As I settled into the book of Deuteronomy this evening for a little devotional reading, I was taken aback by the following verses:
“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, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses addressed the people of Israel, telling them everything the LORD had commanded him to say.” (Deut. 1:2-3 NLT)
I know the story, but even still I found myself wondering, “How does eleven days become forty years?” As if that weren’t enough, as Moses is recounting for the Israelites their journey he recalls, “When we were at Mount Sinai, the LORD our God said to us, ‘You have stayed at this mountain long enough’” (Deut. 1:6). Ouch. After the great demonstration of His power in Egypt and the journey out of slavery, after the fiery revelation of His presence and purposes for His treasured people, the LORD was ready to deliver on His great promises and usher the Israelites into the Land. It was only one year after the Israelites were rescued from Egypt that they sent spies to check out the land of promise and report back (Num. 9:1a; 13:2ff). That means that it only took the Israelites one year to effectively forget that the one who was going to be leading them into the Promised Land was the same one who brought them out of Egypt with signs and great demonstrations of His power.
It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To think that God’s intention toward His people was blessing upon blessing, but they cowered in fear, waivered in faith, and failed to inherit what the LORD longed to give them… and had plenty of time to think about what they had done. Perhaps that’s why Moses, addressing the rising generation of Israelites who were not disqualified from entering the land of Canaan, points out the disparity between the distance from Egypt to Canaan and the amount of time it took the Israelites to get there. He also reminds them over and over again to remember. Remember what God did before your very eyes. Remember how He rescued you from Egypt. Remember how the LORD was with you during those forty years of wandering. Remember how your parents rebelled and forgot that He was willing to go before them and fight for them. Don’t forget to remember.
The Israelites, as they were about to enter the Land (again), were also reminded that the key to their success would be obedience:
“And now, Israel, listen carefully to these decrees and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you.” (Deut. 4:1-2)
They weren’t to let their minds wander from what was most important: faith expressing itself in obedience. Just obey.
As I read these opening chapters of Deuteronomy, I wondered if there have been ways that my mind and heart have wandered from a posture of simple obedience and reverence for God’s goodness and power. Though I’d like to be able to read about the Israelites and think that their forgetfulness and rebelliousness is completely absurd, I confess that I also have the capacity to forget what amazing things God has done to demonstrate His power in my life. I have at times cowered in fear rather than boldly stepped out in faith. I have forgotten that obedience to God’s commands is life for me. Yes, my mind has wandered at times. It’s like the hymn says, Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.
It only took the Israelites one year to forget what God could do. My prayer for this year is that the Lord would keep our minds fixed on Him, remembering His commands and holding onto His goodness. May this be a year in which we draw near to God rather than wander away.