January 17, 2021

Wilderness Remix

Moses striking the rock in Horeb, Doré

One interesting feature of the Hebrew Bible is its use of doublets — stories that duplicate others. Well known narratives such as the creation, Noah and the flood, and Abraham passing off Sarah as his half-sister are not just told once, but twice. This used to be seen as evidence for multiple sources behind the Bible’s composition, but there is more and more acceptance among Bible scholars that these doublets reflect intentional literary strategies on the part of the authors and editors to make various points.

One example that is pertinent to our Lenten reflections on the wilderness involves the presence of two sets of stories about Israel’s “wilderness wanderings.

Apparently, there’s wilderness. And wilderness remix.

  • The first set of stories about Israel journeying through the wilderness is found in Exodus 13-18. These accounts describe Israel leaving Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, and traveling across the desert to Mt. Sinai.
  • The second group of narratives tells the tale of Israel leaving Sinai and heading toward the Promised Land. These are found in Numbers 11-25 and are commonly known as the “Wilderness Wanderings.”

In both passages we read of the people complaining, God giving manna from heaven, Moses bringing water from the Rock, and Israel engaging in battle against her enemies. In both sections, God leads them by a pillar of cloud and fire. In both, Israel sings to the Lord. The two sets of narratives have common characters and events.

But at their heart, they could not be more different.

Let’s note some of the parallels in these two tales of journeying through the wilderness.


Guided by cloud (13:21-22)

Song of victory (15:1-19)

Miriam’s praise (15:20-21)

Complaint: God sweetens water (15:22-26)

Complaint: Manna/Quails (16)

Complaint: Water from Rock (17:1-7)

Victory over Amalek (17:8-16)

Guided by cloud (10:33-34)

Song of victory (10:35-36)

Miriam’s rebellion (12)

Complaint: God judges with fire (11:1-3)

Complaint: Manna/Quails (11:4-35)

Complaint: Water from Rock (20:2-13)

Defeated by Amalek (14:39-45)


The Spies Return from the Promised Land, Doré

The main characteristic to note about these two accounts of journeys through the wilderness is that in Exodus they are presented in a positive light, while in Numbers they are viewed negatively.

Similar events are portrayed. However, in Exodus God patiently hears his people’s complaints and provides for their needs without a word of rebuke. In Numbers, on the other hand, each occasion of grumbling is treated as a sign of rebellion and punished severely.

Why? What made the difference between these two experiences?

The Exodus journeys took place before the Law, whereas the journeys in Numbers occurred after Israel had received God’s commands and decrees.

By drawing a contrast between Israel’s experience before and after the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, Moses is giving a narrative commentary on what the Law does. Though it does have some positive effects (these are seen in the first part of the book of Numbers), in the end it stirs up sin and rebellion and discourages faithful obedience to God.

After the Exodus and before they received the Law, Israel walked in newness of life. They had been redeemed and set free from slavery. God was leading them and they were following by faith. They were not perfect by any means — they displayed immaturity and complained and misbehaved like children all the way to Mt. Sinai. There, when it became clear that they would not go any further with God on his terms, he began adding his laws one by one, starting with the Ten Commandments (Gal. 3:19). Yet with every new batch of laws came additional rebellion and failure. Only now it was not the naive misbehavior of children. Rather, it was the knowing willfulness of those who knew the rules and knew what they were doing. Law stirred up more sin, which in turn led them deeper into the wilderness of chastisement and, eventually, death.

Again, these ancient stories from the Torah anticipate the theological reflections of the Apostle Paul, who said the following things about the Law:

  • The power of sin is the Law (1Cor. 15:56)
  • The Law came in and increased transgressions (Rom. 5:20)
  • Sin takes opportunity through the commandments to produce sin in us (Rom. 7:8)
  • When the commandments came, sin became alive, bringing death (Rom. 7:9)
  • Sin takes opportunity through the commandments to deceive and kill us (Rom. 7:10)
  • Sin takes what is good (God’s Law) and uses it to kill us (Rom. 7:13)

Paul learned well from Moses himself, a man who felt the sting of the Law in a most personal way when he was prevented from entering the Promised Land. This consequence came because of unbelief he exhibited during the wilderness wanderings in Numbers. Under the Law.

• • •

The Brazen Serpent, Doré

Sometimes, the wilderness is a training ground where we learn and get stronger.
At other times, the wilderness is place of going in circles and making no progress.

Sometimes, the wilderness is a place of adventure, freedom, and new discoveries about what God can do.
At other times, the wilderness can be a frightening place of danger and feeling lost and vulnerable.

Sometimes, the wilderness is a place of delightful surprises, beauty, and wonder.
At other times, the wilderness landscape is desolate and dry, with few signs of life and vitality.

Sometimes, the wilderness provides exhilarating challenges that call forth faith, energy, and determination.
At other times, the wilderness brings us face to face with brutal trials and temptations that threaten to overwhelm and defeat us.

Sometimes, in the wilderness, we draw closer to our friends.
At other times, we find the wilderness to be the loneliest place on earth.

Sometimes, a journey through the wilderness leads to a deeper appreciation of God and his gifts.
At other times, the barrenness of the wilderness makes it easier for us to harden our hearts and turn away from God in bitter discouragement.

What will make the difference?

If the Exodus and Numbers wilderness narratives teach us anything it is that it is not the wilderness itself that is the key determinant. The main question is whether we are living in the freedom of the Gospel or trying to slog our way through under the Law.


  1. Some more parallels:

    Adam (sin) –> the Patriarchs (obedience)

    Egypt (slavery) –> The Promised Land (covenant)

    Israel (the law) –> the church (grace)

    Catholicism (ritualism) –> Protestantism (scripture)

    England (monarchy) –> America (freedom)

    Obaism –> ??

    We fight the same struggle in every generation, but in a different form.

    • You’ve a right to your opinion of course. But to characterize all of Catholicism as ritualism is prejudice, not analysis.

      • It is true that I am painting with a broad brush, in order to bring out the dominant themes. And there are other ways to look at it. For example, we might interpret Catholicism in terms of its hierarchy, and Protestantism as the priesthood of all believers. To link the Old Testament with law and the New Testament with grace is just a useful shorthand. A lot of modern Jews don’t care so much about the law anymore (though they continue to reject grace), and England is now a democracy.

        But these oppositions also exist within us. Each of us must enter into a covenant with God, flee out of Egypt, recognize the messiah, undergo a personal Reformation, thrice renouncing the “pope” of our own sin and rebellion (the devil) so that he may be hurled into the fiery pit of judgement. Otherwise we remain in bondage to death (the first term of each pair).

      • Thank you for clarifying that, Ch. Mike.

        Florian, I would like to suggest that your knowledge of ACTUAL Roman Catholic theology and practice needs some refining before you choose to so grossly oversimplify. The scripture that you set up as the “opposite” of Caltholcism came from and was protected by the Church, and Scripture is very much a part of belief and worship in the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic branches.

        Your juxtaposition of England and America is also fairly jejeune and superficial. The universe God created is not as black and white as you would like it to be, and learning to live with these many shades is part of being fully adult.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The scripture that you set up as the “opposite” of Caltholcism came from and was protected by the Church, and Scripture is very much a part of belief and worship in the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic branches.

          In one of his non-fiction books, Chesterton has a vivid example of this.

          He uses the image of someone watching a religious procession — priests & acolytes in strange robes chanting in an ancient language. Some wear strange hats, others swing censers of burning incense, others carry holy artifacts and relics, one carries a holy book.

          Then someone rushes in and disrupts the procession, snatching the holy book from its bearer and holding it high proclaims “THIS IS *THE* WORD OF GOD!!!!!! AND ALL OF YOU ARE SPAWN OF SATAN!!!!”

          Then Chesterton asks “Would not the Atheist response make more sense? To just look at the procession and say ‘This is all bunk’?” Yet in the example, this one guy takes the holy book from this religious procession, proclaims it more than true, then uses it to denounce and damn to hellfire the religion it came from in the first place. Which approach is more consistent?

          • The problem is that too many Protestants think their religion is not ritualistic. They re-write the missal from scratch, base it on their emotions, call it “Biblical,” and in the process forget any coherent definition of the word “ritual.” Those who think “organized religion” is the devil haven’t spent enough time around disorganized religion. Order is good, just like the law. There’s nothing wrong with trying to keep them both.

        • The teaching that the Catholic Church wrote, edited, or recognized the Bible is a lie of the devil. “Catholicism” didn’t exist until the Roman emperors took over Christianity and corrupted it. Sure there have been some reforms, but its roots (and fruits) are corruption.

          • Warning number two, Florian.

          • Sure thing. What spaceship did the Bible return to earth on in the 16th century, after it was stored on Planet Xeres from 33 AD onward?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Ah, the same version of Church history as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Also found to a lesser degree among Seventh-Day Adventists.) Just like political crazies from Left and Right can only agree on hating the Jews, so Christian crazies from Left and Right can only agree on how much they hate Catholics.

            Florian, your brand of Christianity almost killed me. “Satanic Romish Popery” was what put my head back together re God & Christ after your “Pure Biblical Christianity” tore it apart. It’s a duct-tape repair job; I still have this deep distrust of God and Christ, even deeper than my distrust of women. After that spiritual abuse job, I can only approach God & Christ through the intermediary of Liturgy and Tradition.

          • I don’t know what kind of church you were exposed to, but the Bible is good and beautiful. (So are women!) Protestantism is all about going back to the Bible. Catholicism is the opposite. But each believer has the freedom to read it for himself, and choose a church which, according to the promptings of his conscience, preaches God.

          • Also Mormonism and Jehovahs Witnesses are false religions. They set the writings of men above the word of God.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Not Planet Xeres, Pattie.

            Planet Kolob.

            “If Ye could Hie to Kolob…”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Florian never heard about the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648.

        SCRIPTURE (TM) was what almost killed me as a functioning human being in the Seventies. Romish Popery with its Say-Tann-Ic Death Cookies was what put my head back together. And Florian would return us all to that never-ending Party Line Beatdown.

        • Tell me more about this Treaty of Wesphalia. Does it say that Catholicism is now acceptable to Protestants, and that Martin Luther lived and died for nothing?

          I would lead you back to the Bible. You joke about totalitarianism, but the fact is the Catholic Church probably inspired totalitarianism.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Treaty of Westphalia ended the Reformation Wars in Europe, 1648. After the Thirty Years’ War almost depopulated the continent with a dress rehearsal for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (aided by freelance witch-hunts throughout the war zones; this is where Wiccan legends of The Burning Times began).

            I spent a couple years in your brand of Anti-Catholic, Anti-Arts, Anti-Science, Anti-Everything Born Again Bible Believing Christian Fellowship. The only comparison I can make is North Korea, with Christ as Comrade Dear Leader and no lack of Thought Police Enforcers.

        • Florians comments are like the christian bible-believer version of sura 9:30

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I am not familiar with the Koran, Tapji.

            Is Sura 9:30 a favorite of Wahabi, Talibani, and other X-treme/abusive branches of Islam?

          • Its a verse from the Koran: “And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah.”

            I confess that I have no idea what you mean by this. Yes, I believe that Christ is the Son of God. No, I don’t believe this weirdness about Ezra, if that’s what you’re asking.

          • Yes it is HUG. They enjoy that one , among others. as a side note i have studied islam for several years now , so your references to it give me a good chuckle..then a sigh because the parallels are often right on target 🙁

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Well, Tapji, after some reports from the field I started saying that “When Christianity goes sour, it curdles into something resembling Islam.” And the guy over at Totem to Temple/Onward Forward Towards took that years ago and coined the term “Christlam” for such Islamized Christianity.

            The report from the field that inspired the comment originally was someone who moved to Louisville and tried to find a church there. One was Hypercalvinist, heavily into Predestination Uber Alles; he noticed a lot of the same attitudes and side effects that have handicapped Islam throughout its history.

            And another friend of mine speculated that Islam is an “end-stage religion”, incorporating ideas, attitudes and memes that make it incredibly difficult to change or leave once established. Sort of like the bottom of a gravity well in astronomy or a “rest state” in physics/chemistry; the energy cost to get out of it is much higher than to get in, so everything tends to “fall into it and stay there”.

    • One more Mike says

      What do you have against art? (Obaism)


  2. Your observation regarding this doublet is fascinating; however, I question whether a faith versus law interpretation can be applied to that observation. It may simply be literary construction, of ascent and decent from Sinai, or that the first was ascent to Sinai, and the second ascent to the promise land.

    Regarding faith versus law, even after the cross we still have law; it’s role and implication changes. I cite the following from the Lutheran Epitome of the Formula of Concord:

    “We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3.”

    I believe this is a significant distinction between the sanctification of Luther versus that of the revivalists. For the revivalist, the believer is presumed perfect because of the Spirit; therefore, any disobedience to the law following conversion is a sign of failure to fully convert; the curse of the law remains. In contrast, under the Lutheran view, our lives are governed by law but under the confidence of the sure and complete forgiveness through Christ; each day we meditate on God’s laws and seek to obey them; at the end of each day; we seek that forgiveness for where we failed and wisdom and strength in the spirit to serve God and our neighbor better the next day. We then go to bed in peace and sleep to greet the new morning with renewed commitment to serve God and neighbor. It’s a dirtier, messier, process, where we work, fall, get up, and try again. But the revivalist idea that we as believers automatically obey God out of love and the Spirit leads to this renewed curse of the law: we work, fall, and are crushed. or we pretend to work to avoid being crushed.

    • Sometimes it’s almost like two completely different religions.

      For the Lutheran, “it is finished”.

      We are put to death (that Old Sinner) in our Baptisms (check Romans 6)…

      but then we are raised with Christ (also Romans 6).


      “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have works.” Oops…I meant all those who have ‘faith’.


    • dumb ox, I think you are comparing apples and oranges here. You are using a different understanding of “Law” than I am. You are setting forth Law as a theological category, while I am speaking of Law as the covenant under which Israel lived. That law covenant was doomed from the beginning according to the Torah (see the earlier post this week) because the people did not have a heart to keep it. Laws and regulations were continually added because of their transgressions to try and keep them in bounds. It worked to an extent, but still in the end they went into exile.

      Paul calls this “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1). In no way, shape, or form is any Christian, Jew or Gentile, “under” this Law. This is the entire point of Romans 5-8 and Galatians 3-6 and other passages.

      The example I have given (and that I gave the other day in the contrast of Abraham and Moses) is just one of many, many narrative examples in the Torah. Moses, watching his people die day after day in the desert, learned this sober lesson: the law stirs up sin. the law kills.

      • “the law stirs up sin. the law kills.”

        If only believers could get that through their heads.

        And then a proper understanding that the law is anything that ‘we do’…and not just Old Testament Jewish Law.

      • Maybe I’m misunderstanding something you’re saying, but I don’t see how people are any more sinful before they have the law than after it. The law wasn’t what was stirring up sin, it was the hardness of the people’s hearts. The law just showed them how sinful they actually were. To me, blaming the law is a bit like a cancer patient blaming a CT scanner for his cancer. The cancer exists whether or not the person knows it or not, and their response to that knowledge determines their future.

        Couldn’t the distinctions you made in the original post be the matter of perspective? Exodus could have been written with an eye on the blessings promised in the covenant, and in Numbers written from a more pessimistic viewpoint where the curses associated with unfaithfulness were being experienced.

        • Your argument is with Paul, not with me. Read the list of bullet points that summarize some of Paul’s comments about the Law. He says quite plainly that the Law increased and stirred up sin.

          What I am trying to show is that Paul’s reading of the Torah is legitimate. Moses discovered the same thing. The Law was “the ministry that brought death” and condemnation (2Cor 3:7-11).

  3. Thank you for today’s post. I often think what freedom comes from bondage to legalism to that of grace. However as I often think of why so many don’t see that transition (though it is a very powerful one, The Spirit’s power) I often forget the long time it entered into my soul. It does remind me of a great characteristic of God – namely His great patience (longsuffering) and lovingkindness. A great prayer – ‘O Lord, open my eyes to see . . .’

  4. I think that what is needed for a discussion like this is a helpful distinction between “living under the law,” and “living in obedience to the law.” To be under the law means conditions; do this and you will live. Since we never do, we die. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to honor our father and mother or be honest and faithful to our spouse. Those are good and worthwhile things that we should truly strive for, and anybody who says otherwise is trying to make you feel guilty for doing good. To be “free from the law” doesn’t mean free from it’s demands; it means free from its judgement and the punishments for our failure to obey. We will still fail, but that doesn’t mean we quit trying; the fact that we are free means we desire to obey more. The freedom of the Gospel does NOT make the law irrelevant. I appeal to Michael Card: “Freedom’s not found in the things that we own, it’s the power to do what is right.”

  5. Yes we have the power and feedom to do what is right. But we don’t. Not all that much of the time, anyway.

    So we cling to the cross and His infinite mercy.

    “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

    Every once in a while a Christian will actually believe that…without any ‘yeah buts’ attached to it. 😀

    • Would that be end as in the chronological finish, or end as in the ultimate goal? Jesus was pretty adamant about not one word of the law passing away and not teaching disobedience to it. Without the law, there is no gospel. The full gospel must include both, the law to is harshest, and the gospel to its sweetest. You are right; the law will never empower us to obey it. But grace can transform us to desire it. It is only when righteousness becomes the longing of our heart that our hands will act in conformity. And that is something we have no control over.

      • Charles Joshua says

        “And that is something we have no control over”
        Contradicts your replies.

        • You’re gonna have to be a bit more specific if you expect some sort of coherent dialogue; I’m not entirely sure what you are referring to. Perhaps if I elaborate a tad my thoughts might make more sense. What we have no control over is the renewal of our own hearts, the transformation of our desires to desire righteousness and despise evil. This is the work of God, which is why the Psalmist prays “Create me a clean heart.”

  6. Another thought-provoking post CM. i think its time i give the OT another reading.

  7. Off-topic, but I turned on the news and the next thing I heard was tornadoes ravaging America.

    Are you all okay? They were talking about Indiana, but also that some had been in Kentucky and ‘across the middle’, so I’m not sure if that is the geographic locale of all or some or you.

    Please let me know you’re all okay!

  8. Let me try this again, this time without us getting distracted by the Catholic issue:

    CREATION: God creates the world out of chaos. The eventual result is Eden. But Eden becomes corrupted by the sin of Adam.

    COVENANT: The patriarchs begin the long process of setting aright the sin of Adam. The eventual result is God’s blessing. However, their descendents sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt

    KINGDOM: Moses leads the Exodus and receives the Ten Commandments. The eventual result is the Davidic Kingdom. But it falls due to the Israelites’ sin.

    GOSPEL: Christ fulfills the law and prophets, and establishes his church. However,it becomes corrupted. (Not immediately–over centuries.)

    REFORMATION: Christians break free as they learn to read the Bible for themselves. However, this is an ongoing process, with much backsliding, and many of the same excesses reappear.

    AMERICA: Fleeing religious persecution, the Pilgrims flee to the New World. The eventual result is the America of the Founding Fathers. However, this too is betrayed by un-Christian, un-American forces.

    And here we are, reliving all of the above in our own way. Every generation faces its own serpent / pharoah / pope / King George / Obama, and must seek out God’s way for their day.

    • Well and good. What does this have to do with the original post?

      • Not much, but there are PAPISTS and other heretics on this-here blog and Florian has been sent on a MISSION from Gawd and his pastor to save us from our evil Popish ways and stop you REAL Christians from associating with us who will drag the rest of you to HELL if he doesn’t get you to see the light of what the BIBLE really teaches!

        Please don’t confuse anyone with Love, Grace, theology, forgiveness, or a focus on the Apostle’s Creed, Ch. Mike. Can we get back on track soon? It is Lent and I am loving our wilderness journey!

        • Setting the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness in the wider context of the Bible and the church.

          In fact I was hoping to avoid the issue of Catholicism. Of course I am against it (IMHO any attempt to set up a particular bureacracy as the gatekeepers between God and man ought to be condemned as anti-Christian, regardless of what church it is or how old they are), but this does not have to be discussed in every post. I am not on a mission from God, and I do not presume to guess who will go to hell.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Not much, but there are PAPISTS and other heretics on this-here blog and Florian has been sent on a MISSION from Gawd…

          “Are you police?”

          “No, Ma’am. Were Musicians. We’re on a mission from God.”

          The Blues Brothers

          • LOL!

            Our new guest will get bored soon enough, what with all the well-read, thoughtful and gracious contributers here at I-Monk. (Or, if not boredom, some real learning and enlightenment might creep in. Time will tell…)

  9. CM,
    I haven’t read all the comments so maybe someone has asked this. I find your comparisons of God’s people in the OT before and after the law (Law?) thought-provoking. One general question came to mind immediately in both of your posts on this topic. In both posts, we have the situation of approaching God by “grace through faith” then it changes to a relationship based on law and rules. My question is, if the case was that people (like Abraham, or the pre-Sinai covenant Israelites) were in a relationship with God characterized by grace through faith, why on earth would God switch over to a covenant based on law? Seems hard to explain. Hard to explain doesn’t equal not true, of course.

    Just wondered if you had a thought or two on this.


    • I actually think that God’s plan for Israel when they got to Mt. Sinai was to establish them as a “kingdom of priests” who would relate to God much as the patriarchs had. That’s another Bible study, one which I did not include this time around. John Sailhamer has some good teaching on this in his commentary on the Pentateuch, and I follow him here. God’s design was for Israel to be a “kingdom of priests” but they ended up being a “kingdom with priests” because of their fear, unbelief, and transgressions. God “added the Law because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19), to keep them in bounds and preserve their identity despite their sin until Messiah came.

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