Desert Romance

It's an old, old story. Man meets woman. Sparks fly--not the good kind. Man and woman end up in trouble. Man fights to protect woman, risking his life in the process. Woman sees how much man loves her, falls in love with him.

It's Beauty and the Beast. In the Disney version, when Belle is all alone with the Beast, she begins, after a while, to see his heart; and when she sees him in the magic mirror, fighting for his life because he had granted her wish to walk away, then her heart reaches out, and she loves him back, fully.

It's The Wind and the Lion, where the captive American lady falls in love with the dashing Arab after he fights to save her children and reveals his intention to set her free.

It's Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Marion and Indy are thrown into terrible danger, he rescues her from torture, and through their shared experience they fall in love.

It's The Princess Bride, where Buttercup is saved from assassins and taken captive by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is really her beloved Westley in disguise. The journey reveals who he is, as he has fought to win her back, and she falls in love with him all over again. In Westley's case, it's even a journey through death and back, to save his beloved.

It's the desert romance.

The desert--be it loneliness, pain, danger, uncertainty, any number of addictions or sexual brokennesses, or even the actual desert--strips away the veneer of things. I remember seeing a movie, years ago, where a group of people got caught up in a sandstorm in the Mongolian desert. All found shelter but one, and, when the storm was over, the only thing left behind was his corpse, almost bare bones. The desert is harsh, unforgiving, and painful. Animals and plants survive there because they've adapted to live with a lack--of water, shelter, safety, and comfort. Desert animals are tough. They have to be. Desert people, too, are tough, shaped by their environment, and a non-desert person will not survive without the help of a desert person.

In the stories above, the desert experience within each narrative strips away false things--pride, anger, and even ugliness, in the case of the Beast--and reveals, underneath, a self-sacrificing love.

When we go into the Exodus story, we encounter a group of people who have been shaped by the experience of slavery. They've lived with harshness, but they're not desert people. The Israelites have lived in Goshen for 430 years, with access to leeks, onions, wheat, barley, spelt, fish, cucumbers, melons, and garlic. That isn't desert food.

In Exodus 12, Israel leaves Egypt and begins to head east, and God begins to do something interesting with their journey. Exodus 13:17-18 says, "When Pharaoh let the Israelites go out, God did not take them by the way that crosses the land of the Philistines, which was the shorter way, for He thought, 'If they meet with battle, they could change their minds and return to Egypt.' Because of that He made them take a detour by way of the desert, in the direction of the Red Sea."

Israel had left Egypt in ranks, as if for battle, but they were in no way prepared for battle. God takes them the long way round, because He knows they can't handle the Philistines. His purpose for them right now is not to fight, but to learn to follow Him in no-man's-land--in the desert. They enter the desert in 13:20, and they begin to see God's pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, leading them along the way. It never leaves them, by day or by night.

In Exodus 14, God tells Moses to turn the people back and have them camp at a certain place near the sea. He tells Moses clearly that Pharaoh will come for Israel again, will think they are trapped, and will follow to kill them, but that God intends to show His glory through Pharaoh and his whole army. God sends His people intentionally back into an insecure place, and when they're completely trapped, they turn on Moses and claim that it would have been better to remain slaves in Egypt. The sentiment: "You've brought us out here to kill us!"

Moses responds, "Don't be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see no more forever. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still" (14:13-14).

God has not led Israel into the desert to die. He has led them into the desert to strip away their dependence on the food and familiarity of Egypt and to place it on Him. He has led them out to strip away their false conceptions of what He is like and to show them who He really is. He's led them out to woo them.

What happens with the Egyptians looks to me very much like when, in the stories, the man picks a fight with someone big and powerful to impress the woman he loves. "Look how strong I am," he is saying, "how clever, how quick, and how able I am to defend you. Look how I can take care of you." A hilarious example of this is in Nacho Libre, when Nacho gets his friend Esqueleto to gather a group of guys together so he can fight them in front of Sister Incarnación. He hopes that she will be impressed with his skills and fall in love with him. Obviously it doesn't turn out that way, but it's a film trope for a reason--it's part of how people see the world.

God draws Israel into the desert as a Lover wooing his Beloved, saying, "Look how I can take care of you here; I am really all you need." He shows her how He can fight for her, provide for her, guide her, and care for her in the desert.

Sadly, the people of Israel never really get it, instead turning on God and Moses time after time, always claiming that God has brought them out into the desert to kill them. The desert reveals their distrust, discouragement, skepticism, and disdain for God. He keeps trying, though; even as He removes from Israel the people who will most lead to faithlessness and idolatry, He stays with them in the desert for 40 years, and their clothes don't fall apart, their sandals don't wear out, and they eat bread and meat from heaven every day. He provides water from rocks and shelter when they need it, and they never have to wonder about where to Go, because He's always there, leading.

It's a desert romance.

Some takeaways from this narrative:
  • Sometimes God leads us the long way around because He knows we can't handle the battles along the shorter road. Our tendency is to get discouraged and assume we're running around in circles. There is a purpose to our winding journey.
  • Sometimes God leads us directly into situations where only He can fight for us, and we must decide whether to distrust in Him or depend on Him.
  • We pretty much always assume we've been brought into the desert to die. When I am lonely, I assume I'll die this way, or I feel like I am dying. When I struggle with sin and feel isolated, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to be dead, or to go back to where I came from. I only see the desert, or I only see my enemies; I don't see the pillar of cloud and fire.
  • God brings people into the desert, over and over again, with the express purpose of feeding them. He draws them away from distraction and ease to woo them.
  • We see the desert as a place of death; with Him, it is only a place of hidden life. 
  • Am I willing to say, "It doesn't matter where I am, or how alone I feel, as long as I'm with you"?

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