“And the LORD spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai… Take the numbers of all the congregation of Israel…” (Numbers 1:1,2).
The fourth book of the Torah is called in Hebrew “In the Desert/Wilderness” (b’midbar) or in English “Numbers.”
Establishing a Nation
Numbers speaks to us of organization and order. The people of Israel were numbered according to the qualifications set by God – in order to establish an army, a priesthood and a code of laws by which the nation could live – and not just live, but model a society with the living God in their midst.
Preparing for Challenges
Historically and biblically the desert and the wilderness are places where God has taken His servants in order to prepare them to face the challenges that lay ahead. This is not just metaphorical. They experienced real struggles and we will too.
The wilderness journeys that each one of us will “travel,” come in many different forms and different lengths of time. Other people may be involved, but ultimately there must be a personal encounter with God over all else, one that removes distractions and obstructions.
In the gospels – Matthew 4 and Luke 4 – we see Yeshua Himself being led by the Spirit of God into the wilderness to be confronted by Satan for 40 days. What was at stake was His physical well-being, His faithfulness to His Father’s commandments and His spiritual authority.
These same things were also at stake for Moses, though his time in the wilderness was framed in three segments of 40 years instead of 40 days. His first 40 years as a favored son in the house of Pharaoh might not seem like a wilderness experience, but it set the stage for the next 80 years. During the second 40 years Moses was exiled from Egypt, tending sheep for his father-in-law on the back side of the wilderness of Sinai. He was reduced to the humblest of all men (Numbers 12:3) while God stripped him of any self confidence that he once might have had. This made it possible for him to spend the last 40 years fulfilling the will of God as the shepherd of stiff-necked Israel. Note that most of Moses’ life consisted of “desert experiences!”
John the Immerser
Of John the Immerser it is written in Luke 1:80 “And the child continued to grow, and to become strong in Spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” John’s life was totally shaped and directed in the most challenging things the desert could bring to an individual.
Another example is that of Paul (Shaul) who spent three years in the wilderness of Arabia after his encounter with Yeshua on the Damascus road (Galatians 1:15-19). This time was a confrontation between his well-educated background in Judaism, and learning to hear from heaven without needing the acceptance and approval of men.
One last example is Elijah the prophet fleeing from Jezebel after destroying hundreds of her prophets in I Kings 19. He ran to the wilderness where he encountered God. He ran in fear because his life was threatened, and he claimed that he wanted to die. He was depressed and felt worthless, less useful to God than his ancestors had been in the wilderness. An angel commanded him to eat and continue running. He did run, for 40 days and nights, from Beersheba to Horev in Sinai – where he hid in a cave. There he felt as if he was the only faithful Israelite, the only zealous one left.
Elijah lamented his circumstances, and then the desert and the elements began erupting into a cataclysm. God called him out of the cave and spoke to him when the commotion ended. The Lord ministered to Elijah, giving him vision, direction, encouragement, instruction and satisfaction. He never would have been able to absorb the Word of the Lord and make the transition without that divinely ordained wilderness journey. In spite of the fact that the journey was difficult and unpleasant, it accomplished the will of the Lord and the transformation of Elijah.
Louis L’Amour, one of my favorite authors, described the desert’s trans-formative qualities like this:
“…Look yonder! That’s desert! Real ol’ desert! But let me tell you somethin’. It’s been called ‘hell with the fires out,’ an’ that’s a fair description, but there’s life out there, boy! Life! You can live with the desert if you learn it. You can live with it, live in it, live off of it but you gotta do it the desert’s way an’ you gotta know the rules.
“But never take it lightly, son! If you do, she’ll rise right up an’ the next thing you know, the wind is playin’ music in your ribs and honin’ your skull with sand. You take it from me, son, you just take it from me.”
Many of us know the story of Messiah Yeshua walking on the water of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). In the middle of a windy night, while the disciples of Yeshua were crossing the Kinneret in a boat, Yeshua just “strolled” out on the waves to meet them. Nowadays, over a million tourists visit the Sea of Galilee each year to experience the place where this miracle happened.
But let’s go deeper into this passage:
When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said and screamed with fear. But at once Yeshua spoke to them. “Courage,” He said, “It is I. Stop being afraid.” Then Peter (Kefa) called to Him, “Lord, if it is really You, tell me to come to You on the water.” “Come!” He said. So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water toward Yeshua. But when he saw the wind, he became afraid; and as he began to sink, he yelled, “Lord! Save me!” Yeshua immediately stretched out His hand, took hold of him, and said to him, “Such little trust! Why did you doubt?” As they went up into the boat, the wind ceased. The men in the boat fell down before Him and exclaimed, “You really are God’s son!” (Matthew 14:26-33 CJB)
Yeshua didn’t do a usual, “natural” thing by walking on the water, but He had already been doing a lot of super-natural things during the weeks and days beforehand. He had made wine out of water, healed the sick, raised the dead and fed thousands of people. So for Yeshua, walking on the water was not life-changing.
However, there was one person in this story for whom that day was life-changing: Peter. God chose this fisherman and led him in an amazing direction. Pete was a regular guy – a good husband and caring son-in-law and Yeshua saw his potential (Matthew 8:14-15).
From Peter’s interactions with Yeshua, we can learn a lot about his personality. Peter was impulsive. He really loved Yeshua, and among all those disciples he was possibly the first who understood that Yeshua really was the son of God (Matthew 16:16).
When he said that he would follow Yeshua even unto death, we might ask skeptically, “Really? Yet you ended up betraying Him!” Well, let’s look at that part of his story again. During the arrest of Yeshua, Peter attacked one of those who came to arrest Him. As a trained IDF infantry soldier I can easily picture this as a combat situation. Peter should have died for Yeshua right then. It was only through a miracle that they didn’t kill him. With at least fifty armed soldiers standing around, he could have been dead in seconds! So, he was keeping his promise to Yeshua that he would follow Him even if it cost him his life. And years later, according to tradition, he did die for the name of Yeshua.
Tell Me to Come to You
Getting back to the boat…we must understand that Peter heard the voice of his Messiah, and he got out of the boat, full of courage and faith in the One he loved. Peter walked on the water. This was unprecedented – a simple, sinful man of flesh and bones walked in faith on the water, into the unknown, in the middle of a stormy night.
We can learn so much from him! Behind Peter, there was a boat full of disciples frozen in fear, not understanding what was going on. They just sat there and watched while one man, who really knew his Messiah, stepped out of his comfort zone into the unknown, and grew in faith.
Way too often we are like the seated disciples – fearing each storm and remaining in the boat, without realizing that Yeshua is out there, calling us to follow His voice out onto the waters of trust.
This passage is a great lesson for all of us. Who do we want to be – the one who is sitting or the one who is walking? God wants to use every one of us for a great purpose. Let’s walk with Him that he might do so.
The exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum was called “Voices of Counterculture in the Southwest.” We walked into one of the alcoves, entitled “Placitas.” This was the name of the small town outside of Albuquerque where Connie and I enjoyed our January 1969 honeymoon in a cave, and were later that spring awakened by a rattlesnake in the rock wall of our refurbished adobe cellar. In that museum alcove I had a strange experience. Right there, on the classy exhibit wall was a photo showing me in an impromptu jam session with a bunch of hippie friends! Seeing yourself in a museum is quite an experience. The exhibit documented that we were not alone in “leaving civilization” in our very early 20s to carve out an alternative organic/tribal/close-to-the-land/non-monetary existence. The professors of modern anthropology and the museum curators obviously saw our “back to the land” movement as an historical phenomenon worthy of study and display.
Disenchantment with the Status Quo
What compelled us? How did we summon the idealism and raw determination to leave the comfortable familiarity of cities and suburbs? For one thing we were disenchanted with the status quo. The burgeoning materialism of post-World War II America and the mushrooming influence of technology caused us to ask, “Is all this really bringing us closer to each other and to the bedrock meaning of life?” Second, we had a dream. Our dream was to create a “society” in which people would help each other, work together, and enjoy the simplest things in life–thus bettering the world. True, the experiment did not endure. But that was because each of us “did what was right in our own eyes,” lacking the overarching unifier of the Redeemer and His magnificent redemption. So, what are we supposed to learn from this – both for aging baby-boomers and for 20-somethings who are searching for life direction?
The Radical Bent of Youth
“Your old men shall dream dreams (and) your young men shall see visions” ( Joel 2:28). Through Joel, the Lord is speaking to our generations simultaneously. Seeing our times, the prophet anticipated the importance of approaching the modern predicament with Heaven-born hope and courage at a time when the outward signs would be anything but hopeful. Here’s the take home lesson: it is vital not to lose our idealism. We must fuel the fire of vision–or recover it if it is dying out. The next stage of history will hand us the opportunity. The approaching time of conflict and confusion is our cue. By walking in refreshed faith and renewed vision we can be Messiah’s messengers, seeing many lives transformed.
When I was young and radical there was a certain way of thinking. We took a hard look at the world around us and found it severely wanting. (It still is.) We were carried by a utopian vision. And we were ready to make sacrifices to pull it off. Is this so different from our situation in 2017? Underneath the veneer of internet entertainment is a loneliness and self-centeredness that begs for change. There is a disillusionment similar to what we felt fifty years ago. And so I dare say we are poised for a wave of the Spirit even greater than the one that swept millions into the Kingdom back in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
A Museum Wall or a Current Event?
I don’t want merely to adorn a museum wall. By His grace God washed my heart and gave me His dreams. No less than in our commune days, I want to devote myself to a vision worthy of my all. But this vision (without which we run amok – see Proverbs 29:18) comes from the Most High. It is the vision of living by the Spirit of God in such a way that sinners’ hearts are captured by Yeshua’s love and Israel’s revival impacts all the nations of the world. With that in our hearts, let us proceed with renewed and sanctified idealism as visionary pioneers in the last days.