This is the second installment of a series of articles focusing upon the book of Numbers—a must-read for those waiting to enter the Promised Land.1—Editor’s note.
Not again!” Young Michal turned around to see who had uttered these words so passionately. She had been busy since early morning. It was Friday and tomorrow it would not be there. It was whitish and sweet like cake with honey. Michal loved it—but then she had not known much else. When it had first been found around the camp somebody had wondered “manna”?—“what is it?”—and that had become its name. Michal liked manna, and mother had become quite the expert in preparing it in different ways. At times she would grind it into some type of flour; on other days she would boil it in a pot or bake it into a cake. Nobody had seen manna grow—every morning it was just there, like the few dew drops on the forlorn grass shoots.
“I am sick and tired of this sweet, soft nothing,” Michal heard the female voice speak again. “I wish I could eat something else.” “Oh, do you remember the wonderful fish dish with onions and garlic that your aunt used to make for us?” another voice said wistfully. “Yes, and those melons—weren’t they just delicious? Egypt, well, those were the good ol’ days.”
There was silence as people bent down and picked up more manna for the Sabbath. Michal searched to link the voices to faces—but was unable to do so. She loved manna and sneaked a handful of the sweet stuff into her mouth. It tasted like—well—more. Yes, it was sweet, and yes, it had a unique texture. But when Michal closed her eyes while eating, she could smell and taste a different land, with green pastures and soft winds rippling through the treetops. She thought she could hear the noise of lazy waves lapping on a shore—it just sounded like freedom.2
Complaining seems to be part and parcel of human nature. “Not again!” my Hebrew students would exclaim when I reminded them of their weekly quiz. “Not again!” we shout when we wrestle with the “why.” Not again! is us—you and I—shaking our heads (and at times our fists) at God.
Not again! became a trademark of Israel’s wilderness experience. Numbers recounts numerous occasions someone complained about something. In Numbers 11:1 the people complain—about something. Scripture is not clear, but in response God sends fire that consumes some on the outskirts of the camp. In typical fashion Israel cries out to Moses, who in turn intercedes before the Lord on their behalf, and the fire subsides (verse 2). Only one verse into chapter 11 the mixed multitude (or “rabble,” as verse 4 states) decide that they have had it with manna—and crave the culinary riches of Egypt: Who will give us meat—and fish, and cucumbers, and melons, and leeks, and onions, and garlic? (cf. verse 5).
The list could go on and on. A people in the wilderness, unhappy about food, water, leadership, God’s direction, and—ultimately—the future. A people who had heard the voice from the mountain, who had marched through the waters, who had seen God’s mighty acts—and yet this all didn’t seem to matter when it came to the nitty-gritty of daily life. Their God seemed to be far removed. Their trust was underdeveloped. Their commitment was vacillating. Somehow that sounds familiar. We too struggle with the reality of God in the nitty-gritty of daily life. We too are quick to shout and scream—and murmur—when we feel that life is not fair. We too, at times, raise our fists toward heaven and shout “Why?” completely forgetting that God sheds more tears about our pain than we can ever produce.
The book of Numbers has a very unique structure, pivoting around the two generations of Israel—old and new. Interestingly, a quick scan of the first 10 chapters of Numbers results in many references to faithful compliance: God tells Moses (and, by extension, Israel) to count all the men aged 20 and above—check (1:54). God organizes their living space and the camp arrangement—check (2:34). When God wants a census of the Levites, Moses and the people comply (3:16). The firstborns are to be numbered and redeemed—check (3:42). When the Levites need to be formally ordained for their special ministry, Moses and the people follow through (8:20). Every time there is a fulfillment formula that sounds something like this: “And X did Y according to the word of the Lord.” God speaks—Moses and the people comply. What else is needed? It works—don’t fix it.
And yet, isn’t there more to this life with God? The master-slave mentality still seems to shine through here. Obedience, yes, but is there not another important element that should characterize the human-divine relationship?
Beginning in Numbers 11 the facade begins to crack. Instead of obedience (or at least compliance) we find complaints, suspicion, and even open rebellion. Everybody is affected. It starts with the mixed multitude and catches on with the people, affecting even Moses as he complains to God about his lot of leading a wayward people. Miriam and Aaron weigh in and criticize not only Moses’ leadership but also his marriage and tribal loyalty. When the going gets tough, when the time gets longer, erstwhile obedient Israel suddenly becomes suspicious, complaining, and double-guessing Israel.
Their God seemed to be far removed. Their trust was underdeveloped. Their commitment was vacillating.
An example of the anatomy of murmurings can be found in Numbers 12. The chapter follows a veritable collection of complaints described in Numbers 11. It seems that murmurings tend to multiply—the spirit behind them is contagious. You remember the colds or flus that affect the entire family during winter—somehow they always catch on!
In Numbers 12 the first two verses teach a significant lesson: The purported reason of the complaint may not always be its true cause. The Hebrew text in verse 1 tells us that Miriam and Aaron talked against Moses because of his Cushite wife. Twice the ethnic origin of Zipporah is mentioned, which is another way of pushing our nose into the problem: A Cushite, a foreigner, an outsider—“can you imagine that?” However, while Moses’ marriage (and questions of influence) may have been an issue, the real complaint goes much deeper: “God does not only speak through Moses—He has also spoken through us.” The core issue of Aaron’s and Miriam’s murmurings did not involve some abstract theological point of contention concerning revelation. Miriam and Aaron felt cut out—they wanted to belong to the inside circle. Verse 2 closes with the ominous: “And the Lord heard this,” reminding us that there is a heavenly dimension to our complaints and murmurings—especially when they happen inside the church.
God’s response to this complaint is quick and decisive. After Aaron, Miriam, and Moses have gathered at the entrance of the tabernacle, the Lord comes down in a pillar of cloud.
This is a crucial moment affecting divine leadership and communication—thus God’s swift response. Apparently Aaron and Miriam had not been part of the 70 elders that God had empowered to share Moses’ leadership duties in Numbers 11:16-25. Perhaps they were jealous of Moses’ privileged standing with God. Perhaps they had gotten used to being the top dogs and now felt unappreciated. The Bible is not entirely clear as to the true reason for their murmurings. However, Scripture is unequivocally clear about God’s response. “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:8).
Here is another valuable lesson from Numbers 12: When we murmur and mumble against other people (or God), we forget who we really are and what our position in life is. We are not the center of the universe. We are frail human beings with large egos, often lacking sound judgment and a true recognition of our place in life.
Can you imagine the shock on everybody’s face as the cloud lifted? Miriam was covered with whitish patches on her skin: leprosy. Everybody stepped back—aghast. Leprosy meant isolation. Leprosy meant no access to God through the sanctuary.3 Leprosy meant dying every day while everyone watched from afar. Aaron pleads for his sister—and Moses (the object of their murmurings) prays to the Lord. This is not a nicely formulated prayer spoken in well-measured cadences. It is a shout of anguish, a cry that reverberates down through the ages. “Please heal her.” The Hebrew text employs the same word used to describe Moses’ intercession during the earlier murmuring attack noted in Numbers (11:1). It had already appeared in similar contexts in Exodus 15:25 and 17:4 when Moses cried to God to provide water for the people. I like this valuable lesson from Numbers: Our murmurings cause pain (both for ourselves and for others). God heard Moses’ anguished cry—and restored Miriam.
Epidemics are not very selective. In the fourteenth century the Black Death raced through Europe and decimated the population of an entire continent by an estimated 50 percent.
The spirit of murmurings and complaints is similar to an epidemic. Within a worldwide church it multiplies quickly (unfortunately the relative anonymity of the information age often makes the “infection” rate more rapid). While we may complain about one thing, the real issue at stake is often not mentioned and represents a hidden agenda. In our murmurings and railings against God (or anybody else) we often forget who we really are—clay, fragile earthen vessels, a race in rebellion. Ultimately, our murmurings always cause pain. We hurt people. We wound ourselves, and we cause pain to the One who gave Himself so that we would be able to choose life.
Yet, there is another type of domino effect.4 It moves more quietly and may not always be clearly visible—yet it is as powerful as the epidemics (past and present) that ravage entire continents. Sixty-three years ago, somewhere in a neighborhood of post-World War II Cape Town, South Africa, an overworked and worn-out woman, pregnant with her sixth child, lay in bed, sick and worried. A devout Catholic and married to a hardworking husband who was not really interested in religion, with a house full of hungry and lively children, she felt very discouraged.
An Adventist neighbor had put her name down for prayer at an evangelistic meeting that was underway in town. The evangelist, a native of England, in turn visited the family and offered to pray. His soft-spoken prayers reminded Eileen of God’s unending love. A Bible study ensued, marked by many visits and shared scripture and a husband who slowly began to discover this God of Scripture. Following many months of Bible studies Eileen and Albert decided to be baptized and began a lifelong journey of spiritual growth. A visit and loving prayer changed the course for an entire family touching many generations—my wife’s extended family—for Eileen and Albert were my wife’s grandparents. Both of them have passed to their rest—they await the coming of Jesus somewhere in a cemetery in Cape Town. Yet, their decision changed not only their lives, but also my wife’s and—ultimately—my life.
Stemming the tide of negative sentiments takes courage. Speaking out when the majority roars for blood requires pluck. Numbers teaches us that we can avoid this epidemic of negativity and murmurings. We are called to stick to the Master and walk humbly before God. We are invited to consciously decide to be the positive influence in the midst of a sea of negativity and criticism (remember Caleb and Joshua!). It’s not an easy task—but it’s God’s way: one kind act, one encouraging word, one gentle hug that generates another kind act and more encouraging words and many gentle hugs—and ultimately beats the epidemic. n