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    A Wilderness God

    In the Holy Land, the desert is a place of hope.

    By Timothy J. Keiderling

    February 27, 2024
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    Half an hour’s drive from central Jerusalem is a deep wadi with a hiking trail going through it. The streambed runs in a cleft between sandstone cliffs so sheer and close that you can’t tell whether the ravine is twenty yards deep or a hundred. Although the trailhead is less than a mile from the main drag between Jericho and Jerusalem, the high walls block out the noise. It feels like stepping back in time, as if at any minute one might encounter a burning bush.

    Even in a small and densely populated country, wilderness isn’t impossible to find. In Nahal Amud, a spot near the Sea of Galilee where the Israel National Trail snakes between two cliffs, you can walk and walk and feel like you are completely alone in the world. All you hear are the birds overhead, the bats squeaking in their caves, and the rustle and grunt of what might be a wild pig.

    At a time like this, when the Holy Land is torn by war and people feel unbearably far from God in their pain and rage, it seems like the land and its people are in a wilderness. There is grief at injustice, resolve for vengeance, and determination to set things right, but underneath that, for all but the strongest optimists, lies a feeling of hopelessness. Will there ever be peace? Will the two peoples who lay claim to this land ever be able to live alongside each other?

    John Singer Sargent, From Jerusalem

    John Singer Sargent, From Jerusalem, mixed media on wove paper, 1905–6.

    Of course, a wilderness is a hard place to be. But could it be that there is hope even here? So often, when God wants to speak to people, he does so in the wilderness, and often that’s where people go to hear God’s voice without the interruption of others. Why is it that God speaks to people in the wilderness? What might God be saying in the wilderness today?

    In Genesis 16, when Abraham and Sarah’s slave Hagar flees into the desert to escape her mistress’s mistreatment, she encounters the angel of the Lord and draws courage and strength from the knowledge that her unborn son will be blessed. We read that the angel of the Lord finds her “by a spring of water in the wilderness.” She asks, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” But more importantly, she realizes that God has seen her in her pain. After that encounter, she names God “El-Roi,” the God who sees. Alone, away from people, she can both see God and be seen by him.

    Moses was in the wilderness when he was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep and met God in a fiery bush at Mount Horeb (Exod. 3). It was in the wilderness that Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and again encountered God’s presence on the mountaintop (Exod. 19). At different times and places, God’s people have drawn new strength from direct contact with God in the wilderness. Elijah returned to Horeb to meet God (1 Kings 19). Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray (Matt. 14:23).

    Somehow, the wilderness seems to be the place to find God again. Perhaps today God will once again lead the land and its peoples through their wilderness, so that they come out the other side in a new promised land, where these verses become a reality: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people” (Ps. 125:2); and “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19); and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

    Contributed By TimothyKeiderling Timothy J. Keiderling

    Timothy J. Keiderling is a PhD student and a member of the Bruderhof.

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