The 40 year period that Israel spent in the wilderness is full of so many stories and so many events that it seems tragic to have to reduce it down to a summary. But the overarching theme; the forrest that we don’t want to miss for the trees, is that God utilizes this time period and this experience in the wilderness to forge Israel into something new. They came out of Egypt as slaves. They would enter Canaan as an army. That is a radical transformation. But it wouldn’t be bought cheaply. The wilderness is a hard place. And these were hard times. Hard times harden us. Israel was cast out of the world into a rough place that resembled an untamed and uncivilized region, signifying that one has to get out of the world in order to find out what one is really made of. The world is a place that is, at one time, alluring and comfortable. But it’s a wicked spell that it casts over us, and by which it seduces us.
The people of Israel were no longer slaves. But if I were to tell you that their lives would be much easier and more pleasant now, that wouldn’t be quite true. And they would have agreed. Under the leadership of Moses, the people repeatedly complained that they wanted to go back to Egypt.
“They kicked you out, remember,” Moses would say? “They’re not going to take you back even if you wanted that. Anyway, it’s not so bad out here.”
“Not so bad? Right away when we got out we were attacked by bandits.”
“But we fought them off,” Moses reminded.
“We nearly starved. We nearly died of thirst.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t. God gave you water and rained down bread from heaven.”
“We couldn’t get organized. We couldn’t get order.”
“So God gave you laws. He handed down the ten commandments, right there on stone tablets. Right there in his own handwriting. But, remember what you did?”
“Oh, don’t remind us of that.”
“Well I’m afraid it was an important episode. You don’t want to forget your sins,” Moses insisted. “To merely forget them is to not learn from them. Anyway, don’t forget. Be forgiven.”
Well so Moses did remind them.
“I was up on the Mountain; up on Mt. Sinai where it was thundering and lightninging. I was gone a long time and so you thought that I’d probably run off, or been hit by a bolt. So you grabbed hold of my brother Aaron, whom I’d left in charge, and demanded swift action. Well he went to work alright really quick. ‘Give me your gold and your jewelry,’ he said. So, you doled it out. And he melted it down and made a butter-cow of gold. And you guys all bowed down to it and said, ‘we will honor this statue as an image of our God, since this Moses isn’t here to lead us anymore.’ When I came down and saw what you were up to I was so mad that I threw the stone tablets down, with the commandments carved into them and took stern corrective measures.”
“Yeah, you had a bunch of people killed,” they reminded Moses.
“And you’re lucky at that,” Moses said. “God was so mad that he was ready to wipe you all out and start over with me. That was one big blunder.”
“We know. We know,” the people replied.
“But God stuck with you. God forgave you. That’s the most important thing to remember.”
In the years that would follow the people of Israel often made mistakes, became impatient and challenged God’s and Moses’ decisions. But God continued to forgive them and to help them to grow in knowing that He would not abandon his people in spite of their faults.
A careful reading of the fifth chief part of the catechism demonstrates that the confession of sins necessitates an awareness of our shortcomings. Some sins we are aware of and they trouble us. Others are unknown to us. We desire to be forgiven for all of these. But we must practice the difficult art of self-examination. To do so we are commended to consider our various roles in life and the different duties and requirements that each entails. A simple list of expectations as that which the ten commandments provides is only the beginning. The particulars of our responsibilities are realized in reference to our relationships with others. Our duty towards our parents is not, for example, identical to the duties which we have towards a spouse. We have to think about who we are in the variety of relationships that we maintain with others. These relationships, what is more, change over time. Children grow to become adults and the manner in which they relate to their parents, while always to be characterized by love, nevertheless transform over time. We are continually developing as individuals. Just so, the people of Israel experienced growth over time and through trials. The wilderness wanderings were formative years for them. They were growing up. They were learning through different episodes what we required of them. But through it all they were accompanied by the constant promise of God’s willingness to forgive so that continued growth might occur.