Meditations in Exodus: 53. The Desert of Sin – contrasts
Ex 16:1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.
There is a temptation here to jump to a wrong conclusion and try to make something of the name but the Sin that makes up the bigger name Sin-ai is not the sin we know about. Centuries before, a warlord from the north by the name of Naram-Sin came south to conquer this land. He headed a cult that worshipped the moon-god Sin (pronounced sign). Over the years his descendants continued to worship the moon-god Sin and thus the region along the Gulf of Suez became known as the wilderness of Sin and entire peninsular named Sinai.
The Sinai that is mentioned in verse 2 is likely to be the mountain that they eventually reach where they encounter the Lord. They don’t know it yet, but this was the place where Moses had encountered the burning bush and been commissioned, and where Aaron had met Moses (Ex 4:27). It is clear (and Moses would know this) that the Pillar of Cloud is leading them in that direction. Moses might well wonder if the Lord has some purpose behind this that has not yet become clear.
For the purposes of meditation there are some interesting things in this verse 1. First, “The whole Israelite community set out.” Just catch the reality of this, because is it significant in the things that follow. It has been suggested that there may well have been a million or even over two million people – men, women and children – in this group. It is a massive group of people making their way slowly through the desert. So large a crowd was it that they no doubt stretched out over miles of track or dunes.
The point I would make is that the further you were from the front, the less sense you had of being led by this incredible pillar of cloud. It was no doubt sufficiently big that it could be seen from a distance but when you are a distance from the presence of God it is easy to feel that distance and feel separated from His wonder. I think this when every now and then reports come in of the Lord moving powerfully in this area or that area but in my area of the desert all is quiet. The fact is that the Lord does move in different geographical locations and it takes faith to believe what others are experiencing. It is important if you are ‘further back’ not to let the enemy sow negatives.
But then we read, “The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai.” Elim was the place of God’s blessing and abundant provision and Sinai was the place of encounter and law-giving (though they don’t know that yet). They are part way between these places of provision but this present place is just desert, a desert with a murky history of moon-worship, a place of nothingness. If only the Christian life was a smooth even ride, we might think, but it isn’t. The word that describes it is ‘change’ and many of us don’t like change, but change is the name of the game in the world at large and it is the same in the Christian life. Yesterday may have been a day of abundant blessing but today seems quiet, and so we are left wondering.
If you were Moses, you would be anticipating the arrival at Mount Sinai but that is some way off yet. Often we live with anticipation of something we know is coming – we look forward to birthdays, anniversaries, even Christmas perhaps, Thanksgiving, or other memorable and happy times. Because we are post-modern people there is a tendency to be living in an ‘experience-orientated’ life and so are either living on the memories of the last big experience (the last holiday perhaps) or in the anticipation of what we see coming. The danger in that is that we miss out on the significance of TODAY.
Ah, but ‘today’ is simply a desert experience for many of us, the same old thing, the same routine but it is never just the same for we live in a fallen world and things go wrong – at work, at school, at home even – and so the desert keeps on. The ‘same old’ can give a sense of being dry and arid and one of my biggest concerns to do with local church is that so often we do the same thing week in, week out, and so it becomes routine and we lose any sense of anticipation of God turning up. He may turn up in the place of the news but back home here, it is another thing altogether. Be honest, is your church life more like a desert, does little change, does little happen? The life of the Spirit surely should be full of ‘life’ and life brings change in people, change in circumstances; isn’t this what our church life should be?
But then we read this was, “the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.” A month has passed, (Passover was the 14th/15th of the first month) they have been traveling for a month and a lot has happened. When you are plodding on through the desert, time drags. Add that to the difficulties of desert life and it is not surprising when, “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (v.2)
So here is the crunch lesson: when life feels like a desert, and the last great blessing is some way behind you, and any anticipated further good time is some way ahead, how will we act? Jesus said, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) He was, of course, referring to his Second Coming, but it is a valid question for us every day. In this desert will we remain a people of faith or will we become grumblers? Yes, I have previously confessed to naturally being a grumbler but that is the natural side of me and by God’s grace I am slowly (very slowly) learning not to grumble in the desert but to praise Him, turn to Him for His daily resources, and look with anticipation to what He might do if I am available.
Don’t let the ‘desert’ get to you. His grace IS sufficient, but we do have to pause up and draw on it on a daily basis. If you are feeling dry, is it because you haven’t paused today to draw from the springs of living water that are there for you that Jesus spoke about? Don’t let the dry feeling continue; His resources ARE there for you right now.