Jesus in the Wilderness, Living the Israel Story (Mt. 4.1-11)

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The Sonoran ‘Wilderness’

This post is an exercise in “thinking out loud” as we read the Bible. It is a reflection on Matthew 4.1-11.

The Gospel of Matthew proclaims to today’s Gentile church, “Ya’ll cannot have Jesus without the Hebrew Bible and Israel. Ya’ll cannot have the person of Yeshua without his DNA. In fact Jesus, according to Matthew, is Israel in a very real sense. We see this clearly as Jesus is tested in the wilderness.

In Jesus’s baptism there is a voice that says “this is my Son” (3.17). These are words that had been spoken to the “son of David” for centuries as each son of David was anointed as King (Ps 2.7). But the reader of Matthew already knows that Jesus is the son for just a few short verses away the narrator quoted scripture, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2.15). This is a quotation from Hosea 11.1 which speaks of Israel coming out of Egypt. But Israel is God’s son, “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go that he may worship me” (Ex 4.22-23).

God’s son went through the water. God led the people with a pillar of fiery Presence into the wilderness. God fed the people the bread of angels. Moses ascended the mountain and fasted forty days and nights before receiving the torah to proclaim to Israel. And God’s son failed. Instead of worshiping “me” (Yahweh), Israel worshiped the Golden Calf.

This story is ingrained in Jews in Jesus’s day. The Torah was read through every three years. It is narrated in Exodus. It is preached in Deuteronomy 6-12. The Feast of Tabernacles takes Jews symbolically back to the wilderness and highlights Psalm readings that speak of listening to Yahweh, avoiding “strange gods,” and proclaims Yahweh will personally feed “us” the finest bread (Ps 81). The story forms a critical part of Psalm 78 which ends with the Davidic king faithfully leading God’s people. And it forms a critical part of the Wisdom of Solomon. Israel failed.

Israelites in Jesus’s day were very conscious of the fact that “we” (our ancestors and ourselves) have failed. When the reader of Matthew comes to chapter 4 and hears (and they would hear it rather than read it) what is happening it is like a deja vu moment: here we go again, will Israel fail? Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for testing. This recalls the Pillar of Fire, God’s visible presence. In Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach the Pillar that guides Israel is the dwelling and throne for God’s personified Wisdom (Wis 10.17; Sir 24.3-4).

Moses taught that Yahweh led Israel into the wilderness to “test” Israel’s hearts (Deut 8.2, 10). But as it turned out, Israel is the one who put God to the test. The test regards mere food.

They tested God in their heart
by demanding food they craved.
They spoke against God saying,
‘Can God spread a TABLE
in the wilderness?
(Ps 78.18; cf. Deut 6.16, my emphasis).

They did not believe God could, or would, feed them. The problem is hit on the head in Ps 78, “they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power” (78.22). It is no accident that the first testing by the devil is after forty days of fasting (like Moses) and focuses upon food. Jesus knew this story, just as every Jew did. He had been in the wilderness during Tabernacles before.

But the story is not really food beloved, not in Matthew not in Deuteronomy nor in the Psalms (78 or 81). The story is about trust, it is about faith and faithfulness. Will Jesus/Israel trust Yahweh. The very text Yeshua quotes to the devil, Deuteronomy 8.3 is about both food and trust. The bread of angels was given to human beings to teach them to trust God. Here are Moses’s words, the caps are the quoted part by Jesus.

He [Yahweh] humbled you by letting you hunger [Jesus is famished], then by feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, in order to make you understand that ONE DOES NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE, BUT BY EVERY WORD THAT COMES FROM THE LORD.” (Deut 8.3)

As Psalm 78 puts it, God commanded the heavens to rain down manna and “humans ate the bread of angels” (78.25) or as Psalm 81 (read during the Feast of Tabernacles) “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (81.10). Will Jesus test God over whether he can put a table out in the wilderness? Or will he trust Yahweh to command and the angels will deliver food to him. Will he trust in God’s saving power? Will Yeshua be the full of faith Son that Israel never was?

The last test follows this Exodus story as well. Israel bowed and worshiped false gods in the Golden Calf. The devil promises what Psalm 2 promises, the inheritance of the nations. The “Son” is supposed to inherit the nations (Ps 2.7-9). Jesus can be King yet. Just “fall down and worship me” (4.9).

But Jesus, who has been living in the Story listens to Moses. He is the faithful son. Jesus’s retort is “worship the Lord and serve him only” quoting Deuteronomy 6.13.

God called his son, Israel, to worship him. Instead Israel made a calf and bowed before it. They did not trust in Yahweh. Jesus will do what Israel failed … he will worship and serve God only.

Jesus relives the Story of Israel in the wilderness. It is a familiar story for every Jew. Our ancestors failed to be the loyal trusting Son. But Yeshua, the Son of David, will trust, he will be faithful, he will worship. He will lead the people … as Psalm 78 closes with (78.70-72).

It is not without significance that Matthew ends his testing narrative with the strange to Gentiles words, “then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him” (4.11). Jesus/Israel did not stumble in the wilderness and God did in fact spread a table in the wilderness and the angels “waited” on Jesus. They brought the bread just like God rained it down on the faithless Israelites to take care of his Son.

We too are invited to live in the Story each day and be faithful sons and daughters. Just some thoughts.

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