A Different Desert Story

Hi all. Again, sorry for having been gone for so long. This is another repurposing of an essay I wrote, and I thought it might be fitting here. Again, anything that seems out of place is probably a relic of the prompt. I’m happy to explain further or answer any questions as you find necessary. Enjoy.

It seems both aptly fitting and horribly out of place for me to write about the presence of God right now, while I am in the midst of searching and yearning for any taste of the presence of God in my own life. On the one hand, I feel so much more connected to the Israelites in this moment than I ever have before; on the other hand, I sense a good deal of cynicism and loathing in the way I think, and thus write, about God. It is a very interesting and perplexing dichotomy in which I find myself. Given the choice, I am not sure that I would write about the presence of God in this season; actually, I am quite convinced my choice would be to run fast and far from it. However, I somehow feel called deeper in, as though I have my own wandering in the desert to do. That, and the small matter of its necessity for a decent grade in this class, is why I will continue to search for the presence of God, both through this essay and throughout this season, despite the warnings of my better nature.

Truth be told, I have been writing about the Exodus for quite some time, but only just realized it minutes before I sat down to write this essay. I run a personal blog entitled “Wandering the Desert” in which I explore issues of theology, ecclesiology, and sociology. I initially titled it this way after two different stories, the first being the many times in which Jesus found himself in the desert (or wilderness, but “Wandering the Wilderness” sounds far too much like the name of a poorly written teen adventure novel), the second being that of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These stories, and the framework for my blog, were always about leaving the world (or in my case, western Christianity) behind and exploring and growing in a place that, despite its threats, is somehow safer for this activity. I am beginning to think a third desert archetype needs to be incorporated, and is perhaps the most fitting of all in this season, namely, the Exodus story. I am not leaving “civilization” in strength, but in weakness; I am not boldly pursuing God, but waiting for God to find me and lead me through a place much too far from home.

I am aware that the prompt for this essay has instructed me to explore many different episodes of the presence of God, or, rather, to not limit this exploration to one episode. Rather than looking at many short episodes, however, I find it more compelling to look at the presence of God through the book of Exodus as a whole. Where might God be found in the wandering of the Israelites through the desert? How might God be present in their pain, anger, and hopelessness? Are they pursuing God, or is God leading them? Where does God show up when they cannot, and perhaps do not want to, see God?

It appears, at first glance, that this story is a triumphant one. God, in all God’s sovereignty and power, delivers the Israelites from the evil empire of the Egyptians. This would line up with Brueggemann’s first motif, that of deliverance. This reading has merit, yes, and certainly has its place, but it is (in my opinion) overused, and also not the lens through which I would like to view this story in this moment. Right now, this is not a triumphant story, but one of fear, of sadness, of desperation. God is found not with the mighty scepter of a king, leading the Israelites into glory, but with the comforting, outstretched arms of a mother consoling her child who has just woken up from a nightmare. The worst may be over, but the night still looms, and the morning seems to be a distant, even impossible, future. God makes Her presence known, comforts Her child, and leads this child through the darkness.

Perhaps, then, one ought to read this story as the establishment of the Israelites as God’s covenant people. God has joined with the Israelites and has made a covenant with them. Brueggemann highlights Exodus 6:7, “I will be your God and you shall be My people.”[1] The Israelites are a claimed people in relationship with a God. Again, this reading has much merit, but does not speak to me in the same way. Continuing with the earlier metaphor of mother and child, God’s action is not so much of establishing and reminding the Israelites of a relationship, but merely being present in the midst of incredible hopelessness. This story is not only about God saying to her child, “I am your Mother, and you are my child,” but more about simply being the arms that hold the Israelites as they wander aimlessly through the desert.

It would then appear that Brueggemann’s third motif—presence—would be the one with which I resonate most. However much I like the idea of God’s presence, I do not understand it or feel it in the Exodus story in the same way. Brueggemann notes the need for the Israelites’ holiness in order to experience the presence of God.[2] Again, this is not untrue, nor is it without its place, but I would read it differently. This perhaps stems from my belief that the Law was not divine in origin, but this is a different discussion for a different time. God breaks in to a world and to a people who need to be comforted and loved, to know that there is someone who is genuinely concerned with their well-being and desires to care for them. If I were a terrified child, I would not want my mother to remind me that she is my mother, but simply to hold and console me as I struggle to find hope.

So what then does this mean for us? How does the comforting and consoling presence of God impact 21st century western Christians who do not often find themselves wandering around in the desert, searching for basic necessities for survival?

Truth be told, I do not have a good answer to these questions. Perhaps, though, this can be a message about fear and hope. Perhaps we need to learn to be comfortable with tension, even to throw ourselves into it. Perhaps it is time for us to go deeper and broader, to allow ourselves to reckon with our hopelessness and fear, to wander our own deserts, and give God space to make God’s presence known, not only in joy and beauty, but in pain and suffering as well.

If God is only present in the light of the morning, I do not want a relationship with that God. Luckily for me, and for us, our God is present throughout the night. Now we must begin our own exodus, go out into the night, and let God find us there.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 65.

[2] Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 66.