When the word “desert” comes to mind, most people think of a barren, sweltering, uninhabitable, hostile, waterless, sandy, and lifeless place. Spiritually, the desert is often a place of wandering, testing, isolation, dryness, and waiting. All these images contain aspects of truth, but there is much more to the desert — and to wilderness seasons.
I love leading tours of Israel. I relish introducing people to the Promised Land and helping them see it for the first time through Jewish eyes. One of my favorite places to take them is the desert — the Judaean wilderness.
The desert (or wilderness) plays a foundational role in the history and spiritual development of the children of Israel. The majority of the five books of the Torah (from Exodus 15 to Deuteronomy 24) takes place in the desert. One of the most defining events in Israel’s desert history was the giving of The Torah. Understanding the desert is key to understanding the Torah, Moses, and Messiah Yeshua.
The Desert is a Place of Birthing
When God rescued Israel from Egypt, He had Moses lead the Israelites “by the way of the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds [Red Sea]” (Exodus 13:18). While the children of Israel were in the desert, Pharaoh changed his mind and attempted to recapture them. Israel seemed to be in a precarious and hopeless situation. The Red Sea was on one side and Pharaoh’s advancing army was on the other. But God can make a way where there seems to be no way. He parted the sea and brought Israel through on dry ground. He then closed the waters on the Egyptians. In the desert at the Red Sea, God delivered Israel physically and spiritually.
The name “Egypt” (Hebrew, Mitzrayim) comes from the root word tzar, which means “a tight or constricted place.” Egypt, a place of confinement for the Israelites when Pharaoh enslaved them, can be seen as a womb — a tight place God used to birth Israel. Israel went to Egypt as a family of seventy but grew into a nation of millions by the time of the exodus. God used the confinement of Egypt as a fertile womb in which He supernaturally multiplied the children of Israel.
If Egypt represents the womb, then the parting of the Red Sea characterizes the breaking of water in labor. Passing through the sea is symbolic of a baby passing through the birth canal. Israel came out of the water reborn as a nation of free men and women. God had begun to fulfill His promise to Abraham to make the Israelites numerous “like the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).
God also told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed for four hundred years and then brought back to inherit the Promised Land. It’s no coincidence that Israel wandered the desert for forty years. I believe there is a clear connection between four hundred and forty.
The number forty represents birthing. A full-term pregnancy is forty weeks. Forty in Hebrew is represented by the letter mem. The shape of the letter mem is said to resemble an open womb. Mem also symbolically represents water. The Egyptians’ oppression of Israel for four hundred years and Israel’s wandering in the desert for forty years are the means by which the Lord spiritually and symbolically birthed Israel as His chosen nation.
This birthing imagery forms the background to the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, came secretly to Yeshua at night seeking truth. Yeshua told him, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3 NKJV).
Nicodemus, confused, responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4 NKJV).
I understand his confusion. After I finished reciting what I now know to be a form of the sinner’s prayer, I was told to raise my hand, for I had just been born again. But I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was Jewish kids don’t get born again. And I thought, I gave my parents enough trouble when I was born once. What will happen if I am born again? Nevertheless, I felt pressure to raise my hand and praise God even though I was initially hesitant. Being born again seemed like a very un-Jewish thing to do. But, actually, it was the most Jewish thing to do.
Yeshua said to Nicodemus, “You’re a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). How could such a learned and highly prominent religious leader not get what it means to be born again?
We saw how Israel was born twice: (1) as a people in Egypt and (2) as a free nation when the Lord brought Israel through the Red Sea, where, according to Jewish tradition, the Spirit of God fell on the people and they all prophesied. God had to birth Israel physically and spiritually before they could enter the Promised Land, which is symbolic of the heavenly Kingdom of God that was to come.
Sadly, not all of them made it to the Promised Land. The adult generation that escaped Egypt died, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. The Israelites kept rebelling against God and wanted to crawl back into the womb (Egypt), like babies looking for comfort and security apart from the Lord.
This gives new meaning to Nicodemus’s statement “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 NKJV) and ties it back to the exodus. Israel was born four hundred years after Jacob’s family moved to Egypt, but God commanded Israel never to enter the womb again. The Lord closed the waters on the Egyptians so there would be no way back. He also closed the waters to wash away Israel’s past. This washing away began a process of purification and instilled a new and real sense of freedom. Seeing the drowned Egyptians meant the Israelites did not have to live in fear that their former captors might return to enslave them once again.
Similarly, when we are born again, the Lord makes us new and washes away our past, and we never have to go back to the places that want to confine and enslave us. God birthed Israel physically over four hundred years, which included enslavement in Egypt, and He birthed Israel spiritually over forty years in the desert. We need both Egypt and the wilderness season to be fully birthed into our true identities and destinies.
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Excerpted with permission from Mysteries of the Messiah by Rabbi Jason Sobel, copyright Rabbi Jason Sobel.
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What deserts have you found yourself in? How does it strengthen you to know that the desert is a place of birthing… of new life? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!