Formations 06.11.2017: A Crack in the Road


[Road to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula]

Numbers 11:10-11, 16-17, 24-29

On the record Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood tells a story about a man driving the Savannah Highway in North Alabama. Above an environment built with an acoustic guitar droning over two chords, a drum set playing everybody’s first rock and roll groove, a pedal steel whining, and a few voices falling and rising over one syllable, Hood speaks plainly about the road, using words taken straight from an abandoned novel.

For that driver on that day, the road was wet from rain and broken with the awareness he had betrayed his fiancées trust. The Israelites’ road from Egypt to the promised land was cracked too. Along the way, they had walked through broken and smooth times (see Exod 15; 24; 32). And while they encountered the challenges and successes of becoming a new nation as a community, each person walked the path in their own way.

So the crowds, at this moment on the road, begin to complain, having grown tired of surviving on manna. They remember the fish, the garlic, the cucumbers, and the melons they ate in Egypt and they long for that.

Against the hardship and the monotony of their journey, at least some of the Israelites look back to their lives in Egypt with fondness. But their memory, if not distorted, is incomplete. They remember the meat they ate but leave out the years they suffered as slaves.

Hood’s character, as he drives, looks back too. He remembers it snowed as they drove to bury his granddad. When he passes the Methodist church, he remembers his grandparents’ forty-two-year marriage and the times he went there for youth group and hay rides and lock-ins.

Then too, those joyful memories share a space with Dead Man’s curve and the woman from the Sunbeam Bread who was killed there. And later, he recognizes it as “a personal hell that followed me around for a while and then didn’t anymore. You can only carry hell around so long before it gets to be a drag.”

It seems the Israelites struggle with a similar recognition, and they don’t know how to carry the hell that has accompanied the blessings they’ve experienced in the wilderness.

Where the crowds had looked back to Egypt and forgotten its darker parts, God asks Moses to look forward. They call seventy elders to go out to the meeting tent to receive the Spirit of God that enable Moses to lead. Among this crowd of people looking forward is Joshua.

Even as he embraces this progressive action of God, his vision for the future, like the nostalgic visions of the past, is limited. When Eldad and Medad, who are still in the camp, begin to prophecy, Joshua protests. Moses, having carried the burden of leadership, assures him that clinging to power isn’t the way forward either.

While some cling to a limited view of the past and others to a limiting idea about the future, there are others—Eldad, Medad, and Moses among them—who adopt an attitude of the openness to the movement of the Spirit.

Like Israel before us, we are on a journey where the sun shines and it snows and it rains, where failure, success, pain, joy, life, death, oppression, and freedom coexist. There are cracks in the road. But if the Spirit leads us as it led Israel, we might choose to look at the roads we take in an honest and open way. We might embrace those places that are broken and we might see how even they belong in the path made smooth. The Israelites journey was broken but it was blessed, and it was in the parts we’d rather forget that the Spirit, and grace with it, broke through.

Discussion

• What parts of your own life or from our common history are you tempted to forget, either as we remember the past or as we look forward?
• How can we move forward from painful places in ways that acknowledge where we have been?
• How does recognizing both the pain and joy of our lives shape the way we encounter God’s Spirit?

Reference Shelf

The Desert

There is a degree of ambivalence in biblical writers as they treat the desert. On the one hand, the desert continued Israel’s trials and testings as they were led from Egyptian bondage to freedom and in the direction of the land of the promise. They were subject to attack by the fierce inhabitants of the desert (cf., e.g., Exod 17), suffered from lack of food and water (Exod 16), and longed for the comforts of Egyptian slavery. On the other hand, the wilderness period was a time of close and intimate communion between the people and God. …

The desert continued to be viewed in this double light. HAGAR could seek refuge from her harsh mistress SARAH (Gen 16), but in turn she would have to depend upon God’s care to sustain her in the wilderness. ELIJAH was a person of the wilderness, able to flee there for safety; but he too had to have sustenance from God while seeking his revelation. JOHN THE BAPTIST too, a latter-day Elijah, apparently found the desert to be a place of revelation, while JESUS was in the desert for forty desert days undergoing temptation by the devil. The desert, in short, was one of those polar images in biblical religion: a place of privation and leanness of life, but for that very reason suitable for special disclosures by God and for training and discipline for mission and ministry in the public world.

Walter Harrelson, “Desert,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 210.

Our Own Wilderness

Concerning 11:4-6. The hardships of the wilderness, despite the miraculous provision of food, are sufficient to cause the Israelites to long for their former existence as slaves. Just so, modern persons who have pledged to pattern their lives after Christ’s example will often find that their new faith and morals are causing them no end of trouble. Consequently, they sometime find it advantageous to return to their former sinful status. The fifth-century Christian writer John Cassianus describes this unfortunate reality quite nicely in a comment on the wilderness generation:

Although this manner of speaking first referred to that people [in the wilderness], nonetheless we see it now daily fulfilled in our life and profession. For everyone who has first renounced this world and then returns to his former pursuits and his erstwhile duties proclaims that in deed and in intention he is the same as they were, and he says, “It was well with me in Egypt.”

Lloyd R. Bailey, Leviticus–Numbers, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 463.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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