Life transition is increasingly a never-ending journey. Just when you think you have navigated the latest transition, something happens to completely undo all your hard work. It can be frustrating and exhausting. Welcome to Moses’ world! What is happening? What does it look like to truly embrace and solidify needed change?
Free From Slavery
God got the Hebrew people out of Egypt. They were on their way to the Mountain of God to worship him. This had been God’s final instruction to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:12). Moses didn’t seem to have much of a plan beyond that – get them to the mountain where he had experienced God.
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” – Exodus 3:12
They packed their things as quickly as possible (before Pharaoh changed his mind again), and got out of Egypt. Things were changing … fast.
Leaving the Nile Behind
The Nile River gave life to Egypt. Ancient Egypt was geographically comprised of a narrow strip of land on either side of the Nile, from its Southernmost regions to where it dumped its waters into the Mediterranean Sea in the North.
The Nile provided life-giving water to the region that was known as the bread-basket of the Mediterranean world. The waters of the Nile were fed by the melting ice of the mountain ranges of Central Africa and therefore were not dependent on rain. While other parts of the world were suffering from drought and famine, the Nile was always producing fresh water for the irrigation of crops.
In addition, the strong river currents of the Nile ran from south to north, but the winds always blew from north to south. This convenient natural phenomenon made the Nile the perfect transportation highway. Cargo boats could lower their sails and travel from south to north with the current, or they could raise the sails and travel from north to south with the winds.
The Nile was worshipped in Egypt because she gave both life and movement to the entire region. The Nile animated Egypt.
The Purpose of the Wilderness
And Moses was leading the Hebrew people away from the Nile – away from her life-giving waters – away from her comfortable highway. They were moving away from the Nile and into the Desert regions of Sinai. He was leading them into the Wilderness.
This was not a positive move, and not everyone wanted to make the trip (Ex. 14:12).
Not all change is good became an obvious slogan for those who were being forced from their homes and the life-giving waters of the Nile into the wilderness. Change may be inevitable, but I don’t have to like it.
Four Reasons We Need the Wilderness
The contentious and bitter Wilderness experience was a critical part of the transformation process. Here’s why:
1. The New Vision is Rarely as Clear as the Old Vision
As soon as the Hebrew people passed the “Egypt City Limits” sign, problems emerged. External and Internal forces beyond Moses’ control were immediately pulling them back to Egypt – back to the Old Vision.
External forces. Pharaoh changed his mind … again (I think he may have been bi-polar). The most powerful army in the world was coming after them – to take them back.
There are always voices in the culture that will tempt us to the relative comfort of apathy and old, well-worn paths (sometimes called “ruts”).
Internal forces. Some of the Hebrew people were scratching their heads and asking, “Hey, when did we vote on leaving Egypt? I missed that Business meeting.” Others were asking, “Who made Moses President?” With the pressure of external forces (Pharaoh’s army about to annihilate them), they preferred the Old Vision of slavery to the New Vision that was still so blurry and far away.
The Old Vision is always clear. We lived it. We enjoyed it. We were at our best, and the glory years become even more glorious with nostalgia. They will always be preferable as long as they remain a clearer picture than the New Vision.
Until they arrived at the Mountain of God and could catch a glimpse of the New Vision, the Hebrew people would long for Egypt. The Wilderness is a “Vision Clarifying” experience.
2. Changing the Rules Doesn’t Change the Heart
You can change the aesthetics (the way things look) and the rules (the way things get done), but that doesn’t change the hearts of the people.
Heart change takes pressure and time. And the Wilderness has both in spades — pressure and time.
The book of Numbers, which is entirely devoted to chronicling the Hebrew wilderness experience, describes the harsh environment of the wilderness and how it led to Israel’s spiritual development as a nation. Rabbi Irwin Kula explains:
The true goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The experience of the seemingly endless journey transformed a people — crushed, frightened, subservient and dependent — into a people with initiative, self-respect, anger at oppression and even militancy. The Israelites at the Jordan are a very different people from the one that left Egypt. They are ready to fight their own battles. They are a community committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together.
Bamidbar [the book of Numbers] reminds us that wherever we live, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land, but the way to that land is through the wilderness. 1
Getting out of Egypt was the easy part. Getting Egypt out of them was much more difficult. In fact, it took forty years and the death of an entire generation.
3. Old Idols (Methods) Die Hard
The Wilderness was necessary because human beings have a way of clinging to things. My friend Albert Reyes (a fantastic change-leader) says, “Date the model, marry the mission.” Methods and models change. The mission remains the same.
Human beings, however, have a way of “marrying the models.” We cling to the way we do things, confusing them with the end goal. That’s not the way we do things, becomes a part of our creed. We find comfort in our old institutions. The Bible calls this idolatry.
It is telling that Joshua, the leader of a new generation of Hebrews – the generation that conquered the Promised Land – has to call them to a choice.
Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” – Joshua 24:14-15
The only possible reason he had to call them to this choice was that idolatry was still a struggle for them. They were still trying to navigate the change from polytheism to monotheism.
Old idols die hard.
4. Only God Can Change What Doesn’t Want to Change
Let’s face it – change is hard. It’s unsettling and exhausting. Let’s own those feelings. And as leaders recognize that we cannot change anyone’s heart. Only God can that.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” — Ezekiel 36:26