What’s Jesus Doing In the Wilderness?

1:12-13 Then the Spirit sent him out at once into the desert, and there he remained for forty days while Satan tempted him. During this time no one was with him but wild animals, and only the angels were there to care for him.”

“Forty days,” of course, is one of those phrases that sounds more specific than it is. “Somewhere between a couple weeks and a couple months,” then. But this is more or less parallel to forty years of Exodus; Jesus has just been given title to the Promised Land, but he needs to spend some time wandering in the wilderness on the way. Since the Jews under Moses got uppity, kvetched and came close to mutiny, Jesus gets tempted by Satan.

Since Jesus has just been awarded a potential death sentence, he’s got very practical reasons for leaving civilization awhile. We don’t know how conspicuous his anointing was. There’s the example in 2 Kings 9: “Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him: ‘Gird up your loins, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Tamoth-gilead. And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, and go in and bid him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. Then take the flask of oil, and pour it on his head, and say: “Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.” Then open the door and flee; do not tarry.’ ” This happens; Jehu then dashes out to massacre the former king and his family and all available supporters. Although Jehu’s situation and response were quite different, Jesus too could have been anointed secretly, even in private.

There is no specific list of temptations in this (probably) first gospel. Perhaps Jesus recounted the experience in the course of his ethical teachings, to be eventually incorporated into “Q”, and hence into Matthew and Luke. Since he is not shown explicitly fasting here, but like Moses depending on God for his sustenance, this would fit with what he says in Matthew, to not be concerned about what we’ll have to eat, drink, or wear, and how.

Perhaps not. There are plenty of literary and theological explications, of why Satan would choose these particular temptations; we can’t assume however that they are any more authentic than the appropriate speeches that historians customarily composed for prominent figures. Napoleon’s General Cambrone was asked to surrender at Waterloo, for example, and was quoted as saying, “The Old Guard dies but never surrenders,” while according to Hemingway he answered simply, “Merde!” (Known at “le mot de Cambrone” among polite Frenchmen of Hemingway’s day.)

John Yoder in _The Politics of Jesus_ said: “All the options laid before Jesus by the tempter are ways of being king.” But Yoder was assuming that Jesus shared in God’s omnipotence, and could feed multitudes as often as and whenever he chose. Becoming a wholesale dispensor of manna would have brought Jesus a following, but not one of much use against Roman soldiers. It would put him into an awkward intellectual position: preaching “Food, drink, and clothing are of little importance,” to an audience hanging around waiting to be fed. To a modern Christian, it suggests some stereotypical secular charity, meeting people’s physical needs while offering nothing whatsoever for their presumed spiritual hungers. It makes a nice religious-sounding criticism of the so-called “Welfare State” ideal (which was certainly more Christian than the current system of malign neglect.) Mainly, it does not seem to have been what God ordered.

The other two alternatives seem like opposites. One would have involved a foolhardy form of “trust,” going immediately to the Temple in Jerusalem to claim his kingship directly (“cast himself down from the top”), trusting God to save him from the consequences. But this was not what Jesus was led to do. That would have been acting on the idea of “Trust in God”–but without consulting God about it, which would have constituted “testing God” rather than acknowledging God as a living reality with ideas of his own.

The other would have been to accept Satan’s help. This could mean any of several things.

One, to “work within the system” by seeking Roman approval. Could the Romans have accepted a new client king? Probably yes; the Herodians were not Jewish, which made their rule illegitimate in many people’s eyes. The trouble was, there was an inherent conflict between Roman interests and those of the local population. And the Roman commercial economy was incompatible with the demands of the Torah. So “working with” both God and Caesar was out of the question.

Two, to use “Satan’s methods.” It may not technically violate the Golden Rule for warriors to kill each another, both sides willing to fight–but it is not love by any plausible definition. God’s rule allows for war, even uses war, but can’t be based on war. Previous rulers of Israel had swords and soldiers; David had been “a man of blood,” an effective one at that. But while David would ask the Lord, “Should I go up?” to a fight, his successors would count the swords on either side and make their own decisions. Dependence on military force leads inexorably towards worship of military force.

Three, then, would be any effort to rule by “one’s own power”–not just by military calculation, but by putting faith in any use of personal cunning or wisdom (of which Jesus had an abundance!)

Jesus could not rule by a heedless “faith” in God, nor by faith in his personal powers, nor by any “balance” between the two. He would need to use all the powers he’d been given and to also depend utterly upon God; only God could make this either possible or worthwhile.


12 responses

  1. Thanks,Forrest for this systematic and thorough commentary on the text.I would only suggest that 40 is a generic term used repeatedly through the Bible to express a full whatever is being discussed. Then we have 400 years in Egypt. Numbers in general did not mean the same thing to them as to us– that’s for sure.Then I would take issue about “God’s rule ….”I think not– only if you mean the primitive conceptions of God on the O.T. Jesus in effect abolished that concept and defined God’s rule as love. So God can allow war only if it can be shown that love is the guiding motive. Not likely.

  2. Jesus did not exactly “abolish the primitive conceptions of God in the O.T.” but rather put more emphasis on the conception of God as loving Father which pious Jews had always found there.God ruled the earth then, and does now, even though people suffer and inflict considerable harm. War, particularly in its modern form, is a great evil, but God continues to act within the same universe where it exists.I can, and do, renounce the notion that any modern war is “necessary” or capable of “defending” anyone or anything. I deny and condemn the use of physical violence to achieve any imagined human good. But people keep on making war. And I’ll be downtown with my signs and fellow Quakers tomorrow morning, doing what I’ve been given to do towards discouraging that. If God’s rule were fully manifest, yes, war would be over forever. Meanwhile, “even the hairs on our heads are numbered.” We see widespread death; God sees playground mishaps. A skinned knee hurts; but it isn’t permanent.Once you see your own soul, you know you’re as immortal now as you ever will be. It may not keep you altogether from fear of death, but you know you don’t need to go somewhere else for eternal life. Likewise, you don’t need to eliminate evil from this world to see God’s rule over it.

  3. Hi Forrest,when I think of the three temptations the thing they have in common (to me) is that they would have helped Jesus accomplish the mission of King (as you mentioned) … caring for people’s material needs, convincing everyone that he was the chosen one by having them see the wngels save him, being given earthly rule by Satan without having to lift a finger. All these things would allow him to improve life on earth.Since he refused, it seems his mission wasn’t that.

  4. I just thought, he may not have chosen those things he was offered in the desert, but he must have wanted to … otherwise they wouldn’t have bee true “temptations”.

  5. Thanks, this gave me some things to think about!One,these temptations would have helped Jesus be “successful” in his role as a king. They would not have improved “life on Earth,” however.They would not have been “temptations” unless they appeared to be something desirable. Both the temptatins and Jesus’ answers are based on particular understandings of passages in the Hebrew Bible. So Jesus is not saying that “Life on earth is unworthy.” He simply sees through the temptations to the actual result. It would not appeal to most people to gain earthly power by worshipping Satan. So when people worship Satan to gain earthly power, they typically imagine they are doing something else. Jesus sees through to the truth of the matter, and for him these temptations then go away.But what you started me thinking about: What is Satan doing there?–aside from Jesus needing to be “tested” in the wilderness?Job, for example. Satan is allowed to bother him because of a suspicion that Job just loves God for the comfortable life he’s enjoying. Whose suspicion? Maybe his less successful neighbors’, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the crucial suspicion was that in the mind of Job himself.As the former (and still apparent) ruler of this world, it makes narrative sense for Satan to show up and try to sabotage his successor. But that’s a personification of something I’d rather consider impersonal (though it does act to perpetuate itself; else it would not persist.)What does Jesus need with an Accuser, attempting to deceive him as to how to carry out his task?

  6. Crystal, you wrote: “All these things would allow him to improve life on earth.Since he refused, it seems his mission wasn’t that.”He most certainly did improve life on earth. He simply refused to do it using Satan’s methods.

  7. You guys are right … I was thinking that Jesus might have been tempted to help people in a direct way – like turning stones to bread, to feed the starving. But instead he chose to help them in another way … inspiring them maybe to help feed each other. Does it make any sense to see Stan’s temptations as a kind of a qwuick-fix for problems that Jesus might have wanted to solve?

  8. My comments are mostly on a separate posting.One thing strikes me, But Yoder was assuming that Jesus shared in God’s omnipotence. I rather think not actually. Only in John do I see an omnipotent Jesus. In the synoptics I see a wonder worker but a human one. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. I tend to see the signs and wonders as a kind of borrowing against future earnings rather than a full omnipotence.

  9. David, doesn’t Jesus seem omnipotent when he knows things he shouldn’t if he was only human … like knowing that he would be betrayed by Judas, that he would die in Jerusalem, that the woman at the well had so many husbands, etc ?

  10. Being a wonder worker and being omnipotent are not the same thing. Jesus performs acts we ordinary folks cannot normally do — though he promised that greater things than these we will do also — so that is something to contemplate. The issue is whetehr Jesus has full access to the divine power/knowledge — and I’m saying that was in some way hidden in him. Note even the Son knows the time of his return — only the Father.My other point is that each gospel presents an interpretation of Jesus. The gosple of John does seem to show us an omnipotent Jesus — the woman at the well is for John. Matthew Mark and Luke get there — but the fullness of divinity seems muted there.

  11. Yoder is assuming that all the gospels are about the same guy, and that this Jesus is God in the literal-sounding language that has become customary among most Christians.I too want to consider this matter at greater length elsewhere, probably another post.

  12. I approve of harmonization at the level of theology, not necessarily at the level of hermeneutics. And yes, I realize that is being too rigidly compartmentalizing. That is my gift my burden and my sin.It may be helpful for us each at some point make a posting on our individual beliefs about what scripture is (and its authority/role) and another of our christologies. I think those two issues are worming their way into how we read this text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s