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.