2.4 Wilderness & Promised Land: Anticipation vs. Satisfaction
Volume 2: Studies in Contrast—Chapter 4
Wilderness & Promised Land: Anticipation vs. Satisfaction
Any child who has ever attended Sunday School knows that the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness before they entered the “Promised Land.” Because the Promised Land was the ultimate destination, we (or at least I) have always had a tendency to think of the “wilderness” as something that, if not evil, is at least inferior to the goal. And due to the Israelites’ experience, we may even see the wilderness as some sort of punishment.
But upon reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that despite the bitter experience of that one Israelite generation, the wilderness was never meant to be a metaphor for God’s displeasure. If we remember that leaving Egypt (symbolic of bondage in the world) was the whole idea, then it becomes apparent that passing through the wilderness was always part of Yahweh’s plan. In fact, the initial request made of Pharaoh said nothing about going to the Promised Land at all! The wilderness itself was the stated destination: “Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.”’ But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is Yahweh, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.’ Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to Yahweh our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.’ But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens.’” (Exodus 5:1-4)
Note a few salient points: first, it was Yahweh whose petition was presented and refused. Moses and Aaron were just the messengers. God didn’t begin by making unreasonable demands or by “throwing His weight around.” He was nice. He was polite. Moses even said “Please” on His behalf. We need to frame our invitations to join Yahweh’s family with the same degree of civility. It’s a choice, after all—not an ultimatum. Of course, choices have consequences: choosing to defy Yahweh always carries with it the ultimate prospect of “pestilence or sword,” metaphorically, at least.
Second, note that those who rule the world don’t know Yahweh, don’t want to know Him, and aren’t even ashamed to admit it. They honestly think they’re in charge. Speaking strictly for myself, sometimes I’d like to seize ’em by the collar and demand to know whether they were born stupid or attended a seminar. But I realize that spiritual things are spiritually discerned: they’re not equipped to deal with the truth of their own vulnerability. They just can’t see it.
Third, the stated destination of the Israelites wasn’t the Promised Land— Canaan, the land that had been promised to their patriarch Abraham half a millennium prior to this. It was the wilderness, the desert, a place in which a group this size couldn’t really live very long without miraculous ongoing provision. In other words, this wasn’t framed as a rebellion against Pharaoh; it was merely a request for a short respite from their four hundred years of unrelenting labor. Three days’ journey would maybe get them to the middle of the Sinai—hardly an escape. They’d have a party there with their half-forgotten God and then return. It would all take a couple of weeks, if that. So why didn’t Pharaoh feel he could let them go? Well, there’s always the obvious: he knew that if they ever tasted freedom, they’d be useless as slaves. Perhaps he didn’t trust them to keep their word: after all, he himself was about to break his own solemn promise half a dozen times in a row—people often accuse others of being guilty of their own peculiar shortcomings.
But I suspect that the real underlying reason for Pharaoh’s intransigence was that he fancied himself to be a god on earth, and he didn’t welcome competition from some other deity, real or imagined. What would a Pharaoh who had witnessed Yahweh’s power and provision have done when presented with a request like this? The king under which Joseph had served 430 years previously was just such a man. I can practically guarantee that he would have given his immediate and heartfelt blessing, offering to provide bread and wine and any number of animals for the Israelites to sacrifice. And he would have been asking Joseph to put in a good word for Him with this God to Whom he knew he owed his prosperity, the kingdom, and possibly his very life. But Moses’ Pharaoh had forgotten the lessons of history, dooming him to learn by his own bitter experience that which he could, and should, have learned from his forebears.
It’s clear, then, that the wilderness to which Moses and Aaron asked to lead the people for a few weeks was characterized not as a place of punishment or exile, but as one of inspiration, of preparation. Although it was where Yahweh wanted Israel to go, it was not in itself the Promised Land. Yes, that would come, for God’s word had sealed the matter, though He hadn’t revealed His schedule. But this “retreat” was intended to be preliminary to the restoration of Israel to the Land. It was designed to be the overture to the opera, the foreword to the book, the school preceding the career. Before Israel could even contemplate a life of freedom in the land of promise, they would have to get reacquainted with the God of their ancestors—a God they had all but forgotten in their malaise and hopelessness in the world.
Moses had been chosen by Yahweh from the womb to lead His people out of bondage. He began by being given (miraculously, since he was the son of slaves) the best training the world had to offer: God arranged for him to be raised and educated in the very household of Pharaoh. Yahweh needed His man to be literate and confident, familiar with the wielding of authority, the practice of leadership. That phase took forty years to complete, and in a strange, symbolic way, it was in itself a “wilderness experience” of sorts for Moses. Here he was an anomaly, an Israelite slave being raised and prepared as a prince of Egypt. But in a way, he was also representative of all mankind—born under a death sentence but given shelter (as he chose to accept it) in the very family of the king.
Even more central to Yahweh’s plan, the emancipator of Israel would also have to be able to deal with timid, distrustful, short-sighted, and unmotivated people (or is that “sheeple?”)—millions of them—all apt to wander off aimlessly, panic at the first sign of adversity, rebel against any and all authority, and complain incessantly. So Yahweh sent Moses to “grad school” for another forty years: tending somebody else’s sheep in obscurity and humility. And where did this preparation—this advanced education—take place? In the wilderness, of course. It’s fascinating how often the number forty (indicating trial, testing, and preparation) shows up in the same scriptural contexts as the wilderness. It’s as if Yahweh wanted us to connect the two symbols in our minds. “Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” (Exodus 3:1) This passage introduces the climax of Moses’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness: his encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush. Note that Horeb, the “mountain of God” where the Torah would soon be delivered, was located not where powerful men negotiated the great issues of the day; it was neither a seat of temporal power nor of religious splendor. No, it was in the wilderness.
The word translated “wilderness” is midbar, an uninhabited land, a wasteland, desert, or pasture (though one providing scant sustenance). It is often described in a negative sense, as a place without much water, food, or shelter. The Psalmist recounts the murmurings of Israel: “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.” The counterintuitive answer, as Israel was to discover, was Yes, He can! “‘Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?’” Again, yes! We need only to ask Him. “Therefore, when Yahweh heard, He was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; His anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust His saving power.” (Psalm 78:19-22) A lack of apparent resources is not a problem for the Creator of the Universe, and it shouldn’t be seen as one for His people. But that’s the whole point of asking people to spend time in the wilderness: this is where the provision of God becomes apparent, even obvious. It’s much harder to see in the world (where you’ve got leeks and garlic to give you bad breath—read: a life that stinks—while you labor pointlessly for somebody else’s benefit) or in the Promised Land (a land naturally flowing with milk and honey, even though it’s also crawling with Canaanites).
Though God’s people can expect to experience His provision and preparation in the wilderness, the world sees only adversity and disaster looming there. As the infant nation of Israel left Goshen and headed out of Egypt, they approached what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle—the Red Sea (that is, its northeastern tributary, the Gulf of Aqaba). As He led them into what looked for all the world like a trap, Yahweh whispered the plan into Moses’ ear: “For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness has shut them in.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh.” (Exodus 14:3-4) It reminds me of the Uncle Remus story of Br’er Rabbit’s great escape: “Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch.” What looked to Pharaoh like a thorny situation for departing Israel was merely a wilderness opportunity for Yahweh to reveal His awesome power. There are no odds for a thing like this: the Red Sea is ten miles across. Either you’re following the Living God or you’re not. And if you are, you have nothing to worry about.
Israel was still new at this whole “wilderness” thing, however. They were still (even after watching ten plagues from Yahweh decimate their tormentors on their behalf) seeing things through the eyes of Egypt: “They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 14:11-12) Lesson Number One was to learn who’s actually calling the shots. The Israelites were talking as if they were following Moses. Could they not see the pillar of fire and smoke that led the way? Did they not remember the wails of the Egyptians as Yahweh’s messenger of death slew their firstborn? Did they really think this stammering octogenarian sheep herder was single-handedly doing all of that?
You know the story. Yahweh delivered them by parting the waters of the sea. Sure, Moses held the rod, but only an idiot would have concluded that he was the one displacing all that water. And yet, a few days later, “The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” (Exodus 16:2-3) They “grumbled against Moses”? The wilderness experience was supposed to be teaching them to trust Yahweh. Moses and Aaron were only the messengers. This is like blaming the postman for failing to bring you a mushy love letter from your heartthrob. Be reasonable, folks: it’s not his fault.
There were perhaps two or three million Israelites to provide for—over six hundred thousand men able to bear arms, plus their families. Did Yahweh know they needed food? Of course He did. I believe that God, for His part, just wanted to hear them ask Him for it—to acknowledge that He alone was responsible for taking care of all these people out here in the desert. So, “They looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud. And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.”’ In the evening quail came up and covered the camp, and in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that Yahweh has given you to eat.’” (Exodus 16:10-15) The Israelites had accused Moses of bringing them “out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Yet the record indicates that for the entire time they sojourned in the desert, not one single person died of hunger or thirst, even though they planted no crops and they moved away from proven water sources whenever the pillar of cloud indicated it was time to go.
It’s easy enough for us, of course, to cluck our tongues and accuse the Israelites of being ungrateful and slow to believe. I must note, however, that we who harbor these thoughts are, by and large, either dwelling comfortably in the promised land of Yahweh’s bounty, or we never really left the world in the first place. Very few of us are trudging through the wilderness at any given time—at least not here in America, where I live. Before you wag you head and point your finger at the Israelites, ask yourself this: when is the last time you really had to trust in Yahweh’s provision to put food on the table or the rent check in the mailbox? I don’t know about you, but my natural psychological constitution demands that I plan ahead, invest prudently, work hard, and take care of my family and myself. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But there is a fine line between being industrious and being self-sufficient. In my more lucid moments I realize that self-reliance is the antithesis of God-reliance.
My idea of the ideal position (for a believer, that is) is to be living in the “promised land”—i.e., being at home, though fully engaged in the battle—but living close enough to the edge of the wilderness to be constantly reminded of our utter dependence on Yahweh. In keeping with this point of view, my wife and I ventured into the wilderness and risked everything no fewer than ten times over the course of our long married life, honoring God by relying on His promises of provision, even when the math didn’t add up. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing by any means, but we have always found Him faithful. No exceptions.
I only bring it up, however, because in Israel’s wilderness experience, they did precisely the opposite—categorically refusing to trust Him ten times. “Then Yahweh said, ‘I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Yahweh, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed My voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised Me shall see it.’” (Numbers 14:20-23) The straw that broke the back of Yahweh’s patience with them was their negative reaction to the report of the spies they sent in to explore the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve came back with horror stories of a “land that devours its inhabitants,” a land of giants and formidable armies. And Israel promptly forgot Who had brought them out of Egypt—and how He had done it. Were it not for the entreaties of Moses, Yahweh was angry enough to wipe them all out right there and then, and start over. He relented, but decreed that those who had refused to believe Him would wander in the wilderness their whole lives: that generation would never enter the land of promise.
Instead, they would have but one task: preparing their children to inherit the blessings they themselves had rejected. “But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness….” As it would transpire, one of the last of those dead bodies would be that of Moses himself. Note that our unbelief can affect not only us, but those around us—those closest to us. Yahweh had told them, long before they ever went in to spy out the land, that “the iniquity of the fathers would be visited on the children, to the third or fourth generation of those who hate Him.” (See Exodus 20:5.) The context of that admonition was the Second Commandment, the one prohibiting the making or worshipping of idols. Their self-sufficiency, the assumption that they would have to rely upon their own strength to conquer the Canaanites (instead of allowing God to provide their victories), was actually idolatry. (Pay attention, America.)
“According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure. I, Yahweh, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against Me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.” (Numbers 14:31-35) This, of course, is where we connect the idea of a sojourn in the wilderness with God’s punishment, His “displeasure.” But there’s punishment, and then there’s punishment. If the wilderness is an institution of learning, then it’s clear that the Israelites weren’t “expelled” (by getting sent back to Egypt, being abandoned by God, or suffering summary execution). They were merely required to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap for the rest of the term. They would not graduate on schedule; in fact, they would never graduate. The wilderness is meant to be something we go through, not live in. We are intended to enter it, learn its lessons, and emerge from the other side equipped, renewed, trained, and focused on the task before us. It is neither our birthplace nor our destination—it’s merely the journey between the two.
Our “wilderness” may be a short or long term experience, but standing as it does between our bondage in the world and the “promised land” of a believer’s walk in faith, it represents our salvation, our rescue, our spiritual epiphany, our calling into God’s service. Joseph’s adventure at the hands of his jealous brothers sheds some light on this aspect of the subject: “They [the brothers] saw him [Joseph] from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.’ But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ And Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.” (Genesis 37:18-22)
If we track the metaphors here, a beautiful picture emerges describing the salvation process. Joseph (whose name means “Yahweh has added”) had been “called” by his father Israel (“God prevails”) to minister to his brothers (see verse 14). In this context, then, Joseph represents the ekklesia, the “called-out.” The brothers, who symbolize the lost world, resented the close relationship enjoyed by Joseph with their father—just as our world is offended by and suspicious of the bond we believers share with Yahweh. This bond so annoys some that they would just as soon kill us as look at us. But there are a few (like Reuben) who look at us and ponder the “big picture,” the unforeseen ramifications and unintended consequences of rash action. (Reuben’s name, by the way, means “behold—or perceive—a son.” I believe he represents the honest seekers who have not yet found what they’re looking for in this life). Reuben’s rescue plan entailed taking Joseph out the hands of “the world” and stashing him for “safe keeping” in the wilderness (thus his profile also gives us a remarkable prophetic look at the coming Tribulation saints). His act of mercy (or was it just prudence?) would, through a decades-long series of miscalculations and misadventures, result in the preservation of Israel’s entire family—and through them, the whole world.
Yahweh had a lot to teach Joseph, and He could only begin his education in “the wilderness.” But as any student (or teacher) knows, just being in school doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the lessons will be learned. Though the opportunity is there, we must choose to learn; we must apply ourselves to our studies. It follows, then, that the wilderness is a place of vulnerability for us. We are no longer slaves in the world, it’s true; but we are not yet living freely in the Land of Promise, either—bound only by love and gratitude to our Savior. In the wilderness, we are in a state of transition, a place of preparation, of education, of making choices. Satan (who’s evil, not stupid) knows this, and knows that our wilderness excursions are the logical time to attack, which is just what happened in the case of Joseph.
This is also subtly revealed in the story of Balak, the king of Moab at the time of the exodus, and Balaam, his official “seer,” his occult consultant. Terrified of Israel, Balak hired Balaam to curse them. So the diviner (who was fully aware of Yahweh’s power) did what he could to earn his paycheck. But every time he employed his standard occult methods, he ended up being compelled to bless Israel instead of cursing them. King Balak was not amused. Balaam’s solution was to change strategies: “When Balaam saw that it pleased Yahweh to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” (Numbers 24:1) Basically, he said, “If I can’t get God to curse Israel, maybe I can get Israel to curse God.” At Balaam’s suggestion, Moab’s battle tactic was to make love, not war: if you can’t beat ’em, seduce ’em. “While Israel lived in Shittim [Acacia Grove], the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3)
Israel had been no threat to Moab while they were in slavery in Egypt, and their destination, the Promised Land, wasn’t Moab but Canaan, on the other side of the Jordan. Furthermore, Yahweh had issued explicit instructions that Moab was not to be touched (see Deuteronomy 2:9). But Balak didn’t know any of that. From where he stood, they certainly looked like a threat. So out here in the wilderness, God’s people (who had been instructed in no uncertain terms to be holy—to separate themselves from the surrounding nations and their idolatrous practices) were given a “pop quiz.” And they flunked it. 24,000 died of the ensuing plague, stopped only when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, passed the “make-up exam” with a javelin. (That R-rated story is recorded in Numbers 25.)
The lesson is that when we’re in the wilderness, we can expect to get tested. The whole point of being there is to learn to trust Yahweh—even when our own eyes are telling us not to, even when our own intellect (stunning though it may be) can’t figure out any reason why we should. As in any school, the tests are there not to condemn us, but to inform us (and our instructor) as to our progress. And the wilderness is the best—maybe the only—place to do that. As long as we were in bondage in the world, our senses were suppressed, for it is painful to awaken to the reality of one’s chains. It’s hard to get answers out of people in comas. On the other hand, when we’re settled in the Land, we tend to become complacent, comfortable with our religious traditions, inured to our surroundings. If we’re not careful, Yahweh’s voice can become an ever-present droning noise in the background of our lives, like spiritual tinnitus—constantly present but never clear, always in the picture but never in focus.
But in the wilderness, our senses are heightened; our spiritual reflexes are sharpened. The fear of God becomes a visceral reality to us once again. It is only in the wilderness that this happens: “The voice of Yahweh is powerful; the voice of Yahweh is full of majesty. The voice of Yahweh breaks the cedars; Yahweh breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of Yahweh flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of Yahweh shakes the wilderness; Yahweh shakes the wilderness of Kadesh [literally, holiness]. The voice of Yahweh makes the deer give birth and strips the forests bare, and in His temple all cry, ‘Glory!’” (Psalm 29:4-9) We can’t live there all the time, for we have a job to do in the Promised Land. But it seems to me we all need to go back to the wilderness and get our eyes opened once in a while.
Not surprisingly, the “wilderness effect” has its counterfeit counterparts in the world. Soldiers and adrenaline junkies are familiar with the phenomenon: you never feel quite so “alive” as when you’re facing death. But contriving situations (or merely falling into them) that “make our whole lives flash before our eyes” can, like anything else, become an idol, a false graven image. Our society winks at “performance enhancers” from caffeine to methamphetamines to metabolic steroids, all used (or misused) to give us an artificial edge. All of these things are mere simulations, caricatures of what God really wants us to experience—a wide-awake one-on-One wilderness confrontation with the Living God.
I’m not talking about an emotional religious experience (which, like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, can become nothing more than an adrenaline-fueled false god to us). Rather, I’m speaking of following Yahweh’s directives even if they’re not the socially acceptable thing to do, even if they entail hardship or risk. Stephen did it when he proclaimed Yahshua as the Messiah to the very men who had (in his words) “betrayed and murdered” Him. William Tyndale did it when he defied the religious authorities and translated Yahweh’s scriptures into his native tongue. Countless missionaries did it when they left their comfortable lives to serve their Savior as best they could in foreign lands. Closer to home, my wife did it when she insisted (after our fifth child came home) that from that point on she only wanted to adopt kids that nobody else wanted—damaged, abused, handicapped, “un-placeable” kids. (So that’s what we did—six more times, finally running out of gas in our mid-forties). And finally, the Bible’s prophetic scriptures predict a large group who will do it, sometime in the not-so-distant future: they will risk (or more likely sacrifice) their lives “for the word of God and for the testimony they held,” (Revelation 6:9) and more specifically, to give aid and shelter to Jews fleeing the world’s genocidal rage during the dark days of the Great Tribulation (Matthew 25:31-46).
Admittedly, the kind of “wilderness confrontation with the Living God” of which I speak must be more figurative than literal in our present world, for God does not, at the moment, walk among us in any physical sense. He is, as the parable puts it, “on a long journey.” The paradigm du jour is that His Spirit dwells within us—on an invitation-only basis. And as we all know, we can grieve the Spirit through bitterness, anger, and malice; the Spirit’s influence can be quenched through our unwillingness to heed Her counsel. But the day is coming, and soon, when Yahweh will once again walk the earth among men—as a Man, the King: Yahshua. And at that time the figurative will give way to the literal: “He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” (Isaiah 35:4-7)
We who study history should be well aware that the road out of the world, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land isn’t necessarily a one-way street. The traffic here flows both ways. Note first that the timing, not to mention the call itself, is Yahweh’s—He left Israel in bondage in Egypt for four hundred years before He called them out. And second, once we’re out of bondage, forward progress is contingent upon our willingness to follow Yahweh’s lead. Israel, you’ll recall, finally made it to Canaan, only to be evicted, allowed back in long enough to “host” their Messiah, and then evicted again—a state from which they’ve only recently been allowed to overcome, and then only partially.
The prophet Ezekiel describes this revolving door: “Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, because they had not obeyed My rules, but had rejected my statutes and profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols.” (Ezekiel 20:23-24) Once in the Land, Israel quickly (within a generation or two) abandoned Yahweh and His Torah. During the period of the Judges, they bounced back and forth between the blessings of the Land and God’s woodshed in the wilderness—sometimes literally: remember the story of Ruth, the Moabitess? Yahweh dispersed the recalcitrant Israelites among the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and finally the Romans: the Diaspora eventually reached the farthest corners of the globe. Religious Jews who think Israel is, and always has been, in the center of God’s will need to deal with that uncomfortable fact.
But as I said, the street runs both ways: “As I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out I will be King over you.” He’s not merely speaking figuratively here, as in “You will someday obey My precepts,” though that’s true enough. This is a reference to the physical return of the Risen Messiah/King, Yahshua. “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out….” The future regathering of Israel will (unlike the first time) be punctuated by God’s wrath. Its first wave was generated by Hitler’s “final solution” in World War II, and the final phase will be driven by the Antichrist’s unfathomable hatred of all things that are Yahweh’s.
“And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples.” Once again, the path from the world to the Promised Land runs through the wilderness, with all the peril that entails. But what on earth is the “wilderness of the peoples?” I believe this may be a reference to the United Nations, whose first (and perhaps only) significant act was the creation of a homeland for the Jews in 1947 (who subsequently declared their independence a year later). My reading of prophecy has led me to conclude (though it isn’t flatly stated, of course) that the U.N. will be the tool the Antichrist will use to gain world domination. So Ezekiel reports, “And there [in the “wilderness of nations”] I will enter into judgment with you face to face. As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the Lord Yahweh. I will make you pass under the rod….” This is a picture of a shepherd counting his sheep as they enter the sheepfold. When counting the new lambs in the spring, the shepherd would use his rod to set apart every tenth animal for the tithe. In the same way, Yahweh intends to separate the rebels of Israel from those who are finally ready to recognize Him as their God, and Yahshua as their Messiah.
“And I will bring you into the bond of the covenant….” The word “bond” means just what it sounds like: masoreth is that with which someone is tied, bound, or obligated. As Yahweh made so clear so often, His covenant promises with Israel come with strings attached: if they wish to be blessed in the Land of Promise, they must heed His precepts, for they are designed by God to teach the rest of the world about His plan for their redemption. Think (in this respect) of Yahweh as the producer of a play: He’s not going to pay His actors if they refuse to recite their lines on stage. Throughout history they have always balked (or choked), but this time, finally, they will perform flawlessly—brilliantly—and the world will at last understand what the drama is all about.
“I will purge out the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 20: 33-38) As I keep saying, Yahweh is all about separation, about consecration, about holiness. Israel may always have its rebels, but under the reign of Yahshua, they will not be allowed to participate in the blessings of the Promised Land. As did their forebears, they will learn what they must in the wilderness—or die trying.
In the world, rebels like these tend to regard themselves (or even dumber, regard society) as the provider of what they need for life and happiness. Those who have arrived in the Promised Land run the opposite risk, that of falling into complacency: we may begin to feel that God somehow owes us a good life, because that’s what He’s always provided. But in the wilderness, we have no such flippant expectation. In the desert, every drop of rain, every flake of manna, is a miracle—and we know it (or at least we should). Yes, life is harder out here, but the wilderness is not really the forbidding and hostile environment it appears to be, not if we’re following Yahweh’s footsteps through it. It is, rather, the very welcome mat at the front door of the Promised Land: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor Me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise.” (Isaiah 43:18-21)
All of this serves to shed some light on the rather counterintuitive rites of the Day of Atonement, in which, you’ll recall, one goat was to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people, and another was kept alive to symbolically carry those sins into the wilderness: “Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for Yahweh and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel [a.k.a. the scapegoat, literally, “entire removal”] shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel….” (Leviticus 16:9-10) Both goats represent Christ, each in its own way. The slain goat, of course, predicts the sacrifice of Yahshua in our stead, in which the penalty for sin is transferred to Him, and the sentence of death that we had earned for ourselves is nailed with Him to Calvary’s pole.
But what about the sin itself? “And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21-22) The imagery here is that we whose sins are being atoned (that is, everybody) remain “in the camp,” while our sins—those lapses in behavior and holiness that separate us from fellowship with Yahweh—are separated from us by being sent into the wilderness. How? First, they’re transferred from us to the live goat (representing the Messiah) by the High Priest (also a metaphor for the Messiah, who intercedes on our behalf with the Father). Then the goat is led away from the now-atoned people into the wilderness by “a man who is able, fit, ready, appointed to the task.” According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the word translated “in readiness” is derived from anah—a word meaning “to answer, respond, or testify.” So the underlying truth here is that the man “ready to” accompany the scapegoat into the wilderness is he who testifies to the efficacy of Yahshua’s sacrifice, he who responds to the offer of atonement that Yahweh has made available.
This is more significant than it looks at first. The primary requirement distinguishing the Day of Atonement from all of Yahweh’s other convocations is expressed in the word anah. It is invariably translated “afflict (or humble) your souls,” as in Leviticus 23:27-29, but as we just saw, anah also means “to answer, respond or testify.” Frankly, I see both attitudes being necessary. Affliction (a.k.a. “being sorry”) isn’t enough by itself, any more than a simple emotional response—without the requisite humility before God—would be. And for what it’s worth, there’s a third meaning for the Hebrew anah: “to be occupied, to be busy.” Once we have humbled ourselves before Almighty God, once we have answered His call and responded to His offer of grace, we are to be occupied with the tasks He has set for us; we are to “be about our Father’s business.” We can only do that if we have “accompanied the goat bearing our sin into the wilderness,” and then, leaving our sins behind, returned to the camp.
So what happens to the goat? As with anyone else in the wilderness, that depends on his willingness to follow God’s lead—to food, water, and safety. Yahshua, the One who carried our sin into the wilderness, followed it perfectly, making Him the one we want to be trailing whenever we find ourselves in the desert. But remember, the wilderness is symbolically a place of preparation: as Yahshua bore our sins away from us He Himself was being prepared for His next role—His definitive role: that of reigning King. When He returns, it will not be as the sacrificial Lamb of God, nor as the scapegoat of Yom Kippurim. He will be coming with authority—as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
We’ve been concentrating on the Hebrew concept of “wilderness,” expressed in the term midbar. The Greek equivalent, the adjective eremos, also stresses the idea of being uninhabited, lonely, desolate, or forsaken. And the idea of the wilderness being a place of preparation is carried over as well. In fact, the New Testament usage often speaks of the wilderness as a place to which God’s people should retreat occasionally to seek solace, escape the world’s distraction, or flee from formidable enemies—who, like Pharaoh of old, regard the wilderness as an evil, foreboding place, one to be avoided if at all possible. There are no creature comforts there, but its quiet solitude allows Yahweh’s still, small voice be heard loud and clear. Terrifying, if you don’t really want to hear it.
One of the most fascinating accounts of flight to the wilderness is found in the prophetic allegory of Revelation 12. “And the dragon [Satan] stood before the woman who was about to give birth [Israel], so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron [obviously Yahshua], but her child was caught up to God and to His throne.” This much is historic fait accompli, but the rest of the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled: “And the woman fled into the wilderness [eremos], where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Revelation 12:4-6) If you’re willing to take this at face value (as I am), it means that Israel, who has been back in the Promised Land as a political entity for some time now, will be forced at some point to flee from “the dragon,” Satan. And where will she find shelter? In the wilderness (to the east, if I’m not mistaken), where she will be protected miraculously by Yahweh for about three and a half years—roughly the second half of the Tribulation, otherwise known as “the Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” Israel will enter the wilderness a broken and persecuted nation (compare Daniel 12:7 and Matthew 24:15-21) but will emerge 1,260 days later the world’s only superpower. What will have changed? What will have transformed them? Only the definitive fulfillment of the Day of Atonement: their affliction in repentance, their answer, response, and enthusiastic (though belated) testimony that Yahshua the Messiah is their God—Yahweh in the flesh. The national epiphany will take place in Jerusalem (see Zechariah 12:10), but the preparation for it will occur in the wilderness.
Two thousand years ago, this epiphany was also prepared in the wilderness: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is He who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of Yahweh; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3) The prophecy being referred to is, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5) As always, the wilderness is described as a place of preparation. The epiphany was that John’s task there was to “prepare the way of Yahweh,” and yet the one he identified was Yahshua—described as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the one whom the Spirit of God visibly rested upon in the form of a dove, and oh, by the way, as “the son of God” (see John 1:29-34). Either Yahshua was (and is) Yahweh in the flesh, or the Gospel writers, John the Baptist, and Isaiah, are all liars. Note too that most of Isaiah’s prophecy is yet to be fulfilled: the topography of Israel has not been radically altered, nor has “all flesh” seen the glory of Yahweh revealed among men. But the same “man” introduced by John will return to accomplish all of that and more—or all of the prophets are liars. The epiphanies of the wilderness experience are a package deal, and they all revolve around the identity and divinity of Yahshua of Nazareth.
Not only did John proclaim Yahshua, Yahshua had a bit to say about John, as well: “As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” Not likely. “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” The people who responded to John were not only not deceived by the pretensions of men like Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate, they were disgusted, suspicious, or resentful of them. When John came along, they were more than ready for an encounter with someone who would give them the truth, unvarnished and unabashed. There hadn’t been a prophet in Israel for four hundred years. As far as they were concerned, John was overdue. “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’” (Matthew 11:7-10)
Yahshua was alluding to Malachi’s prophecy: “Behold, I send My messenger and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; and the Messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, He is coming, says Yahweh of hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2) Later, this “messenger” of preparation (not to be confused with the “Messenger of the covenant”) is identified by name: not John, but Elijah. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6) Yahshua would identify John the Baptist as this messenger whose coming was in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Matthew 11:14), if only they had been willing to heed his message—“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Both advents are in view in both of these prophecies. And as before, Elijah (or is that John?) is prophesied to be there before Yahshua’s arrival in glory to lay down the ultimatum: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:10-12) Or is it, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (I Kings 18:21) Same message, same attitude—delivered in the same venue: the wilderness of our preparation.
One could argue that Yahshua, being God and all, didn’t really need to be “prepared” for anything. And yet He spent time in the wilderness. In fact, right after He prevailed upon John to baptize Him in the Jordan River, “the Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.” (Mark 1:12-13) Yahweh had humbled Himself to a greater degree than we can possibly comprehend in manifesting Himself as a mere man. The human body and soul is a frail, vulnerable entity, capable of mistakes, limited in knowledge, and (since Adam’s fall) estranged from the God who wants nothing more than to walk beside us harmony and fellowship, keeping us out of harm’s way. And yet Yahshua, although He was God, assumed a body just as vulnerable to error as the ones we have. It was the ultimate expression of empathy, not to mention being the most dangerous course of action imaginable: the God who upholds the very universe was placing Himself in harm’s way.
The wilderness for Yahshua wasn’t “God school.” He wasn’t there to learn how to become the Messiah. You don’t have to teach a dog to bark, or a cat to shred furniture. They’re born with these abilities: it’s what they do. And if you’re born the Messiah, you don’t really have to learn how to fulfill your destiny, either. But finding yourself a human whose job is to redeem all of humanity is a unique challenge. The only way Yahshua could validate his qualifications as the Torah’s perfect, flawless sacrifice—“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”—would be to pass the same test that Adam and Eve had failed. Actually, it’s even worse: He would have to withstand the most rigorous and diabolical temptations that had ever plagued man, or ever would. Yahshua did this, and passed the test: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) This is what Yahshua was doing out there in the wilderness for forty days: doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. It’s a sobering thought: if He had failed there in the wilderness, it would have been all over for us. There was no back-up plan.
The word translated “tempted” in these verses is the Greek verb peirazo. It means to try, to examine, to test in order to learn the true nature or character of something or someone—even to attempt to entrap someone in order to catch them in a mistake or entice them to sin. We humans win a few and lose a few when tempted like this. But Yahshua, though fully human, never stumbled in deed, word, thought, or intent. Was the wilderness environment a factor in His success? I don’t know. Many of us become increasingly susceptible to attack when we’re in a weakened state, through hunger, sensory deprivation, or uncertainty. Yahshua, however, seemed to thrive on it, allowing the hardship to focus Him even more sharply on the task at hand.
Indeed, Yahshua came to value the wilderness as a place where one could escape the distractions of life and responsibility and concentrate on what really counted, if only temporarily. “And He said to [His disciples], ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place [eremos] and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.” (Mark 6:31-32) They weren’t instructed to live there in monastic isolation, you understand. There was a job to do in the real world. In context, Yahshua had just sent them out in pairs into the community to serve, and they had returned to Him, excited at how God had used them. They would soon find themselves serving again. But for now, they just needed a little time alone with Him, recharging their batteries. We need to remember that as much as Yahweh enjoys seeing us serving faithfully on behalf of His people, the power we need to do so comes from Him alone; we can’t do anything on our own.
On the surface, the Gospel records seem to indicate that Yahshua was always trying to avoid the crowds that hung on His every word. But I think maybe the truth of the matter is that He wanted them to experience the same thing He was teaching His disciples: that the wilderness is a place to which we should return now and then, a place in which we can refocus our priorities, shed our distractions, and reestablish our lines of communication with Yahweh. So we read, “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to Him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:45) And, “When it was day, He departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought Him and came to Him, and would have kept Him from leaving them, but He said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’” (Luke 4:42-43) Yahshua knew exactly where He needed to be at any given time—even if it was the “middle of nowhere.”
It’s not just the place, either. The wilderness of spiritual refreshing can be found in an attitude of adoration, wherever we happen to be. Remember this scene? “A woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:38-41) Mary found a few square feet of “wilderness” right in the middle of a bustling city. The work would wait: the “good portion,” the “one necessary thing,” was to sit at the feet of Yahshua while it was still possible to do so.
We’ve seen that the wilderness can be a dangerous place if you’re out there on your own. But it’s perfectly safe if you’re in the care of a loving and powerful God. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open [eremos: wilderness] country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7) I realize this is a parable, but notice where the “righteous sheep” were left as the concerned owner went to look for the stray: in the wilderness. Unlike some “gods” I could name, Yahweh doesn’t have to confine his sheep under armed guard. They’re okay in the wilderness. This tells us a bit about God’s attitude toward religious repression: it’s not necessary; it’s not even helpful. If we’re truly Yahweh’s sheep, He trusts us not to wander off, rebel, get ourselves in trouble, or attack the other sheep in His absence. It can be a bit disconcerting at times, but Yahweh has left us on our own recognizance (with Spiritual supervision, of course)—for the last two thousand years! (Between the goats and the wolves, I’m getting a little nervous; I really hope He gets back here soon with the last of our lost brothers. But I trust His judgment: we’ll be perfectly safe here in the wilderness until He does.)
That’s only true, however, if “Yahweh is my shepherd.” He didn’t say anything about the fate of sheep that didn’t belong to Him. Not here, anyway. But in the “blessings and cursings” passage of Deuteronomy, Yahweh made His position quite clear: if the Israelites would not “be careful to do all His commandments and His statutes,” He said, “the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. Yahweh will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed…. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. And Yahweh will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24, 63-64) In other words, if Israel followed other shepherds, first their Promised Land would revert to wilderness, and then they would be forcibly removed from whatever remained—back into the world.
By the time Yahshua appeared, Israel had already been removed from the Land once—for seventy years—and had been allowed to return (though not all of them had). But just before His crucifixion, He identified what it really meant to keep Yahweh’s Law: it was recognizing and embracing the One the Torah had been designed to predict and reveal—Himself. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate [eremos]. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of Yahweh.’” (Matthew 23:37-39, quoting Psalm 118:26) Failure to receive their Messiah would doom Israel to wander in the wilderness again—not for forty years this time, but for forty Jubilees—two thousand years.
Unless I’m sadly deluded (and a truckload of prophetic revelation leads me to believe that I’m not) then Israel will be back in the Promised Land again—this time having accepted Yahshua their Messiah as a nation—by 2033, the bi-millennium of the Passion—at Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, to be precise. Their Salvation won’t be coming as a babe in a manger this time, however, nor as an inspiring teacher, nor as a miracle-working prophet. No, this time the Son of Man will appear as God, as light, as the irresistible King of kings and Lord of lords. “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:24-27) The time for looking for Christ in the wilderness has come and gone. When He returns, the days of preparation will have passed. If we have not learned our lessons by this time, we will have demonstrated quite convincingly that we are unteachable and unreachable.
It was a bit of surprise to me to discover that the Hebrew word for wilderness—midbar or midebar—is linguistically related to the “promise” that describes the land toward which we’re headed. Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon notes that midbar is based on the verb dabar, normally denoting “to speak, declare, promise, command, or warn. But in the Hiphil stem, dabar means “to lead away, to put to flight,” hence the jump to midbar—the place in which (or to which) one is led away. (The Hiphil stem, I’m told, usually expresses the causative action of a verb in the Qal stem. Thus because the Qal form of dabar means, “to speak,” the Hiphil would literally render it “to be spoken to, commanded, or led.”) But dabar is the word translated “promised” when referring to the “Promised Land.” (This time, as long as we’re picking apart Hebrew parts of speech, dabar is in the Piel stem, which expresses intensive and intentional action. To “promise” is to speak in a certain intentional way. Of course, for Yahweh, any word spoken is a promise, for He cannot lie.)
I’m not pointing this stuff out to make myself look smart. (You know better, anyway.) I had to look it up in a book, just like you would. But I found it fascinating that even from an etymological point of view, the wilderness has far more affinity to the Promised Land than it does to the world. It’s as if Yahweh used language itself to demonstrate that the journey is an essential component of the destination. As long as we’re “in the world,” we have no connection whatsoever with His Land, but the minute we step out into the wilderness (a step of faith, for we never quite know what adventures await us out there) we are in a state of anticipation that connects us inexorably to our glorious future, while at the same time severing all bonds with our ignominious past. I get the distinct feeling that Yahweh considers the wilderness to be like the “front porch” of the house represented by the Promised Land. It’s not “in the house,” but it is attached.
Most people in the world today would take umbrage with the concept of the ancient land of Canaan being Israel’s “Promised Land.” Promised by whom? they whine. You could say, “By God,” but then it becomes an issue of who your God is. In point of fact, Muslims think it’s their promised land, even though Allah is not actually on record as giving the land to them. One commentator has offered a million dollar prize to the first person who can find a specific mention of Jerusalem in the Qur’an, and his money is quite safe. Columnist Moshe Kohn notes, tongue in cheek, that references to Jerusalem and Zion appear just as frequently in the Qur’an “as they do in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the Taoist Tao-Te Ching, the Buddhist Dhamapada and the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta,” which is to say, they don’t. Allah’s supposed revelation to Muhammad doesn’t mention Israel’s holy city at all, except for a few cryptic and esoteric references that devotees interpret to mean Jerusalem. It’s true that the holy city was Muhammad’s qibla—the direction he bowed in prayer—for a short time when he was trying to convince the Jews of Yathrib (Medina) that he was their Messiah. But then he changed tactics, attacked and plundered the local Jews, and changed his qibla to Mecca—the center of pagan worship from which he had fled.
So why does dar al-Islam consider Jerusalem, and specifically the temple mount, to be so central to their “religion?” (Did I say religion? Actually, judged solely on its scriptures, Islam is actually a militant political doctrine—it’s no more or less religious than the Ku Klux Klan or Hitler’s Nazis.) Why do the “Palestinians” insist that Jerusalem must be the capital city of their nation? In December, 2001, I was in Jerusalem doing research for a book, and my co-author and I had the opportunity to interview eight or ten bona fide blood-on-their-hands terrorists (first a group from Fatah and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, and later with a group comprised of al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Hamas members). And we asked them that very question. They replied that their prophet, Muhammad, flew to the temple (which wasn’t there at the time), and thence to heaven, on his epic “night’s journey,” on a magical flying jackass called a buraq. And that somehow made the land their possession, they said. (By that logic, I’d assume Charles Lindberg’s fans own Paris.) Let’s be honest, here. Muhammad was in Mecca at the time. His wife (Umm, daughter of Abu Talib) reported that he never left his bed that night—it was just a dream. This all just serves to prove one thing, I guess: you can’t get to heaven from Mecca.
Closer to the truth (not to mention sanity) is their claim to the land by right of conquest: Islamic jihad raiders (nothing “religious” about them) seized Jerusalem by force of arms about five years after Muhammad’s death. But since the Ottoman Caliphate lost the land to the British and their allies as a result of World War I, the “right of conquest” argument won’t fly, at least not in the Arabs’ favor. In fact, if “ownership by right of conquest” is a valid concept, then the Israelis should still be in undisputed possession of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and half of Lebanon. And the “West Bank” would not be considered “occupied” territory—it would be part of Israel. Period. The Arabs can’t have it both ways.
They also come up short in the “historical occupation” department. Arabs never left the Arabian Peninsula in “imperialist mode” until the seventh century AD, when Muhammad’s followers rode forth in search of booty and power. (I found it fascinating that during that first wave of conquest, they were forbidden to take the Qur’an with them—this was strictly political, if you can call stealing everything in sight and enslaving the populace a “political” objective. What was really going on here was that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s first “caliph,” or successor, needed a target-rich environment if he hoped to hold Muhammad’s little empire together without the benefit of the prophet’s personal charisma, and there was nothing left to steal in Arabia.)
On the other hand, the nation of Israel has history in the neighborhood as far back as the fourteenth century B.C., and they have family traditions there going back over half a millennium before that. And that is where the promises began: Yahweh told Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7-8) And He confirmed the covenant promise for generations afterward, this example being made to Abe’s grandson, Jacob/Israel: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15) So the promise is only as good as the God who made it. Allah (if you can believe the Qur’an) never made promises, only demands and threats. But Yahweh’s covenant—His binding, unbreakable promise to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Israel—still stands. In order to deny Jewish ownership of the land of Canaan, you must (1) assert that Yahweh is not God, (2) contend that He has neither the authority to make such a promise nor the power to see it fulfilled, (3) declare (on your own authority) that His unilateral covenant with Abraham has become invalid, or (4) decide in your infinite wisdom that “everlasting” and “throughout your generations” actually denote something temporary and fleeting. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m not willing to do any of those things.
And what of those who insist that Israel’s inheritance has been taken from them because of their rebellion and given to others more worthy? This is not only the core of the Muslim position, but also that of a sizable contingent of nominal Christianity, who insist that they have “replaced” Israel in the heart of God (hence the name of this heresy: replacement theology, also known as supersessionism). Yahweh’s own words (delivered through the prophet Jeremiah) settle the matter: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of Me in their hearts, that they may not turn from Me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all My heart and all My soul. For thus says Yahweh: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them.” (Jeremiah 32:40-42) This was written as Israel was being evicted from the Promised Land for their idolatries—just as Yahweh had promised them in Deuteronomy 28:63. Yahweh is reiterating that even though Israel may not always hold the Land, they will always be its rightful owners, for that is His promise to them. He never said any such thing to the church, and has actually promised to proactively fight against Islam (identified through geography—see Psalm 83, Ezekiel 38) when the time comes. No, Israel’s land is Israel’s—but their possession will only become secure when they finally learn to revere Yahweh. They’re not quite there yet.
Some would contend that the only land to which Israel is entitled is the anorexic strip of coastline and hunk of southern desert the U.N. granted it in 1947. Again, Yahweh disagrees—in more detail than anybody seems to want to hear. Yahweh’s promise of Israelite sovereign territory (repeated in half a dozen places) extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River west to east, and all the way from the Euphrates River to the Red Sea (read: Gulf of Aqaba) north to south. And I don’t want to confuse the issue, but the land to be distributed specifically among the twelve tribes was defined somewhat differently in both Numbers 34 and Ezekiel 47-48. The differences apparently identify and set apart Israelite “national lands” that aren’t to be distributed among the tribes. Here God gave us everything but GPS coordinates. Both of these descriptions describe all of present-day Israel (though without the southernmost pointy part that extends from the Negev to the Gulf of Aqaba), including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, plus most of Lebanon (up to just north of the 34th parallel), plumping up Lebanon’s eastern border a bit to include a few miles of Syrian territory. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part, either. If Yahweh is God, then these are Israel’s true borders—by divine decree. If He is not God, then the whole thing is up for grabs. Make your choice, world.
Israel’s transition from wandering in the wilderness to entering the Promised Land was (and still is) inextricably linked to the Torah, to their willingness to embrace what it signifies. As they were about to enter for the first time, Moses admonished them, “Keep the whole commandment that I command you today. And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law [torah], when you cross over to enter the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you.” (Deuteronomy 27:1-3) Enjoying God’s promise was contingent upon “keeping the whole commandment,” for that would have made them a beacon of hope to the entire gentile world. The nation of Israel would have been a living picture of the coming salvation of Yahweh. Alas, their subsequent idolatry had precisely the opposite effect: the world blasphemes Yahweh because of the testimony of Israel: their exile from the Land told the world, ever so eloquently: “These people have been in the very presence of Yahweh, and yet they have chosen to leave that place of privilege—He must not be much of a God.” (See Ezekiel 36:16-21.)
It wasn’t as if Israel never saw the blessings of the Promised Land with their own eyes. Their “golden age” peaked with the reign of David and the succession of his son Solomon, who at the dedication of the temple stated, “Blessed be Yahweh who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all His good promise, which he spoke by Moses His servant.” (I Kings 8:56) True, but when they subsequently turned their backs on Him, His “bad” promises—the cursings that had been prophesied for their disobedience—would become just as real.
The Israelites entered the Promised land about three million strong. Today—a hundred generations later—their numbers (that we know of) are only about four times that. Indeed, recent history demonstrates that it’s a miracle Israel isn’t extinct. And yet, part of the blessing of living in the Promised Land was to be a dramatic increase in population. As Moses said, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them [Yahweh’s precepts], that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 6:3) Again, we see that Israel’s adherence to Yahweh’s instructions—the Torah—would inevitably result in demographic prosperity in the Land. Since Israel’s eventual repentance and restoration is the single most often repeated prophecy in the entire Bible, one wonders if this prayer of Moses might someday be granted: “May Yahweh, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as He has promised you!” (Deuteronomy 1:11) Could it be that by the end of the Millennial Kingdom—Yahshua’s thousand year reign in Zion—now-faithful Israel’s population will have risen to the three billion mark? If it does, one might expect some awfully crowded living conditions, unless the Promised Land takes on some new, more spacious dimensions. And wouldn’t you know it? This very thing is prophesied: “They [the former overlords of Judah] are dead [a factor that places this prophecy solidly within the Millennium], they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end You have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them. But You have increased the nation, O Yahweh, You have increased the nation; You are glorified; You have enlarged all the borders of the land.” (Isaiah 26:14-15)
In the end, the Promised Land is not an earthly country, but a state of being. It is as the Psalmist puts it: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to Yahweh, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust….’ Because you have made Yahweh your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent…. With long life I will satisfy him and show him My salvation.” (Psalm 91:1-2, 9-10, 16) In other words, the Promised Land is a symbol for living one’s life in reverence for Yahweh, in reliance upon His Salvation (read: Yahshua), and in the peace and confidence that can be found only by dwelling under “the shelter of the Most High God.” There may be challenges here, but they’re nothing our God can’t handle; there may be enemies lurking, but here in the shadow of the Almighty, there is no real danger.
A common scriptural parallel to the concept of entering the Promised Land is that of receiving an inheritance. For example, “Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. Yahweh your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as Yahweh your God promised you.” (Joshua 23:4-5) The word translated “inheritance” here is nachalah, a noun meaning a possession, property, an inheritance, share, portion, allotment, or heritage. It’s based on the verb nachal, meaning to possess, acquire, inherit, or to receive (or assign) as an allotted inheritance or possession. We need to address (again) the touchy subject of precisely whose land Yahweh was giving to the Israelites.
It should be obvious that you can’t bequeath something that doesn’t belong to you. When my father passed away, he left his house to my brothers and I. He was entitled to do this, because he owned the house. He did not give us the house next door in his will, for the simple reason that it was not his to give. But the passage above sounds as if God was giving what rightfully belonged to the Canaanites to the Israelites. It is certain that they occupied the land—but did they own it? No. Ownership is determined by two factors: creation and/or purchase. Thus we read, “The earth is Yahweh’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” (Psalm 24:1-2) Note that according to the “creation or purchase” rule, not only is the whole earth the property of Yahweh, but so are we (“those who dwell therein”) for we have been both created and purchased by God. So the Promised Land was Yahweh’s to give away, even though Canaanite squatters had moved in. God’s position is made a bit clearer in the Song of Moses: “You will bring them [Israel] in and plant them on Your own mountain [literally, the mountain of Your inheritance], the place, O Yahweh, which You have made for Your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.” (Exodus 15:17) Although He owns the whole earth, Yahweh has laid claim to only a tiny piece of it: Ariel, Zion, Jerusalem—and He has made it abundantly clear that He wants Israel to be there with Him.
So Yahweh set aside the Promised Land for Israel’s inheritance: “Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its population.’” (Numbers 26:52-54) Yahweh was careful to ensure that each family would inherit an equal share of land. Of course, in anybody else’s system, the “party in power” would have received the most and the best—as in the grim Communist joke: “Everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others.” In Yahweh’s world, it worked just the opposite (as far as any outside observer could tell): the tribe of Moses and Aaron—the Levites—were not allotted any tribal lands at all: “The Levitical priests, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They shall eat Yahweh’s food offerings as their inheritance. They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; Yahweh is their inheritance, as he promised them.” (Deuteronomy 18:1-2)
They weren’t left homeless or destitute, of course, but land, the form of inheritance which most clearly constituted temporal wealth (because you could grow crops or support flocks and herds on it), was substituted in the case of the Levites with affluence of a different kind: they got to be the custodians, the stewards, of the earthly affairs of Almighty God. Instead of riches, they were given responsibility. Instead of temporal treasure, they were given the tithes and offerings of Israel (which, ironically, amounted to roughly what the land might have produced for them if they had received it). In this respect, the tribe of Levi is symbolic of the redeemed of Christ: we aren’t equipped to provide salvation for ourselves, and yet it is made available to us anyway—by God’s command, through our faith. So it is with us as it was with Levi: Yahweh is our inheritance.
The twist here is that Yahweh also considers the people of Israel to be His inheritance—a mind-blowing concept, you must admit. Compare these two passages, both of which refer to the same event (Moses begging God not to destroy the Hebrews in the wake of their “golden calf” debacle). At the time, he pleaded with Yahweh, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit [nachal] it forever.’” (Exodus 32:13) God had promised the Land to Abraham and his descendants as their eternal heritage. Moses begs Yahweh to keep that in mind—in effect, to consider His own reputation. But recounting the story a generation later, Moses remembers appealing to the fact that the nation of Israel was as much Yahweh’s inheritance as He was theirs: “O Lord Yahweh, destroy not Your people and your heritage [nachalah], whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, lest the land from which You brought us say, ‘Because Yahweh was not able to bring them into the land that He promised [dabar] them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.’ For they are Your people and Your heritage [nachalah], whom You brought out by Your great power and by your outstretched arm.’” (Deuteronomy 9:26-29) Basically, Moses is saying to Yahweh, “You bought this people; You redeemed them—so now You own them. They belong to You; they’re Your inheritance. You knew going in that they’re only human, sin-prone children of Adam. So are you really going to destroy them, just because they did what You knew all along they were dumb enough to do? You brought them out of Egypt because you loved them, but if you kill them out here in the desert, it’ll look to the world like you hated them!”
And Yahweh (in my admittedly overactive imagination) replies, no doubt smiling to Himself, “Yes, I’m glad you noticed. Now pay attention, Moses, for this is all a parable. Because I love them, I redeemed these Israelites with the blood of insignificant Egyptians. But the day is coming when I will redeem the whole human race with the most precious substance in existence—My own blood—again, because I love them. This will make them all My inheritance, just as you guys are now. And because of My love, I won’t destroy them, either—provided they’ll do what Israel did, and follow My lead through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.” Of course, the same reality applies: how much time we’ll have to spend in the school of the wilderness will depend upon how well we learn our lessons there.
One thing is certain: what Yahweh gives to us—our destiny, heritage, and inheritance: our Promised Land—will always be ours. “Yahweh knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will remain forever.” (Psalm 37:18) Our imputed “blamelessness” is the heart of that heritage. The exodus Israelites fell in the wilderness because they didn’t trust their God. Their children entered the Promised Land because they did trust Him. Like Abraham, their faith was accounted unto them as righteousness—as blamelessness, the heritage that will remain forever.