Americans love camping. Well, many Americans do. The last time I was camping was in the mid-1980s. My youngest son and I went on a Cub Scout trip into the mountains of San Diego County. That night is famous for having the worst wind storm the county has ever experienced. The only reason the tent didn’t pull up stakes and fly away is that we slept (or tried to sleep) on the edges to hold it down. Although mine was a bad experience, many people have fun camping. Some cheat by calling spending a night in a recreational vehicle that has more comforts (and cost) than their “permanent” residence camping. Many others, though, enjoy spending time in a tent or out in the open under the stars.
Imagine, though, doing that for about forty years. The Israelites, on their way out of Egypt, did just that. They didn’t exactly enjoy camping. They complained frequently. Thousands died. And yet, in spite of the hardships, they celebrate camping every year. (In 2014, the Feast of Booths begins the evening of October 8.) Why celebrate forty years of wandering, suffering, and death?
Well, it wasn’t always that bad. In some ways this was more like camping in the RV. Well, maybe not that good, but consider what they had. Crossing the desert, they had air conditioning by day and heat (or at least a night light), by night. “Thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.” (Num 14:14) Who, in a desert crossing, would not want to be accompanied by clouds every day, and fire by night? They had an unlimited supply of food that apparently tasted like whatever fit their mood. (Ex 16:31; Num 11:8) They didn’t have to worry about clothing or shoes. “Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.” (Deut 8:4) Who hasn’t come back from a camping hike with swollen feet? The Israelites, apparently. Nor were they ever fully at a loss for water. The rabbis say that the rock that Moses struck on at least two occasions was one rock that followed them around. Apparently even the apostle Paul, himself a rabbi, subscribed to this theory. “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them.” (1 Cor 10:4)
OK, they did have some problems. They had snakes. (Num 21) There were other problems as well. “Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water?” (Deut 8:15) Well, no water except what came from the rock. They faced hostile armies, and each other. They spent months or years in one location, and then had to pack up at a moment’s notice, sometimes stopping for only a day. A whole generation died, just because of their disobedience and lack of trust. Life was not all a bed of roses. In the desert there probably weren’t any roses.
In some ways this was a time to be celebrated; in other ways not so much. And yet the Jewish people celebrated this time with what was to become the most joyous festival of the year. God wanted them to remember. He wanted them to remember the bad times, but also the good. They were to dwell for a week in an incomplete building, with the roof open to the weather, just to remember that their forefathers had dwelt in tents in the wilderness. Good times and bad times. You will celebrate.
The point is, God is with us in good times and bad times. We should celebrate the good times, even while in them. We should celebrate the bad times, especially after God brings us through them. The Feast of Booths is a celebration of God’s protection. Why shouldn’t it be the most joyous time of the year?