Old Diary

Moses in the Wilderness

wilderness of zinn

The Wilderness of Zin in Israel’s Negev (Photo by Don Knebel)

If you have read the Old Testament and the story of Moses you will remember that as a young man the character Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israeli. The story goes that Moses lost his temper, killed the Egyptian, and in fear for his life he fled the city and lived for 40 years in the wilderness — eventually becoming a shepherd and tending sheep.  This Moses is the same Moses who 40 years later is credited with bringing about the release of the Children of Israel from Egypt, and their then 40 year sojourn through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

I have been fascinated by these two periods of 40 years in Moses’ life. To be precise, it has been the why of those two details that I have found fascinating.  If you do, as I, accept that what we call the Bible has some significance for Christians, then what is it about the story of Moses that is supposed to be instructive to us today?

Part of the problem with understanding this story is what I found when I tried to find a graphic that claimed to tell the story about Moses.  Look as you might what you will find are idealized images of what the “wilderness” was like.  You cannot find pictures like this one above of the Wilderness of Zin in Israel’s Negev desert.  The conditions that a man, and specifically a shepherd in the wilderness, would have had to deal with are a far cry from what you’ll find in any Christian story book.  If he spent the first 40 years as a semi recluse in the wilderness with not a lot more for company than sheep and perhaps a few shepherd families he had a rough go of it.

Also to be considered is the way the experience changed him.  As a young brash man he thought he could solve the suffering on one man through violence.  Insert a 40 year period of wandering and seemingly no particular instruction about God.  And when he returns to Egypt to lead the children of Israel he is a very changed person.  No longer brash, he uses someone else to help him speak before Pharoah.  He is very much a changed person.

If you look at the history of Jewish prophets — individuals sent by God to communicate with what the Bible describes as God’s Chosen People — they are all a bit strange.  And they did strange things: like lie continuously on one side of their body outside the city gates for a long time.  And then lie continuously on the other side of their body in the same place.  There were people like Jeremiah who came to be called “Crazy Jeremiah” because of his antics in trying to get his message across to the Israeli’s.  The God of the Bible chose a lot of strange ways of communicating with His People. And so it is that the story of Moses ought to give us pause.


Because we live in a busy society, a society where we carefully mark out hours and minutes and even seconds to certain tasks it’s hard to conceive of a world, or personalities, where time is portioned out in years and decades rather than in moments.

Because we are all in such a hurry all the time we may not readily see that some changed in us require greater lengths of time.  That perhaps we aren’t ready for some jobs when we think we are; that perhaps being impatient to be “used” isn’t a good thing.  And just because we want to be used — whether by God or otherwise — doesn’t mean that we will be used — or will be used in the way we anticipate.  The so-called “skills” we think we have may not be the skills God wants to use, or even values.

I firmly believe that sometimes we need to be put on the shelf for a while in order to turn into the character God wants to use.  I have seen it time and time again that vibrant, active believers have gone through times of separation, times of isolation, times of disease, incapacity, and abuse and have come out of those experiences very much changed.  Their personality was still the same: they were still the same people who went into a fire of affliction.  But coming out the end side their rough edges were worn off, they were more understanding of others, more responsive to God and his leadings, more willing to listen to what God wanted instead of what they thought God needed to hear.

soup tureenWhen Peggy and I got married one of our friends gifted us with a soup tureen.  There wasn’t anything really “special” about it.  It was a nice enough present, but it took up a lot of space in our small house and we didn’t use it very often at all.  In fact, we almost never used it.

The thing is, when we did use it, it was the only vessel we had that was really suitable for the task: something big that held hot liquids and could be put on a nice “set” table with guests.

I often wonder how many of God’s servants over the years have been a lot like that soup tureen.  Not used often, but prepared in advance for the time when they would be used, and then doing what no other tool could accomplish.  I suspect that was why Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness tending sheep.

And I suspect that is why a great many so-called Christians despair of being used, because they are in the formative stages of their lives — perhaps lasting a great many more years than they thought the needed — before they were suitable to the work God ad in mind for them.

For sure I was in enough job training situations where I remember thinking I was ready to go out and do my job long before the training was concluded.  I might have been ready to do portions of the job, but I didn’t have the length or breadth of experience yet to be ready for anything that might come up — just for the things my incomplete experience thought I might need.  In the world of worshipping God we are all very much like new-hires.  We are eager to be, and to do, and to please God.  But we are still novices about the things that really matter.

I’m not going to fill in all the details here.  Go back to the Bible and re-read all the chapters that deal with Moses’ story for yourself. There’s good to come from that that my telling you the details will not accomplish.

My post from a couple days ago, about being of service, of being profitable, of being helpful bears a lot upon these thoughts today.  Sometimes what can be seen in the lives recorded in the Bible is not nearly as much about what people did, as who they were.  The importance of their lives was less in how they impacted people and more in how they reflected God.  Less in doing.  More in being.

The problem is that when we are young, all we want is to DO things.

It takes a long time before we are willing to BE things.