One of my favorite books in the bible is the book of Deuteronomy. A key to understanding the book is understanding the context. Here is the backstory that leads up to the book. God miraculously delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and uses Moses to lead them out. They journey to Mount Sinai where God and the Israelites make a covenant with one another. Then they journey up to Kadesh-barnea where they send spies to scout out the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham. The prospects look good, but the Israelites ultimately shrink back in fear at the thought of fighting the giants that are in the land. So, the Israelites wander around the wilderness learning all kinds of lessons.
When we come to the book of Deuteronomy forty years have passed since Kadesh-barnea. An entire generation of Israelites has passed away, and now a new generation of Israelites is preparing to try once again to enter into the promised land. Moses has assembled all of Israel in order to give his farewell instructions, for he knows that he will die before they cross the Jordan river.
One of the things that I love about the book is the poignant reminders that Moses gives. He wastes no time in giving them, for we see one of his most acute remarks in the very beginning:
"It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea. In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that the Lord had commanded him to give to them."- Deuteronomy 1:2-3
The point seems subtle to the uninitiated. In fact, if you do not know the backstory you will most likely miss the point. I am not a big fan of the New Living Translation. However, I think their paraphrase accurately captures the point that Moses is making here:
"Normally it takes only eleven days to travel from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-barnea, going by way of Mount Seir. But forty years after the Israelites left Egypt…"
In other words, Moses wants to make sure that none of us forget that they had managed to turn an eleven-day journey into a forty-year struggle.
It happens to all of us. We get stuck in transition, held up in a holding pattern. It even happened to the great patriarchs. Abraham got stuck in Egypt (Genesis 12:10), Isaac got stuck in the land of Abimelech (Genesis 26:8), and Jacob got stuck in Paddam Aram serving Laban (Genesis 29:27). We are not told exactly how long Abraham stayed in Egypt. In the case of Isaac we are simply told that he had been in the land of Abimilech “a long time.” And with Jacob we find out that he was tricked into fourteen years of service to Laban. How do we get ourselves into these holding patterns? How do we turn an eleven day journey into forty years?
Each situation is unique. In each case there are different factors to take into account. However, there is one obstacle that seems to be a universal threat, something that all of us will face in our faith journey. It is fear.
When Moses recounts his instructions to the Israelites at Kadesh-barnea his exhortation focused on the issue of fear:
See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 1:21
Fear is not something that happens only to the weak. All of us experience fear. In fact, if we are honest most of us know what it is like to go through entire seasons of life driven by fear. On the one hand, we do not want to be overly hard on ourselves for this reality. After all, nearly every hero of the faith in the bible had to be told at some point to fear not, and nearly every book of the bible has at least one fear not verse in it. Obviously this is a very common experience. On the other hand, it should be noted that scripture deals so heavily with the issue of fear because it is one of our greatest enemies, one we must confront diligently. In the book of Revelation we are told that the ones who overcome will inherit God and all of His blessings. However, the first ones mentioned in the list of those headed for the lake of fire are the cowardly (see Rev. 21:7-8).
The story of how the Israelites turned an eleven-day journey into a forty-year struggle is a classic what could have been tale. However, this story is not here to discourage us nor depress us, but to encourage us to find the fortitude that proved so illusive to them. As Paul noted about these stories in Scripture, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Perhaps you find yourself in a holding pattern today. I understand that you do not want to get ahead of God. I know what it is like to get ahead of God. However, while it is possible to get ahead of God, our greatest enemy is actually fear. It just may be that the thing that has you going in circles is not God, but fears that you have yet to identify.
If that is you today perhaps you need to go back and study this issue of fear, or do a self-inventory of your current state of fear. Then again, you may not need a long drawn out study. Perhaps you only need the simple reminder that fear is the thing that is holding you back. Maybe that will be the moment in which you finally turn and jump out of your holding pattern and into your free-falling adventure with God. So, what are you waiting for? Jump!
Adapted from Jonathan Stone, May 21, 2012, at http://www.stonewritten.com/?p=4148