The Numbers:13 Project
The LORD was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the LORD’s displeasure was gone. Numbers 32:13
I think it is impossible to overestimate the impact of a traumatic experience on any individual or group. In my experience – with myself and with others – the injury that occurs when an assault takes place on body or mind has lasting and unpredictable after-effects.
I offer an example from my own life that I acknowledge is silly, but still present after more than 60 years. I was walking to school when I was in second grade. As I was about to enter the playground, I heard yelling and barking and the clinking of a metal collar and caught sight over my shoulder of a dog running in my direction. My instinct to flee took hold and I began to run, which encouraged the dog to run after me, nipping at my heels. I was terrified. Somehow, the situation was calmed without injury to me, the other students or the dog (which had probably slipped its leash).
But since that day and until I was almost 35, I would only buy shoes that had a substantial heel counter and back stay (those are the parts that cover the back of your foot) in case I ever got chased again by a nipping dog. I was cured only when I was actually bitten by a dog (on my leg), a little yappy thing that almost got booted across the room when I realized what it had done to me completely unprovoked. (No skin was broken, no lawsuit was filed, and the furry little animal was scooped up and whisked away, able to attack another unsuspecting stranger).
Still, whenever I hear the jingling of a dog’s collar, I am transported back to that morning when I was in second grade.
Still not a big fan of dogs, I am embarrassed by the effect of that long-ago incident on my life, and I feel foolish trotting it out when people ask if I mind that their dog sticks a snout between my legs.
A group can be just as traumatized as a person, even if the presenting experience did not happen directly to the current generation. The verse above presents every generation of Bible-believers, most especially Jews, with an awful choice. Either reject the God whose anger sentenced them to die in the desert or live in fear that the same thing could happen to us.
If you have spoken frankly with survivors of the Holocaust, you know that the choice was stark to them. How could they believe in a deity who would sentence them to death? And if they did believe, they dared not do anything to provoke. Three generations later, the Jews still struggle with these possibilities. While we go through life with expectations of “normalcy,” the symbolic jingling of the dog’s collar surfaces a latent historical memory. Most reject the notion of an all-powerful God of vengeance. Some tremble before a God who demands obedience to the details of the law.
We can’t rewrite the Bible, and despite our attempts otherwise we can’t rewrite history. The trauma, real or embellished, has made its mark on us. Its pain abates and retreats but pressing on the trigger point can bring it back in vivid remembrance.
Like a lot of men my age, I look back at relationships that I entered when I was learning my way through love. I hope I was always appropriate. I suspect I was not. All these years later, I imagine that a reminder of me may very well be the jingling of the dog collar to women long out of my life. Having had my heart broken more than once and my reluctance dismissed by aggressive social partners, it is not hard for me to believe that there is someone out there who carries a wound of my making. I hope that if I ever were confronted, I would have the common sense and decency to apologize for my mistakes and selfishness. I know that at this time in my life, I would not be stupid enough to be dismissive.
If someone can still remember being chased by a dog at age seven, then why wouldn’t a woman remember a man who forced himself on her? And if the trauma feels too shameful to announce, why would anyone expect the victim of an invasive crime to acquiesce to the attention that seeking justice would require? Even 3000 years after our ancestors were left to die in the wilderness, we are afraid to speak of the sense of betrayal. It takes a long time not to see victimhood as personal failure.
There are men in our world today whose desperation for power and admiration lead them to forestall any hope of repairing their past transgressions. They prefer to maintain their sense of rectitude by revisiting the past with their own revisionism, pressing on the trigger point, denying the encounter, denigrating the victim – almost always at the moment that courage overcomes embarrassment to bring the event to light.
Contrast that approach with what the Holy One models for us. No cover up, no denial, no avoiding responsibility. And even if an apology is out of character, the desire to restore our relationship even as we remember what caused a rupture is a good model for how to reconcile.