The Road Trip to Sheol

A Biblical Horror Story

Todd Brewer / 11.1.22

A road trip to paradise, planned years in advance, sets off with high hopes and unbridled joy. It all starts off so promising. Their first misfortune along the way is a bad case of food poisoning, which is easy enough to explain. Next time they’ll cook the birds more thoroughly. But then they miss the first exit off the highway. “It’s only a slight detour” they tell themselves. It wasn’t just a detour, of course, because the new itinerary would lead to their ruin at the hands of a well-known, and yet unseen, killer.

Israel has wandered into a real-life horror story.

In the hot, arid sun, people started to act … strangely … and in ways that play into the hands of the killer always on the edges of the periphery. Reliable friends start bickering. Complaints about navigation choices become heated, almost murderous. If only they had never left in the first place. There never seems to be enough food or water. At each misstep, death arrives to exact its retribution. The ground opens beneath them and swallows up hundreds whole. Poisonous snakes appear out of nowhere and more die. Panic and fear grip the camp as the travelers seem to be cursed by something or someone. Mysterious, incurable illnesses spread like wildfire. Those who try to flee only beckon the inevitable. Finally, everyone is killing each other. By journey’s end, nearly all who first set out for paradise are dead.

Though hundreds of thousands went into the wilderness, only two survived to tell the chilling tale.

What began as a hopeful excursion became a bloody purge by an invisible assailant whose name the travelers feared to utter. They knew precisely who pursued them, of course. No silly masks necessary. It was he-who-must-be-obeyed who led them into the desert to die, they said to themselves. He-who-must-be-obeyed who took his pound of flesh for any misdeed. Israel could not run from his presence, nor appease his wrath without bloodshed.

The book of Numbers begins and ends with a numbering of the people of Israel. 603,550 men of fighting age would go in, and 601,730 would depart. An entire generation slain by a God who punished their iniquity.

The Exodus has been made into many blockbuster Hollywood action films, starring Christian Bale, Charlton Heston, and Val Kilmer (yep), but the films always gloss over the 40 years spent dying in the wilderness. After such triumphs over the oppressive Egyptians, the death of that generation would make for a disappointing sequel. Having survived Pharaoh’s whips, they fall into the hands of a worse taskmaster. Had a movie version of the wilderness wanderings been made, horror might be the most appropriate genre.

Like many slasher films, God was not an indiscriminate killer. Those who bore his wrath all deserved to die for their sins. This moral rationale, however sound it might be, cannot easily bear the weight of the sheer scale of deaths piled up over the course of a generation. Or it cannot, at least, without undermining the perhaps more fundamental belief in the goodness of a God who is “slow to anger, abounding in love” (cf. Ex 34:6).

If God is not to be a wrathful monster, then the fault must not be God’s, but the people’s. Along these lines, Psalm 78 describes the people as “a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him” (v. 8). Time and time again, the nation rebelled against God in the wilderness, grieving God and putting him to the test (v. 40-41). Conversely, God is consistently portrayed as generous. He provided manna for food (v. 24) and water for drinking (v. 20), caring for the nation like a shepherd leads his flock (v. 52). God was not wrathful, but merciful, forgiving their iniquities and not outright destroying the people. “Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath” (v. 38). If there was a monster in the wilderness, it was the people whom God patiently suffered.

Unlike Psalm 78 and some of Paul’s contemporaries (with Wisdom of Solomon being the chief culprit), the apostle did not hide or gloss over the terror in the wilderness. He did not obscure the categories of divine action and regard God’s judgment to be some kind of gracious act. Yes, God did provide for the people throughout those forty years, but Paul does not confuse law for gospel. For their sin, the wilderness generation was, indeed, “destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor 10:10) — the very same ominous figure who killed all of the Egyptian firstborn (Ex 12:23). In the 2014 Moses movie, God’s and Kings, a distraught Pharaoh clutches his dead eldest son and asks Moses in anguish, “Is this your God? Killer of children? What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” The same God, it seems, who would lead his people into the desert and slaughter them. The Egyptians, by comparison, got off easy.

But the death of the wilderness generation prompts Paul to further reflection on who or what is to blame for the atrocity. Were the complaints of the Israelites just? Was God really the monster at the end of the book holding the knife?

For Paul, the disruptive tragedy of Israel’s history was not the exile, but the death of the wilderness generation. How could those God rescued from slavery so quickly lose his favor? The answer lies not in a change on the part of God or a capricious fickleness. Between Psalm 78’s contrast between God and the people, Paul insert the Law. Between the Exodus and the wilderness, both chronologically and geographically, stands Mount Sinai. It is only after the Law is given that the nation’s complaints have fatal consequences. After the Law, the latent resistance to God becomes exacerbated into rebellious acts punishable by death. It was not God who was the monster in the wilderness, but the holy Law itself in the hands of Sin. It was the Law that harassed the people, the Law that put them to death. As Moses says in the 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments, “If you will not live by the Law you will die by the Law.”

The conditional covenant of Sinai muddles the unconditional promise given to Abraham. Alongside God’s unfailing promise of blessing now stands the threat of death for disobedience, a tension that can be said to mark the entirety of the Old Testament from Sinai onwards.

When the Law came, sin and death arrived simultaneously (Rom 7:9). The letter kills, a ministry of death written on tablets of stone (2 Cor 3:6-7). Paul understands the Law in light of its immediate effects, specifically the near immediate death of the wilderness generation. More than a cautionary tale of unfaithfulness, the terrors in the desert provide the scriptural impetus for Paul’s contrast between the Law and faith. Life under the Law is a horror movie in every way imaginable. The mere possibility of judgment short-circuits the system, causing people to act … strangely … and in ways contrary to their intentions. The Law makes sinfulness worse, not better.

Weary and desperate for a home to call their own, the nation of Israel finally does reach the promised land. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Law could not overturn the promise.

The wilderness horror movie would sadly go on to have many sequels. With the same killer harassing new victims, the promise of God would always arrive in the nick of time to constrain his judgment. But the franchise would not continue indefinitely. For its grand finale, the promise would become a person, the very seed of Abraham. He would be stricken by the Law’s final judgment. Death defeated by death; the Law defeated by its own curse.

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One response to “The Road Trip to Sheol”

  1. Janell Downing says:

    What a wicked game we play…
    “the Law defeated by it’s own curse.”
    Thanks for this Todd

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