We’re told that Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, but what exactly happened there with Jesus? We have a tendency to read the gospels as history, but no one else was there to take notes, and Jesus wasn’t using his I-phone, taking selfies with the devil in the desert. He may have spoken of this experience to some of his disciples, but the three gospel accounts are quite different from each other. Luke gives us three quotations from the Book of Deuteronomy, and this is the key: though we may not be able to reconstruct much of the history of what took place, we can learn something from the geography of the Book of Deuteronomy. The maps at the end of our Bibles can be helpful.
The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a long set of instructions on the Law, the Torah, given to the People of Israel in the Land of Moab on the far side of the Jordan River, on the East Bank (as opposed to the West Bank, about which we hear so much in the news). This is as close as Moses got to the Promised Land, and there he was buried. We’re almost certain that this is also the area in which John the Baptist was baptizing, and where Jesus would have been baptized by John. Like Joshua, whose name he bears (Jehoshua = Jeshua = Jeshu = Jesous = Jesus), he would have crossed the Jordan into the land of Israel, but first he went to spend 40 days in the wilderness of Moab.
What actually happened to Moses in the desert? Moses was tested by God; he failed the test, and so he never entered the Promised Land. Jesus was tested by Satan, and he overcame Satan with the Word of God – with words from the Book of Deuteronomy! His first citation is from chapter 8 verse 3: “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew adds, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”). If we look at the verse immediately before this, at verse 2, we find these words: “Remember the long way the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart…” Our translations usually speak of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, but the Greek word (pierazomai) could also be translated as “tested,” which connects him with the testing of Moses and the People of Israel to us.
Lent is our 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus, our time of testing, to know what is in our heart. This is something we don’t easily know. Jeremiah tells us, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? I the LORD test the mind and search the heart…” (17:9-10). During this sacred season, with prayer and fasting, we can ask God not only to reveal what is in our hearts but to transform them to be more like Jesus’ heart, Jesus the Word that is already so near to, on our lips and in our hearts (Romans 10:8).