I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride How you followed Me in the desert, In a land not sown. -Jeremiah 2:2
Traveling with the Galilee Arches youth circus, we spent an afternoon touring the old city of Jerusalem, viewing the grandiose mosques on the Temple Mount, and visiting the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Over the centuries, all three religions have invested untold amounts of wealth and blood in conquering, controlling, beautifying, and fortifying their particular bits of real estate in Jerusalem. Of course, this is not just any real estate, but holy ground, the place in which Gods presence is believed to dwell. And for many, this indwelling is almost palpable. Even among the kids in our group, ordinary middle class teenagers living in secular environments, visiting these holy sites had impact: a Moslem girl spoke with reverence of her experiences of praying at the El Aksa mosque; there were American Christian kids who were truly moved by the experience of touching the Stone of Unction, where Jesus body is believed to have been anointed prior to burial; and for many of the Jews, visiting the Wall at night had its own spiritual impact. Even so, sometimes I wonder if God realized that His getting involved in the residential property market would cause us all so much grief.
This question was cast in sharp relief the next day, when we drove from Jerusalem to Mitzpeh Ramon, in the heart of the Negev. We left late in the afternoon, and didnt arrive until late at night. Our accommodations were at a fairly primitive imitation-Bedouin-style campsite, whose most noteworthy characteristic at the time of our arrival was the lack of electricity. It took us a while to get settled and prepare dinner in almost total darkness (near the beginning of the month not even moonlight). But then we realized that out in the desert, without electric lights, you can see things that you cant see at home: mostly, the Milky Way in all its majesty. And when the sun rises over the mountains in the morning, there you are, exposed, vulnerable, squeezing into whatever shade you can find. Or looking out across the spectacular scenery of the Ramon Crater, feeling small.
The contrast between the crowded holy sites of Jerusalem, protected by x-ray machines and metal detectors, built, decorated, and controlled by people and the silent, lonely majesty of the desert, which seems to overpower human attempts to control it was striking. Especially when you remember that Moses (who, of course, never set foot in Jerusalem) had his conversations with God in the desert (as did Elijah, after him); that Jesus spent a pivotal 40 days and nights there (Matthew 4:1-4); and that Mohammeds entire biography is rooted in the desert. While the Children of Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert as a punishment and a purification after the demonstration of faithlessness by the spies (Numbers 14:26-35), the memory morphed over time into a positive one: note, in the text above, Jeremiah refers to the desert years as the honeymoon in Gods relationship to Israel. It seems we have always had a sort of ambivalent relationship to this region. The vulnerability and smallness we feel here makes us more dependent on God but that, apparently, is not always such a good feeling. It is easier and more comforting to communicate with God by inserting a note between the stones of the Western Wall than it is to stand speechless and all alone in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, the Western Wall we can own, while the desert makes our concepts of possession and control feel a bit ridiculous.
Gods presence may be in residence in the sacred edifices of Jerusalem, but I have no doubt He has a timeshare in Mitzpeh Ramon.