Matthew presents Jesus wandering in the wilderness, sent by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, who is introduced to the narrative as The Tempter. Traditionally, the Church has liturgically connected the temptation of Jesus to the temptation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) and, subsequently, to Paul’s discourse on Adam contrasted to the One Man (Romans 5). Sometimes the Church has paired the temptation with David slaying Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Thus the Church generally has understood the temptation of Jesus to be an embodiment of some other significant event, drawing it out of its historical bonds of unbelievable, legendary, indeed, mythical storytelling, into the cosmic realm of timeless applicability.
Even so, it appears Matthew is guiding his reader to pair the temptation of Jesus with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. In fact, if you read it this way, the wilderness wandering is transformed from being a tale of rebellion and grace–or a tale of mere rebellion and grace–to a full development of the struggle of the One Man against the satanic forces. Israel, indeed, is the One Man.
I am reminded of my first religion course, in which I enrolled as a wee lad of eighteen, fully knowledgeable in all things, offended that I had to convince a soulless institution of that fact. As a lifelong church goer, what in the bible could I possibly not know? A merciful professor was he, and he heaped mercy upon me and those like me with a quiz, a quiz given one week before the final exam. This quiz stood as the first and only mark going into the final exam. Of the ten questions submitted to us, a simple reading comprehension quiz, I was able to answer only one. Therefore, I was going into the final exam–pardon me–The Final Exam with a mark of ten percent, far below my expected A plus plus plus. Sufficiently chastised, I went to my dorm room, fetched my bible from its place on the floor behind the university-supplied bookshelf, tore off the cellophane wrapping, cracked open the spine, and read the sections our tender-hearted professor had assigned.
After the exam, which I managed to pass with ease, I stayed to speak with the professor, excited by the narratives which had engaged me for the first time in memory. “Boy,” I said. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”
I had in mind all their sins and rebellions which commenced almost immediately after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. “Yahweh is a mighty warrior!” they cried out in exultation. “He has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea!” They rejoiced and celebrated this victory given to them by the Lord with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, rejoicing, at least for the moment, before they turned to face their new freedom, this life in the visible presence of a personal and fiery God.
“Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh back in Egypt, where we sat beside meat pots, and we ate bread to our fill!” This is how they remembered the Iron Furnace: meat pots and bread, all the comforts of home, not the cruel slave drivers forcing them to make bricks without straw.
If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God.'”
Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, failing to trust God. But are they condemned? The One Man received bread from heaven. “What is it?” they called it, the substance which was like a wafer made with honey, a down payment on the milk and honey they were about to inherit.
But not without more temptation. God called Moses up to the mountaintop to talk about this arrangement of God dwelling in his destructive glory in the very midst of the people, that is, they talked of building a protective tabernacle to shelter the Israelites, but of such a kind that God might be there in plain view. Well, an arrangement like that is going to take some time to hammer out, forty days, in fact, a type of the forty days of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The Israelites became terribly impatient and built for themselves an idol. They threw off all inhibition and threw a party for this golden calf.
This one stung God. He told Moses that he wasn’t going to go with them. Moses, of course, interceded, begging God to come with them or else they would all die, and then what would the nations say?
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the pinnacle of this Temple. “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, putting their God to the test with this bacchanal to an idol they made with their own hands, and a series of other tests, known as the Bronze Serpent, the Rebellion of Korah, the Complaining at Meribah, the Twelve Spies, and many more. Even Moses managed to test his God so that he earned himself a ban from entering the Promised Land. But are they condemned? God listened to Moses, and after the tabernacle is constructed, he descended from his heights to dwell in the midst of the One Man, fully revealed in his glory, leading them personally to their Promised Land.
But not without more temptation. On the cusp of inheriting the Promised Land, the Moabite women came calling. They must have been absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, sweet as honey, nice as pie. All the Israelites had to do to eat their peaches was to bow down to their gods. Without hesitation, they did eat and they did bow the knee to the Moabite gods. Twenty-four thousand Israelites were struck with plague and died.
All these nations and all their glory I will give to you if you throw yourself down and worship me. “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”
Surely the Israelites have fallen to temptation here, bowing the knee to the gods of the nations. But are they condemned? The One Man enters the Promised Land, and the process of inheritance begins in full force, with Yahweh the mighty warrior picking up where he left off at the Red Sea.
How disappointing to The Tempter! All that evidence, and the witness of heaven and earth to the red-handed sinners, but no condemnation! How can this be?
“Boy,” I said to my professor. “Those Israelites really did deserve judgment, didn’t they?”
He looked at me through little round glasses, thick-lensed, which caught the fluorescent classroom lighting in such a way that his eyes always looked like they were laughing, but his countenance was otherwise stern, projecting dour and trustworthy wisdom.
“David,” he said. “The Israelites paint a picture of your heart. You are the Israelites. The Israelites are you.”
I slumped into my chair. My life was changed.
In this way I see the world and everything that goes on in it.
In the wilderness with Jesus is in the wilderness with the Israelites, distilled to forty days for intensity: the stakes are not a little Ancient Near Eastern nobody people with a bizarre blood cult, the stakes are all the nations of the world.