In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today we resume our survey of the Old Testament. In terms of the plot, we left off with Israel at Sinai, receiving the covenant Law through Moses. This brought us through the second half of Exodus and the book of Leviticus. This brings us to Numbers with the Israelites getting ready to break camp and head towards the promised land of Canaan. In the early part of Numbers, we get several chapters telling us about a census (a counting) of all the people of Israel; we get passages about the Levites, the priestly class, and we get some more passages about holiness. And we pick up the story at Numbers 11.
When I read this passage, it’s hard not to notice the similarities with the passage in Egypt where manna and quail were first introduced. In Exodus 16, we read:
The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
And in our passage today, Numbers 11, we read:
4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
So once again, we have the Israelites complaining, wishing they were back in Egypt. Now we’ve talked about this before, but let’s put this into perspective. Back in Egypt, the Israelites were slaves. For most of us, we can’t even imagine what this kind of life might have looked like. But Egypt was what they knew. They had grown up in their way of living, grown up being told what to do and where to go, grown up being beaten and abused, grown up as less-than-people. It may not have been pleasant – indeed, it was probably horrible – but it was what they knew.
Still, in their situation, they held on to the ancient memory that they were the chosen people of God. They were the children of Abraham, a people blessed to be a blessing. And they were delivered out of starvation – from famine – and rescued into the land of Egypt. And they were elated when they heard of this man Moses who claimed to be sent from God and who confronted Pharaoh with the words, “Let my people go.” And they were flabbergasted when they saw the wonders of God, of rivers turned to blood, of plagues of frogs and locusts, of darkness. And they were both horrified and in awe when all of the firstborn of their oppressors died.
And when they were led by Moses out of Egypt, and led through the Red Sea, with all of their pursuers drowning in the sea behind them, they knew that they were being led by God, YHWH, Himself. And when they were running out of food and water and God gave them manna and quail and water from the rock, they knew that God would provide for them. And they knew that the Law from God was the covenant of God that would make them a people set apart. A people for His purposes and according to His promises.
But it was all so hard.
This is where the people kept floundering over and over, isn’t it? They thought it would all be easier, they thought it would all happen sooner, they thought it would be comfortable. God, can’t you just make it all happen? Why bother with all this forming business? Why bother with all this becoming?
I can kind of relate to the Israelite’s complaining – on a whole host of levels. But whenever I travel, I can intimately relate. Initially, you’re enamoured with the newness of everything. You love meeting new people, visiting new places, and trying new food. But pretty soon, you miss what you had back at home. And, inevitably, as soon as you return home, you wish you were traveling again.
What is it about human beings that we’re never quite happy with what we have – we always want something else. Why is it that we’re always longing for “the good old days?” Why were the Israelites, in the very presence of God Himself, not happy with how He provided for them, exactly what they needed?
I think, especially when you take into account Moses’ part in the story (the bit with the seventy elders), that is what the story is really about.
What I mean is this: The story is not really about complaining. Of course the people are complaining, and of course it’s stupid and annoying. But I think maybe what’s going on is that the people don’t really trust that God is giving them exactly what they need to become, or be made into, the people that God wants them to be.
He has brought them out of the place where they were, brought them to the place where He wanted them to be, and given them everything they need to become what they were meant to be. All they have to do is receive what God has given, and go where God is leading. And it’s noteworthy that it’s precisely because this wasn’t enough for the people that none of this generation of people find their way into the promised land.
So What Now…?
I tend to think that most people aren’t happy. I think that most people aren’t satisfied or content. What I mean is that, in my personal and limited experience, most people aren’t in a place in their lives where they want nothing else. We always want something else and we always want something more.
Now this is normal, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, I think this is (in truth – in the deepest sense) because we live in a fallen and sinful world and we all know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. In the deepest parts of our beings, we are all trying to find our way back to God – back to the life that God had intended for us. And I think that, when we accept and acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, most of us, in some way, understand this. And most of us understand that Jesus Christ is the only way that we can escape this – the only way that we can find true life and true happiness.
But I also think that many of us, in this journey of faith and redemption, think it should be easier. And we have a hard time believing that God has us just where He wants us to be. Or that God gives us just what we need. We think that it should be more pleasant and more comfortable. We find ourselves asking God, “Why is it so hard?” Or, “Why is it taking so long?” Or, “Why is it so boring?”
Why do we have to read the bible every day; why do we have to pray about everything; why do we have to go to church every Sunday; and why do I have to keep hanging out with these ridiculous people all the time?
Shouldn’t it all just be easier?
I don’t know why your journey in Christ has taken you where it has. I don’t know why God has brought us here. I don’t know why we can’t just get on a train and fall asleep until we arrive. But instead, it’s all blisters and callouses, the scenery never changes, there’s sweat and body odour, and it feels like there’s nothing but manna and quail.
What I do believe is that we are exactly where God wants us to be. I do believe that we are here, in this place and in this time, because of the grace of God. And I do believe and trust that God has given us, and will continue to provide us with, everything we need to become exactly the people that God wants us to be.
So let us continue to walk in faith.