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Lost and Found: Wandering in the Biblical Narrative

Alyssa Mallgrave

A couple of years ago, my family traveled to Ireland. Throughout the trip, the members of my party kept marveling at the country’s beauty, history, and seemingly simple lifestyle. They envisioned a life there. On the last day of our trip, I found myself on a horse, being escorted around a stable by a Northern Irish teenager. She was fascinated by me, specifically, the fact that I was from America. She marveled at my country’s cities, culture, and the fact that we have Abercrombie. She envisioned a life here.

None of the people in this anecdote were content in their place – each envied the other.

This ironic situation is not unique. Many of us who are privileged enough to be educated, take vacations, and watch the Travel Channel dream of a life elsewhere. Whether or not we are rooted in a particular place, there is something romantic about the idea of just picking up, moving on, and wandering the earth indefinitely.

The following essay will look at the act of wandering in the biblical narrative, and, what I discern to be a Christian call to rootedness. I could go on about this for days, and the more I think about it, the more layers to this I find. But for the sake of time and simplicity, I’ve narrowed this topic down to two basic parts: Lost and Found.

Part I. Lost

It’s only fitting to start at the beginning, or rather, just after the beginning – the fall. In the creation account, we see God put his people in a garden, where they quickly fail to uphold his expectations. This is original sin – pain and alienation are introduced into the brand new world, and man and woman are exiled from the garden. As the story goes, “the Lord God sent [the man] out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”[1] When man and woman rebelled against their creator, he punished them by uprooting them from their home, never to return. In the cosmic category of “consequences for original sin,” it’s fascinating that “exile” is on the same level as “physical pain.”

Years later, the Lord rescues the people he’s called his own – the Israelites – from slavery. As with the first man and woman, God has expectations for his people which they promptly fail to meet. On the way to the land he’s promised them, the Israelites complain about the food, repeatedly fail to trust him, and create false idols. His punishment for them bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Eden’s original residents: “The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone.”[2]
There’s a recurring phrase throughout the Talmudic texts that surfaces when God is about to or has just made some big proclamation to the Israelites. Each time, he says something along the lines of “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God.”[3] The implication of this simple claim is twofold: while enslaved in Egypt, the Lord couldn’t truly be the Israelites’ God, and, once they are out of Egypt, he is. This suggests that the land – the physical place that can be plotted on a map – has a divine significance in the Lord’s relationship with his people. The wilderness that the Israelites wander is not only “wild” insofar as it’s unsheltered and uncultivated, but in that the connection between God and his people is unstable. The Lord extends their stay in the wilderness because they aren’t quite ready to be his yet – the literal wandering that the Israelites do is a physical manifestation of the condition of their hearts.

The man and woman sent out of Eden and a generation of Israelites in the desert are representatives of the entire human race in more ways than one. Thousands of years later, what we still have in common with these people is that we too are restless. Even those of us who choose to stay put, who are not literally wandering, have yet to settle down. St. Augustine opens his prayerful memoir, Confessions, with this truth: “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”[4] Here, Augustine is speaking of the human condition: God made us for himself, and we have an ontological need for him. While we await the coming Kingdom, we will inevitably experience the existential restlessness caused by disunion with our Creator.

Does this mean that we should resign ourselves to wandering the earth, waiting to be united with God? The story so far suggests that this kind of meandering is intended only as a punishment – it is not something that people should willingly bring upon themselves. Furthermore, Scripture implies that not only is wandering bad, but, even now, physical rootedness is a human good.

Part II. Found

Let’s go back to the beginning again, before the fall. With only his words, God starts with nothing and creates everything. The opening passages of Scripture contain the most important things ever to have happened – huge, sweeping changes across the earth. The creation account concludes almost anticlimactically: “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.”[5] Even before he’s given a companion, man is given a home. The very beginning ends with man being put into a particular place, where he is instructed to settle in and work the land.

Likewise, the story of the Israelites is not just about wandering in the desert. More importantly, it’s about a building – the temple. Once God roots his people in the promised land, he shows surprisingly great care for his own physical dwelling space. In 2 Samuel, we overhear the Lord speaking to the prophet Nathan, wondering why king David has such a nice house but he doesn’t:

Go and tell my servant David, “Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”[6]

Entire chapters of what is now the Old Testament are focused on the building of this temple, with descriptions of how it was to be laid out, what materials were used to construct it, where those materials came from, and other seemingly out-of-place details. For example (and I’m sharing this simply because I find the fact that this made the cut when they decided what to include in the most important book civilization has yet to encounter), we know precisely what the capitals of the pillars in the temple looked like: “Likewise he made pomegranates in two rows around the one latticework to cover the capital that was on the top of the pillar, and he did the same with the other capital.”[7] This single building, along with the city and nation where it was built, appears to be essential to the biblical narrative. If nothing else, we know that the God of the universe cares about things like building plans and construction materials.

The construction of the temple is significant, but the biblical narrative culminates much later, when God became a person. The Gospel of John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[8] In the opening scenes of the New Testament, Eternity itself is literally birthed into temporality. God – who occupies all of space and time – became a man who lived in just a tiny part of space and time. The implications of this are vastly compelling, but here, we’ll focus on just one: God knows what it is like to have a home town. And an unsavory one at that – this is what people were saying about Christ as he began his ministry:

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in
the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to
him, “Come and see.”[9]

For everything that he went on to do – and continues to do – in this world, Jesus Christ was and is first and foremost from Nazareth.

On the first Easter, Jesus of Nazareth started his great work of redemption, which will ultimately conclude with a final beginning: the new heaven and the new earth – a kingdom that centers on a tangible city in a physical place. The dramatic prophecy described in Revelation concludes on this hopeful note:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the
throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with
them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[10]

This brings us full circle. A story about a man exiled from his home, a nation wandering the desert looking for theirs, a Father yearning for a place to dwell, a Son who briefly and unconventionally dwelled among us, and all of humanity waiting restlessly, ends with all of us settling down in the holy city.

In the meantime, while our hearts may be restless, those who follow Jesus are called to be rooted somewhere. We are called to work and keep our neighborhoods, give great care to the structures we create, and really dwell in the place we call home.

 

Notes:

[1] Genesis 3:23-24, ESV.

[2] Numbers 32:13, ESV.

[3] Leviticus 22:33. Similar statements can be found in Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 11:45, Leviticus 25:38, Numbers 15:41, and elsewhere.

[4] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. F.J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Harper Publishing Company Inc., 2006), 3.

[5] Genesis 2:8, ESV.

[6] 2 Samuel 7:5-7, NRSV.

[7] 1 Kings 7:18, ESV. I find it particularly delightful that this detail made the cut when they decided what to include in the most important book that civilization has yet to encounter.

[8] John 1:14, ESV.

[9] John 1:45-46, ESV.

[10] Revelation 21:2-4, NRSV.