Throughout the desert, the Israelites rebel, quarrel and fight. They demand meat, have fond (and false) memories of Egypt, seek to usurp the leadership of Moses and demonstrate repeated ingratitude to God. To a reader who comes to the story for the first time, it can often seem that Bertolt Brecht’s quip about unsatisfactory government — that one should dissolve the people and elect another — is the only solution. Indeed, God proposes it more than once.
In experiencing the long days of the pandemic, however, we can perhaps develop more sympathy with the situation of our forebearers. For a difficult, prolonged situation sorely tests the nerves of even the most patient. Slight disagreements erupt into full-throated arguments. Different strategies become polarizing fights. People get on one another’s last nerve.
That is why the vision of a promised land is so important in the story of the wilderness. We have to envision a better world at the end of the trials. Like the Israelites, we need not come through the desert empty-handed. We can come through it understanding more about ourselves, one another, and believing that at the end of the journey there will be peace.