The first ten chapters of Numbers present a placid picture of Israel in the wilderness under the guidance of Yahweh. After going off the rails in the golden calf incident, the nation settled down and built the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40), conducted a census (Numbers 1), organized their camp around the tabernacle (chapter 2), performed duties relative to the tabernacle (chapters 3-4), and observed the Passover (chapter 9). Their obedience is tirelessly noted by Moses (1:54, 2:34, 3:51, 4:49, 5:4, 8:3, 20, 9:19, 23, 10:13). The people were responsive to God. Everything was as it should be. Hope was overflowing.
Trouble begins in chapter 11, where we’re told, The people complained about their hardships (v. 1). Israel had known their share of difficulties in Egypt and although God was sustaining them in the wilderness, life was no picnic there either. They had been on the road for a little over 13 months. While it’s true they hadn’t been traveling all that time (they had spent almost a year at Mt. Sinai – Exodus 19:1; Numbers 10:11-12), nonetheless, they were in transit. Furthermore, they had been eating manna every day for over a year. They would have had only limited access to other foods, so the manna was the staple of their diet. Before we judge them too harshly, we need to understand and acknowledge they were living through some challenging times.
But their hardship didn’t justify complaining against God.
To be clear, complaining isn’t someone acknowledging the difficult realities of a situation. Jesus did this when He told His disciples, My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Matthew 26:38). Complaining is talking about those realities in such a way that it displays a lack of faith in God. It produces bitterness in the believer and is corrosive to those around him. This is what Israel was engaged in.
Hardships test our faith in God and His goodness. Perhaps Israel was like some disciples today who think that coming to Christ means no more difficulties. (Wherever they got this idea, it wasn’t from Jesus, who unhesitatingly told His disciples they would experience hardship precisely because they were followers of Him – John 15:18-21 and more). Whatever their reason, just three days after they had left Mt. Sinai, Israel began airing their grievances against Yahweh.
God was not pleased because their complaining represented a lack of trust in Him. You would think that ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from above, water from a rock and all of the other things He had done would have been sufficient for them to understand that He would take care of them. But then again, haven’t all of us done the same thing in the midst of our numerous blessings?
God’s response was fire. In His mercy, it was limited to the fringes of the camp. The people cried out to Moses, who prayed for them and then the fire stopped (v. 2). Lesson learned, right?
Or maybe not. Apparently not long after this, the “rabble” began to complain. This is a reference to the non-Jewish people who had left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38). They hadn’t experienced all that Israel had. They didn’t know the story like Israel did. They began complaining and it wasn’t long before Israel joined in.
They told God that having a variety of food while living in slavery was preferable to freedom and hope in the midst of hardship! The Israelites engaged in revisionist thinking in regard to their history, they romanticized their past, they spoke favorably of Egypt, so God gave all the meat they could eat with a side dish of plague to help them remember what Egypt was really like.
It’s interesting that God initially gave the manna to Israel in response to their grumbling about starving to death. After about a year, they complained to God about what they had begged Him for. Moses will later tell the next generation of Israelites that their parents were given the manna to teach them to trust in Him (Deuteronomy 8:3). They didn’t learn the lesson. Instead, they became bored with their blessings, blamed God and died in the wilderness.
Yes, yes, yes! We suppose all of this history means something to someone, but it’s so dry and irrelevant. (Yawn!) You see, what we really need are messages that apply to our lives today . . .
Do you have anything like that you can share with us?