I am a slave to my iPhone, and one reason is that wonderful built-in GPS system, global-positioning-satellite system, which helps me navigate on my first and sometimes subsequent calls to homes and assisted living facilities, hospitals and the like in the course of my pastoral duties. But of course, that same GPS helps me even in traveling to places with which I am unfamiliar nearer my home, such as when I went to a night time event for the opera at a house that I could never have found in the dark without that GPS.
My system usually calculates several routes — and when I am driving on I-10, it even shows how heavy traffic is in different areas — and calculates the distance and amount of time needed to get where I want to go. Much of that is because of the map programs built into the phone, some of which are available on my desktop computer.
For instance, I thought I would find how long it would take to walk from the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, the approximate spot from which Moses and the Israelites disembarked, how long it would take to walk from Giza, Egypt, to Jericho, the spot where Joshua led the Israelites across the River Jordan and into Canaan. The program would not find Jericho, but Jerusalem was close enough, and here are the results: the distance would be 742 kilometers, about 460 miles, and it would take 151 hours. OK; 151 hours of walking, about 20 minutes a mile, that is not that fast, but let’s say they could only do two miles in an hour, so that would be more like 225 hours to walk to Jericho. And let’s assume that they walked only 8 hours a day, which is not really a lot, but through the desert and with small children and carrying one’s possessions, that’s ok; it would give plenty of time for sleep and for watching evening television. That would be about 28 days of walking, but certainly, at least once they had heard of the Ten Commandments and observing the Sabbath, they would have walked only six days a week, so we had better allow that every seventh day they would not walk, so we need to add five more days, so let’s say it would take 33 days of walking. Of course, I have not allowed for the time they stopped while Moses went up the mountain to receive God’s commandments, so let’s just say that, heck, 90 days, after all, there were also some battles to be fought, so 90 days, three months, is enough time to walk from the pyramids in Egypt to just across the river from Jericho. It should have taken the Israelites a bit over three months to complete the Exodus.
At least if they had GPS.
Which I assume they did not, for it took 40 years! No wonder, as in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, the Israelites were always complaining to Moses and Aaron. I mean, remember in the pre-GPS days when our kids used to say, “Are we there yet?” when we would go to visit Grandma? Or when we would say, “Are we there yet? How far do we have to go?” And even without GPS, our parents and we could generally answer that question accurately to within a day, at least!
That “40 years” should not be taken literally; forty in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, means, “a lot,” although I do not really know whether the “40 days” of the Great Flood and Noah’s floating zoo, and the “40 days” Jesus spent in the Wilderness, our model for Lent, are to be taken literally and exactly or whether just “a long time” is implied.
As you can see, for reasons most likely having to do with the topography of the Sinai peninsula, the walking route is not quite a straight line, but rather two straight lines, but the guesses as to how the Israelites might have traveled show them going in anything but a straight line. And for military and security purposes as well as topography, it would have made sense that they did not take the route a crow would fly, but wandering all over so that it took forty years? That is something else. I just bought a new book about the Exodus by a wonderful Bible scholar, but it just arrived, so I do not know what he will have to say, but if we believe that God was with the Israelites, we have got to assume that God had purposes beyond getting them as quickly as possible to the River Jordan and Jericho or it would have taken three months or so, not forty years.
The trip itself must have served some purpose for God, provided some value other than simply traversing 460 miles in as little time as feasible.
460 miles. I drive more than that every week. A decent number of those 460 miles, 40 each way of when I drive to or from Florence from my home, are through largely unspoiled “wilderness” within the Sonoran Desert, sometimes decorated with the spring wildflowers that I have not yet seen — and fear not seeing because of the paucity of our December and January rain — and with the white flowers of what I guess are Thompson eye yuccas, and saguaros and cholla and a backdrop of mountains. it is a beautiful if at times nerve-racking drive and trip, and I drink in what I can, and sometimes do some very useful thinking and pondering — most certainly not meditating, as I traverse. On the way up this past week to conduct Bible study, I think I came upon why God only wrestles to a draw with Jacob and does not defeat him in that wrestling match in Genesis 31 to which I so often refer.
Indeed, I think I would say that while the destination matters, it is too easy to underestimate the value of the trip itself, and too easy to miss things from which we might derive benefit in noticing then. Hmm. When I was twelve, and in the days before automobile air conditioners and I-90, my (then only) younger brother, Russ, and I accompanied one set of our grandparents as we drove from Mundelein, Illinois to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the first time I crossed the Mississippi River and the first time I crossed the Missouri River, the latter as we headed to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the last town of any size we encountered in the entire state. No I-90, but rather two-lane US 14 through the dry and flat prairie with occasional signs, “Eat at the Belvedere Hotel,” which we did, and “Wall Drugstore 200 miles.” There was a series of those “Wall Drugstore” signs, and after a side excursion to the “Badlands,” we did, in fact, stop at Wall Drugstore and buy woven plastic cowboy hats with only a portion of the $5 with which each of us had been gifted by my parents for our two week trip’s incidentals. Some of the other of those $5 were spent on the jukeboxes in restaurants at which we would stop along the way, and I would use a nickel, or maybe it was a dime, to play “I want you, I need you, I love you” by the still not quite the star he became, Elvis Presley.
The Black Hills were great, especially having never before seen mountains. They were worth the trip to get there, but so was the trip worth the trip.
Canaan was not yet quite what the Israelites had expected. They did not, after all, find an uninhabited paradise, and the ethics of displacing those who lived there somehow does not strike me as what I believe the God of Israel really endorses, and while forty years is one long trip, the trip, too, like mine to the Black Hills, had value. Why, along the way the people found out, even as they repeatedly grumbled, that God provides — manna is the best known example. It was on the trip that they received the gift that is the basis for considering themselves “chosen”: they received Torah, somewhat inadequately, but for our purposes well enough described by the English word, law, most specifically including the Ten Commandments and all that was handed out to Moses on Mount Horeb — and we frequently incorrectly identify that as “Mount Sinai,” the exact location of which is a bit up in the air but certainly not on the direct route from Giza to Jericho, nor on any alternate route a functioning GPS would have offered.
And the experiences they shared helped to bond them and to form them into a nation, into a community, into a community, a fellowship of God-following individuals, however real were their individual failures so to follow Torah. Israel — the collective name of the people — became Israel in no small measure as a product of that trip.
And Russ and I probably had bonds established that still exist because of memories we subconsciously share of the french fries at the Belvedere Hotel or playing jukeboxes or of the Wall Drugstore.
Exactly twenty years later, Carol and I took our two sons to the Black Hills. We started with a visit to friends in Minneapolis, so we did not cross the Missouri at Sioux Falls, but rather than US 14, we got onto I-90. It was not the same kind of trip. There was an exit from I-90 at Belvedere, but what once had been a dirt main street was paved, and the hotel long gone, and, indeed, a motel had opened and already been closed and shuttered at the exit from I-90 during those intervening years. We got on and off I-90 to visit the Badlands. Wall Drugstore was by then almost an outdoor mall, but still an attraction.
Yet I am sure my sons can still remember the trip; my younger son coughed up his blanket to us at a motel one night, saying he didn’t need it anymore.
Lent is, or can be, sort of a faith-exploring trip, but more importantly, for the Christian, life itself is a trip. It would be great if we each could observe the wildflowers along the road, listen to the music we love, have our own Belvedere Hotel and Wall Drugstore memories, even with our deviations into a different kind of “Badlands.” But it will be an even more meaningful trip if along the way we are as a-tuned to listening, as a-tuned to listening to God as was Moses, as able to bond with our fellow human beings as one as did the Israelites, probably to learn to grumble less than did the Israelites, but to learn and to accept as ultimately did they that God is in charge.
Our destination is not Jericho, it is not even what we would properly think of as a “place,” but rather a different world. And though we may often seem to ver dramatically off the straight line route that God would have us follow, we do have our own GPS to get us back on the path. It is called, “the cross of Jesus.” That more than an iPhone will give us the right route to follow.
Let us value the trip, and when complaining might seem in order, let us focus instead on the assurance of what our destination will be — and let us enjoy the trip. As I have said the previous two weeks, the God who created us does want us to know joy.
And in the name of that God in the form of the Son of God, Jesus, good and safe travels. Amen."What