Ask most Christians how it is that Israel ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years between Egypt and Canaan, and you're likely to hear about the chosen nation's disobedience. You're likely to hear about their grumbling. You're likely to hear about their demands.
But this would be only part of the story.
I'm not sure how it is that we came to have only this narrative, except that we tend to like to reduce things to our own volition. That is, if the Israelites were wandering because they were disobedient, then the simple answer for us is to not be disobedient. If they wandered because of their grumbling, simply do not grumble. If it took them 40 years because of their demands, well, don't make demands.
The Exodus narrative, however, is quite different. From the very moment that Israel stepped out of Egypt, we're told, God took them the long way. Not straight through, but kind of around. Not a few days' journey (or a few weeks' journey), but the long and winding road. He did this before they had been disobedient. He did this before they had grumbled. He did this before they had made a single demand. And why?
Because straight through, they would have encountered battle almost right away.
They would have run straight into enemy territory, and they would have had to fight. If the people are ready to go back to slavery just because they are hungry, imagine how quickly they'd run 'home' to Egypt when they are assaulted. If they're ready to turn back because they're out of water, imagine how quickly they'd turn when the arrows started to fly. If they're more than willing to submit themselves to an oppressive Egyptian regime just because there's a sea ahead of them, imagine how good Egypt looks when there's another enemy approaching. Egypt may have whipped them, beaten them, enslaved them, and made life hard, but at least they were living! This people is about to kill them! Egypt's looking pretty good.
That, God said, is why they had to take the long way. Yes, it was harder. Yes, it was demanding in its own right. But it was safer. And on the long road, they had more time to get to know their God, to learn to listen to and trust Him, to truly become His people not only because He rescued them, but because He guided them, protected them, provided for them, and yes, loved them.
We are so quick to blame Israel, and we are so quick to blame ourselves. We want to put the onus on the people of God because disobedience is something we think we can fix. Grumbling is something we think we can fix. Demanding is something we think we can fix. We don't understand this long road, so we keep looking for ways to cut back to the shorter path. We keep looking for ways to go straight through. We keep looking to figure out how to get from point A to point B without all this wandering.
And yes, Israel made it worse by their response to the whole deal, but let's not fool ourselves: they were taking the long way from the moment they stepped foot out of Egypt. And so, too, do we.
It's not because God loves to have us wandering. It's not because He's slow in bringing us to the Promised Land. It's not because He's testing us somehow, seeing how much we'll put up with or how long it will take us to want to turn back. No. It's because He knows what lies ahead, and He understands that danger lies in wait. So He takes us along the detour to protect our fragile faith. He takes us the long way so we won't turn back. He leads us on the winding road home, and along the way, just a little taste of honey to keep us hungry.
And here, we come to know our God. We learn to listen to Him and trust Him, to truly become His people. Not only because He's rescued us, but because He guides us, protects us, provides for us, and yes, even loves us.