The concept of “journey” seems to be enormously important in evangelical culture.
What a previous generation called a “testimony,” we often call a “faith journey” or a “spiritual journey.” Countless semi-cheesy evangelical books on spiritual formation have “journey” in the title. Postmodern, emerging/emergent churches have made a veritable creedo out of “The journey’s the thing.” Meaning, “We don’t really know where we’re going, but the journey is what is significant, not where we’re going.”
Well, there’s (some) truth to that. The Bible is replete with the recounting of journeys, from Abraham’s journey from the land of his family, to the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem that provides the structure of the synoptic gospels, to the journey of the apostles and the apostolic Word out of Jerusalem and into the wider world in Acts. All of them are significant. You might say that God is a God who forms his people on the way. Ours is to learn from these journeys that have been recorded for us so that our steps would “hold fast to his path” (Ps. 17:5).
Numbers 33 is no exception.
Numbers 33:2 tells us that Moses wrote down each stop on the journey of the people from Egypt to the plains of Moab, the brink of the Promised Land, because the Lord commanded him to do so. So, the obvious question is: Why would the Lord command such a thing? What did the Lord intend to convey to future generations by commanding such a long (40 locations) travel log to be recorded?
Calvin writes, “[God’s] object in [recording] this is…that the remembrance of their deliverance, and so many accompanying blessings, might be more deeply impressed upon them, since local descriptions have no little effect in giving certainty to history.”
It would not be an overstatement to say that the Hebrews’ journey out of Egypt was the most significant and momentous event of the Old Testament. It shaped everything after it, provided the backdrop and setting for the writing of everything that (canonically) surrounds it, and even gave shape to the “journey” of Jesus (in Luke 9:31, Jesus speaks with Elijah and Moses about his own [literally] “exodus”).
It was, however, a foolhardy endeavor from a human standpoint. Despite the Hebrews’ joy and confidence (and hubris?, cf. Num. 33:3-4) as they left Rameses they soon realized, once they had spent some time in the long, barren desert, that despite the oppressiveness and horror of slavery in Egypt the desert was actually more dangerous and foreboding. Death could take any number of forms and come in any number of manner in such a place as the desert. And, because we can read the account of the desert journey fairly quickly (especially in Num. 33), we are prone to forget how long their journey actually was: 40 years. Many of the readers of this blog are about a decade shy of having been alive that long.
For that reason (and I believe this may be the most important reason God commanded Moses to keep this log), when I read Numbers 33 I hear every location from Rameses to Moab declare God’s faithfulness. In an account this long I hear 40 resounding declarations. Every location, from the familiar Marah and Elim, to the small locations that cannot be located by geographers (e.g. Alush, Rissah, et al.) represents another instance where the people might have been decimated by hunger, by wild animals, by natural disaster, by other nations, or by civil strife among themselves. And, therefore, every location rings with “God is faithful! God is faithful! God is faithful!”
Or, as Journey would say, “Don’t stop believin’.”
Ronald Allen writes, “Ultimately, the record is a recital of faith in the Lord’s blessing over his people for the extended period of their desert experience. Although certainly not without geographical importance, the listing of the stages of Israel’s experience in the desert is fundamentally a religious document, a litany of the Lord’s deliverance of his people” (EBC, 984).
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
God, may I glorify you as you show yourself faithful (yet again) in my own journey.