A reflection on the Wilderness Generation.
I am Rebekah. I am ten years old, the eldest of eight children.
When I was seven I began working in the fields. Each day before dawn I would be woken with the gentle calling of my name, ‘Rebekah.’ I would slip on my tunic and step into my sandals while the younger children stirred. I’d emerge to find my mother and the other women preparing breakfast for the field workers. The men who built with brick and mortar in Pithom and Rameses had long since left.
That early morning meal was my favourite time of the day. The smell of baked bread and boiled eggs made my belly rumble before I even had time to wipe the sleep from my eyes.
The air was cool and fresh.We spoke to one another in hushed tones, and laughed as silently as we could so as to not disturb those who slept. Before long the babies would be up calling, ‘Amma! Amma!’ and the ladies would be comforting one child while another clung to their legs.
It’s been that way for three years, and now there are three more of us in my family: another girl and two more boys. Every day, except the Sabbath, I walk to the fields outside Goshen with my aunts and older cousins. We talk all the way there. They tell us stories about what Egypt used to be like, about Joseph and Jacobs other sons and how they’d come from Canaan because of the famine, about Abraham and God’s promise to him that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky and how that certainly seems to be the case because the children of Israel keep growing and growing and growing and growing.
But why are there all these people and yet we have no place of our own, no place to call home?
It’s hot out in the fields and I long for the cool, dark rooms of our house. My legs burn as I bend low to pull the weeds from among the wheat. My muscles strain and the skin on my hands is raw and enflamed. As I work beneath the beat of the sun the anger in me begins to smoulder; a small fire of frustration.
‘Pharaoh,’ I curse under my breath. He forces us to work, and what’s worse is he is trying to control us like we are cattle. He gave a decree to kill off our baby boys. My brothers are safe for now, but for how long?
How long will my people be enslaved?
How long will we be oppressed?
How long will our men be beaten and abused while they build cities for this slave-driving empire?
How long, O Lord? Have you seen what it happening to us? Have you heard us as we cry out to you, ‘come and save us! Come and deliver us!’?
Are you really more powerful than Pharaoh? Are you really willing to redeem your people?
I hope so! Because, if you can’t, or won’t, I don’t know what we will do. God, we need you! Will you send someone to save us?
I am Rebekah. When I was twenty years old something strange and wonderful began. It started when Moses – one of our own – returned home. He was a Levite babe who’d been laid in a papyrus basket and place in the Nile – that fertile and dreadful river, and found by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter. The same Pharaoh who’d forced us into hard labour.
Rumour has it that Moses fled to the wilderness and met God. Filled with the fear of the Lord he returned to Pharaoh’s court and declared, ‘let my people go!’ It wasn’t that easy though. Pharaoh said no. We were forced to work harder and the beatings were harsher than ever before. Such trouble was brought on us!
Moses insisted that God would deliver us from our yoke of slavery and bring us to the land he swore to Abraham. But we didn’t believe him. We were bruised and abused. We were bitter. We’d become like the master we were bonded to. (It took too long to shake those chains.) For as long as I could remember we had been crying out to God to keep his covenant, to come to our rescue. We pleaded with God to hear us, and when God finally spoke we could not fathom it.
There were the plagues, ten of them in total, ending with the death of the first born – the most destructive of all. I will never forget the sound of those who keened and grieved: the awful wail of lament.
And then we left: the great exodus. I was in a daze. We’d done what Moses had asked. We slaughtered a lamb and smeared its blood on the door posts of our houses. We ate the roast meat and bread without yeast like we were on the run – cloak, belt, sandals, staff. We ate in haste.
We left in haste, carrying what we could down the long desert road toward the Red Sea. The Lord led us: a pillar of cloud by day to guide us, a pillar of fire by night to give us light and illuminate the way. One night, encamped by the sea, we heard the Egyptian stampede, the pounding steps as death rushed towards us.
I remember clamouring for my children and holding them close and wondering what I had done. I hadn’t brought them here to die in the desert like an injured animal. I should’ve stayed and served the Egyptians. I would have died inside but at least my children would have survived. I closed my eyes.
Moses stood and said, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.” He stretched out his hand over the sea and there began a strong wind from the east. The waters were divided: we walked through without getting wet. The Egyptian army was swallowed into the sea and we were safe on the other side. God had truly delivered us!
We went into the desert, and our cry for deliverance became a grumble. We were hungry and there was nothing to eat. We were thirsty and there was nothing to drink. ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt?’ we grumbled, ‘to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst? If only we had died by the Lords hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve us to death.’
We’d seen and experienced the mighty hand of God. We knew the miraculous power of the Lord Almighty. But this place was nothing like the land we had been promised. Yes, God had delivered us, but what was God doing, giving us a leader like this? Someone to lead us to our death?
And so we are still here in this wasteland, this wilderness, with no place to call home. We came close once, right to the edge of Canaan, our ancestral home, the land where we belong. But we couldn’t go in. We were too scared. It was safer in Egypt. We were safe when we were slaves, we didn’t know what it meant to be saved.
I am Rebekah. Now I am fifty years old. Fifty years, five children, a few handfuls of grandchildren. Their childhood is so different from mine. They are free to wander and roam. They are forced to wander and roam. Every few months we pack up the tents and the tabernacle and move on. It’s been that way for thirty years.
When we walk through the wilderness I am reminded of the exodus from Egypt when we first loaded the carts and drove the cattle. Now there is no hurry or haste. My bones are older and my body does not move at the same pace. Now we walk and we wait and we remember. We remember the covenant God made with our ancestor Abraham and we remember our unfaithfulness. We remember the Passover and how God rescued us from oppression. We remember our rebellion and our recalcitrance. We remember all too well that we were the ones who reneged.
Yet, strangely, God has remained faithful. Or perhaps it’s not so strange after all. Our God is the great I Am. Our God’s very name means, ‘I am who I am. I will be who I will be.’ Our God is faithful and true. Yahweh keeps his promise. Yahweh keeps his word. Yahweh is with us in the wilderness. Even here, in the emptiness of it all, we are not alone, we are not abandoned.
God has heard our cry, has come to rescue us and we will remember his faithfulness. Our people will enter the land that has been promised to us, just not this generation. The wilderness is our home; the wilderness is where we belong. But our descendants won’t dwell in the desert forever.
I will. I will die out here. One day I will draw my last breath from this warm desert wind, my body will become a part of the earth beneath me, and I will be one with the wilderness where I have spent most of my life. I will never set foot in the Promised Land. I will never set my eyes on the green fields and foothills. I will never hear the gush of the sweet water springs or the sound of the cedars during a gust of wind. I will never taste the milk and honey I have heard of and hoped for. I have forgotten their sensation and have now only the words.
But my death, and the death of my generation, will be a kind of redemption that leads to a new way of life. One day my children, our children, Israel’s children, will be set free to romp and roam in a land that they can call home. Once again, God will deliver his people. Our God truly is the one who saves.