"Contemplating God in Deserts and Mountains" 2 of 4 in a series on Contemplation in the Bible (Exodus 3:1-10, Exodus 19:16-20)Mark Longhurst, April 22, 2018
Part of the Easter series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Rev. Mark Longhurst
Contemplating God in Deserts and Mountains
Scripture: Exodus 3:1-10
I’m no desert dweller. Most of us Berkshirites are not desert dwellers. I happen to love New Mexico’s dry dirt, short trees, and adobe houses, but I wouldn’t dare journey for days in the actual desert. The desert, however, is a rich and longstanding image in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Ancient Christian monks flocked to the desert. They wandered to the most remote and craggy outposts and set up camp. The barren landscape became a spiritual metaphor for the interior purification or “letting go” process needed to encounter God. They found the desert a profoundly productive space for the spiritual quest. Some even called God a desert, finding in the mysterious and uncertain stretches of sand a metaphor for the mysterious and uncertain nature of God that always eludes us and cannot hemmed in or pinned down.
Some of us, if we’ve spent extended periods of time outdoors, in nature, in Berkshire forests, may be initially familiar with the stripping of pretensions that nature does to us. There are a lot of flowery, beautiful images we could use of nature, but nature is also bare, and nature also leaves us bare. And along with the beauty, that barrenness contains spiritual power, too. The freedom from distractions we experience without devices for a week, along the simultaneous desire for those very distractions, because solitude can be scary.
I may read the desert fathers and mothers’ ancient aphorisms, and I even picked up a nice book of them at the recent Library Book Sale, but I’m no desert dweller. When Faith and I first discussed moving to the Berkshires, I asked, “Is there an independent movie theater? Is there a coffee shop? Where’s the nearest craft brewery?”
The ancient Israelites are a wilderness, nomadic people. They contemplate God in deserts and on mountaintops, on the margins and on the move. Of course, there’s the image of the promised land, as well as the city of Jerusalem, both looming large in the Jewish imagination, but the desert and the exile persistently haunt the people. It’s ironic that the promised land, the land said to be flowing with milk and honey, does not actually last in Israelite hands for very long. It brings with it its own curse. The Israelites escape Egypt, wander in the desert, strike upon a new land, but then come the Assyrians, and then come Babylonians, and the Persians, and the Greeks, and the Romans.
The promised-land is more legend than reality, and arguably, the desert is a more fundamental metaphor in Jewish and Christian imagination. Besides, whenever we talk about promised land, it is incumbent upon people of conscience to read these texts acknowledging that there are always people living in whatever land is promised in the first place. Those pesky Canaanites, living in Canaan before Israel claims it as their divine gift and right. Those Amorites and Perizzites and Jebusites. Those Native Americans, dwelling close to the land before the Spanish and the British. Those Palestinians, making a home in Israel before Israel becomes a Jewish national homeland. Maybe we’d all be better off if we conceived nationhood and peoplehood in deserts and on the nomadic move.
It’s the wilderness, in Hebrew the same word for desert, midbar, that wields transformative, liberating power. The dramatic, mountain-quaking revelation at Sinai that Moses experiences in today’s Scripture is preceded first by the people’s escape from Egyptian slavery and their time wandering in the desert. But before Moses leads the people in the archetypal freedom flight-from-Empire he is hiding out in a land called Midian. The hero Moses himself hits a rough patch, finds himself in a scandal, and flees Egypt. There he is in Midian, to the east of Egypt, in Exodus chapter three, keeping the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, and he leads his flock, Exodus says, beyond the wilderness or midbar. He goes into the desert. Then, he arrives at a mountain called Horeb, which is interesting, because Horeb and Sinai in the biblical tradition are used interchangeably. They are likely the same mountain.
At Mt. Horeb or Sinai’s base, having gone beyond the desert, he sees the famous burning bush; he hears God’s promise to use him to liberate the people and bring them to a promised land (to the country of Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, and the rest). He witnesses Yahweh speak the Divine name for the first time: I am who I am. God then instructs Moses to go and declare his new call and liberating task to the Israelite leaders and to Pharoah himself, to lead the entire people out of Egypt, into the desert, and eventually, to the mountain.
So, as recap: Moses flees Egypt, is watching his father-in-laws flock, leads the flock into the desert, and arrives at Mt. Horeb/Sinai and meets with God. The Israelites flee Egypt, are led as a flock into the desert, and arrive at Mt. Horeb/Sinai, and meet with God. What’s happening in chapter 19 and chapter 3 of Exodus is that the people of Israel are undergoing the same journey and divine encounter that Moses has already undertaken as an individual.
The desert is transformative, barren, evocative space, and mountains are where we meet with God. Both lead to the potential of awakening to the fierce divine presence.
Before they arrive at Sinai, however, they trek through the desert. And, as anyone who has read the books of Exodus and Numbers or who has ventured into a desert for a period of time can attest, the desert is tough. The desert is impersonal. The desert does not care about us. The desert has its own identity, its own will, it does not bend easily to our desires, if at all. The desert is not only a stop on the way to the mountain, or an unfortunate detour on the way to the promised land, the desert is a destination itself.
The Israelites learn this lesson with great complaint. They cross the Red Sea, fleeing Pharoah’s chariots while divine power holds the waves at bay. They first come to another wilderness, the so-called wilderness of Sin. This is not a desert filled with vice and temptations. It is, some think, a reference to the Mesopatamian god of the moon, Sin or a handy linguistic way of connecting the nearby mountain of Sinai to the desert region itself. Deserts lead to mountains in the archetypal Hebrew journey. (“Ai or –ayu, in Hebrew, means “the one of,” which would mean that Mountain Sin-ai or ayu simply means the one of the Sin wilderness).
From the wilderness of Sin, the people face hunger, thirst, and armed enemies. Newly liberated, like many of us, they nevertheless romanticize their oppression. They start to pine for the full meals of Egypt, they become thirsty, and they protest Moses’s leadership (Exodus 15). “Why did you bring us out into the desert, to kill us?” they ask. God sends food from heaven, manna, which literally means what is it?, to provide for their sustenance. God gives water, which flows out of a rock that Moses strikes. They run into some other desert nomads, called Amalek, and they are forced to fight to protect themselves.
The desert is tough. The desert is a place of testing, and it is also the place of divine revelation. It’s the place to discover God’s freedom and presence, the place from which a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The story of Israel in the desert, after all, is re-tread by the story of Jesus. Once baptized and immersed in water, Jesus, too, is thrust into the wilderness. Moses lingers at Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. Jesus endures the desert and Satan’s cross examination for forty days and forty nights.
Then in Mark’s gospel in particular, once tested and proven true in the desert, Jesus returns to the desert. There are these rich, quick lines in Mark’s gospel that suggest Jesus’s dedication to contemplation. They often simply read, “Jesus withdrew to a quiet place.” But the Greek for such passages (such as Mark 6:31) reads instead Jesus and the disciples went away to an eremos place, a wilderness or desert place. When Jesus goes off to pray, he is going to the desert. And the time that Jesus brings his disciples with him to the quiet, eremos-desert place, Jesus feeds the hungry crowd of thousands with miraculous bread. What does this mean? It means that the Exodus desert and mountain archetypes echo through the entire biblical narrative.
The desert is the place we meet God, the place of fierce love. The desert strips our pretensions down, as if to say that preparing for God’s way requires abandonment of all of our prior ways. The ways that we are in the world are all-too-often enacted from addiction and a desire for more. The desert demands us to be emptied, rather than filled, to show up and be tested, for divine fire to refine our desire, to face inner barrenness head on, just as Jesus faces down the devil in the wilderness.
We are confronted with our self, as we are, in the desert; there’s no place for our pride, lust, anger, our resentment, our need for approval to hide. No amount of posturing will shield us from the desert sun’s unremitting glare; its’ clarity may even stir us to long once again for the seemingly safe oppression of Egypt. Or, the truth that the desert peels away may cause us to plunge headlong in love with God, to say with poet of the Song of Songs, “Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning on her beloved?”