A friend of mine ran the sand marathon in Morocco last year. Over 6 days he ran a total of 250km, carrying his own food and tent – battered by the desert winds and sand during the day and harassed by the cold desert air at night. Despite a multitude of blisters, he made it!
Being in the desert is no fun at all, as I’m sure our people found out during their wanderings in the wilderness all those years ago. This week’s parashah brings us into the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) – literally, “In the desert”. Our people were about to spend the next 40 odd years wandering around meaninglessly in the desert because of their rebellion, before God would finally bring the new generation into the Land.
The first 4 chapters or so covered by this week’s reading deal mostly with the census that was taken to count the number of people ready for the armed conflict that was ahead. But more than this, God details exactly how He wants the camp to be arranged – which tribe should camp where, which tribe should set out first on the journey etc. What spoke to me, however, was where God Himself wanted to camp.
By this time, the Mishkan has already been completed and God is dwelling among us. But where? In the centre. God didn’t live on the outskirts of the camp or at the head of the camp – God lived right in the middle, right at the heart of the camp.
Throughout the Bible, the heart is a symbol for wholeness, centrality and importance, for example, we’re told that we should love God with all our heart. Our physical hearts are placed in a strategic place in our body – right in the centre, to allow it to pump blood around the rest of the body. If our heart stops beating, we die.
I believe that God wanted to camp in our midst for a number of reasons. First, to show that He is not a God who is far away or disconnected to us, a God who doesn’t want anything to do with us – He’s a God who chooses to dwell right in the very centre of us! Second, I believe He wanted to show our people the strategy for success. If we were going to succeed, we had to remember that God is like our physical heart – if we become detached from Him, we will die. The reason why we didn’t enter the Land when we should have done is because we disregarded God’s strategy, didn’t trust Him and came up with our own plan. We hardended our hearts against Him. The rest is history.
Today the situation is very different. No longer does God dwell in our midst in a temple or in the Mishkan and we’re no longer wandering around, lost in the wilderness. Yet despite God’s lack of physical presence, His lessons to us from the camp back in B’midbar still apply. He’s not a God who is far away – rather He came and walked among us, even became one of us in the form of the Messiah, Yeshua. And just as He had to be the centre of our ancestors’ lives if they were to succeed, the same is true today. If we become disconnected from God because we choose to put our hope and confidence in something/someone else or if we look to other sources for satisfaction and fulfilment, our own spiritual hearts will stop beating, because we’ve become disconnected from the source.
However God has a plan for stony hearts, hardened to Him. Twice in the book of Yehizke’el (Ezekiel) God promises to replace our hard hearts for soft ones (11:19; 36:36). What a great promise! He is willing and able to change our hearts to listen to Him and to follow Him if we’re willing to turn away from those things that give us a false hope and turn to Him. Thanks to the Messiah’s sacrifical death and resurrection, God can perform open heart surgery on us today!
If I had been in the desert back then with our ancestors, I’m sure I would have been afraid. And yet I know that I would have taken tremendous encouragement from the fact that God dwelt among us, in the heart of the camp. Today, despite life’s difficulties and deserts, I take great comfort in the fact that God has given me a new heart and that He spiritually dwells in the centre of my life now. No matter how hard you’ve made your heart towards Him, He is willing and able to give you a new one. Wouldn’t that give you comfort in the midst of life’s deserts?
In the heart of the desert