And the people grumbled and deplored their hardships, which was evil in the ears of the Lord (Numbers 10:37).
May, 2018. When I first heard this verse as a little girl, I piously thought that if I’d been an Israelite, I would never have complained about my lot. Indeed, I determined then and there to stop grumbling when I didn’t get my way. (I may have kept that vow for a whole day.)
Scott and I recently came back from a trip to the Israeli and Jordanian wilderness. After experiencing miles and miles of unrelenting drought and rocky mountains and heat, I have a new appreciation for why the Israelites complained. Of course my observation comes from the cushioned seat of an air-conditioned bus, but still . . . .
The Israelites were fed up. They were sick and tired of manna sandwiches, manna soup, and manna salads, and they lusted after their flavorful Egyptian dishes. They declared, “Now our soul (our strength) is dried up.” And no wonder! With only six inches of rain a year, where is there enough water in a desert for a million or more people? And so they wept and they complained to Moses. I can picture the little kids whining, “Are we there yet? I’m so tired, hot, and thirsty. My feet hurt.” And the moms, carrying their extra loads, not knowing how far they’d have to walk each day, worried about dehydration (they didn’t have ice-cold, bottled water provided by the bus driver).
The result? God’s fire burned the edges of the camp.
The people’s reaction? They cried out to Moses.
Moses’ response? He cried out to God. “Why? Why? Why? Where? I can’t. I’m not able. Kill me. The burden is too heavy.”
So what’s the difference between the words of the Israelites and the words of Moses? The difference is to whom they complained. Moses directed his words to God. The words were melodramatic, to be sure, but honest. His was not an attitude of lust and rejection of God’s provision. His were words of despair because he was carrying too heavy a burden and his knees were starting to buckle.
God’s response: He came to Moses’ aid. He had him choose 70 men to help carry the load.
And the fire in the camp subsided, and they named the place Kibroth-hattaava (the graves of sensuous desire) because they buried there the people who lusted and whose physical appetite caused them to sin.
Buried in the desert? I used to picture the Sinai Peninsula as gently rolling hills of silty, Sahara-like sand. But as we had to carefully watch our footing over rocky ground, I wondered aloud how the wanderers accomplished this feat. I still don’t have an answer.
Anyway, I came away with two thoughts: I have no right to judge another person’s struggles until I have walked 40 years in their dusty sandals. And second, what can I do when I find myself in the desert? Talk to God instead of whining to other people.
Grumbling to God lightens the burden and makes all the difference. When I talk to the Lord about things, my circumstances might not change, but I have the assurance that I’m not alone, and that He has an answer – if I’m willing to sit and wait for it.
My question: Did the Israelites ask themselves what God wanted to teach them in all their wanderings, or did they just complain because it wasn’t easy? Would they have got through it faster if they’d all trusted both God and Moses? That’s not judging, that’s asking; I’ve had these questions for years.
I seriously doubt they were asking any spiritual or philosophical questions at the time. When you’re dehydrated and no water in sight, hungry and grumpy and tired of moving, all the focus is on the body and making things more comfortable–hmmm–sort of like us today, huh! For sure there were delays along the way due to the consequences of their sin. But just think–what if you were one of the kids whose parents lacked faith and you had to suffer the consequences of wandering for 40 years instead of getting to eat big grapes. I wonder how much resentment there was?
It’s true. Our physical comfort makes it easier to be grateful for our circumstances. I cannot see how a desert is ever comfortable. Give me an ocean, mountains, and beautiful green trees any day! I hate the desert, and over the years have spent way too much time in them (Mojave, and some of the others going through Utah and Wyoming). We’re driving, and I can’t WAIT to get out of them. I have often thought of the Jews, stuck in the desert for 40 years, and I can totally understand their grumbling. It’s hard to have a spirit of joy and gratitude in such an arid place, and I have to work at it. I know I’ll get out and not have to spend half my life in such a space, but while I’m there, I just sort of crawl inside myself and wait. I can’t imagine being a child who had to deal with the consequences of other people’s choices and sin. It’s a good question. Another: were some of these children orphaned by their parents’ sin, or were they burned, too? Did God spare some and not others?