Walter Brueggemann: Who Will Lead Us Out of this Wilderness?

When the enslaved Hebrews departed Egypt, they all went. They all danced at the border as they were emancipated. They all came into the wilderness. They all ate quail that showed up inscrutably. They all ate the “bread of heaven” and were filled and satisfied. They all drank water from a rock. They all lived according to the new emergence of God’s abundance in the wilderness.

When the time came to enter the land of promise, however, the community of the emancipated was sharply divided.

The spies who scoped out the new land of promise returned with a report of the luxurious land of milk and honey:

We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit (Numbers 13:27).

The fruit they exhibited was extravagant:

They cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them (v. 23).

The spies, however, added to their report an adversative, sobering “yet”:

**Yet* the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev, the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan* (vv. 28-29).

The good land of promise was already occupied by ferocious, formidable giants!

So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites came from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (vv. 32-33).

The report of the spies voiced a profound tension between lavish produce and formidable occupants.

It is no wonder this two-fold report evoked conflict in the community. On the one hand, the majority opinion chose to accent the risk and danger posed by the giant occupants of the land; the Israelites were but tiny and vulnerable grasshoppers, they warned ominously. That same majority wished for a return to the supposedly good old days in Egypt.

Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt” (14:2-4).

They were defined by fear that caused them to renege on the land of promise, ready to resubmit to the old, brutal certitudes of Pharaoh.

The minority report, to the contrary, did not blink at the danger of the gigantic occupants of the land, but believed that the good land (and its good fruit) was to be had because they were the substance of God’s promise. That minority report was issued by Caleb already in 13:30:

Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.

Caleb spoke with complete confidence against the fear of his companions. And so the die is cast: a majority opinion grounded in fear, a minority opinion rooted in hope. The issue is sorted out in a divine response to the urgent petition of Moses. His petition to YHWH for mercy is a classic formulation that closely echoes the divine declaration of Exodus 34:6-7. Moses prays God’s own declaration back to God. In his petition, Moses holds YHWH to the earlier self-declaration:

Let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promises when you spoke, saying,
The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
to the third and fourth generations (Numbers 14:17-18).

YHWH has provided grounds for forgiveness for the faithfulness of Israel. But YHWH is no easy mark.

YHWH weighs in on the contrast of the majority of fear and the minority of hope on the side of the persistent hope of the few:

None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have temped me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholehearted, I will bring into the land into which he went and his descendant shall possess it (14:22-24).

Caleb is the first to be named as a candidate for the land of promise. He ranks Joshua along with the faithful:

Not one of you shall come into the land which I swore to settle you except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun…But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh alone remain alive, of those men who went to spy out the land (vv. 30, 38).

These two will enter the land of promise. These two but no more! Only these two. All the others in their timidity, their backward look, and their lack of trust in God’s promise would die in the wilderness:

Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you (vv. 29-30).

Entry into the land of promise depends on readiness to trust the promise and equal readiness to run great risks for the sake of the promises.

The majority played it safe. They were unable to trust and unwilling to risk. They have no future but only confidence in a past that will no longer function effectively for them. The reliable promise to the two is reiterated:

Not one of them was left, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun (Numbers 26:65).

...none except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun for they have unreservedly followed the Lord (Numbers 32:12).

Then Joshua blessed him, and gave Hebron to Caleb son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. So Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the Lord, the God of Israel (Joshua 14:13-14).

The single mark of qualification is “wholeheartedly following” without reservation. Caleb and Joshua are “all in.” All the others in their fearfulness were excluded from the future of abundance in the land of wellbeing.

Our current crisis of virus and economic meltdown invites a rereading of this narrative. The crisis has led us into a wilderness-like context where Pharaoh’s certitudes are no longer adequate or persuasive.

It is an arena without visible life supports wherein wilderness-like protest and complaint are the order of the day. There is an impetus by the protesters to push toward new social possibility that is no more clear an alternative to us than was the “land of promise” to the erstwhile slaves in the wilderness.

The old wilderness was a liminal moment. In the old wilderness, Israelites stood between the not-yet-in-hand land of promise and the chance to go back to the old brutalities that were pervaded by certitude. Our wilderness-like crisis today is just such a liminal moment. The choice between fear and hope was a choice then, even as it is now. Back then there were only two who hoped, only two! The others were fully inured to the brutal, insatiable ways of Pharaoh. And now ours is a moment like that.

Back then there were only two.

We do not yet know how many or who will be among us in the current procession of hope. It isn’t quite right to slot the old as those who look backward as the young look forward. It is more complex than that. But there is something to that demography, even as I write this at 87 years of age. Ross Douthat, a reliable conservative, has written that the current conservative movement “now is world view of old people and contrarians” (New York Times, June 14, 2020).

The good news is that there are now more than two who anticipate the coming land of promise. Beyond the wilderness of our crisis, the coming “land of promise” will be marked by:

-a practice of neighborliness without greedy individualism;
-an economy of generosity without predatory parsimony;
-a health care system hospitality without exclusionary privilege,
-a criminal justice system of forgiveness without vengeful “law and order,” and
-a political order of racial justice without rank prejudice.

If we take these markings together—neighborliness, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, justice—they sound not unlike what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”

Of course the outcome of our crisis with its attendant protests is not the Kingdom of God. The possibility and promise of the Kingdom are, however, a close enough reiteration as to authorize risk and hope. For the implementation, we will require new initiatives, a readiness to listen to the “left behind” in order to learn how to proceed and where to come down.

Then there were only two. Now, there can be more.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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