In the Hebrew Bible the book of Numbers is called “In the Wilderness.” It starts with great hope. God delivered God’s people from Egypt, from bitter slavery, grinding toil and infanticide. What a delivery! The entire people—ancients, infants and everyone in between—escaped from one of the world’s superpowers, walked dry-shod through the sea and went on a 40-year journey to the land the Lord had promised them.
Beginnings are filled with expectation. There is excitement and a sense that everything is possible. Think about the first day of school, a vacation, new job, one’s honeymoon or the first day of a child’s life. It was no different for the Israelites. The first chapters recount the enumeration of the tribes of Israel—hence the title, Numbers. This description is of the mustering of the people as they strode into the future. This was the beginning of an adventure! This part ends with God commanding Moses to make two silver trumpets. The entire journey would be heralded by the clear ringing of silver trumpets.
In the beginning it was possible to disregard the fact that they were setting off into the wilderness. But it caught up to them. We know how that goes—halfway through the road trip, the school year, the job, the marriage or life with a baby and the traits that were at first endearingly quirky just become annoying. On epic family cross-country vacations, the landscape becomes monotonous. The food is no longer novel but noxious. Life before, at least in memories that have become trip-jaded, was bliss.
It was no different for the pilgrims in the wilderness. By Chapter 11 things have started to go downhill. In band camp we called this “Whiney Wednesday.” The people were sick of manna. In their defense, there are probably a limited number of manna recipes. They remembered the “cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). They remembered the fish they used to eat in Egypt “for nothing.” For nothing? Bondage and oppression were nothing? The people began to protest. They clamored for meat. They stood at the doors of their tents and wailed.
Moses had enough. “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? … Where am I to get meat for all this people? … I am not able to carry this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once” (Numbers 11:11-15). Wow, and I thought I had bad days at work.
To all this God answers: “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not” (Numbers 11:23).
Sometimes, when things are the most difficult, or the way forward is thwarted, or hearing someone blithely remind us that God is faithful, it seems like the equivalent of offering “thoughts and prayers” to those living through a devastating tragedy. But for those who live because this promise is not trite but true, for whom it is water in a dry land, a rock in sinking sand, this is the solid promise of life in God.
From being people of the promise until that promise is realized is hard work. In the moment, or the day, or the decade, it is difficult to see that God is moving us. Some give up. Remarkably, some who are most ground down by the journey hang on.
This year we elected six new bishops—all of them women, one Latina and the first two African Americans. Guided by the Spirit, the people of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod elected Patricia Davenport and the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin elected Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld. It took 31 years—not quite 40. What didn’t seem possible a generation ago is reality in our church. We are becoming a generation not quite arrived at the promised land but seeing God declaring, “Now you will see if my word will come true for you or not.”