and tested God, for which Yahweh grew angry (Deut. 9:7; Ps. 78:40-41; Heb. 3:8-10). But the point remains: God did indeed lead them into the wilderness.

Take for example Deuteronomy 8:2 which reads, “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”

Here the concepts of God’s leading and the educational function of the wanderings are stressed. Eugene Merrill suggests that in the light of the verbs ‘humble’ and ‘test’, “it may be best to see the desert itinerary as a learning experience rather than a punishing one. . . . Thus this is discipline in the positive sense of education.”

Thus it is not all gloom and doom. Indeed, Raymond Brown puts a very positive spin on this period. God had “been good to them in the barren desert. They had learned lessons there which prosperity could never have taught them. Through those bleak wilderness years, he had been like a compassionate father who occasionally has to discipline his children for their own good. Some lessons can only be learnt in trouble.”

Now the thinking of Capps and others is not without some foundation in this regard. Passages like Numbers 14:32-34 speak of God’s judgment on Israel, stating that they would suffer and die for their sins in the wilderness. But this came after their disbelief of the spies’ report on Canaan (Numbers 13).

This period of 40 years judgment (38 years according to Deut. 2:14) began after over a year of wilderness wanderings. As Chris Wright perceptively remarks, “There is always more than one way of looking at history. . . . Like other events in biblical history (e.g., the story of Joseph, the rise of the monarchy, and ultimately, of course, the cross itself), the wilderness wandering is presented to us both as arising out of human sin and rebellion and as having a divine purpose.”

An important New Testament commentary on the Old Testament wilderness wanderings is the story of Jesus’ own wandering into the wilderness to experience temptations. Most careful scholars acknowledge that among other things, Jesus is here acting as the true Israel.

What Israel was called to do and failed, Jesus did successfully. As Schneider and Brown comment, “The temptations of Jesus recapitulate, in his individual life as the Son of God, the temptations of the nation of Israel in their corporate life as the son of God.”

David Hill remarks: “In his confrontation with Satan, Jesus triumphs over the temptations to which Israel succumbed in the desert, and takes upon himself the destiny of Israel to carry it to its fulfilment.” Or as N.T. Wright put it, “the story of God’s people is being encapsulated, recapitulated, in his own work”.

The interesting point is that we are clearly told that Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness, being “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1). No Satanic source here. God was fully behind it. Now if Jesus was indeed meant to be a kind of showcase of what the new or true Israel was meant to be, can we take the principles and extend them backwards?

That is, can we argue that Israel too was led by God into the wilderness, contrary to the claims of the faith teachers? It seems that the biblical texts already cited, plus the example of Christ, could result in an affirmative response. Thus the biblical imagery of the wilderness contains both positive and negative elements. It is not to be seen purely in terms of judgment or curses.

It is, as Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman write, “an ambivalent image in the Bible. If it is a place of deprivation, danger, attack and punishment, it is also a place where God delivers his people, provides for them and reveals himself.” Thus there is a case to be made for God taking his people into ‘wilderness’ situations.

If we keep in mind that God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness, then such periods of testings and hardship can in fact be welcomed and not shunned. As P. C. Craigie remarks, “The wilderness makes or breaks a man; it provides strength of will and character. The strength provided by the wilderness, however, was not the strength of self-sufficiency, but the strength that comes from a knowledge of the living God.”

So when you next find yourself in a ‘wilderness situation,’ allow God to do his work in your life. While all the why’s of the situation may not be apparent, the who’s are – God will be with you in the desert, just as he was with his son Jesus.

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8 Replies to “Christians, Israel, and the Wilderness Wanderings”

  1. Thanks Bill – I’d never thought before of the implied link between the wilderness experience of ancient Israel and the wilderness 40-day temptation of Christ – a precious and very valid insight.

    In Hosea, the LORD speaks of a new exodus wilderness experience for Israel:

    14 “Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
    15 There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor[a] a door of hope.
    There she will respond[b] as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

    Hosea 2:14-15 [NIV]

    Hosea 2:15 Achor means trouble.
    Hosea 2:15 Or sing

    (I’ve left the translator’s footnotes in because they are relevant to the subject matter of this blog.)

    Our “valleys of trouble” are often God’s doors of hope for us if we are wise enough and humble enough to see it. Singing in the wildernesses of life can lead to surprising victories (2 Chronicles 20:1-29)!

    John Wigg

  2. God fathers His children through the tough days. A graduate in banking, accountancy and moving into economics, The Lord called me to serve in WW 11. In a medical unit. Yes, He was training me. Studying medicine for 6 years, God shaped me for service in South East Asia. My wife and I felt the Lord’s sweet Presence during these rich, blessed, yet desert years. Our six children claim the isolation in South East Asia were their richest days.
    Bill, your bible teaching is full-orbed. Thank you.
    Harrold Steward

  3. One of my favourite books, ‘The Israel of God’ by O.Palmer Robertson, delves deeply into the wilderness theme of the scriptures. Referring to the way the prophets deal with the wilderness theme, Palmer Robertson writes the following, with respect to Hosea –
    ‘Equally strong in the prophetic treatment (of the wilderness theme) is the tendency to view the wilderness as a place of both judgment and blessing. The second chapter of Hosea serves as an example. The wilderness represents for Hosea the first stage of Israel’s restoration, as well as its place of judgment. The Covenant Lord will remove Israel from Canaan and return her to the barren existence of the wilderness. Yet in the midst of this judgment for sin, the Covenant Lord “speaks to Israel’s heart” – Hosea 2:14 “Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.”

    And further on –
    ‘The most fascinating aspect of the prophetic treatment of the wilderness tradition is its development of the expectation of a new wilderness experience. The Covenant Lord will prepare a way for his people through the wilderness and lead them to their new Zion (Isa 40:3-5; 42:16; 43:19). In the wilderness, God will supply food and water for his people Isa 41: 17-20; 43:19-21; 49:10). He will again make water flow from the rock (Isa 48:21). The wilderness, in fact, will be transformed so that its barrenness will become a fruitful garden (Isa 35:6-7; 49:9-11; 55:13).’

    In the New Testament the writer of Hebrews describes the future of the people of the new covenant also as entering into a sabbath-rest after a life of wandering in the wilderness. The wilderness theme through the scriptures makes for a wonderfully fascinating study.

    Kerry Letheby

  4. Hi Bill, perfect timing. Just a note to thank you for all your output (I still don’t know how you do it all). As is often the case, when the wilderness is upon us and the way seems so unclear and even pointless, it seems you can pop out another piece that strikes the heart in a way that not only reminds us that He is there but challenges our thinking to the degree that we can perhaps find some acceptance and assurance that there is purpose, after all. I think it was Muggeridge quoting Dostoyevsky who said: ‘I want to be there when we finally understand what it’s all been for’.
    Ged Rackley

  5. I have long thought that Christ’s wilderness experience forged and solidified his determination to go through with doing the father’s will, the cost and the pain of which from a human point of view he would have had no experience beyond His knowledge of what humans had suffered before and His vast imagination. As for Israel’s experience in the wilderness, I believe it was supposed to be far shorter than it ended up, due to them not responding in humility and trust. The above quoted verse from Hosea confirms this, as we are not fit to truly receive the things of this world, vineyards etc until we have met and submitted to Him who is the creator and rightful owner of all these things.

    Gods richest blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. It could have taken just 11 days for the Israelites to reach the Promised Land after leaving Egypt. God had already delayed judgment for over 400 years on nations which indulged in amongst other sins child sacrifice, and because of the disobedience of Israel delayed it another 40.

    Yet 2.5 million managed to survive in the wilderness for 40 years. Back in 1973 in the Yom Kippur war the Egyptian army couldn’t last more than 3 days in the same desert. God’s provision is amazing.

    Today there is a faithful remnant of Jewish people who believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but we can look forward with hope to the day when the hearts of a remnant of unbelieving Israel melt and turn back to God and all Israel will be saved.

    Matt Vinay

  7. Israel wilderness experience was meant to be a place of both death and resurrection, the place where they could have a revelation of God and understand His ways Unfortunately instead of embracing the cross and being transformed, they refused to admit what was residing in their hearts, thought they could get by in their own strength and each time they were tested their hearts became even harder and their eyes blinder until they could not enter the promised land. Hebrews 3:7-11 warns us about making the same mistake, but I doubt we have fared any better.

    Rob Withall

  8. We don’t get our knowledge of God sitting in the pew on Sunday or at the mid week bible study. We get it experientially in the wilderness of the every day issues of life, especially tailor made by God for each individual.

    Rob Withall

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