Week 5: June 26

Whining in the Wilderness (Israel) by Lauren Babyak

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This week we will be studying the Israelites and a portion of their time wandering in the wilderness. We will read Exodus 14-16 over the course of the next few days, but for a visual and audible overview of the Biblical account of the Israelites in Exodus 1-18, click here.

The Israelites are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In Genesis 12:1-3, God made a covenant with Abraham that he would be made into a great nation. Late in age, Abraham and Sarah saw God’s faithfulness when He gave them a son, Isaac. Isaac and his wife Rebecca had two sons, Jacob and Esau.

Jacob had 12 sons. After Jacob wrestled with God and relented to Him, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. The Israelites are often called the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Jesus comes from the tribe of Judah.

During the famine in Canaan, the Israelites moved to Egypt where God provided for them through Joseph. The Israelites remained in Egypt long after Joseph’s death and grew in number (Ex. 1:5 says that 70 Israelites went to Egypt. Ex. 12:37 states that 600,000 Israelite men left Egypt during the Exodus.). Pharaoh feared the size and strength of the Israelites, so he enslaved them to keep them from overtaking the Egyptians.

After 430 years in Egypt, the Israelites were freed from captivity when God called Moses to demand their freedom from Pharaoh. God demonstrated His power and established Himself as the one true God through 10 plagues. After the 10th plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go.

Exodus, chapters 14-17 tell the story of the beginning of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (Canaan). Note that the Israelite nation began in Canaan, then moved to Egypt during the famine, and is now on its way back to the homeland of Canaan.

They would wander through the wilderness for 40 years before reaching Canaan.

The wilderness wandering was tiring and trying. It was a time of testing for God’s people. Through the 10 plagues God established His power over nature and over the gods of Egypt (every plague related to an Egyptian god). During the time in the wilderness, God establishes His power and His position as the Israelites’ one true God. The wandering was essential in the faith journey of the Israelites.

Reflection Question: What does your current phase of wandering look like? Perhaps your wandering right now is a time of questioning your faith and asking if God really is who He says He is. Perhaps your wandering is a time of uncertainty and wondering where God is in the midst of your present circumstances while at the same knowing that He is good. Perhaps your wandering is simply the space between your life before Christ and your longing for eternity - you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. Or, perhaps your wandering feels just right - you see God at work around you and you are in awe of His constant provision and faithfulness. Spend some time journaling your response or responding in prayer to the above question.

Wherever you are in your unique season of wandering, take heart! The wilderness is a necessary part of our faith journey.


The Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan (the area at the top right of the map, between Gaza and Hebron) was not the most direct route. It wasn’t a straight line. The route was windy, curvy, up and down, even circular at times. In the same way, our faith journeys rarely take a straight, short, direct path.

Exodus 13:17 says, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt” (ESV).

Had the Lord led the Israelites directly east from Egypt to Canaan, they would have immediately encountered enemy territory. More significantly, they would have been close enough to Egypt to easily return to captivity instead of facing their enemy. God knew they were not yet ready for this kind of battle. There was a profound, protective purpose for the route. The protection was not just physical protection, but spiritual protection. The Israelites would not have been ready to physically partake in a battle against Philistines who would have been well-equipped in every sense to fight. Neither would the Israelites have been well-acquainted enough with God to trust Him to give them victory in the battle. They would have turned back…to slavery. They would have turned back to the very lifestyle they despised at the first glimpse of uncertainty and seeming insecurity. And God knew this, so He took them another way.

The Israelites continued their journey, being led by the Lord in a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of smoke by night (Ex. 13:21-22).

Read Exodus 14. This is a well-known story. When we know the ending, we tend to forget the magnitude of the beginning of the story. God just led His people on a path that took them away from the Philistines, but the path led them to the Red Sea where they would be walled in. At the same time, Pharaoh regrets his decision to let the Israelites go, so he sends an enormous army after them. The Israelites see the army coming, and they do what they do best; they whine and they question. But then God provides a miraculous escape from the huge army – He parts the sea, and the Israelites walk across on DRY GROUND, even their feet are spared from the mess of battle.

Sometimes God leads us away from our enemies. We may never even know the times He does that. But, sometimes God leads us to a place where we feel walled in on every side, with our enemy closing in on us. Sometimes, like the Israelites, we see God do a miracle in those moments. Other times, we don’t. We may wonder where He is or why He isn’t showing up like we expect Him to. We question if He really is who He says He is. Like the Israelites, we look back at how things used to be before we knew God and we decide we were better off. We find ourselves longing for the captivity of our past because we are looking back through rose-colored glasses.

In this moment in Exodus God acts on the Israelites’ behalf. They are told to stop bickering and to simply watch what God was about to do (Ex. 14:13-14). But, in just a couple short chapters, the Israelites will be asked to fight in battle. Sometimes God asks us to be quiet and watch; other times He asks us to pick up our sword and fight.

God did not always spare the Israelites from encountering their enemies, but He always provided a way out. He consistently proved Himself to be faithful. Such grace God shows the Israelites, the people who will repeatedly question Him and wonder why they couldn’t have just been left in Egypt.

It is easy to criticize the Israelites for not trusting God after He just delivered them from intense slavery through miracle after miracle. Yet, don’t we do the same thing? We watch God work and we’re in awe of Him, but then a child gets sick or we lose a job or a loved one passes away or a child turns from the Lord or war breaks out or we miscarry (again) or [insert your current enemy], and we lose faith. We wonder if God really is who He says He is. We turn the corner and stand face to face with our greatest enemy, and we forget about all that God has already done. We whine…We complain…We question…We seek answers on our own…Because we forget what God has already done. In the moment, our enemy looks bigger than our God.

What enemy are you facing right now? More importantly, what have you forgotten that God has already done?

The path does not make sense. The path is supposed to lead us away from our enemy, but sometimes, the path will lead us right to our enemy so that we will learn to remember and to trust. What do you need to remember today about what God has already done for you? What do you need to remember about WHO God is? What is God asking you to trust Him with?


We can pull several themes from Exodus.

Our faith journeys are a process. Read Exodus 15:1-21.

Exodus 15 begins with the Israelites’ song of praise to the Lord after He miraculously delivered them from the Egyptian army. In Exodus 15:11 the Israelites express the exact sentiment that God has been working to reveal to them time and time again - that He alone is God. Remember that the Israelites are coming from hundreds of years of living in a polytheistic Egyptian culture. They were accustomed to believing in multiple gods, all of which had a different purpose. The wandering in the wilderness is the process of turning the Israelites from their ingrained beliefs in multiple gods to a belief (and a trust!) in the one true God.

God faithfully provides. Read Exodus 15:22-27.

Right after a passionate song of praise and admiration to God, the Israelites return to their heart’s instinctive reaction of distrust. They are in the desert, and they’re thirsty. They finally find water but it is undrinkable. Most Bible versions refer to the water as “bitter,” but this doesn’t just mean that the water tasted bad. It means that the water was stagnant. It was water that was harmful to drink.

Here we come to another theme within the Biblical account of the Israelites: The Israelites grumble, yet God patiently provides. God tells Moses to throw a piece of wood into the bitter water, and the water becomes sweet (Ex. 15:25). Again, the “sweetness” isn’t just about good tasting water; it’s about water that is safe to drink. God takes stagnant/dead water and turns it into living water that gives life to a group of thirsty, concerned, worn out people.

In providing this living water, God responds to an unexpressed need of the Israelites. They express a desire for water to satisfy their thirst. God hears their words, but He also sees their hearts. They don’t just want water; they want to know that they are safe. As Jen Wilkin says in her Bible study God of Deliverance, the Israelites want to know that they will not be subjected to the same diseases/torments of the 10 plagues. They want to know that they will be taken care of and that God really is in control. (This sounds much like the New Testament account of the woman at the well. She went to the well because of physical thirst, but Jesus quenched her unexpressed spiritual thirst.)

God tells the Israelites that He is testing them. He wants their allegiance to be to Him alone. In Exodus 15:26 God tells the Israelites that if they listen to Him and do what He says, then He will never put the diseases on them that they saw during the plagues. He goes on to point-blank say that HE is their healer. This is not a threat of punishment for disobedience. This is an assurance of being cared for. God will still allow them to taste the bitter; He will not make their lives perfect. But it’s in the tasting of the bitter that the sweet becomes more evident and more meaningful.

Reflection Question: Where are you in your process of learning to trust God alone? In what ways are you trusting “gods” instead of the one true God? How are you trying to make a way for yourself so that you will not experience the bitter aspects of life?

We often try to become our own gods and make our own ways because we are unwilling or too afraid to express our deepest needs. The Israelites sought water on their own because they were thirsty and wanted to provide for themselves. God used this physical need to remind them of WHO He is - their Provider, their Healer, their Sustainer. What are your unexpressed needs that you need to let the Lord meet? Notice that action was required by Moses in order to make the water potable. The Lord told him to throw the wood into the water. Trusting God to provide does not always mean that we sit back and watch (like at the Red Sea), but Moses only throws the wood into the water after He asks the Lord what he is supposed to do. He knew that God had a plan. He trusted Him to provide. In Exodus 15:26, God tells the Israelites to listen and then to do. That is exactly what Moses did. He first listened for the Lord’s guidance, and then acted accordingly. In doing so, the Israelites were given the answer to the need they expressed but also the answer to the deeper need that they didn’t know how to express.

And then we come to the end of the chapter. Exodus 15:27 says that when the Israelites arrived at Elim they found 12 springs of (living) water and seventy palm trees. One spring for every tribe. One tree for each of the 70 people who originally fled to Egypt during the famine (Ex. 1:5).

If you are in a period of thirsting, a time of waiting. Rest assured that your springs are coming.


Exodus 16 is another well-known Biblical account. We have to guard against the impulse to skim the passage because we’re so familiar with it. As you read Exodus 16, pay close attention to the same ideas that have come up in Exodus 14 and 15.

Read Exodus 16 with new eyes.

Are you shocked to see more grumbling? When will the Israelites learn that God is faithful?

Now they’re grumbling because they’re hungry. God provides in a miraculous way, and, once again, he provides for an unexpressed need. God gives the Israelites manna from heaven. They are responsible for collecting enough for their families for that day but no more. When they collect extra, it spoils. The only day they are permitted to collect more manna is the day before the Sabbath so that they can rest on the Sabbath Day. This is an unexpressed - or perhaps unknown - need for the Israelites.

As slaves, the Israelites would have worked relentlessly for their Egyptian bosses. They also would have worked hard to provide for themselves. The Sabbath Day is God’s gift to the Israelites. He gives them this day as an opportunity to cease working. He essentially says to them, “I am your Sustainer. Let me work so you can rest.” The importance of the Sabbath appears over and over again in Exodus. Even during the building of the Tabernacle, God reminds the Israelites to remember the Sabbath. It is a good gift from a good, faithful God.

Before God provides the quail and manna, the Israelites once again look back toward Egypt and long for the food they had there. Their physical desires cause them to lose sight of all of the miracles they had recently experienced. When faced with another enemy, they are quick to want to return to captivity because at least they knew what to expect.

In Exodus 16:10, Aaron addresses the Israelites. We are told that when Aaron began speaking, the Israelites physically turned toward the wilderness. They literally switched their gaze from their past (Egypt) to their future (the wilderness that eventually led them to Canaan). As soon as they changed the focus of their gaze, they beheld the glory of the Lord in a cloud (Ex. 16:11). Their physical desire/need for food was still there, but their focus shifted. When they fixed their eyes on the One who was worthy of their gaze, their priorities changed. They took their eyes off of themselves and turned them onto their Creator, their Healer, their Rescuer, their Provider, and they were told that God would provide so that they would know that He is the Lord.

God’s desire to show both the Egyptians and the Israelites that He alone is God is a constant theme in the Exodus account. Notice that He used tests and trials to remind the Israelites of His sovereignty and supremacy. He does the same for us. James 1:2-4 tells us that the testing of our faith produces perseverance and perseverance, steadfastness and maturity. The wilderness wandering was a time of maturation of faith for the Israelites. They continued to stumble and grumble, but their gaze was consistently turned to the One who is the Lord.

This in-between space, the time between our initial decision to follow Jesus and our eternal destination of heaven, is the space God uses to bring us to maturation. We are refined and chiseled throughout our faith journeys. This is the process of sanctification where we learn to fix our gaze on Christ and, in so doing, become more like Him.

Take some time to thank the Lord for the trials and tribulations He has allowed during your own personal wilderness wandering.

Not coincidentally, manna tasted like “wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:31). This was just a foretaste of the Israelites’ final destination of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. Their in-between space gave them a glimpse of what was to come. It was a long, hard journey, but God constantly reminded them of what was coming.

He does the same for us. You’ve thanked God for your trials, now ask God to help you keep your gaze fixed on Him and to help you see those glimpses of His Kingdom that has already (but not yet fully) come. Every time you see a miracle, an answer to prayer, the kindness of a stranger, the changing of seasons, the old being made new, passionate worship, a compassionate deed, etc, you are experiencing a foretaste of what is to come. Relish those moments in this in-between space. Cherish them. But also remember that there is so much more to come. Long for that completion while you allow God to refine you through the trials.

It’s easy to focus on ourselves or to long for the comfort of the past, but let’s turn our gaze off ourselves and onto our Redeemer and our Refiner. Ask the Lord to help you gaze on Him and to help you see through His eyes, that you might be an ambassador of the Kingdom of God. Ask the Lord to show you how you could be the answer to someone’s prayer, whether through a warm smile, a generous gift, or a persistent prayer one someone else’s behalf.

May others behold the glory of the Lord through our lives!

Day 5

In 2001 Sara Groves released a song called “Painting Pictures of Egypt.” It’s old, but it’s good.

You can listen to the song here, and/or read the lyrics below. Listen or read the song twice. The first time, listen to it in light of the Israelites and all that we have learned about them this week.

The second time around, reflect on the words in light of your own life and your own wandering through the wilderness of this space between the past and your promised eternity.

I don't want to leave here

I don't want to stay

It feels like pinching to me

Either way

And the places I long for the most

Are the places where I've been

They are calling out to me

Like a long lost friend

It's not about losing faith

It's not about trust

It's all about comfortable

When you move so much

And the place I was wasn't perfect

But I had found a way to live

And it wasn't milk or honey

But then neither is this


I've been painting pictures of Egypt

Leaving out what it lacks

And the future feels so hard

And I want to go back

But the places they used to fit me

Cannot hold the things I've learned

Those roads were closed off to me

While my back was turned

The past is so tangible

I know it by heart

Familiar things are never easy

To discard

I was dying for some freedom

But now I hesitate to go

I am caught between the Promise

And the things I know



If it comes to quick

I may not appreciate it

Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

And if it comes to quick

I may not recognise it

Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?


As this week’s study of the Israelites comes to an end, let’s return to Exodus 15:1-21. No matter where you are on your journey with the Lord, join the Israelites in their song of praise. Praise God for all He has done for you. More importantly, praise God for WHO He is.

He is our strength and our song. He is triumphant. He is glorious in power. He shatters our enemy with His right hand. No one is like Him. He will plant His people on His mountain, in His sanctuary. He will reign forever and forever.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2).