Leaving the Desert Behind

“The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden.  But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven.  It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.”         Deut 11:10-12 (NIV)

Usually when I think of the Exodus, my focus is on the leaving behind of the awful days of slavery and the entering into the wonderful new land of milk and honey.  One point I hadn’t considered, however, is that the Promised Land was not like anything the Israelites had experienced before.  It wasn’t just that they were no longer slaves; it was entirely different terrain.  For example, in Egypt, apart from the Nile, the land was a desert. They watered their crops by a complex system of irrigation canals; much of the watering of the fields was done from buckets or baskets, which were carried on foot to all areas of the field, “as in a vegetable garden.”  But these were not garden patches behind the house where the homeowner grew a few tomato and zucchini plants; these were the fields that produced the food for the entire nation.

If you wanted to grow anything in Egypt, this was how you did it.  It took constant care and hard manual labor to turn the desert into a crop-bearing land.  Which was one of the reasons it was so convenient for the Egyptians to have slaves to do the watering for them.

It was also one of the things the Israelites left behind when Moses led them out of Egypt.  But the thing is, the Israelites had been living in Egypt for a few generations; any other way of irrigation had been collectively forgotten by them years before.  Carrying buckets on foot was the norm for them.  So the Lord had to warn them before they entered the Promised Land that things would be different.  They would not be responsible for the irrigation in the Promised Land.  The Lord Himself would take care of that, because it was “a land the LORD your God cares for…”

On the one hand, this must have come as a relief to the Israelites.  What a burden to be lifted off their shoulders — literally!   On the other hand, this would test their faith.  Not being in control of the irrigation meant there was nothing they could do to manipulate their success in providing food for themselves.  They would plow the ground and plant the seed, but then they would have to wait for God to send the rain.

Waiting for God to send the rain.  There’s a concept.  The Promised Land in my life can represent different things, depending on what the Lord is doing with me.  It can be a new mindset of freedom from slavery to sin.  I can be a new opportunity into which He is leading me. But as I enter it, the question is, am I waiting for God’s rain?  Am I doing what He has told me to do and trusting Him to provide what I need beyond that?   Do I fret over pennies on my budget spreadsheet or do I bring my needs to the Lord and ask Him to provide for them?  Do I step out in obedience to write, teach, sing or whatever other action He has nudged me to do and wait for Him to bring the readers, students or listeners, or do I lay awake at night thinking of ways to market my ministry?

I can easily fool myself into thinking that my giving in to worry and my gleaning to the edges of my fields (Lev. 19:9-10) are simply good stewardship, until the thought comes that THAT is how you live in a desert, when there is not enough to go around.  Every drop counts.  When you are entering the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, however, it is time to leave behind the desert mindset and put on the Promised Land mindset.

The Promised Land mindset for the Israelites is detailed in the rest of Chapter 11 of Deuteronomy and involved both faith that God would do according to His promises and obedience to His command to stay in relationship with Him.

Without the faith, they would wear themselves out carrying unnecessary buckets up and down a mountainous, valley-ridden land that didn’t actually need irrigation.

Without the obedience and relationship, He withheld the rain.  It wasn’t optional — He had already warned them of this.  He had warned them to keep themselves separate from the people around them lest they be tempted to worship false gods.  The Promised Land remained in its promised state only as long as they stayed in intimate contact with its Promiser.  Apart from that, it was a fearful and forbidding place, full of wild animals, fierce tribes and the threat of drought.

So what is the Promised Land mindset for us today, living under the New Covenant of grace rather than a law of obedience and reward?

I believe it still involves faith.  It involves letting go of our buckets.  I believe we need to stop trying to water on foot every inch of our fields of living, relationship and outreach and trust Him to bring the rain.  Or in other words, stop trying to control our production in His Kingdom.

And it still involves obedience to stay in relationship with Him.  It’s not so much that He withholds the rain as that we cut ourselves off from it when we don’t abide in relationship with Him.  It’s not that He refuses to walk alongside us.  It’s that we let go of His hand and run ahead, thinking we know the way without asking Him.  Or we continue to do something He had us do in the past, feeling more comfortable following a program than trusting Him to do a new work in the future.   Bucket-carrying is exhausting work, and one bucket is never enough.  Once I commit myself to furthering my plans by watering them myself, I can’t take a break — I have to keep going with it.  No wonder I am so often weary.

The Promised Land was not just a patch of dirt.  It meant so much more than that — it was a place of rest.  When the Israelites finally entered into it, they were entering into His rest.   Rest from slavery, rest from wandering in the desert.  And rest from carrying buckets.   Since I noticed this passage, whenever I find myself weary in the work I am doing for the Kingdom, I stop and ask myself, “Am I carrying buckets here?”  Usually I am.  When I mentally put down the buckets, stop trying to micromanage the outcome of my labors, and ask the Lord to send the rain, He multiplies my efforts and I find His peace and rest.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. John 15:4