In 1803, at 3 cents/acre, President Jefferson doubled the size of the country with the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson spoke of its “immense and trackless deserts”. Major Stephen Long (no relation) in mapping the purchase in 1823, labeled the region of western Kansas/eastern Colorado as “the Great American Desert”. It was a lack of timber and surface water that earned the country its name. It’s was and still is a hard place.
Earlier this year the Kansas Governor declared a drought emergency across all 105 counties of Kansas. It’s been years since the Southwest part of the state has felt rain. It truly is the Great American Desert.
When we think of desert, the image of camels, sand dunes, and sidewinders. But the Hebrew term is more of a scrub brush wilderness. Much more like the brush of Arizona than the dunes of the Sahara. This is where the men of the Bible were made.
What them there was irrelevant. Jesus was “led” there by the Spirit (Luke 4.1). David fled there from rebellion (2 Sam. 15.23). Elijah fled in depression (1 Kings 19.3-4). Moses arrived first because of shame. He killed an Egyptian for mistreating a Hebrew (Exodus 2.11). Then when he broke up two Hebrews fighting, they questioned whether he would kill them as well. (Exodus 2.14) Moses had become “known”. (Exodus 2.14) When shame becomes known, men flee. So Moses fled to Midian. He became a shepherd, where he tended flocks throughout the desert. Moses has always been a man of the Mountain. He met Yahweh there (Ex. 3-4). He got the 10 Commandments on the Mountain (Ex. 20). There was the Blessings and Cursing’s on the two Mountains (Deuteronomy 28-29). Finally, he died atop Mt. Nebo. (Deut. 34) He was the Man of the Mountain, but he was a man made in the Desert.
His first stay in the desert was all about training. Before he led a million Hebrews out of Egypt, he led a bunch of sheep in the wilderness. The primary image of God and his people is that of shepherd. Jesus used the metaphor extensively. God trained his men as shepherds. There were Abraham’s flocks and David the shepherd. Jesus made it clear that his ministry was patterned after the vocation of a shepherd. Before he could lead men, he led sheep. It was a training ground. Finding water, finding food, leading a flock, directing a massive and stubborn group…these were all skills that Moses obtained in the desert.
In his second stay, the desert was a place of testing. A little needs explaining before tackling the testing that Moses and the Hebrews went through. I have written much more about this elsewhere, so I wont dwell too much on it here. Test’s conjure up images of entrapment and anxiety like Calvin. As if the Instructor or Teacher has stayed up well into the morning trying to come up with a single question that will trip up their students. The Hebrew understanding was less about entrapment and more about revelation. The test was to reveal what was in the hearts of God’s people. The test didn’t go well.
- Before they get out of Egypt: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that brought us to the desert to die?” (Ex. 14.11)
- Three days into the Desert of Shur: “What are we to drink?” (Ex. 15.24)
- Forty-five or so days in, in the Desert of Sin: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!…but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex. 16.1-3)
- At Rephidim, between the Desert of Sin and Desert of Sinai: “Give us water to drink!” (Ex. 17.3)
- In the Desert of Paran: “Our hardships are too many!” (Num. 10.11-13; 11.1)
- In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had meat!” (Num. 11.4)
- In the Desert of Paran: “If only we had died in Egypt!” (Num. 14.2)
- In the Desert of Zin: “We have no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Num. 20.5)
- In the Desert of Zin: “There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” (Numbers 21.5)
The revelation of their hearts was abominable. Sin rose to the surface when all luxuries are removed. Their rebellious nature was on display when desert testing ensued. I bet the same pattern takes place in your life? When things are drying up around and stress comes, the ugliness of my heart is brought forth.
In both cases, it was a place of trust. It was the place that inspired the Sons of Korah to pen the famous lyrics:
“As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God? (Ps. 42.1-2)
Training and Testing does not take place in cozy places and affluence. We grow and discover in places where and when things aren’t going right. We learn dependence when we have too. Deuteronomy 8 says:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands…Your clothes did not wear out and you feet did not swell during these forty years…He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.” (8.2, 4, 15)
All these things God did in good favor in order to show His provision and His sustenance. He did this to show that He can be trusted. God promised long ago to take care of us. It’s an agreement called a covenant. Only in the desert, where life is a struggle, do we learn what it really means to trust.
I am trying to further embrace my trust in Him here in the desert.