Wild AnimalsBy Nathan Mates
As Jesus was baptized, God sent the Holy Spirit to him. Immediately after that confirmation of Jesus's appointed role and as the Son of God, Jesus was tempted. The gospel of Mark says it succinctly in just four verse: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him." [Mark 1:9-13]
While the corresponding accounts of the same incident in Matthew [3:13 - 4:11] and Luke [3:21-22, 4:1-13] are considerably longer, Mark notes a detail not present in the other two accounts: the wild animals. It is interesting to note that God had mentioned the wild animals in the promised land, centuries before, to Moses: "The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But the LORD your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed." [Deuteronomy 7:22-23]
A similar passage in Exodus, earlier, notes the same idea in greater detail: "I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land." [Exodus 23:27-30]
Given all of the subsequent problems that the Israelites had with the Philistines in the promised land-- wars, intermarriage, picking up sinful practices from them, and more-- it's interesting to see that God saw that as the better alternative. It is true that the Israelites, as they displaced the locals, received possessions in good condition: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you--a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant--then when you eat and are satisfied," [Deuteronomy 6:10-11]
Even so, compared to those cities for free, the harsh treatment by invading armies in Judges, and the Assyrian exile of Israel followed by the Babylonian exile of Judah, dealing with packs of wild animals seems like a better alternative. One possibility is that the presence of sinful non-Israelites would serve as a reminder to the Israelites to be holy-- as God says to do "I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy." [Leviticus 11:45] However, I don't believe that is the main motivation.
In thinking over this situation some more, the thought struck me that this could be an extended metaphor for the believer's life. Please note this is still somewhat conjecture, and so don't take anything not backed up with scripture as the truth in any way.
The apostle Paul, in the letter to the Romans notes that even as a believer, we still have sin living within us: "Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me." [Romans 7:20-21]
In all of our lives as Christians, we can point to sins we've committed since salvation. We must continually put those desires of our sinful nature to death-- the end result of that is to be transformed more and more into God's likeness. [2 Corinthians 3:18]
Starting with a foothold of belief in Jesus and saving grace from God, we work on taking over all of our lives for God. Similarly, the Israelites started with a foothold in their promised land-- crossing the Jordan river and conquering Jericho [Joshua 4-6].
God could remove every sin from our body as we become Christians, but he chooses not to. Similarly, God could have rid the land of all Philistines, but he didn't. God required the Israelites to depend on him and his strength-- not theirs-- to conquer the land. As Christians, we can't conquer our own flesh on our own, but we require God's strength to do all things. [Philippians 4:13]
Given that in this analogy that sin compares to the evil Philistines, what does the wild animals represent? To me, this is where the analogy is weaker-- as an alternative to God and evil, I'd say that the wild animals represent the natural fleshly desires and strengths. While this is similar to the active evil that seeks to destroy and corrupt our selves, the natural inclinations toward laziness and apathy oppose God in a different way.
With the Philistines present in the land, the Israelites got intact cities, wells, and more to use as they kicked them out-- just as gifts used to destroy (music, intellect, speaking, etc) can be sanctified and put back to use. Looking at Paul once again, he first misused his gifts of speaking, leadership, and "knowledge" of the Bible to oppose the church. [Acts 8:1-3] Once saved, Paul began evangelizing the opposite way: for God.
If active sin was suppressed in our lives as Christians, but large parts of our lives were allowed to be hit by apathy and boredom (wild animals in this analogy), then it *could* be harder to take back large portions of our lives. If our lives were overgrown with weeds, we'd be less effective for God.
Jesus could, and did, face off wild animals on his own-- and as a perfect, sinless creation, he could not have sinful temptations to drive out. But, apathy and walking away from his calling was a possible temptation for him-- he could have sat back with godly powers in a comfortable life. Instead, Jesus's life headed for the cross, proving he definitely conquered apathy.
In our lives, we are directly opposed, not just by apathy, but by Satan. [2 Corinthians 2:10-11] We have territory to conquer: areas of our life not fully surrendered to God, habitual sins, and more. Yet Jesus has gone before us so that we can rely on him and hopefully avoid the exile the Israelites went through because they did not fully listen to God's commands to wipe out the sin near them.