The story of the exodus from Egypt is quite familiar to students of the Bible. God, having seen the plight of his people, decided to lead them out of slavery and into the land that he had promised them (Exodus 3:7-10). Over the last week, I have been re-reading the narrative, and I could not help but focus on the constant pattern of complaining from the Israelites. It begins in chapter 5 of Exodus after Pharaoh made them start gathering their own straw and continues over the next 40 years!
Perhaps the most egregious example of ingratitude and complaining comes from Numbers 11. In Exodus 16, the gripe was that they were going starve to death (v. 2-3), so God provided sustenance. This is the introduction of the manna coming down that has become a popular metaphor for God’s care and provision in our lives as Christians (check out the lyrics to “Lily of the Valley”). In chapter 17, Moses gave them water from the rock, so they had an all you can eat and drink buffet. However, by the time the story gets to Numbers 11:4-5, the whining has started again:
“The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
God freed them from slavery, parted the Red Sea for them to cross, led them from place to place, and gave them food that they simply had to pick up and prepare! Their response? “Send us back to slavery where the good food is!” A spirit of complaining and disobedience infected God’s people while they were in the wilderness!
Most of us recognize the correlation between the exodus narrative and the Christian walk. We leave the bondage of sin and begin a journey towards our spiritual Promised Land. I think sometimes we miss the point, though, that we are in the wilderness right now! Although God is leading us and providing for us, we sometimes become so consumed with how hard the journey is, we forget the destination!
This spirit of complaining made the Israelites cowardly. We remember the story of the spies being sent to scout the land and how only two came back with a good report. We may not remember, though, that Joshua and Caleb were almost stoned to death for their courage, and God’s people were ready to find a new leader and crawl back to Pharaoh! Look at this text from Numbers 14:1-4:
“That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to each other, We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
If we are in the wilderness, does our reaction to difficulty mirror theirs? When life is hard, do we complain, doubt, and run the other way? Unfortunately, yes, we do! Despite all the seas that God has parted in our lives, we doubt and try to solve all the world’s problems on our own. We don’t have all the answers! What we can know is that God is the sovereign ruler of the world, and nothing is out of his control. We also know that he gives us free will to make our own choices, and we must live with the consequences.
Later in Numbers 14, there is a great lesson for us relating to consequences! Because of their attitude, and their cowardice, a whole generation of God’s people never arrived at the land flowing with milk and honey (v. 21-23)! Cowardice and complaining, doubt and disobedience, these things can cost us our soul if they start to define our lives! We are in our own wilderness as Christians, but the Promised Land is just around the corner. If we can be obedient and simply follow God, he will lead us home!