By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light. (Exodus 13.21)Turned Around to Move On
Did you know the Israelites could have taken a quicker, easier route to the Promised Land? The shorter road would have reduced their 40-year trek to a few months at the most. In fact, the other route went the opposite direction from the desert and circumnavigated the Red Sea altogether. Exodus 13.17-18 reads, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.” The shorter road was probably the route Joseph and his brothers followed to Egypt. It was probably the road Moses anticipated taking. And its existence probably influenced the Israelites’ decision to go with him. Had they not known of the shorter route—if their only choice were tramping through the desert—would they have packed up and left the relative stability (miserable as it was) of Egyptian servitude? It’s doubtful.
The easiest, most familiar road wasn’t the best road. It steered Israel straight into trouble. Before getting far enough from Pharaoh to rule out turning back, they’d meet their perpetual enemies, the Philistines. Perilously unprepared to face the region’s fiercest warriors, they’d likely decide Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Furthermore, if they did turn back, the experience surely would discourage trying to escape Pharaoh again. God’s people would never be free. His promise to deed Canaan to Abraham’s children would never be realized. The only way Israel could move on was by getting turned around. Weighed against interminable slavery, the 40-year hike was a bargain.
The Desert Road
The desert road was hardly a road at all. Everything we read about the Israelites’ wilderness experience indicates the road dropped them in the desert to find their way out on their own. Without maps and compasses, they were completely dependent on God’s guidance. And while we’re tempted to say, “Splendid! There can be no better way to travel than going with God,” we must also acknowledge having God as our pilot adds complexity to our travel plans. Speed, distance, and comfort are secondary to Him. What we learn from our travels matters most. The Israelites took four decades to figure this out. They continually refused to heed God’s counsel and obey His direction. And so He had no remorse about steering them down circuitous paths until they could get their heads on straight.
Like tour guides who keep their groups moving by holding up colorful umbrellas, God mobilized the Israelites in a most unusual manner. “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light,” Exodus 13.21 informs us. This made for less-than-ideal traveling conditions—gray days and bright nights. Yet just as He decided to take the long route for Israel’s protection, God chose these guidance methods for their safety. Overcast weather shielded them from harsh desert sun and cooled the ground under foot. Meanwhile, though the fiery night sky made sleeping difficult, it also permitted the Jews to travel past sundown and illuminated their campsites so they could stay watchful for predators and thieves. When we put all of this together—the route God chose for His people, the weather He created for their journey, and the light He provided for their nights—we can’t help but conclude ensuring Israel reached the Promised Land intact and in compliance with His will took top priority.
Our Walk with God
Our walk with God is an experience, not an excursion. The conditions He sets for our journey have little to do with our preferences and comfort. While roads we know best may be quicker and easier, that He’s chosen a different path confirms our way isn’t the best way. Where we’re going, not how we get there, drives His decisions. From the start, God was very clear with Moses about the destination He selected for Israel, saying, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3.8) He couldn’t turn over a country of such enormous wealth to a ragtag bunch of former slaves. Before Israel could inhabit the Promised Land, they needed to learn to trust God’s protection and obey His leadership. If that meant walking in circles, living under a cloud, and tossing and turning through restless nights, so be it.
When walking with God proves tougher than we anticipate, we ask for wisdom to understand why it’s necessary to lead us as He does. It’s highly probable His reasons for us are no different than those for Israel. Often there are unavoidable dangers on the well-trod, shorter road. Being ill equipped to defeat enemies we’re sure to cross puts us at risk of turning back to our old lives as slaves. We may not be happy about going in circles until we recognize God is actually preparing us for where He wants us to be. We may not like gray days and bright nights. Yet God is in the cloud and fire to ensure we reach our land of promise intact. Our safety and success are His top concerns. The longer we take to grasp this, the longer our journey will be.
The shorter route may not be the safer one. Often God leads us out of the way to teach us to trust Him and prepare us for where He wants us to be.
(Next: Needs Analysis)