In January the Holy Spirit walked me through the book of Exodus and showed me many new insights. Now I’ve moved into Deuteronomy, and I’m fascinated to see how this book of Moses traces the same theme:
Yahweh is present with us when we are in captivity, when we are in the wilderness, and when we arrive in a new land of opportunity.
I do understand that the Exodus is a story about the ancient Israelites and is not entirely transferrable to me or the church of new covenant believers. But God’s goodness, mercy, and provision are fully applicable to us. We can learn much from their story.
We may be a different group of people with a unique relationship with him, but he is the same God. He is immutable, and so is his love for all of his people, Jew and Gentile, past, present, and future.
I’d like to trace God’s presence and active involvement with Israel in their captivity, in their journey through the wilderness, and in their claiming of the land promised to them. In doing so, I am challenging us to see this metaphorically, and to recognize how God has been present with us at all times also. He is faithful in times of captivity, in our wilderness wanderings, and when we enter and occupy new territory.
Egypt was a place of slavery. The Hebrew people had been multiplying in that land since the time of Joseph and posed a threat to the god-like Pharoah who ruled them. They went from honored guests to captives subject to all manner of abuse.
In spite of the harsh conditions, Egypt was also a place of provision. Their basic needs were met, and they were strong enough to produce millions of children. The Hebrew slaves were fed and housed. This is verified by their complaint to Moses when in the wilderness they only had manna for dinner:
“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Num. 11:4-5).
We may view them with a critical eye, so ruled by their appetites that they would consider going back to Egypt to satisfy their stomachs. But even as I type this, I feel a twinge of shame about the times when I have chosen comfort and safety on my own terms over freedom and complete trust in the Father.
Nevertheless, as the people were still slaves to their humanness, God was free to take care of them in many ways. God was present and fully aware of his people’s needs during their long captivity. He had a plan, and a timeframe to carry it out. In the meantime, he heard their cries and prepared humble Moses to be their rescuer. He confided in Moses,
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7).
“I am concerned.”
Moses and Pharoah entered a series of contentious negotiations about the release of the Israelites, and I picture our concerned God hovering over these conversations, listening. Pharoah spits out his stubborn wrath, declaring,
“Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).
God’s answer? I AM THE LORD
God had been God Almighty to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, emphasizing his otherness. The term LORD emphasizes relationship. Just as a person isn’t a leader if no one is following him, a lord is not a lord without people submitting to his lordship.
In this way, God identifies with his people. He tells Israel,
“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians” (Ex. 6:7).
The LORD’s rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt was so dramatic and shocking to all who witnessed, that it was to be recognized every year in perpetuity in the Passover observances. Jews were commanded to remember that the LORD heard their cries while they were enslaved, and he brought them out with a mighty hand.
When we are in any state of captivity, whatever its cause, the LORD our God is with us. He is aware. He has compassion. He provides. He rescues, in his way and time.
Once the Hebrews had escaped Pharaoh’s tyrannical grip, a new set of problems arose quickly. People being people, they quickly put aside their amazement at God’s miraculous rescue and began to complain about their first experience of freedom. They entered the wilderness.
There’s not enough food. We don’t like the food. There’s no water-we’ll die of thirst. We don’t trust our leaders. We don’t trust God. We’re afraid. Maybe this was a big mistake, coming out here.
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a wilderness is “a region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings”; it is an “area essentially undisturbed by human activity”; and, it is “an empty or pathless area or region.” *
A wilderness (especially in that part of the earth) is a lonely, barren place with little vegetation or wildlife. This is where they wandered for 40 years because they lacked the faith or will to enter the Promised Land immediately after leaving Egypt.
Their long walk through the wilderness was a consequence of their unbelief, but God did not abandon them. Not in the least. He provided the perfect amount of manna for them to gather each day to keep them nourished. They didn’t get sick. Their shoes didn’t wear out. Just try to find a pair of shoes you could wear every day for forty years!
And when they, like spoiled brats, demanded meat, he gave them meat. When they couldn’t find water, he made water gush out of a rock at Moses’s command.
During this circuitous wilderness journey, their God led them with a cloud by day and fire by night. Every day, and every night. He taught them to build temporary shelters. He taught them to build a place to worship him.
As they journeyed, the LORD spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11), and Moses delivered to the people every instruction needed to survive their journey. This period in the history of the Jews is commemorated at the Feast of Tabernacles by commandment,
“that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 23:43)
God never abandons us or forsakes us, even when we are lost, rebellious, stubborn, unholy, or ungrateful. He is the best of fathers.
The two words promise (or promised) and land occur together 9 times, in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Isaiah. The covenant promise that God would bring Abraham’s family into the land of Canaan “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8) was renewed to Moses. Moses knew he was leading these hordes of people to a good place, a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:17). This would be a place of abundant resources to meet every need.
It took lots of doing and trusting, but Moses persevered, only to be told that the generation of people who had come out of Egypt wouldn’t see the land themselves, but that this new adventure would be given to their children and grandchildren. Even Moses would not be allowed in—only Joshua and Caleb would see the land of promise because of their unflinching faith and courage from the beginning.
Promised Land has become a figure of speech for us. It is that elusive physical or psychological destination where there is unlimited abundance, security, and peace.
If we are very fortunate, we may experience glimpses of this “land” in our mortal lifetime. Mostly, though, we must wait until we see our heavenly home, our “better country” (Heb. 11:16).
Maybe we’ve spent too many years in Egypt, figuratively, captive to sin and shame. Or maybe we’ve wandered long in desert places, never listening to and following the Lord’s direction. We keep circling the mountain. But the promise remains.
Whether we see glimpses of the Promised Land while alive here or have to wait for heaven like the saints of old, God knows us, sees us, leads us in, and acts always for our good.
Wherever we are, the Lord is with us at all times. This is his ultimate promise. He brings us freedom. He provides for us. He leads us at every step. He shelters us and fights our battles. He teaches, comforts and warns us. He throws our enemies into confusion. He leads us to “green pastures beside still waters” (Ps. 23:2)
What a loving and mighty God we serve!