The cloud by day and the fire by night; the banners, the regiments of foot soldiers, the women, the children scurrying about, the bleating of sheep, the lowing of cattle. It was a wondrous sight to behold. Gabriel looked down on the people marching through the desert in a long, serpentine column of humanity.
Well, not marching exactly.
It had dwindled from marching with heads held high, to walking, to trudging through the endless sand and heat. That was to be expected. It didn’t change the fact that every step, every move was an audacious gamble, a daily miracle. It was a testament of faith in the power of God.
Never would the world see its like again. It was exciting and terrible all at once. A nation was being born in the desert, in total dependence on their God. It was not the birth of democracy but rather the re-birth of something far more powerful and far more ancient – theocracy, the rule of God.
Flashes of light sped down the line of march far below him and Gabriel looked quickly for the problem. He saw it in an instant. One of the wagons with their oversized wheels had wandered off the track and had bogged down in the loose sand. A child – it was Ethan – had fallen off and the heavy wagon was tilting off balance and was about to collapse on the boy. Gabriel’s wings stood out stiffly with tension, every feather primed and ready to fold and dive in an instant if he were needed. But Michael had it under control.
Gabriel watched as his powerful brother swooped under the great wheel and put his shoulder to the wood. He who could lay bare entire forests with the blast of his nostrils would find this delicate work a bit more challenging. He would have to hardened his shoulder just enough so that he could hold the earthly substance for a moment. The trick was to be covert, do nothing out of the ordinary, just enough help to get the job done but not give their presence away.
Gideon was there as well, standing over Ethan, his wings tense, silently encouraging him to get up, to move – quickly!
“Ethan – ” His father, Josia, strode through the sand, sinking to his ankles, fighting to maintain his balance, his robes fluttering anxiously about his feet.
“Got you.” Josia grunted as he snatched his youngest son from the sand. At the same instant the wheel gave way and the wagon toppled toward them. There was nothing more that Michael could do.
Gideon saw what was happening and gave Josia a shove, pushing him out of reach of the wagon. Josia stumbled and went down, trying to shield Ethan with his body. The wagon slid and groaned to a stop, trapping the edge of Josia’s robe in the sand. The axle was broken. Josia got up from the sand, pulling his robe free and tearing it in the process, furious in the heat and in his fear for Ethan.
“What in the name of all the gods did you think you were doing?” he shouted at his eldest son who had driven the wagon off the track. He cuffed Daniel on the head. “Have you no eyes in your head?”
But Gabriel was already turning his attention elsewhere. Everyone was short of temper in this heat. The wheel would be repaired and the wagon would join the procession later. It was not easy keeping an eye on so many people in constant march. Anything and everything could go wrong and often did. But Michael was thorough and had organized his legions of angels well. He had been chosen as the guardian angel of this new nation that was not yet a nation – a nation yet to be born, but already in the painful process of birth.
The plagues that destroyed the economy and spirit of Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea that broke the chariot armies of the most powerful nation in the world; the daily miracle of the Exodus itself; the almost ludicrous faith that compelled this ragtag nation of slaves into a desert that could not hope to sustain them without the direct intervention of God Almighty. It was a violent birth, a furious birth, full of wonder and pain.
Gabriel looked toward the head of the column but had to avert his eyes at the sudden brilliance. He had been waiting for this moment as he did every day at sundown, but the unexpected emergency had distracted him. The pillar of cloud that guided this massive movement of humanity was transformed in an instant into fire – a fire much dimmer in the earthly realm than in the spiritual. It blazed brighter than a thousand suns, the Great Shekinah Glory of heaven, the Holy, unveiled Glory of God. The Presence of the King of Heaven was here in obvious splendor and the demonic forces kept their distance. Only Lucifer and his hand picked Special Forces dared to come near. He still had his authority in the lives of these people after all.
He had abandoned his empire in Egypt to hound the tribes of Isra´el into the desert, looking for an opening, an opportunity – anything. He wanted his revenge.
The greatest event in ancient history was unfolding and yet it would not make any real difference in the hearts of the people. God was revealing himself to his people in a way that struck fear into the most hardened warrior, but it would not change their natures. It would not break the Unholy Alliance with the Evil One. Power and wonders and signs are able to mold history and give birth to nations and bring judgment on the unrighteous but it would never change the heart of man.
That was the point after all. That was why all of this was merely the first act in a drama yet to be played out. The main actor had not yet come on stage. The central scene had not yet been set in place.
On all sides he saw the signs of the coming Maschiach. From the beginning he was spoken of as the Divine Warrior who would do battle against the Evil One at the end of the age. God had begun the preparations. He had begun to explain, to reveal, to give understanding of the importance and the meaning of the work of the Maschiach to come. But it was not yet time.
Gamaliel saw God’s obvious Presence among his people. The Shekinah Glory, the Ruach HaKodesh of God, displayed himself unashamedly before the people in the pillar of cloud by day and the fire by night. The people kept their distance, but even the most holy and obedient became accustomed to the Presence after years of wandering in the desert.
That is what gave Lucifer his opportunity. Deception was his game, lies his rule of thumb but even Gabriel could not believe what he was able to accomplish right under the nose of the Almighty God.
Michael and his warriors provided protection for the people so that they could survive this inhospitable wilderness but they did not provide the precious life giving water that both man and beast needed to survive. Neither water nor food, at least, not yet.
Then the complaints started.
“Why have you brought us into this desert, Mosheh?” The people shouted and cried and murmured and wept. “Do you want us to die here like dogs?” Of course, Lucifer saw the opening for what it was and was quick to capitalize on their unbelief.
“We might have been slaves in Egypt but at least we could eat and drink our fill from the Nile,” someone else shouted.
Gabriel could not believe what he was hearing. Had they forgotten the Passover already? Had they forgotten the parting of the Red Sea, the fearful destruction of Pharaoh’s army under the crushing power of the waves? What kind of a God did they think he was? Food and water was a small thing to him who was the Creator of the heavens and the Earth. If he wished to withhold it for a time, that was his right, and undoubtedly for the best of his people.
Gabriel felt a check in his spirit, a divine pause – and then he understood. Of course, this was God’s way. This was his eternal question for the Sons of Man. “What kind of a God was he?” It was a question that could only be answered with faith, and faith was the greatest weapon imaginable in this battle for the souls of men.
Then another thought came to him and he smiled.
Lucifer was not taking advantage of anyone, or at least, certainly not of the Holy One of Isra´el. Once again, he was being tolerated, used, allowed to work his deceptions but only under God’s constant eye. He would be the barb, his temptation to unbelief the divining rod to separate out those who truly believed from those who were merely along for the ride.
No, their hearts had not changed at all. Their physical bondage had been broken but their spiritual bondage would enslave them yet.
Freedom begins in the heart.
Gabriel shook his head not sure if he was more amazed at the stubbornness of the people in their sin or at the patience of the Holy Majesty of God that forgave them and disciplined them in equal measure.
God was determined to have a people for himself, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, a chosen race. He did not begin a thing and not finish it. Not even the sin and unbelief of his own people would stop him.
God was establishing a beachhead in enemy territory at the crossroads of the great civilizations, which were under the control of the Evil One. They would live in the midst of the nations as a light to the people. God would make his Presence known through his law, through his Power, through his dwelling in the midst of his people.
The Holy One of Isra´el would physically live among them. Not just for this brief moment, on this journey in the desert, but always. And his Presence would be both a threat and a blessing. For no longer could they be content in their sin, no longer could they live in ignorance. The Word of God, the Presence of God, was among them to stir them up, to bring them down, to give birth to faith so that they could live in the promise of the One to come.
Nothing like this had happened since the Garden of Eden at the beginning. It was not quite the same but the seeds of a new intimate relationship between the Creator and his creation were there nonetheless.
Sin still needed to be dealt with. It could not be ignored. Distance still had to be maintained between a Holy God and a sinful and rebellious people. But first the people had to meet their God.
It had started at this mountain and the God of the Unquenchable Fire had brought them back. Mosheh watched the people make their way through the pass into the broad valley at the base of the mountain. The wagons first, and then the great herds of sheep and cattle began to spread out upon the two hills that faced the Holy Mountain. There was water here and grass and rest for the people. He had come home but he could not stay.
He saw Joshua stride toward him with an expectant look. There must be news.
“We have found the tents of Jethro,” he said. “They are in pasture on the far side of the Mountain.”
Mosheh watched as Joshua threw a fearful eye at the towering pinnacle of rock forever ringed with a dark mass of clouds. Even he seemed to feel the dread, the massive Presence that was more than the grandeur of that palace of rock and granite.
“They will be here by nightfall,” Joshua ended lamely, his concentration broken. The view from this cliff was even more magnificent, more dreadful for its proximity to the Mountain.
“Tell the people not to go up upon the Mountain,” Mosheh said. “Neither people, nor cattle, nor sheep. Set up barriers and get the word out. This Mountain is Holy.” Mosheh’s face was lined with the care and burden of living so close to that wonderful, dreadful Presence. He seemed to have a curious effect on everyone around him as if they expected him at any time to be consumed by that Holy Fire. He had become more secluded, he realized, less visible to the mass of people. He relied on young Joshua more and more these days. There was a look in his eyes that he liked.
Joshua turned to look at Mosheh, a curious glint in his eye. Mosheh was listening, attentive to some voice beyond the hearing of mortal men. Then he spoke.
“You must also tell the people to get ready. In three days they will meet their God.”
Then Mosheh led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at the bottom of the mountain. The mountain of Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke went up like smoke from a furnace and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the sound of the trumpet.
Mosheh spoke and God answered him with peals of thunder. Yahweh came down on the mountain of Sinai, on the mountain top, and Yahweh called Mosheh to the top of the mountain and Mosheh went up.
The people were full of fear but when they saw Mosheh climb the Mountain, some, in their curiosity, began to approach the mountain for a better view.
Yahweh said to Mosheh, “Go down and warn the people not to pass beyond their bounds to come and look on Yahweh, or many of them will lose their lives. The priests, the men who do approach Yahweh, even these must purify themselves, or Yahweh will break out against them.”
Mosheh answered Yahweh, “The people cannot come up the mountain of Sinai because you warned us yourself when you said, ‘Mark out the limits of the mountain and declare it sacred.’”
But Yahweh said, “Tell them again.”
Mosheh turned to walk down to the people and already he heard the cry and tumult of the people as they cried out. Fear and dread had come upon them in full measure as the peals of thunder and loud trumpets came to a crescendo, echoing from rock wall to granite face, bouncing from one side of the natural amphitheater to the other. The people had drawn back in fear of the Lord and Mosheh was grim with satisfaction. The God of the Mountain was no spectacle to entertain but a Holy God to be obeyed.
“Moseesss,” came the cry when they saw him again upon the Mountain, unharmed. “Moseesss, help us.” They were not scared, they were terrified.
As Mosheh came down to them, the leaders of the people came up to him. They knelt at his feet, surrounding him and speaking all at once.
“One at a time,” Mosheh commanded.
The sudden silence was broken by the eldest. “Mosheh, we cannot bear it.” He could not look Mosheh in the eye for his raw fear.
“This is too much for us,” another broke in.
“You must stop it,” a third demanded.
They threatened to overwhelm him again with their fear but Mosheh raised his rod and struck the rock beneath his feet, sending small chips flying in his anger.
He looked once again at the eldest of the leaders. “You, Othniel, you will speak and no one else. What is it you wish me to do?”
“Speak to Him yourself and then you can come to tell us His words,” Othniel said.
Mosheh looked around at them in silence for a moment. Then he spoke, his eyes ablaze. “Are you all in agreement?” He looked at each one in turn, capturing every eye, waiting for a nod or some sign.
“I will speak to Him on your behalf,” Mosheh said, “but He will decide this thing, whether it is good or not.”
Mosheh turned and climbed back to his place on the cliff side and then kept on going, higher and higher until he was lost in the clouds that covered the Mountain. He was gone for a very long time.
It was a good thing, this fear, Gabriel thought. It was respect. It was a healthy fear but most of all it was protection, much needed protection.
So, in the interests of that protection, Moses was told to construct the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting where he would meet with God alone and in relative safety. It was based on the plans of the Heavenly Tabernacle that Moses saw when he was on the Mountain of God. And it was there that Moses saw the first and the last wonder of all.
It was an amazing moment of grace, since Moses, too, was a son of Adam, an unwitting ally to the Evil One.
Yahweh said to Moses, “I will let all my splendor pass in front of you, and I will pronounce before you, the name ‘Yahweh.’ I have compassion on whom I will, and I show pity to whom I please. You cannot see my face,” he said, “for man cannot see me and live.”
Gabriel could see Mosheh tremble at the words but he remained silent.
And Yahweh said, “Here is a place beside me. You must stand on the rock, and when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me, but my face is not to be seen.”
This was Eden renewed. This was the throne room of the Almighty God. This was the Holy God in his compassion abiding the presence of sin in the person of Moses.
Moses had found favor with God, remembered Gabriel. He had faith and faith is a powerful thing. Faith can go a long way towards righteousness, especially when God was determined to overcome the power of sin in mankind at any cost. Still it was a moment of great Divine compassion for God to reveal even a glimpse of His glory to this frail human with the rebellious nature who had discovered faith.
When the moment came, Yahweh descended in the form of a cloud, and Mosheh stood with him there. And Mosheh called on the name of Yahweh.
For a long moment there was an awesome, divine silence. Then the storm broke all around him with bright flashes of lightning and fearful rolling thunder. Then Mosheh heard the most beautiful voice imaginable utter the most beautiful words possible.
Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness; for thousands he maintains his kindness, forgives faults, transgressions, sin.”
The yearning and love in those words seemed to envelop Mosheh with a warmth that brought tears to his eyes. But there was firmness in that Voice, too, as it continued to reveal the heart and character of God.
“Yet he lets nothing go unchecked, punishing the father’s fault in the sons and in the grandsons to the third and fourth generation.”
And Mosheh bowed down to the ground at once and worshiped.
It was dangerous. It was glorious.
Gabriel stood at attention at the entrance to the Tabernacle. His robe was a dazzling white, his feathers crisp and his wings extended, his sword clasped in both hands raised before his face, his eyes like two orbs of fire keeping eternal vigilance. No one dared even to approach the sacred tent but still Gabriel stood guard. Only Moses and sometimes Aaron, his brother, could enter here. Gabriel was reminded of the moment outside the Garden of Eden when he had stood guard over the Tree of Life.
Of course, there would have to be protection. Gabriel allowed a smile to tease at the corners of his eyes. He was not protecting God from the people but rather the people from God by forbidding them to enter. God had begun this relationship but the people still needed to respond with faith and love. And sin still needed to be dealt with.
So God would carefully regulate His Presence among the people. In His great compassion, the Creator of the vast universe would confine Himself in some degree to a small sacred room at the back of the Tabernacle that was appropriately called the Holy of Holies.
He was present but separate, a heavy curtain and many preparations and rituals keeping them apart. A constant reminder to the people both of the promise of His Presence and the problem of sin and rebellion, which separated Him from His people. It was to be a reminder, a prophecy, a witness to the people until the Maschiach came and broke down the barriers between God and man.
It was a wondrous reminder even if it was so often misunderstood. The rituals, the cleansings, the prohibitions to simply walk in where angels feared to tread, were a much needed circle of protection for the people so that they would not die. Even in Heaven, Gabriel knew, one did not just walk into the presence of the Majesty unannounced.
Without the proper preparations, the proper sacrifices, the proper attitude of heart, without the law, the ritual, the sacrifices there was no access to God. It may only be a pale reflection of how the Maschiach would truly deal with sin but the attitude of the heart was the same. To simply obey the letter of the law without the spirit of repentance and love towards God missed the point entirely.
Yes, thought Gabriel, the taste and smell of the Maschiach was all around him. He was the pale reflection in every law, every sacrifice, every rule and ritual. The entire way of life, the very fabric of this new society, the inconceivable possibility of living in the Presence of God, all cried out in anticipation for the Maschiach who was to come.
Gamaliel was still brooding over Benjamin’s stubborn belief that the Maschiach had already come. But what difference did it make? The Romans still ruled, in fact, they were about to destroy Yerushalayim in an attempt to subjugate them once and for all. Wasn’t the Maschiach supposed to protect them from their enemies?
“The ancient prophecies speak of a Maschiach that will one day come to liberate his people from their bondage and restore to them the glory of the reign of King David.” Gamaliel said. “You speak of a Maschiach who suffers and bleeds and dies.” His brow was a bush of knots. “Of what use is that to Isra´el under the tyranny of Rome?” His voice was rougher than he had intended.
Benjamin was silent.
“He was my father, and I loved him too,” he said after a moment, standing and laying a hand on his grandfather’s shoulder, his back to the others.
Gamaliel reached up to pat his hand and he saw Jubal avert his eyes. Perhaps he would remember that this family had also tasted the bite of the Roman whip. It might make a difference.
Benjamin turned to face his audience, standing at his grandfather’s side.
“As difficult as life has been for all our people under this political tyranny, there is a deeper and more subtle tyranny that exists in the hearts of all men, even the Jews, that moves us to hurt and enslave one another, forgetting that all men are brothers in one family under God.”
“All men are not brothers.” Jubal spoke up, his eyes ablaze. “The Maschiach will be a mighty warrior and a powerful king who will rid Isra´el of her enemies. That is the truth.”
“But the prophets also speak of a Maschiach who would suffer for his people,” Onkelos said quietly, taking the opposite view.
The interruptions were not normal but Gamaliel always had a relaxed view of things and it was handled with grace.
“It’s all right. It’s all right. Peace, my brothers,” Gamaliel said, and then he looked up at Benjamin asking him to continue.
“The Maschiach is a warrior-king,” Benjamin said, still standing at his grandfather’s side. “But he fought a different battle, a much more terrible battle than we can ever imagine, and he defeated a far more ancient and dangerous foe than the Roman armies.”
Gamaliel held his breath. He glanced up at Benjamin again and saw a moist film cover his eyes as Benjamin whispered into the quiet room. “You don’t understand. Only the heart of a warrior-king could have endured the terrible anguish he bore for us.”
Benjamin began to recite the ancient text and he lifted his head toward heaven, one hand raised in worship, and he closed his eyes in remembrance of the holy words. As he spoke, tears rolled down his face.
Like a sapling he grew up in front of us,
he began, his singsong voice lilting beautifully through the stylized poetry of the ancient prophecy,
like a root in arid ground.
Without beauty, without majesty we saw him,
no looks to attract our eyes;
a thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,
a man to make people screen their faces;
he was despised and we took no account of him.
And yet mine were the sufferings he bore,
mine the sorrows he carried.
The strength of conviction in his voice shook Gamaliel as Benjamin took the passage and applied it to his own life, his own heart, his own sorrow. It was a sorrow they both shared.
But we, we thought of him as someone punished,
struck by God, and brought low.
Yet he was pierced through for my faults, crushed for my sins.
Gamaliel reached up to grope for Benjamin’s hand upon his shoulder and squeeze it in his own.
On him lies the punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed.
That Gamaliel could understand. That is what he had seen in the life of Benjamin and it had affected him so deeply. He was a man at peace, a man healed of his sorrow.
Unlike myself. Gamaliel shifted in his seat.
We had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way,
and Yahweh burdened him with the sins of all of us.
Harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly,
He never opened his mouth,
Gamaliel could not help but think about this man, Yeshua bar Joseph from Nazaret. He had heard the stories of the quiet dignity that he had shown in the face of injustice and death.
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughterhouse,
like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers
never opening its mouth.
By force and by law he was taken;
would anyone plead his cause?
Gamaliel´s breath became shallower as the memories crowded in on him. By force and by law. That’s exactly how it happened. Oh, how he hated the memory of that night. He had felt so helpless when he finally found out what was going on.
Yes, he was torn away from the land of the living;
for our faults struck down in death.
They gave him a grave with the wicked, a tomb with the rich,
though he had done no wrong
and there was no perjury in his mouth.
He had been crucified with two common thieves. His good friend Joseph of Arimathaea, a wealthy man, had taken him down from the cross and gave up his own burial place for this good man.
That was exactly the problem. He had been a good man. That was why it had been so difficult to do anything about him, until the shameful actions of that night, during the Passover. During the Passover? He had forgotten that detail. Yeshua had been killed the day after Passover just before Shabbat. Am I really taking this seriously?
Benjamin continued the narrative:
Yahweh has been pleased to crush him with suffering.
If he offers his life in atonement,
he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life
and through him what Yahweh wishes will be done.
And what of the stories of his resurrection?
Gamaliel chuckled out loud and Benjamin stopped. Gamaliel quickly averted his eyes, looking at the floor and, after a moment, Benjamin continued.
His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content.
By his sufferings shall my servant justify many,
taking their faults on himself.
Hence I will grant whole nations for his tribute,
he shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while he was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.
Gamaliel wanted to talk about this claim of resurrection. That was the key to the entire question. If it were true, it would be the confirmation that Yeshua bar Joseph had indeed been the Maschiach. But who could believe such a thing? Benjamin did, but Gamaliel was still not sure. He would see if he could steer the discussion in that direction. In any event, this was far too important to stop now.
“And you believe, young Benjamin, that this suffering Maschiach is your Yeshua, the Rabbi from Nazaret?”
“Yes I do, grandfather, with all my heart.”
It was elegant and moving in its simplicity. A simple testimony of faith, but was faith enough? He would have to ponder this further.
At least it was out in the open now, heresy or not.
Shalamar slipped out into the night to check on the guards around the house. It had been quiet up until now – too quiet. He peered into the darkness of the streets, trying to catch sight of a movement or a shadow out of place.
He could not afford to send someone to spy on Akbar and report on his progress. His plan called for absolute surprise. He would have to wait. The attack would come soon enough.
The Temptations of the Cross by Bert A. Amsing
Copyright © 2012 by vanKregten Publishers. All rights reserved.
Footnotes and references included in original manuscript.
The Desert Warrior