Camping with God
in the Wilderness…
Lately I’ve been listening to tales my friends have been telling of camping experiences. This is the time of year in our region when many families are planning that annual camping trip. It might be that the weather and the change in the color of the foliage beckons us to want to experience a bit of natural beauty before the cold and snow set in for winter.
I’m confessing that, as much as I like the idea of being out in the beauty of nature, my actual experience of it has been less than appealing. The bugs love my blood too much, and my allergies prohibit the use of the chemicals that deter them. Therefore, my idea of “camping” is living out of a suitcase in a nice hotel far away from the familiar comforts of home.
As I reflect on the Feast of Tabernacles during this Autumn Holyday season, I think that perhaps if I were in the desert climate of Israel, I might be more likely to enjoy celebrating this festival of joy out of doors…
The historical account in Scripture of how God established this celebration is exciting to me, and causes me to long for a climate in which such an observance would be more accommodating to my limitations. On that note, allow me to take you on one of the manifold facets of the experience of camping with God in the wilderness.
The Holydays preceding the Feast of Tabernacles have passed: first came Yom Teruah, the Feast of Trumpets which began the 10 Days of Awe; then came Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The climax of the Holy Days comes at the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (Sukkot). Leviticus 23.34-44 establishes the entire week between 15th and the 22nd days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei as the observance of Sukkot. Sukkot is the Hebrew word for “tabernacles” or “booths,” and a sukkah is one booth or one tent.
Although God gave Israel the instructions for the Feast of Tabernacles while they were still in the wilderness, the Feast of Sukkot was not a wilderness feast. The feast is to be celebrated remembering how God dwelled among the Israelites after He brought them out of Egypt. The wilderness experience was a time of great awareness of and dependence upon God. After Israel would enter the land and begin living in houses, harvesting crops and enjoying a comfortable existence, God calls Israel to sacrifice the comfort of her houses to live in a rugged little booth or tent for a full week. He wants His people to remember with joy His power to sustain their lives, for He has dwelt among them.
In Jewish tradition, when the sun sets on Yom Kippur, plans begin for the building of the family sukkah four days later. Israeli farmers lived in little sukkot (booths) built in the fields during the harvest of their crops, but God called all Israel to live in sukkot built outside for this festival. The sukkot were not to be too sturdy; they were to represent the temporary houses Israel hastily erected and moved from place to place in the wilderness. The light of the full harvest moon should shine through the roof; and the wind should shake it a bit.
Just a thought: If all our high-tech stuff failed, we would soon remember how earthly our “tents” are and how our lives depend upon the mercies of God in the seasons of the year and the agricultural cycle. God has promised that springtime and harvest will not fail. He has made no such promise about our high-tech wizardry.
Because the feast occurs at the time of harvest in the land, it is now–as it was in former days–linked to the season of the year and the agricultural cycle. The labors of harvest time necessitated being in the fields, and many people would already be living in booths in the fields for the duration of the harvest. God simply used the occasion to refresh their memories of “the good old days.” For Israel, the “good old days” were the years when they dwelled in the wilderness, encamped around the Tabernacle of the Lord in their midst. Those years were hard, stigmatized with the reproach of their rebellion against God; but those years were generously laced with the mercy of a holy God mingled with the trauma of living in so close proximity to His holiness. The Tabernacle of the Lord was the first house in which God dwelled on earth with His people Israel. The Lord dwelled in the part of the Tabernacle which was called the Sanctuary. The word “sanctuary” means “most holy place.”
I will make a covenant of peace with [Israel]; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put My sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when My sanctuary is among them forever.”
You might say, in modern words that God “pitched His tent” or “built His sukkah among men. Even though the wilderness in which Israel dwelt those 40 years did not have the fruits and grains God promised they would have in their new land, they experienced the wonder of camping with the King of the universe.
Imagine you are living in a tent out on the desert sands under the sky. There are no tall trees there, only shrubs and bushes that grow close to the ground. There are no buildings there to get in the way of your vision as you look out the doorway of your tent. There is no electricity and no loud stereo boom box music to fill up your mind with noise. The air is clear and you can see for miles around you when you stand at the edge of the camp beyond the tents. When you look out the door of your tent each desert morning you can see all the tents of your aunts and uncles and cousins and cousins’ cousins to the right of you and to the left of you. But as you gaze toward the center of your camp you can see a strange and wonderful sight: it is the tent where the God of heaven and earth dwells. Every morning when you rise after a night of sleepy dreams under the stars, you run to the door of your tent to see, “Is He still here with us?” As your eyes dart toward the center of the camp, you see it–the sign of His Presence dwelling there with you Numbers 9.15-16.
The encampment of Israel in the wilderness was orderly and precise, as instructed by the Lord to Moses.
Wilderness Tabernacle Camp
Numbers 2.3-9 says that the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun camped on the east side of the Tabernacle of the Lord–a total of 186,400 men over age 20, able to go to war (not counting women, children and the elder men and women among the tribes).
Numbers 2.10-16 says that the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad camped on the south side of the Tabernacle of the Lord–a total of 151,450 men over age 20, able to go to war (not counting women, children and the elder men and women among the tribes).
Numbers 2.18-24 says that the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin camped on the west side of the Tabernacle of the Lord—a total of 108,100 men over age 20, able to go to war (not counting women, children and the elder men and women among the tribes).
Numbers 2.25-31 says that the tribes of Dan, Asher and Naphtali camped on the north side of the Tabernacle of the Lord–a total of 157,600 men over age 20, able to go to war (not counting women, children and the elder men and women among the tribes).
Numbers 2.17 says that the tents of the tribe of Levi were always camped in the inner ring closest to the Tabernacle perimeter, standing between the courts of the Lord and the people in their respective camps.
The God of Israel left no mysteries about the community life of the people in the camp of the Israelites, including how they would know when to strike camp and begin another leg of their journey, and when to pitch camp to rest:
Now on the day that the tabernacle was raised up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the Testimony; from evening until morning it was above the tabernacle like the appearance of fire. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, after that the children of Israel would journey; and in the place where the cloud settled, there the children of Israel would pitch their tents. At the command of the Lord the children of Israel would journey, and at the command of the Lord they would camp; as long as the cloud stayed above the tabernacle they remained encamped. Even when the cloud continued long, many days above the tabernacle, the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord and did not journey. So it was, when the cloud was above the tabernacle a few days: according to the command of the Lord they would remain encamped, and according to the command of the Lord they would journey. So it was, when the cloud remained only from evening until morning: when the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they would journey; whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud was taken up, they would journey. Whether it was two days, a month, or a year that the cloud remained above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would remain encamped and not journey; but when it was taken up, they would journey. At the command of the Lord they remained encamped, and at the command of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord, at the command of the Lord by the hand of Moses.”
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