Sunday, March 3, 1994

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Exodus 17:1-7
Matthew 17:13-20

And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said,

Why is it that you have brought us up out of Egypt? Is it to kill us and our children and

cattle with thirst?

Exodus 17:3

In retrospect, with twenty-twenty hindsight, this was a glorious time for God's chosen

people. From the slight beginnings of Abram and Sarai, they had grown to be a numerous

clan. Under the leadership of Moses, they had won their freedom, leaving Egypt with their

coffers full and their former oppressors devastated. The decisive step had been taken

toward the founding of the nation. The seeds of David's triumphs had been planted.

The people themselves did not have the advantages of hindsight. They saw only what lay

immediately ahead, and what lay ahead was "wilderness"--that is, dry, rocky, barren land

stretching to the horizon. It was possible to survive in it if one knew how, but it

required a new and stringent discipline. Nothing could be wasted. There was no margin for

error. It was an unforgiving land.

It is wholly appropriate, then, that the beginning of this wilderness sees the imposition

of a substantial corpus of strict laws. This begins with the Ten Commandments, and their

form is significant. They are not phrased conditionally--"If someone shall bear false

witness, this is to be the punishment." They are presented as absolutes: "Thou shalt not

bear false witness." Only when this listing of absolutes is complete do we embark on a

series of laws in more usual form: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six

years, and in the seventh he shall to free, without having to pay anything for his

release," and so on.

The first series of these laws deals with what must have been the usual issues in a

pastoral society, the treatment of slaves, crimes of violence, liability, sexual conduct,

and the like. The importance of these laws is underscored by the precariousness of

wilderness living. Survival requires not only the pragmatic disciplines of constant

prudence, it requires a cohesive social fabric. A tribe rent by dissension, a tribe caught

in a vengeful blood feud, is incapable of the kind of cooperation that may at any time be

necessary. There is no surplus to live on while engaging in non-survival activities.

There is a constant need for all members to do their tasks reliably, for the sake of the


Our teachings tell us that the number forty is symbolic of a state of trial or

"temptation," as with the forty days and nights of rain at the time of the flood and the

forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. It might be

intriguing to speculate on the similarities and differences between a wilderness of "no

water" and a wilderness of "no land," but that would be a digression. I might only mention

that while Europeans called the camel "the ship of the desert," bedouins referred to ships

as "the camels of the sea."

The first point to make, though, is that a state of temptation as defined in our theology

is a bleak state. It is not the external "I know I shouldn't eat that dessert, but it's

too tempting." It is not the exciting and alluring urges toward sexual adventure or fast

driving or playing hooky. It is much more like depression. If we take the wilderness image

seriously, it is a time when the world seems unfeeling and unrewarding, when the joy has

departed from everything we do.

The clear message of Scripture points toward two essential factors in our survival of such

passages. The first is self-discipline, and the second is seeking the Lord's help, and the

implication is that neither alone will be sufficient. We have to hang in there as best we

can. If there is no joy in doing what we should, we have to do it anyway, or at least try

our best. But if we think that we have the spiritual strength to pull ourselves up by our

bootstraps, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We must learn how to say with

complete candor and conviction, "Lord, I need help. I can't handle this alone."

What is involved is the very central paradox of our spiritual lives, the paradox

Swedenborg expresses in his repeated statement that we are to shun evils "as if" of

ourselves, but with the acknowledgment that our doing this is from the Lord. It is a huge

lesson to learn, and we cannot learn it in a single session. In a way, life itself is a

course in this subject, custom designed for each one of us by the Lord's providence in a

sequence that starts wherever we are and leads step by step toward heaven.

This process is reflected in the ongoing story of the Bible, where the Lord's chosen

people, whether few or many, are tested time and time again, required both to do their

best and to turn to the Lord for light and strength. gradually, it seems, they do learn.

Eventually, in the Gospels, the Lord is present with them on the level of their everyday

lives, and this presence leads beyond itself to the final fulfillment, the Holy City.

Only then are the struggles over. As the hymn puts it, "Wrong is banished from its


If we turn back to the story of the exodus with this largest context in mind, it takes on

added meaning. It is a first major launching forth into independent living, and it is a

fearful step. It is a brand new venture, a leap into the unknown.

Think for a moment of what happens whenever we try something really new. Suppose an

immigrant starting to learn English. We, as native speakers, have no idea how many rules

we follow as a matter of course. Why can we say "I think not," but cannot say, "I go not?"

Why do we always say, "Those three little green apples," and not "Those little green three

apples," or any other order of adjectives? Why do we use the same spelling for five

different sounds--"rough, cough, through, slough, and dough?" We have seek/sought and

wreak/wrought, but peek/peeked and reek/reeked. One of our foreign students some years ago

was having trouble deciding when to use the definite article, and I volunteered to write

up our rules. It took two pages of single-spaced typescript and involved distinguishing

three classes of nouns--really quite complex, and yet only grammarians know the rules.

Most of us don't have to because we never break them.

This is a fairly extended example, but it may serve to highlight both ends of the process.

At the beginning of a new venture, it seems to consist of rules on top of rules and rules

about rules. Once the rules have been internalized, they are means to an extraordinary

fluidity and freedom of expression. The process of learning requires both self-discipline

and a fundamental trust in some external authority, in the case of language learning,

usually a teacher and a textbook. We move beyond the romance of learning something new and

into the grind of facing the unyielding facts.

When we turn from the limited example of language learning to our primary topic, learning

what I have suggested is the primary lesson life is intended to teach us, we add new

dimension. There is no universal agreement about "the authority," and even within such a

religion as Christianity, there is no unanimity about the rules. One can say, though, that

in every religion there is some kind of desired balance between individual responsibility

and reliance on or identification with the Divine, and some guidance and support are

offered for those who would reach this balance.

One can also say that there is of necessity a kind of equivalent even in the most secular

of cultures. Every society, that is, has to provide some way for its children to grow from

dependence into independence without having that independence destroy the fabric of the

society. To put in more affirmatively, a healthy society will support a growth process

from dependence through independence into interdependence.

Looking at the life process of the individual as reflected in the Biblical story, one of

the clearest parallels is between the exodus and early adolescence. In each case, there is

a launching forth into a new measure of freedom. In each case, it involves moving into a

world that is less supportive and more dangerous. In each case, issues of rules and

self-discipline take center stage. The book of Numbers should be familiar to every parent,

with incident after incident of testing the rules and challenging authority.

And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said,

Why is it that you have brought us up out of Egypt? Is it to kill us and our children and

cattle with thirst? It is easy to dismiss this as faithlessness, but there is a certain

justice to this complaint. There wasn't any water, and water is a necessity. The whole

venture was God's idea in the first place. And in similar fashion, the adolescent has not

asked for this growth process to take place. The thirteen-year-old does not have the

ability to become twelve again. There is no turning back to the unthinking dependence of

pre-adolescence. The process itself is driving onward.

As adults, we have presumably learned rules of societal responsibility to the point that

we observe many of them without being aware that we are doing so. It can be difficult for

us to sympathize with young people who are facing them for the first time and who have

both the energy and the need to test limits that we take wholly for granted.

This, though, is an unfair comparison. It is like being impatient with an immigrant who is

having trouble with English. After all, it is easy enough for us. No, the only fair

comparison would be with some area in which we ourselves are beginners, and if it is to be

truly a fair comparison, this must be an area of central importance to us. It is not fair

to compare our efforts to learn watercolor to the adolescent's efforts to establish an

identity. The formal issues may be analogous, but the intensity is on a wholly different


To find a fully valid comparison, we as adults need to look for those areas of our lives

where we are having trouble and where that trouble really matters to us. One mode of

description referred to this as being like the "growing edge" of a healing wound. If it is

fair to say that the primary lesson of life involves the balance between independence and

reliance on the Lord, then we should look for instances of uncertainly or inner conflict

about this issue. Are we still concerned with our own worth or lack of worth? Are we still

inclined to compare ourselves with others? Are we able to lie down at night and simply

leave everything in the Lord's hands, whether or not we have done our best on this

particular day? Do we still have a need to be in control?

In traditional Christianity, this has often been portrayed as the tension between law and

gospel, resting in part on the words from the first chapter of John, "For the law was

given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." We should not forget, though,

that this same Jesus told us that not the slightest detail of the law would perish until

the whole was fulfilled. We should not forget that the Gospels repeatedly enjoin us to

live lives of obedience. In Swedenborgian terms, "the law" represents our efforts to shun

evils, and our equivalent of "grace" is the constant influx that enables us to do so. If

they are in tension, as they often are, it is a tension designed to draw us deeper into

the indefinable mystery of divine love, which can give itself to us only as we give

ourselves to it.


contact phil at for any problems or comments