Two little verses, two seemingly unremarkable statements in the Exodus narrative that are offered right at the beginning of the account of the Hebrews’ journey toward the Land of Promise. Yet what a foreshadow they are of all that we will read in the rest of Exodus and the next three books of the Bible!
A quick glance at the maps in the back of most modern Bibles shows a very strange route that the children of Israel took from Egypt to Palestine. Rather than take the most direct path, the well-traveled road running beside the Mediterranean Sea which led directly to their destination, God led the people through one “wilderness” after another and ultimately into their new homeland through “The Negev” (a name taken from a Hebrew root word that literally denotes “a dry place”).
Instead of passing into Israel by an established trade route, not only the shortest distance but the one with considerably greater access to fresh drinking water — not to mention a much more comfortable, temperate coastal climate — the Tribes of Jacob would follow a path that led deep into the Sinai Peninsula, a desert and barren land of oppressive heat and limited life-supporting resources. The explanation given for God choosing this route over the other was the simple fact that the people were not prepared to go through the land of the Philistines.
The problem was not that God was unprepared to strengthen the Israelites to overcome the Philistines at that time, God was just as able to bring them safely into the Land by that way as any other. But He knew what was in the heart of His people. He knew that, seeing the armies of the Philistines coming against them, the children of Israel would have thrown down their weapons and ran as fast as they could back into Egypt! It wasn’t that God was unwilling to give them the victory over their enemies, it was that they were too afraid to stand against them.
As we look at the hardships and struggles that befell the Hebrews over the next 40 years, it is hard not to wonder what a difference their experience would have been had they only trusted the Lord a little more. How much easier it would have been if they had only believed that the God Who redeemed them from the Land of Egypt was strong enough to bring them all the way into the Land of Promise, no matter who or what stood in the way.
Even so, reading Exodus 13:17-18 leads me all the more to wonder what paths God has kept me from walking upon simply because He knows how fragile my own faith can be. How many times have I been led through the “wilderness”, thinking all the while that it was unavoidable, yet, had my own trust in the Lord been stronger, I would have been taken down a shorter road? So often we believe that the “wilderness road” is the way that God has preferred for us to go, and sometimes it is. But there are surely other times when God has desired for us to travel an easier way. Yes, there would have been obstacles in the road on that more direct path, enemies to be faced and oppositions to be confronted, but wouldn’t the Lord have enabled us to overcome them?
“Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended. Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” (Matthew 26:33-34)
The Lord, in His perfect wisdom and knowledge, knows our limitations and exactly how we will respond to any given situation. Though we mistakenly tend to see ourselves as being more capable and stronger than we actually are, God knows what we are and what we are not ready for. God knows the “breaking point” of our faith, He knows how far our trust in Him really goes, and He does not lead us into a place where He knows failure is the inevitable result.
The wilderness of Sinai was to be a place for the children of Israel to learn to trust God. It was a “school” where their faith in the Lord could blossom and grow and they could become prepared to inherit the Land that God wanted to give to them. They would endure heat, thirst, hunger, and many other trials that would serve as the classroom where they could learn that God is faithful and trustworthy. Imagine if they had learned to really trust God before they even left Egypt. What a profoundly different story their journey would have been!
What hardships are each of us enduring today, what wilderness are we passing through in order to learn to trust the Lord more fully? What other path did God really want for us to take that we were not prepared for? Let us learn to trust Him more fully, let us patiently endure the trials that we are under with the hope that, next time, we will be ready to travel the “nearer way.”
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,