God blocks a short journey to the Promised Land for good reasons.
If you follow the coast of the Mediterranean, it is roughly 125 miles to travel from the Suez canal to Gaza, one of the ancient Philistine cities in Canaan. This is the shortest route between Egypt and Palestine.
An ancient road followed this route. Egyptian armies had traveled it many times in their expeditions into Canaan and Syria. If an army had kept to a steady pace of 10 miles a day, it could traverse the distance in only a couple of weeks.
This gives us a working number for how far the Israelites would have needed to travel once they were cut loose from the Egyptians after the Red Sea crossing. Exodus, however, tells us that God explicitly denied them this route.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. (Exodus 13:17-18)
Instead God leads the Israelites out into the Sinai desert and starts them on a journey that would last 40 years, not two weeks. This raises the question Why?
The Exodus text gives one answer. It attributes God’s rationale to the fact that the ancient road along the coast would have been guarded by Egyptian garrisons. In the skirmishes that would have inevitably resulted, God feared the Israelites would lose heart and give up their journey. The Israelites were too new in their freedom to stand up to armed clashes like those.
The Long Task of Nation-Building
But I think there is a deeper reason why Israel ends up taking 40 years to complete its journey from Egypt to Canaan. It has to do with the important task of forming a nation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as a disorganized mass of newly freed slaves. They would have had almost no social or spiritual infrastructure to hold this unruly mass together. Conflicts would have inevitably arisen without any justice structure to resolve them. The conflicts would have set various family or partisan groups at each other. The violence would have turned the mass of newly freed slaves into a self-destructive mob.
For the Israelites to find their stability emotionally, socially, politically, and spiritually, they would need:
- To shed their Egyptian slave mindsets,
- To develop new structures for organizing their social and political life,
- To evolve new understandings of what constitutes justice,
- To experience in trial and error what works and what does not in their new life,
- To create the traditions that would give them a unique identity,
- And lastly to understand and live what a relationship with God, their liberator, meant in their new life of freedom.
All this–and much more–was needed if they were to flourish in the new life God had given them.
All of these tasks are tasks involved in building character, whether the character of an individual or the character of a people. And building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously.
Israel faced the task of building its character as a people of God during those long years traveling in the wilderness. It should not surprise us to know that it took 40 years. Theirs was a daunting task to complete, if we can even say that they completed it. In one sense that challenge has remained a challenge through all the succeeding generations of Israelite and Jewish history.
This is one reason why the story of the exodus remains such an inspiration and guide to even peoples outside the Jewish faith. The story highlights the challenges any people face in creating a national identity and constitution (whether written or unwritten).
It is a very sad fact that many a revolution has only ended up substituting one oppressive regime by another. The French Revolution overthrew the Bourbon regime only ultimately to usher in the Napoleonic empire. The Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov absolutism only to institute the Leninist-Stalinist one.
… building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously.
Why does this happen? One good reason, I believe, is that newly freed peoples tend to expect that they will enter into the promised land of their dreams quickly. They have destroyed the structures of the old, but do not realize that they now have to rebuild new ones.
If those new ones are to fulfill their dreams, they must be constructed wisely to avoid the old oppressive habits of exercising power. People glory in their new rights, but forget that rights also carry responsibilities. They must create new and healthy bonds among themselves. None of that is done quickly. And so people get disillusioned and fall back into old and well-known mindsets of servitude.
The Long Task of Character Building
What I have just said applies not only to the building of new nations, but also to the development of character in individuals. Individual journeys to healthy, flourishing identities also take time.
It is an odd fact about human beings that human babies do not emerge from the womb able to walk, talk, and function as mini adults like calves born from cows and colts born from horses. It takes a good 20 to 25 years for human babies to reach physical maturity and much longer sometimes to reach emotional and social maturity.
A human character consists of mindsets, commitments, habits, attitudes, bonds with others, customary ways of behavior, and decisions made. All that takes time to develop. In fact, character development never ends. It continues throughout a person’s life. The best thing to say about character development is that it is a journey, a never-ending journey.
Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.Jonathan R. Bailey
The Long Task of Growing into Spiritual Maturity
The same is true in the development of our spiritual life. One may make a decision to become a Christian (in Evangelical terminology, to be born again), but that decision point is not the end point of the Christian life. It is the beginning point. What lies ahead is a continuing journey into deeper levels of maturity and deeper levels of one’s relationship with God and with others.
I like the way the author Jonathan R. Bailey expresses this insight:
Shedding vice and securing virtue–becoming like Christ–is not something that automatically happens when we become Christians. Moving from stage to stage happens over a long, frustrating, rewarding, painful, and glorious period of time. Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.*
During the medieval period classic writers on this spiritual journey came to discuss this spiritual journey as passing through three stages:
• Purgation: the cleansing of all that hinders spiritual maturity, whether sins or ego-centrism, that keeps us from the practice of love,
• Illumination: the progressive growth in the understanding and virtues that support spiritual maturity and the practice of love,
• Union: the coming of unity with God in which our wills are fully aligned with God’s will, and we reach the full experience of God’s love.
Many of these writers on the spiritual life have seen in the exodus experience of the Israelites the paradigm for this understanding of the spiritual life as a spiritual journey. One good example is The Life of Moses by the 4th century church father Gregory of Nyssa.** Gregory takes the exodus story as an allegory for the experience of a spiritual seeker growing into deeper union with God.
I find it hard to believe then that when God blocked the Israelites from taking the short route to Canaan, God’s only concern was whether the Israelites would become demoralized in their skirmishes with Egyptian garrisons. Israel needed to experience its life with God as a journey, for in doing so they were setting the pattern for all in the future who would embark upon the same journey.
* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.
** Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, translators. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.