In this week's review of the Book of Mormon, we’ll look at chapters 16-18 of 1 Nephi. One of the primary stories we see in this week's reading is that Lehi and Ishmael's families embark into the wilderness. Here Nephi sets out what could be called a “wilderness pattern” in the scriptures. Nephi’s telling of this wilderness journey in the Book of Mormon parallels the wilderness journey we see in the Torah with ancient Israel in the book of Numbers or Bemidbar – in the wilderness – which is the term the Jews use for this book. Likewise, the prophet Isaiah foretells of an Endtime wandering in the wilderness for the righteous who flee Babylon. This week we will look at how God uses a wilderness experience to put a new heart into His people, which we can link to the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:24-28.
The Wilderness - a Transition Paradigm
When ancient Israel failed to exercise sufficient faith in God to conquer Canaan, God sends Israel into the wilderness for forty years. As a nation, Israel needed a new mind and a new heart to execute God’s plan to give Israel a land of their own – their promised land. The vehicle that God chooses to use to accomplish this objective of giving Israel a new mind and new heart was to send Israel into the wilderness. So what can we learn from the Scriptures and the Book of Mormon about this wilderness experience? Before we get there here is an excellent video by Rabbi Sacks about the transitional nature of Israel's wilderness experience.
The first concept that we see in the Wilderness Paradigm is that God conditions Israel to development constant devotion to Him. We see this as Lehi and his family leave the comforts of their life in Jerusalem and enter survival conditions in the wilderness and are forced to rely more on God. This situation can be linked to Isaiah’s pattern of descent before the ascent, which can be illustrated as follows.
We further see this constant devotion to God taught in the Book of Mormon as Lehi and Nephi's wandering in the wilderness transitions from a crooked path implied with the Hebrew word Shazer at verse 13 in chapter 16 and then their reliance on the Liahona or compass through their faith; and, then concludes with a strait path mention at verse 41 in chapter 17, which we also see mentioned at Alma 37:44 and in Isaiah at chapter 40.
And finally, in a memorable quote by Tevya in the Fiddler on the Roof and referring to his tzitzi, he states that the tzitzi (prayer shawl) “shows our constant devotion to God”. Indeed, Israel is commanded to love God by being in a constant state of devotion to Him set out in the Shema at Deu 6:4-9.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
The Word and Law of God
A second aspect of the Wilderness Paradigm is that Israel is taught the philosophy and the law of God’s Way. When Israel left Egypt, they left with a slave mentality, but in order to take possession of Canaan, Israel’s promised land, Israel needed a freeman’s mentality. And true and sustainable freedom can only be realized under the Law of God “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” - John 8:32.
We see this same concept of God's blessings with the Liahona as well. The Liahona represents the Word of God – Alma 37 – and that as we follow God’s Word - and law – we receive the material blessings of the law that Nephi writes about being directed to the “more fertile parts of the wilderness” through their faith at verse 16 of chapter 16. We can see a summary of these blessings of the Law at Deuteronomy chapter 28.
Another concept that we see here is that as we carefully evaluate the two prophecies in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God does not give a us a new law – he changes our hearts so that we can live His law that He has already established. Indeed, Yeshua(Jesus) resets our motives, desires and intents so that we can apply the Law with a love of God and our fellow man. Yeshua did not abolish the Law, He showed us how to live it better.
Jacob/Israel to Zion/Jerusalem
These two aspects of the Wilderness Paradigm at the Endtime Exodus will change our hearts and our status before God as we progress through the process of transformation under the fulness of the Gospel. When we have been redeemed from Universal Sin or the sin of Adam and Eve by accepting Yeshua as the Savior of Humanity and been sanctified by overcoming Personal Sin that is defined in the law, we will change our spiritual status from Jacob/Israel to Zion/Jerusalem that we see in Isaiah’s Spiritual Categories. So that process can be illustrate as follows.
Transcript of Rabbi Sacks Video
In English, the book we begin this week is called Numbers, for an obvious reason. It begins with a census, and there is a second count toward the end of the book. On this view, the central theme of the book is demography. The Israelites, still at Sinai at the beginning of the book, but on the brink of the Promised Land by its end, are now a sizeable nation, numbering 600,000 men of an age to embark on military service.
Within Jewish tradition however, it has become known as Bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” suggesting a very different theme. The superficial reason for the name is that this is the first distinctive word in the book’s opening verse. But the work of two anthropologists, Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, suggest a deeper possibility. The fact that Israel’s formative experience was in the wilderness turns out to be highly significant. For it is there that the people experience one of the Torah’s most revolutionary ideas, namely that an ideal society is one in which everyone has equal dignity under the sovereignty of God.
Van Gennep in his The Rites of Passage argued that societies develop rituals to mark the transition from one state to the next – from childhood to adulthood, for example, or from being single to being married – and they involve three stages. The first is separation, a symbolic break with the past. The third is incorporation, re-entering society with a new identity. Between the two is the crucial stage of transition when, having said goodbye to who you were but not yet hello to who you are about to become, you are recast, reborn, refashioned.
Van Gennep used the term liminal, from the Latin word for “threshold,” to describe this second state when you are in a kind of no-man’s-land between the old and the new. That is clearly what the wilderness signifies for Israel: liminal space between Egypt and the Promised Land. There Israel is reborn, no longer a group of escaping slaves but “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The desert – a no-man’s-land with no settled populations, no cities, no civilisational order – is the place where Jacob’s descendants, alone with God, cast off one identity and assume another.
This analysis helps us understand some of the details of the book of Exodus. The daubing of the doorposts with blood (Ex. 12:7) is part of the first, separation, stage during which the door through which you walk as you leave your old life behind has special symbolic significance.
Likewise the division of the Red Sea. The division of one thing into two, through which something or someone passes, is a symbolic enactment of transition, as it was for Abraham in the passage (Gen 15:10-21) in which God tells him about his children’s future exile and enslavement. Abraham divides animals, God divides the sea, but the movement between the two halves is what signals the phase-change.
Note also that Jacob has his two defining encounters with God in liminal space, between his home and that of Laban (Gen. 28:10-22, and 32:22-32).
Victor Turner added one additional element to this analysis. He drew a distinction between society and what he called communitas. Society is always marked by structure and hierarchy. Some have power, some don’t. There are classes, castes, ranks, orders, gradations of status and honour.
For Turner what makes the experience of liminal space vivid and transformative is that in the desert there are no hierarchies. Instead, there is “an intense comradeship and egalitarianism. Secular distinctions of rank and status disappear or are homogenised.” People cast together in the no-man’s-land of the desert experience the “essential and generic human bond.” That is what he means by communitas, a rare and special state in which, for a brief but memorable period, everyone is equal.
We now begin to understand the significance of midbar, “wilderness,” in the spiritual life of Israel. It was the place where they experienced with an intensity they had never felt before nor would they easily again, the unmediated closeness of God which bound them to Him and to one another.
That is what Hosea means when he speaks in God’s name of a day when Israel will experience, as it were, a second honeymoon:
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her . . .
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call Me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call Me ‘my Master.’” (Hos. 2:14-16)
We also now understand the significance of the account at the beginning of Bamidbar, in which the twelve tribes were encamped, in rows of three on the four sides of the Tabernacle, each equidistant from the holy. Each tribe was different, but (with the exception of the Levites) all were equal. They ate the same food, manna from heaven. They drank the same drink, water from a rock or well. None yet had lands of their own, for the desert has no owners. There was no economic or territorial conflict between them.
The entire description of the camp at the beginning of Bamidbar with its emphasis on equality fits perfectly Turner’s description of communitas, the ideal state people only experience in liminal space where they have left the past (Egypt) behind but have not yet reached their future destination, the land of Israel. They have not yet begun building a society with all the inequalities to which society gives rise. For the moment they are together, their tents forming a perfect square with the Sanctuary at its centre.
The poignancy of the book of Bamidbar lies in the fact that this communitas lasted so briefly. The serene mood of its beginning will soon be shattered by quarrel after quarrel, rebellion after rebellion, a series of disruptions that would cost an entire generation their chance of entering the land.
Yet Bamidbar opens, as does the book of Bereishit, with a scene of blessed order, there natural, here social, there divided into six days, here into twelve (2×6) tribes, each person in Bamidbar like each species in Bereishit, in his or her rightful place, “each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house” (Num. 2:1).
So the wilderness was not just a place; it was a state of being, a moment of solidarity, midway between enslavement in Egypt and the social inequalities that would later emerge in Israel, an ideal never to be forgotten even if never fully captured again in real space and time.
Judaism never forgot its vision of natural and social harmony, set out respectively in the beginnings of the books of Genesis and Numbers, as if to say, what once was could be again, if only we heed the word of God.