Exodus: Temptation in the Wilderness

Who’s being tested in the wilderness, Israel or God?

A portion of the Sinai wilderness photographed in 1862.

Once Israel has finished its celebration of victory over Pharaoh and his army, the people begin their journey into the Sinai wilderness. It soon becomes evident that this journey will be no cake walk. 

Three days into their journey, they pause in an oasis with a pool of water (Exodus 15:22-25). The water is so bitter no one could drink it. Thirsty, the people complain to Moses, who, perplexed as to what to do, turns to God for guidance. He is told to throw a piece of wood into the pool. It turns the water sweet. 

The next crisis comes as the people move deep into the desert. Their food supplies begin to run out (Exodus 16:1-36). So serious is the crisis that the people not only complain to Moses, but even start to look back nostalgically on their years of bondage in Egypt when they thought they had plenty to eat. 

God responds to their need. First by providing a providential flock of quail in the desert, then a kind of bread from heaven, the mysterious manna, which the Israelites harvest each morning off of the desert surface. 

In the biblical viewpoint, … [the] difficult years in the wilderness are more than just a normal transition. They are a kind of testing experience.

Then moving deeper into the desert, they again encounter a lack of water (Exodus 17:1-7). Complaining once again to Moses, they question his fitness for leadership. Each succession of complaints seems to get more and more intense. God meets their need again by instructing Moses to strike a rock with his rod. Out of the fractured rock flows a spring.

That crisis past, yet another one arises. The hostile tribe of Amalek attacks the Israelite line of march (Exodus 17:8-13). A fierce battle ensues. Israel prevails because Moses stands on top of hill lifting the rod of power that God had given him above his head. 

All within the first two months of their liberation, Israel encounters four different crises that threaten to bring their journey of liberation to an abortive end. Those four crises must have shattered any illusions the Israelites had that their liberation would usher them into instant ease and security. Liberation was going to be a much more dangerous and stressful experience than any of them had planned on.

If they had had some experience with revolutions, however, it was to be expected. Liberation movements like the one Israel had experienced remove the many structures, institutions, and customary ways of doing things that have supported life in the old regime. New ones must be created. That takes great energy and time. Before the new is in place, we usually must pass through a time of chaos. Survival can indeed be in jeopardy. 

That was true with the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and even with our own American Revolution. I could cite many other examples as well. If Israel had known it, they could have seen their experience as a normal transition from the old to the new. 

The Dual Focus of Testing

In the biblical viewpoint, however, these difficult years in the wilderness are more than just a normal transition. They are a kind of testing experience. And testing is the root meaning of temptation. 

This is made explicit in God’s words following the first encounter with thirst at the pool of Marah. After turning its bitter waters sweet, the text tells us: 

There [at Marah] the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test,[saying], “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)

The test rests upon a promise. In this case the promise is a promise of healing. And I think this promise is a promise not just of physical healing, but of social, political, cultural, and spiritual healing. Israel will be healed of all the malignant features of the slave lifestyle and mindset to which they had become accustomed in Egypt.

The key to healing is trust. Israel’s trust will be shown by its listening carefully for the voice of God and doing what is right in God’s sight. In threatening experience after threatening experience in the wilderness, Israel is being invited into a relationship of trust in God. Will Israel prove capable of such trust? Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness will show.

But the 40 years in the wilderness will also be another kind of test. Israel will be testing God to see if God will live up to the promises God has made to Israel. God has liberated Israel from bondage. Now will God sustain them through whatever hardship comes? Can God be depended upon to be consistent with God’s promises? Or will God prove to be a fickle deity like those Israel left behind in Egypt?

That process of mutual testing begins with these four incidents recounted right after Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. God proves faithful to God’s care and provision for Israel. Israel’s reaction is more like that of an infant. Israel repeatedly murmurs against God and Moses, just as a baby cries and whines when its immediate needs are not met. 

A Paradigm for Our Spiritual Journey

Israel’s experience in the wilderness provides a paradigm for what happens to us in our spiritual journeys with God. Time after time we launch into our relationship with God with exhilaration. The sense of joy and release that people feel who respond to a preacher’s altar call at a revival meeting can be real and genuine. 

For all of us engaged in a spiritual journey today, we can take the exodus paradigm as a certainty in our own experience….

But it is often fleeting. Now with their new orientation on a relationship with Christ, they must learn to reorient every aspect of their daily living. That can bring challenge, confusion, and conflict. Rather than entering into the Garden of Eden, they can feel they have been thrown into the desert. Now begins the real work of forming a healthy, mature Christian character and relationship to God, to other people, and to oneself. This does not mean God no longer loves them. Instead God is beginning the process of maturation.

Jesus’ Exodus Experience

That Israel’s journey in the wilderness is a paradigm for spiritual testing is confirmed in the New Testament by the experience of Jesus. Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is a high moment in Jesus’ experience. He sees the sky split open, the Holy Spirit descend upon him as a dove, and the voice of God declaring, You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:9-11). It is hard to imagine a greater mountain-top experience.

The gospels tell us, however, that immediately afterwards the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where Jesus is tempted (tested) for 40 days (Mark 1:12-13, see also Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). The numerical figure 40 is no accident. It is the way the gospel writers tie Jesus’ testing with Israel’s testing in the wilderness for 40 years. The exodus story gives the paradigm that even Jesus must follow.

The temptations of Jesus likewise are a time of testing for both Jesus and God his Father. The character of Jesus will be severely tested. Is he spiritually ready and equipped for the challenging ministry the Spirit will soon be calling him into in Galilee? Is he mature enough to truly do the work of the Son of God in a manner worthy of a Son of God?

But Jesus too is testing God. Will this God who has called him his beloved Son be able to provide and sustain him in his ministry and be faithful to the promises God has made to Jesus by calling him Son? Significantly the very first temptation Jesus faces is the temptation of physical hunger. We recall that the first challenges Israel faces in its journey are the challenges of physical thirst and hunger. 

Jesus is called to practice faithful obedience. He does. Israel likewise is called to practice faithful obedience. The Old Testament story of the exodus will show that Israel’s response is much more troubled. 

For all of us engaged in a spiritual journey today, we can take the exodus paradigm as a certainty in our own experience, whether we have experienced it already or are yet to do so. The question is: How will each of us do when placed in this time of testing? Will we show ourselves worthy of the label Christian?

Exodus: God the Warrior

The Book of Exodus operates with an unexpected understanding of holy war.

After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites break out into a song of rejoicing (Exodus 15:1-18). It celebrates God’s unexpected deliverance of the people in their time of greatest peril. Its opening verses read:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

            horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and my might,

            and he has become my salvation;

this is my God, and I will praise him,

            My father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The Lord is a warrior;

            the Lord is his name. (Exodus 15:1-3)

The song is full of martial imagery, using the language of battle to describe the victory over the Egyptians in the sea. This is language that resonates with other ancient Near Eastern mythologies. One of the best known is the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish. In the Babylonian myth, the sky god Marduk goes into battle with the sea goddess Tiamat, goddess of chaos. He defeats her after a ferocious duel and creates the world from her carcass. *

St. Michael the archangel’s victory over the Devil. Sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein at Coventry Cathedral, 1958.

It should not surprise us then to find that Exodus explicitly calls God a warrior. This is the language of holy war. That may make us very uneasy, given our modern experience of hearing the language of holy war used to justify terrorism and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. It is easy then to lump the God of the Old Testament in with all those other blood-thirsty gods of history. 

If we do so, however, we may miss a shift that has gone on in this song. As I said, God is described as a warrior. But God fights not for his own aggrandizement, but for the liberation of his people. He is a warrior on behalf of his people.

The usual way that we talk about holy war is of people fighting on behalf of God’s cause. We fight to glorify God, promote his worship, and advance his cause in the world. 

That is the way the crusaders thought about their expeditions to regain and protect the Holy Land. It is likewise the way Muslim jihadists think about their attacks. They believe that piety requires them to fight on behalf of Allah’s cause. They go into action in fact with the cry “God is great!”

There is plenty of conflict in the Book of Exodus, but notice it is not the Israelites who go into battle with the Egyptians. Even as reclusive guerrillas, crying “God is great!”, they never attack the Egyptians. All the fighting is done by God, and done on behalf of the cause of Israel’s liberation. The battles in Exodus are a holy war not because the people are doing the fighting on behalf of God, but because God is doing the fighting.

God is motivated in his fight with Pharaoh and the Egyptian army not by hatred for the Egyptians, but by his intense love for the Israelites and his faithfulness to his promises to their ancestors. We hear that said explicitly in Exodus 15:13:

In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;

            you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.

The language of Exodus 15 then does not give God’s people warrant to pick up the sword, the gun, the bomb to advance God’s cause, to glorify God’s name, or to bring unbelievers under God’s reign. When we use the language of holy war, we need to remember that in the biblical context, it is language to describe God’s actions on our behalf–to liberate us from the forces of oppression, bondage, and death that keep humans from flourishing. 

Additional Note:

In what I have written about holy war, I do not want you to think that I am ignoring the fact that Exodus 17:8-13 describes a battle between the Israelites and Amalekites. This battle, however, is not initiated by the Israelites. They do not go into battle to advance God’s cause. They go into battle in self-defense after they are attacked by the Amalekites. 

Nor am I ignoring the fact that God calls upon the Israelites to revenge themselves on the Midianites who deceive them in Numbers 25. And God calls upon the Israelites to eradicate the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. In both cases, God’s motivation is said to be to exercise punishment on two tribes that have harmed and attacked the Israelites. We may feel many qualms about texts that imply God indulges in revenge. But both passages still maintain that understanding that God is the ultimate fighter fighting on behalf of his people. 


* A good translation of the myth is found in Stephanie Dalley (editor and translator), Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford World Classics, 1989.