I am writing these words on the first workday of 2021. Here in Ontario, we’ve been in lockdown since Boxing Day and my hope is that by the time you are reading this some relief has come, but hope is an elusive thing these days. Many have expressed relief that 2020 is now behind us, but for the moment, 2021 feels a lot like 2020. Of course, we all live in hope that eventually we will journey to the other side of the pandemic, but the future still seems very uncertain.
What resources exist for Christians to help us manage the challenges of COVID-19? When the virus brought our lives to a screeching halt back in March 2020, I was immersed in the biblical book of Numbers for a textbook on the Pentateuch I am coauthoring, and for much of the following six months, I was camped with the Israelites in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. The goal of my writing and research on Numbers had not been to discover resources for navigating our current crisis, so nothing quite prepared me for the surprisingly relevant and powerful instructions Numbers has to offer us.
Why was I surprised? Perhaps for many, Numbers is an unfamiliar and boring, dusty old book of the Bible that has little relevance for Christians today. As an Old Testament scholar, I knew it was relevant, but it takes a good deal of effort to grasp the significance of Numbers because it is a complicated book, and not the most appealing, if we’re honest. Trust me, though, it is worth the effort and we can glean wisdom from this book for our challenging times.
It is important, first of all, to grasp something of the context of Numbers. At the beginning of the book, God’s people, the Israelites, are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. They’ve been there ever since Yahweh liberated them from their soul-destroying slavery in Egypt, and for about a year God had been giving them instructions, or laws, that would help them become a certain kind of people: a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (see Exod. 19:4-5). Sinai is in the wilderness. For Israel, the wilderness is an in-between place—after their liberation from Egypt and before their entering of the Promised Land, a journey of just a few weeks.
The structure of the book is complicated—there are lots of different kinds of literature: narrative, law, poetry, battle records, and so on—and it is not always clear how this mashup holds together coherently. For simplicity’s sake, we can understand the structure of Numbers as follows:
NUMBERS 1–10: Starting with the first counting of the people (ch. 1), God gives instructions for the order and structure of their camp and its leadership and tells them how they should prepare to leave Sinai. This section is quite hopeful as the people receive God’s instruction and follow it meticulously. We can almost feel the excitement as Israel prepares to make their journey to the Promised Land.
NUMBERS 11–25: The moment they leave Mount Sinai, the Israelites begin to complain and grumble about their situation (11:1). This section (interspersed with more divine instruction) includes many such complaint narratives, demonstrating Israel’s intensifying disbelief and rebellion. Death dominates this section. God determines that this generation is doomed to die in the wilderness over a 40-year period for their rebellious ways. Nothing quite prepares us for this disappointing turn of events in Israel’s wilderness experience.
NUMBERS 26–36: A second counting of the people is taken, this time of the new generation (ch. 26). This whole section is much more hopeful as complaints are absent, disputes are settled peacefully, and more instructions are received, giving hope for life in the Promised Land. Not a single death is reported in this section.
I mentioned that for Israel the wilderness is an “in-between” place. The word that best describes this experience and others like it is “liminality.” We experience liminality (from the Latin “thresh-old”) whenever we are in between the place we have been and the place where we are going or transitioning between the people we have been and the people we will be. Some experiences of liminality are voluntary. For example, the pregnancy of a first-time mother shifts a woman into a nine-month period of liminality. Redeemer students enter a liminal space for four years, after which they will commence a career.
Sometimes we are thrust into experiences of liminality that are beyond our control. Liminality is what adolescents find so frustrating and challenging because they are no longer children and don’t want to be treated as such, but are not quite adults and don’t quite think and act with that level of maturity and responsibility. With a job loss, the period between losing a job and starting a new job is a liminal one, and the devastating diagnosis of cancer forces one into a difficult period of liminality. I will call these involuntary experiences of liminality, “wilderness liminality.”
In the biblical sense, wilderness is a place that does not sustain life. It is dangerous; occupants of the wilderness are extremely vulnerable and must simply rely on something beyond their own capabilities for survival. The wilderness is a place of hardship and suffering. What’s more, because the wilderness is never really a final destination, it is a liminal space.
Occupants of the wilderness…must rely on something beyond their own capabilities for survival.
To sum up so far, liminality is temporary and challenging. The paradox of liminal experiences is that while we have hope for a future beyond what we are enduring, the future and what it holds is uncertain. This is especially so in experiences of “wilderness liminality,” which are involuntary, prolonged, and when “reaching the destination” beyond liminality is uncertain and out of our control. One more thing is key: liminal spaces are places of “becoming,” potentially profound experiences for human formation; however, depending on how one navigates “wilderness liminality,” they can also be places of deformation. Israel in Numbers provides significant resources for helping anyone navigating their own wilderness to be formed in the right way by their experiences.
The Israelites in Numbers are in the wilderness, experiencing liminality. The middle section of Numbers is filled with stories of Israel’s complaining, and Israel’s complaints are always accompanied by a longing for Egypt (then regarded by rebellious Israel as a place of security and prosperity). Of course, complaint has a legitimate place in the life of people of faith. The Bible reveals a well-established tradition of lament which allows us, on the basis of faith, to voice our complaint to a God who hears our cries. The problem with Israel’s complaints in Numbers is that they (1) come from a place of disbelief, and (2) come as a result of a tragic misinterpretation of the circumstances the people have been facing. Ultimately, their complaints boil down to this: the wilderness, this place of liminality, is not the place they should be. Further, their trauma in the wilderness causes them to reinterpret their past experience of slavery in Egypt as far better than their current wilderness liminality. This is a profound misinterpretation of their situation because we know that God delivered them from debilitating slavery and in the wilderness has them right where he wants them.
The Bible reveals a well-established tradition of lament which allows us…to voice our complaint to a God who hears our cries.
Whatever else we could say about COVID-19, we should have little doubt that it has created a global wilderness experience and thrust us into a space of liminality. The lives we lived pre-COVID, our routines, activities, interactions, rituals and jobs, were almost instantaneously and drastically altered. This wilderness presents dangers at every turn, we are vulnerable, and forces seem to be at work to capitalize on this vulnerability. A year has passed, and not only have we not returned to “normal,” but that return,
the place beyond the wilderness, is by no means clearly in sight.
Early on, it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear people expressing some of the more positive outcomes of the virus—we were forced to slow down from an intense, and frankly unsustainable pace of life, recognized some benefits of working from home, had more time with family and/or the simpler pleasures of life, realized we were no less fulfilled without unnecessary shopping trips and restaurant outings, and so on. I heard people say that although they wanted an end to the pandemic, they did not want to just return to “normal.” Rather, they wanted to learn from the sudden end to the relentless “bondage” of busyness—they longed for a “promised land” beyond the pandemic, not the same as before but better.
Those kinds of sentiments seem rare now that we have been in this liminal space for so long with no end in sight. If we were to take stock of the current condition of the Christian community, how would we describe it? In other words, what is the state of the Communion?
Like the wider culture, the church is characterized by frustration, restlessness, weariness, confusion, anxiety, anger, fear, discontentment and division, all in some sense entirely understandable, and all these are fuelling an almost inescapable activity, namely, complaint. And there is no shortage of things to complain about. As the weeks have turned to months and we are in this liminal space longer and longer, it seems that above all we just desperately want a return to “normal.”
As I have been working through Numbers these past months, a sobering but unshakable series of thoughts have occurred to me:
If these thoughts are anywhere near the mark, the most pertinent question emerges:
If our situation is at all comparable to Israel’s experience in the wilderness, we need to take care not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. Some proposed solutions to our context sound eerily similar to those of Israel: return to “Egypt,” choose new leaders, simply die in the wilderness, or join with the “nations” in trusting foreign “deities.” Tragically, the Sinai Peninsula was strewn with the bones of those who proposed such solutions. The wilderness experience was extremely challenging for Israel; it was a place of formation and deformation, a place of incredible unity and of division, a place that against all odds sustained the life of God’s people, but also cost many their lives. Ultimately, it was a place of divine presence, leading and revelation.
How, then, do we navigate our current wilderness in such a way that we are formed as the people of God, learning the right lessons from Israel’s wilderness experience? First, we must acknowledge and let sink in the truth that God has us right where he wants us. He has guided us into this experience, he has a purpose for it, and he is accomplishing that purpose.
Second, we must also acknowledge that although some of God’s purposes may be clear, we don’t know the full ex-
tent of what God is doing through this pandemic. In fact, even beyond the divine will, I am convinced that the facts of this pandemic and the truth of what is fully going on is beyond us. I fear that many of our complaints are fueled by interpretations of our situation that may not be true. We need a posture of humility and a prayerful and active discernment through these very uncertain times. Stepping away from news and social media might facilitate this kind of prayerful discernment.
First, we must acknowledge and let sink in the truth that God has us right where he wants us. He has guided us into this experience, he has a purpose for it, and he is accomplishing that purpose.
Third, none of us are our best selves in this wilderness liminality, and we need to acknowledge that individually and communally we are vulnerable to attacks from within and without, as was Israel in the wilderness. A greater amount of patience, grace and self-care is needed in these times. The circumstances of the pandemic have in many ways dismantled our daily and weekly rhythms. The rituals and habits enshrined in the instructions from Sinai grounded the Israelites and were intended as regular reminders of who they were and what God had done for them. In our times, these kinds of habitual practices are difficult (and so we need to be intentional and creative), but also ever so vital for our own health and the health of our communities.
Fourth, our calling to be a light to the nations is not put on pause during the pandemic, though the context makes it particularly challenging. Together we need to commit to being salt and light in our places. Our communities should be havens of rest and pictures of Jesus’ glorious Kingdom and not places that mirror the harmful divisiveness that is on display in our culture.
Fifth, as we wait, a recovery of the biblical practice of lament, guided by the Psalms of lament, which is much different than disbelieving complaint, may help us actively lean into our challenging circumstances. Ultimately, we need an unswerving trust in the triune God, a trust that helps us reconceive this wilderness, not as a place of debilitating waste, but as a place where we encounter God and find ourselves nourished and sustained by him.
Jesus himself provided us with an example of how to navigate the wilderness. After his baptism and before launching into his ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness. Hungry, alone and vulnerable, he navigated the wilderness with success, whereas the first wilderness generation of Israelites failed. He faced the attacks of the evil one, equipped only with the expressed revelation of God and trust in his heavenly father. Clearly through his life, death and resurrection, he ultimately defeated Satan and his hosts on our behalf, but his example in the wilderness, like Israel’s before him, can offer instruction. Cultivating habits of divine presence, listening, prayer and rituals aid the formative process in wilderness liminality. Israel provides a largely negative instruction, but Jesus points us to a better way.
I pray that God will have mercy on us and guide us to the other side of this pandemic, accomplishing his purposes through it. I also pray that this wilderness becomes a place of divine encounter and nourishment—ultimately a place of healthy spiritual formation as we wait for his deliverance.
An earlier version of this essay titled “Leading Beyond the Wilderness: What the Book of Numbers Teaches Us about Navigating COVID-19” was published by Redeemer City-to-City.
For more on this topic, you can listen to Dr. David Beldman’s interview on the Biblical Mind Podcast.