When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. — Exodus 13:17-22
The book of Exodus is a continuation of the story of Israel that began in Genesis. At this point in the story, God has sent plagues to Egypt, ultimately ending with the deaths of all the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh finally agreed to let the people go from Egypt, which the Jews still celebrate with Passover. They were free to leave and followed Moses out into the desert. Moses took with him the bones of their ancestor, Joseph, so that they could bury him in the land he had left centuries before. Joseph had asked for this on his deathbed, and Moses remembered the promise.
The part that caught my attention today was the mention of God not permitting them to wander around aimlessly. Lacking GPS instruments, maps, or even compasses, the only other natural way of geographical guidance would have been using the stars at night to determine direction. God instead sent two phenomena to guide them in the direction God wanted them to travel. Sometimes this meant going backward, returning to somewhere they might already have been, but it was all for a purpose, and God made sure they didn’t stray.
Sometimes I think it would be good if we had a pillar of cloud by day and one of fire by night so that we could be sure of the direction God wants us to go. It would be easier than trying to figure it out by trial and error. Sure, the Bible guides us, and we have the opportunity for meditation and prayer, which can enable us to listen for God’s direction; however, individual interpretation and discernment can often take people in different directions even when using the same scriptures and requests.
There are lots of times when we need guidance and leadership beyond the power of GPS, maps, or compasses. In times of trial and often danger, geographical assistance isn’t the answer, but leadership is.
Imagine a line of people, perhaps several miles long, transmitting instructions from Moses by passing it along from person to person like we used to do in the game we used to play as children. One person starts by whispering a message to the next person in line, who then turns to the person behind them and whispering what they had heard. By the time the last person gets the message, it usually bears little resemblance to the original. If transmitting a simple message among eight or ten people can change so much, imagine what passing along a verbal signal down a long line would produce. That’s what makes the visible pillars of cloud and fire a much better guidance system. It was apparent to all, and everybody would move in the proper direction.
Many of the world’s leaders have spoken messages of hope, support, and encouragement aimed toward the citizens of the nations they lead, but whose words have been transmitted around the globe, encouraging others in the far corners of the world. Those messages are not about blame, shame, or comparison; they were words of faith, resilience, and courage. They encourage all to be thoughtful of others instead of just oneself or one’s family, contributing in whatever way possible to make life in difficult times easier for the elderly, families with unemployed breadwinners, and children. These words uplift us and make us aware that we are not alone. Although sometimes it may feel God is far away and not answering our pleas, we find assurance that, as Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, said, “We will meet again,” with our families, and fellow humans. Other world leaders have used different words, but with the same underlying sentiment.
Perhaps these words are the pillars of cloud and fire that we need these days. Maybe these, as well as the words of the Bible, are moral and physical guideposts that keep us on the right path that will ultimately keep us safe, as well as remind us that this pandemic will not last forever. They tell us to do what is necessary for ourselves and our neighbors to get us through these tough times and bring us out on the other side to what perhaps will be a new normal, a new place in our lives.
Keep the faith. Look for the signals to guide us through this turmoil. Trust God to get us through this, but remember to follow the rules that are for our benefit and that of our neighbors. Even God needs our help and our hands in times like these.
God bless. Stay safe. Love your neighbor by helping them stay safe as well. The Bible says so.
Image: Fire Whirl, US Fish and Wildlife Service, cropped by BeyondMyKen (2015). Found at Wikimedia Commons.